Last Updated on April 14, 2021.
While the ukulele is among the easiest instruments to learn and play, choosing the best ukulele to buy isn’t equally easy. Because of its popularity, there are endless ukulele choices on the market by different manufacturers, coming in various models, sizes, and of course, prices.
However, if you comprehensively understand the factors you need to consider when buying a ukulele, you’ll easily be able to narrow down your choices and end up buying the ukulele that precisely matches your needs. And that’s what I’m here to tell you!
In this guide, I’ll introduce you to all you need to know to buy a ukulele that ticks all your boxes and fits your budget as well. Here’s how to choose a ukulele!
What Size Uke Should I Get?
Ukes come in different sizes, and the logical step to start with would be to determine what uke size to buy. The most common ukulele types are soprano, concert, and tenor. Let’s explore the differences between them.
Soprano ukuleles are the smallest of the three ukulele sizes. Measuring around 21”, the soprano size is also referred to as the “standard” size in the world of ukuleles. Sopranos are also the most affordable as well as most portable, making them ideal for beginners. If you’re shopping for your first ukulele, a soprano is your best bet.
Playability wise, a soprano’s open chords are played in the first position, among the first 5 frets, to be precise. Soprano models typically feature 12 frets and are under a 2-octave range. It would be a wise call to make to opt for a soprano, in the beginning, to get acquainted with the basics of chord positions.
A concert size ukulele, measuring around 23″, is considered the “right” size by many players since it provides a middle-ground between a soprano ukulele and a tenor. A concert ukulele has more frets than a soprano ukulele but produces a sound similar to the soprano’s and even adds volume and depth.
Accordingly, if you’re looking for a beginner ukulele and you have relatively larger hands, you’ll love concert ukuleles for how comfortable you’ll feel playing them. Your fingers won’t be crammed, and you won’t struggle with striking any chords.
Last but not least, tenor ukuleles are the largest ukulele models, measuring approximately 26″. You’ll find that most professionals use tenor ukuleles on stage, and that’s because it boasts the largest space between frets, the highest number of notes, and the fullest dynamic range.
Accordingly, when you’re on your way to becoming a master uke player, you’ll need a tenor size ukulele to accompany you and empower you to play advanced chords. Also, a tenor size ukulele sounds very close to the sound of a guitar; it even uses the same ukulele tuning.
However, tenor ukuleles are the most expensive. That actually makes sense because they require more material to produce them.
You’ll also come across another ukulele size; the baritone. While the baritone ukulele isn’t as widely spread as the soprano, concert, tenor ukes, it’s still there and is larger than tenor sized ukuleles. Some even consider the common ukulele sizes to be four main ones, not three, to include baritone ukuleles.
Yet, I tend to exclude the baritone ukulele because it’s tuning is different from the rest of the sizes. It’s similar to that of guitars, so these models aren’t suitable for standard ukulele music.
How Does Ukulele Size Impact Tones?
Now that you know the different ukulele sizes, what difference do they make other than looks and extra space on the fretboard?
Just to be clear, soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles are all tuned and played exactly the same way. So, you won’t have to learn all over if you transition to a different ukulele size. Yet, ukulele sizes affect tone and playability.
The golden rule is that a larger body size equals a fuller tone. Soprano ukuleles produce excessively “bright” and warm tones, the typical ukulele sound you’d associate with a traditional ukulele. On the other hand, the concert and tenor ukuleles are much richer and resonant than sopranos. Their larger body size allows them to generate more bass and volume.
When it comes to playability, concert and tenor ukes have a longer scale length than a soprano ukulele. Scale length refers to the distance between the nut and the saddle, and the longer that distance is, the wider the frets are spread from each other. Having wider frets gives your fingers more room to navigate the board.
For that reason, concert and tenor ukes are preferred by ukulele players. That’s especially true for those with larger hands or thick fingers.
The Different Ukulele Tonewood Types
Just like any other instrument, ukuleles come in different tonewoods. Like the uke size, tonewood choice significantly impacts the sound your ukulele produces. Here are the types of ukuleles’ tonewoods.
