Buying Your First Ukulele: What You Need to Know
The Ukulele has been rising in popularity for a while now. More and more people, of all ages, are wanting to learn this little instrument. And this makes a lot of sense considering the instrument's appearances in popular music and its overall accessibility. It is such a great instrument to get into quickly and anyone can start playing songs in no time with a little practice. Furthermore, ukuleles are much more affordable compared to 99% of other musical instruments. However, this does not mean you shouldn’t do your research before buying. Reasonably priced or not, all ukuleles are not created equal. Below is the information you need in order to pick out the right uke for you.
General Information –
Let’s start by covering the basics of this instrument.
- The ukulele is a stringed instrument with 4 strings tuned (usually) to G-C-E-A from top to bottom.
- They are normally made of wood and strung with nylon strings that are like that of a classical guitar.
- Also like the guitar, the ukulele has frets on the fingerboard that make pressing your notes easier to play and more accurate than if they were not there.
- Many people strum the instrument just by using their fingers, but it is also conventional to use picks.
- While not common on more affordable models, some ukuleles contain electronics that let you play them through a speaker system.
Below I have an image labeled with the names of most of the parts on a uke.
Many people unfamiliar with this instrument will be unaware that there are multiple sizes of ukuleles. While there is one size (soprano) that the majority of people consider the standard, there are actually 4 sizes that all sounds and feel different.
- The original and still most popular size today, you will likely end up getting one of these as your first uke. Especially if you are getting the instrument for a kid, the smaller body size and scale length will usually feel best to them. Furthermore, the sound and look most people associate with the ukulele is that of the soprano size. If you want the traditional uke experience, this is definitely what I recommend.
- This is a slight step up in size and scale length from the soprano. The sound of a concert is a little louder and has some added bass, but pretty close to a soprano. Plus, this size is typically tuned the same as a soprano, so you can consider them not too different overall. If you are looking for something that might be a bit more comfortable for an adult or just someone with longer arms, this is a great size.
- The tenor is where we start to move fairly far away from the standard uke look and sound. With a scale length of 17” compared to 13”, a tenor neck feels quite a bit longer than a soprano. Also, with the bigger body size, you will get much more low-end and it will sound rather large. However, the tenor size is tuned the same as the concert and soprano, so they still all play the same. The real differences of a tenor are the feel and timbre.
- This is the biggest and least common size of ukulele. With a scale length of 19” and a tuning of D-G-B-E, the baritone size is a completely different animal than the soprano. Just like the other less common sizes, with a bigger body comes more volume and more bass. If you or whoever will be playing the uke simply wants to play the ukulele, this is probably not what you had in mind. Though, if you have another size already or just want something a little different, the baritone size is worth trying out.
Body Shapes –
Other than some really out there designs, there are only two common shapes you will see on ukuleles. The first shape is that of what most would call the standard, soprano, or figure-8 shape. This shape has a bout at the top for your strumming arm and one at the bottom to rest on your leg (if that’s how you hold it). This shape is tried and true and has proven very comfortable for most players.
The other shape that you will see some manufacturers still making is the pineapple shape. This shape is the more traditional Hawaiian of the two. It does not have any bouts and is a little less comfortable to most folks. But with how light the ukulele inherently is, it's really not THAT big of a deal. The important thing here is that you like the way it looks.
Another thing you may want to consider when purchasing your uke is the material from which it’s made. Ukuleles are most commonly made of wood, but laminate top and even plastic models do exist. If you really care about the tone of the instrument, I suggest you stay away from plastic.
As far as getting a laminate as compared to solid timbers, it really comes down to your budget. It is pretty hard to find a well-made solid wood uke for under $100 so unless you are really considering making an investment into a fantastic instrument, you can stick to laminate.
I hope that you now feel more confident in making your first ukulele purchase. While it is a little easier than buying something like a guitar, it can still be tricky if you’ve never bought a stringed instrument before. Just keep in mind some of the information you’ve learned here and the rest you should be able to ask the employees at your local music shop. The uke is a great instrument, regardless of whether it be your first or your next.