Ok, you’ve decided you want to play the ukulele.
That’s the easy part.
When it comes to actually choosing a uke however, things get a bit more complex. There’s tenor ukuleles, soprano ukuleles, acoustic ukes, electric ones and many more.
So which is right for you?
In this guide we’ll help you choose a ukulele that’s perfect for you as a beginner.
First, Decide Which Size Ukulele Is Right for You
This decision can be intimidating because there isn’t necessarily one best ukulele size for beginners. Each has its pros and cons; the biggest factor in the decision is personal preference.
You might not initially make the “right” choice as a beginner. The good news is that if you stick to learning the instrument, another ukulele will be relatively affordable.
The four most common sizes are soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The smallest (soprano) ukuleles measure about 21” long, while the largest (baritone) ukuleles are about 30” long.
What’s the Difference Between Each Size?
In short, smaller ukuleles cover a higher range of pitches, have a “brighter” and less resonant sound, and are quieter than their larger counterparts. If you can imagine the sound of an upright bass or cello compared to that of a viola or violin, it’s the same principle on a smaller scale. The bigger the instrument, the deeper the sound.
A soprano ukulele is sometimes called a “standard” size ukulele. It’s the most popular choice for most ukulele players and has the most familiar sound. It’s also usually the cheapest ukulele and is arguably the best ukulele for kids because it’s the smallest.
Some cons to keep in mind with soprano ukes are the flip side to the pros. The smaller size also means that the space between the frets could be a tight squeeze for larger hands. Cheaper instruments are more likely to be low-quality, and if you aren’t playing traditional ukulele music, the sound might not be what you’re seeking.
Concert ukuleles cover the same range of notes as soprano ukuleles do, but have a louder and deeper tone, along with more breathing room for your fingertips. Concert ukuleles are good for intermediate players who already have some ukulele experience, but that doesn’t mean that a beginner can’t play a concert ukulele well!
Concert ukes are a little bit more expensive, though, and are perhaps less ideal for small-handed learners.
A tenor ukulele is probably the least likely choice for a beginner, but professionals enjoy these instruments the best. They have a more resonant tone than the concert ukulele and a comfortably spaced fretboard. Their volume is near that of an acoustic guitar, making this a great performance instrument.
Tenor ukes are less beginner-friendly, mostly because they’re much more expensive than the smaller sizes. Brand-new ukulele players might not find the quality difference to be worth the cost, as it’s difficult to pinpoint differences in comfort and tone when you aren’t familiar with the instrument.
Baritone ukuleles stand out as a sort of cross between a ukulele and a guitar. They’re tuned to match the four highest strings of a guitar, so those who already play guitar should have a relatively easy time picking up this instrument.
That said, baritone ukuleles aren’t the most practical. While they may appeal to guitarists looking to play with a different sound, music doesn’t typically warrant their use. They don’t sound the same as traditional ukuleles and there aren’t many parts written for baritone ukes.
How Much Does Hand Size Matter When Choosing a Ukulele?
Though there is some room for debate on this issue, generally speaking, the player’s body and hand size are not hugely important as you figure out how to choose a ukulele. Most new players will probably opt for a soprano or concert ukulele. As a concert size is only 2” longer than a soprano across the entire scale, the difference is noticeable but not a dealbreaker for most people.
Ultimately, unless your hands are at the extreme ends of the spectrum (very large or very small), your physical size is just one factor to consider as you decide which ukulele to buy as your first.
Pick a Price Point for Your Ukulele
Once you’ve decided which ukulele size is the best fit for you, it’s a good idea to narrow down your choices based on price. As you might expect, higher quality comes at a higher cost. At some point, though, a more expensive instrument might not be worth it for a beginner who won’t necessarily appreciate the benefits of a greater investment upfront.
How Much Does Each Kind of Ukulele Cost?
Ukulele types don’t just range in size and sound; they also range in price point. If you’re looking for a hobby or budget instrument, something on the lower end of the spectrum might be nice. If you want to become a serious ukulele player, however, it’s best to spend a little extra on a nice instrument.
A soprano ukulele typically costs at least $50-60. Especially nice, name-brand instruments coming in closer to $100. Beware of ukuleles much cheaper than $50; their affordability may be tempting, but they tend to be low-quality.
