The ukulele is a simple instrument with a lot of potential. Although much smaller in total size and having less frets than many comparable stringed instruments, the little ukulele is capable of producing quite a big sound. Thanks to its small size, the ukulele is an ideal introduction to stringed instruments for young children or complete beginners. This is because holding down the strings (or “fretting” them) is much easier with the smaller strings of the ukulele.
Because they are a fraction of the size of guitar strings, they don’t need much tension to stay in tune. As a result, it’s pretty easy to play the ukulele even if your fingers are totally unfamiliar with fretting notes or holding a stringed instrument. Not only that, the ukulele’s short neck goes a long way in simplifying the learning process. Having less to work with can be quite beneficial when you’re just beginning to test the waters!
Of course, the ukulele is more than just a stepping stone for more complex stringed instruments. It’s also quite a beautiful instrument by itself and has worked its way into many popular tunes over the years.
Let’s take a look at what makes a good ukulele.
Table of Contents:
- I. Few Things You Need To Know Before Purchasing An Ukulele
- II. Different Types of Ukuleles
- III. Best Ukuleles: Our Hot Picks
- IV. Find Your Uke and Get Playing!
A Few Things You Need To Know Before Purchasing A Ukulele
The history of the modern ukulele dates back to the 1880s. An adaptation of several small guitar-like instruments popular in Portugal, such as the machete, and the cavaquinho, the first ukuleles were developed by Portuguese cabinet makers who immigrated to Hawaii in the mid-1800s. It’s no accident that for many of us the ukulele immediate conjures images of beaches and grass skirts. Despite being Portuguese in design, the ukulele was born in Hawaii and came to popularity strumming along to the gentle rhythms of island music.
The word ukulele itself is a Hawaiian one, roughly translating to “hopping fleas”. Although the exact reason it was named this is unknown, many have speculated that the name is a description of a nimble-fingered ukulele player hopping across the instrument’s tiny fretboard.
Because the ukulele is a close derivative of guitar-like instruments, it is fair to compare the ukulele to a sort of miniature guitar. However, the ukulele typically has less strings than the guitar (most ukuleles have 4 strings, compared to a standard guitar which has 6,) and is tuned differently.
Now that we know a bit of history, let’s take a look at some details of the instruments.
Different Types of Ukuleles
Not all ukuleles are created equally. There are four main types of ukulele. They are classified based on the size of the instrument. The overall size has a serious impact on the ukulele’s tone and play ability.
Let’s take a look at the four main varieties, from smallest to largest:
- Soprano: The soprano is the smallest ukulele and has the most “classic” ukulele tone. If you’re looking for that sweet high-pitched jangle of Hawaiian music, this is the type of ukulele you’re after. It is also the easiest to play, by virtue of being the smallest. The ideal beginner instrument.
Concert: Concert ukuleles are slightly larger than the soprano models but still maintain much of the classic ukulele tone. Concert ukuleles have a somewhat wider finger board, which can make it easier for players with larger fingers or those performing more complex passages. The increased size offers concert ukuleles much more sustain, volume, and projection than sopranos.
Tenor: Tenor ukuleles are massively popular these days. They offer a great compromise between the portability of an ukulele and the volume of an acoustic guitar. While their larger size does dilute some of the pure ukulele tone, these instruments can produce beautiful and powerful passages and are often the ukulele of choice for professionals.
Baritone: Baritone ukuleles are the largest type commonly found on the market. Their size takes them nearly out of the realm of what is traditional considered an ukulele. Often, their sound more closely resembles a nylon string guitar than the breezy jangle of a soprano ukulele. This deviation from the “traditional” ukulele style is further accentuated by the baritone ukulele’s guitar-inspired tuning. Typically, baritone ukuleles are tuned to match the bottom four strings of a guitar (D-G-B-E) rather than the ukulele standard (A-E-C-G.) However, they have a sound all their own and are popular among some players.
Selecting between these different types is the main decision you need to make before purchasing a ukulele.
Generally, most players are satisfied with soprano or tenor models. Soprano ukuleles tend to be the cheapest and easiest to learn on, while tenor ukuleles are a more intermediate instrument.
Other than selecting the type, here are a couple of other choice you’re likely to encounter:
- Number of Strings: Your classic ukulele only has four strings, tuned A-E-C-G. However, 5- and 6-string ukuleles are also available and quite popular with some players. If you’re just getting into playing the ukulele, you can probably stick with the classic four string variety.
- Wood: Like with any stringed instrument, the type of wood used for the ukulele’s body and neck are important to its overall look, feel, and sound. The most traditional wood for ukuleles is Koa, a species of tree native to Hawaii. While this is the “ideal” ukulele wood, it can be rather rare and is often reserved for higher-end ukuleles. Many other woods are used, with mahogany being a popular option for mid-ranged instruments and spruce serving as a great choice for budget instruments.
- Electronics: Though the ukulele is inherently an acoustic instrument, you’ll find plenty options for equipping it with a pickup and other gizmos. Some ukulele’s feature built-in pickups for easy amplification along with basic equalization controls and sometimes even a tuner.