Concert ukuleles cost about $70-80, while the higher-end ukes are about $100-110.
Tenor ukuleles have a wider range of price points than soprano or concert ukuleles. Some will cost around $80. Their mid-range price is about $120-40, and some cost as much as $200+, depending on the maker.
Baritone ukuleles vary widely, too, but lower-end instruments are about $100 and the most expensive can be $400+. Since they are more specialized than other ukuleles, they are a bit more expensive.
Which Tonewood Is Best?
The wood used to construct your ukulele matters a great deal, but you will probably need to listen to examples to get a feel for your personal preference. The type of wood is probably one of the
Common Bright-Sounding Tonewoods
Bright tonewoods produce a crisper, less bassy sound than darker ones. These ukuleles come from wood like spruce or maple, which craftsmen also use for acoustic guitars.
Common Balanced Tonewoods
Look for koa or possibly redwood for a more balanced tone in a ukulele. Koa is the most popular tonewood out there as it has a great sound and is also fairly common. Redwood ukuleles can be very expensive and aren’t typically the first choice of beginning players, but if you’re looking to make a solid investment, redwood is a good choice.
Common Dark-Sounding Tonewoods
Mahogany and cedar are common choices for a darker, deeper tone in a ukulele. The larger sizes of ukulele (e.g., tenor or baritone) tend to use dark tonewoods because the resonant quality is more desirable in lower ranges.
Solid vs. Laminated Wood
Generally speaking, solid wood ukuleles are higher-quality instruments, but they cost more than laminate and are more vulnerable to temperature and humidity changes. Solid wood can warp or crack if it’s not kept in a controlled environment, whereas laminate is a little more flexible in its layered nature.
Other Things To Keep In Mind When Buying a Ukulele
As with all instruments, purchasing a ukulele can be a hard decision. If you’re struggling to decide on which uke you like best, you can take a look at these bonus features than may tip you one way or the other.
Acoustic/electric instruments are a convenient compromise that allows you to enjoy a rich sound without an amplifier, but also lets you quickly and easily amplify your sound when you need to. You might want this functionality if you expect to perform with your ukulele or jam with other musicians.
That said, acoustic/electric ukuleles are more expensive than regular instruments. They also sacrifice tonal quality to some extent because the onboard electronics take up space inside the body of the ukulele, dampening the sound.
Some brands will throw in extra accessories with your ukulele to make a higher price more appealing. They could be worthwhile in some cases, but often your money would be better spent on a better uke and a couple of accessories.
One handy accessory for a beginner musician is a combination tuner/metronome. Even the fanciest ukulele will sound terrible if it’s out of tune, and you never know when you’ll need a metronome to help keep your rhythm on track.
The ukulele is a traditional Hawaiian instrument. While many other people and cultures have taken up playing it, you might have a special connection to Hawaiian culture. In that case, purchasing your instrument from a native Hawaiian maker or company may be important.
Are Cheap Ukuleles Worth It?
Not usually. A $20 mass-produced uke just doesn’t do the instrument justice. Quality control issues could put you off learning the instrument entirely before you’ve given it a fair chance. The ukulele is much more affordable than most instruments, so you may as well spend a little more for a much better learning experience.
Is It a Good Idea To Buy a Ukulele Online?
If you do enough research, you can find your ukulele online. It would be a good idea to find video demonstrations comparing the sound of different attributes if you’re unable to browse in person.
What Are Some Good Ukulele Brands?
Some ukulele brands are much more reputable than others. Some of the top sellers on Amazon, for example, offer very cheap instruments, but you will likely be disappointed with the quality.
Some well-known and popular ukulele brands include:
Check out a music store (online or in-person) for extra confidence that you’re buying a decent instrument.
How To Choose A Beginner Ukulele, Final Thoughts
There’s plenty to consider when you’re buying your first ukulele. Above all, try to find the kind of sound you like best and see how the uke feels if possible. You’re much more likely to enjoy learning how to play if you like the ukulele you pick out.
Once you have your instrument, you can start playing hundreds of different songs! With just a little practice, you’ll soon be strumming like an expert.