Now that you have a better idea of what you’re looking at, let’s dive in to some specific ukuleles!
Best Ukuleles: Our Hot Picks
Being one of the world’s leading manufacturers of guitars and basses, it’s not too shocking to find Fender making an ukulele or two. What is a bit more surprising is just how great and affordable this little ukulele truly is. For less than $60, you get a quality Fender-made mahogany ukulele perfect as a starter instrument.
As a soprano ukulele, the Fender Seaside offers the exceptional portability that makes ukuleles so popular. It also has that classic bell-like ukulele tone that can only come from a small soprano like this one.
All things considered, this is a top notch instrument for a beginner. It also makes a great companion for the beach or at a party as something to just strum the day away on.
A Japanese company which has been making guitars for over one hundred years, Ibanez is best known for their electric guitars. However, the same dedication to craftsmanship that has allowed Ibanez to produce some of rock ‘n roll and heavy metals favorite instruments has also enabled them to turn out several fine ukuleles. Like this little four-string concert ukulele, the UEW15E.
Concert ukuleles are a bit bigger than the traditional soprano, but still smaller than the more popular tenor instruments. They’re great for anyone who likes the small, easy to handle size of a soprano but wants a bit more power from their instrument.
Speaking of power, this Ibanez has plenty of it! Unplugged, it sings out beautifully from its flamed mahogany body. But it is also equipped with a built-in pickup, electronic tuner, and two-band equalizer! You can easily plug in and join a jam, letting the typically quiet ukulele take its place in the mix among amplified instruments.
The Montecito is a step up from the first Fender ukulele we looked at, the Seaside. Unlike the Seaside, the Montecito is a bit beefier with its tenor body. This also offers a bit of a deeper, warmer sound. Many players also prefer the wider fretboard offered by these tenor instruments.
This Montecito has also stepped up its game in the materials department. Made from beautiful Hawaiian Koa wood, the Montecito boasts an authentic Hawaiian connection. Beautiful to look at and to listen to, this is an excellent instrument that is well suited for intermediate or advanced players. Or it could serve as a serious inspiration for a beginner.
Rounding off the package is the ukulele’s headstock, carved in classic Fender guitar style and sure to turn a few heads.
Kala is a well known name in the ukulele world. Their instruments span the gauntlet from the cheapest beginner instruments to some of the finest high quality ukuleles around. With the Kala KA-KTG, you have a beautiful ukulele that offers a taste of the high-end appeal. Yet despite having top notch materials assembled into a beautiful instrument, this ukulele manages to still only cost about as much as a low-end acoustic guitar.
Made from genuine Hawaiian Koa wood, this is a tenor ukulele which sits perfectly in the classic range of the ukulele we all know and love while also dipping into some deeper, nylon-string-guitar-esque tones that really round out the sound of the instrument.
If you want a seriously high quality ukulele without breaking the bank on something more extravagant, the Kala KA-KTG is worth a look or two.
Alvarez is a well-known manufacturer of Spanish-style acoustic guitars. With the RU22B, we find a mahogany wood ukulele made in the same spirit of these classical instruments. Because baritone ukuleles are tuned identically to the bottom four strings of the guitar, and because they are quite a bit larger than your traditional soprano ukulele, the baritone ukulele resembles an acoustic guitar more closely than an ukulele in many regards. It seems somewhat fitting then to have a well-known nylon string guitar brand making baritone ukuleles.
The marriage between Alvarez and the baritone ukulele is a happy one. The RU22B has a warm, rich sound and boasts great design and manufacturing for an affordable price.
If you’re at all familiar with acoustic guitars or mandolins, you’re probably familiar with the Martin brand. For the better part of two hundred years, Martin & Co have been pumping out some of the world’s finest acoustic instruments. Their uncompromising dedication to quality craftsmanship has earned Martin instruments a place on some of the most famous recordings of all time.
With this OXK soprano ukulele, Martin has taken everything they learned in their long journey to supremacy as an acoustic guitar manufacturer and applied it to the ukulele. Featuring the small, traditional soprano body shape of “classic” ukuleles and made from the finest genuine Hawaiian Koa wood, the OXK is extremely true to the spirit of the instrument.
This gorgeous ukulele would be at home in the hands of even the most skilled players. It is a beautiful instrument that can last a lifetime if properly taken care of.
Find Your Uke and Get Playing!
Whether you’re a complete beginner looking for the right instrument to break into playing music with, or your a grizzled veteran of producing albums looking for a new sound to add to your palette, the ukulele is an exciting and fun instrument to have around. Because they are so affordable, they are an absolutely ideal way to introduce children to music. Plus, they are perfectly pint-sized for the little ones!
Although some extreme budget ukuleles can be found for $20-$30 or less, we recommend avoiding these extreme bargain products. Ukuleles are cheap enough to begin with. For $50 or over, you can get a decent playable instrument that can actually last quite awhile. Those cheap $20 ukuleles are more toys than anything else!
Always seek out the instrument that inspires you to play it! You want something that looks, sounds, and feels appealing to you. That is the instrument that will keep you coming back to hone your musical chops year after year.