Mahogany is king in the world of ukuleles. Thanks to its ability to yield full low-end, rounded top-end, and rich mid-range, it’s the leading tonewood. A ukulele neck is mostly made of mahogany, and among mid-range to high-end ukuleles, you can also find mahogany tops, back, and sides.
Mahogany enables your ukulele to generate soft and warm tones that truly stand out. Also, mahogany is common across all price points; it’s not uncommon to find a budget-friendly mahogany ukulele.
Koa plays a tremendous role in the history of ukuleles. When they were first introduced, almost all ukuleles were made of koa since it originates in Hawaii. Also called acacia koa, this is a dense tonewood with unique grain patterns and equally unique tones.
With koa ukuleles, you get balanced tonality in unmatchable ways. Not to mention, a koa ukulele is all about excellent sustain, regardless of whether you’re strumming or fingerpicking. As you would expect, koa ukes are only used by high-end ukulele brands for professionals.
Spruce is also among the exotic woods commonly used in the production of ukes. Found predominantly in ukulele tops, spruce shines in the highs area, accentuating and amplifying them while also providing a dynamic mid-range.
Because resonance and volume are the keywords for spruce, it’s also used for guitars. However, it manages to keep the “toughness” of guitar tones to a minimum with ukes. And it’s often combined with mahogany or maple to tone it down a few notches.
Rosewood is among the woods used for the backs, sides, and fingerboards of a ukulele. By transmitting vibrant low-ends and rich overtones, rosewood speaks sustain on so many levels. Yet, because it’s a relatively dense tonewood, it’s usually paired with another softwood top, usually cedar or spruce.
If sweet tones bring music to your ears, you’ll love ukes made of cedar. Being a much less dense tonewood than the ones we’ve previously discussed, cedar makes for a ukulele-playing experience that’s exceedingly responsive to both plucking and strumming. And depending on your ukulele playing style, you can manage to get soft, warm, and dark tones out of a cedar uke.
Solid Wood vs. Laminated Wood: Which to Go For
On your ukulele buying journey, you won’t just find the size and construction of the ukulele. You’ll also find one of two words: solid and laminated. Which one should you choose? That’s what you’ll find out now.
Ukes made of solid wood indicate that only one layer of wood has been used in their construction. Great, what does that mean for you, though? It means vibrant and resonant sound all the way. By not incorporating several layers of wood, the sound of your uke isn’t blocked.
On the downside, however, solid woods come at a hefty price. Also, they’re vulnerable to external conditions, like weather and temperature. So, you’ll have to be very cautious at all times when using your solid ukulele.
Laminated ukuleles are those made of a blend of several layers of thin wood. Laminated wood is mostly used in ukuleles for beginners, allowing manufacturers to offer budget ukuleles that also happen to be of very high-quality and produce sufficiently acceptable tones.
Not to mention, laminated ukes are incredibly durable. Whether you take them to the beach or on a trip, they’ll adapt to your surroundings without you having to take any special measures to ensure their maintenance. Yes, you won’t get the same resonant sounds you would get from a solid ukulele, but you get durability and affordability in exchange.
Price Range: The Very Wide Gap
You’ll definitely have to set a price range for your ukulele purchase. And here’s where I would sincerely recommend that you don’t opt for the cheapest ukulele you come across. I know their price tags could be very attractive, but you’ll regret the purchase later.
While I can’t tell you what budget precisely to allocate for your ukulele, I can tell you that $30-40 is too low. Ukes at that price point guarantee subpar quality when it comes to both sound and build quality.
You’ll notice that they almost look like a toy instrument you would get for a little kid starting from the ukulele strings. And of course, the woods used in the construction will be of low build quality, and the result will only be a pure disappointment.
Even beginner uke players aren’t satisfied with such cheap ukuleles because no matter how hard you try to make the tones sound right, they just won’t.
So, the more you can allocate to your ukulele purchase, the better results you’ll get, and the easier you’ll master the instrument!
Other Factors to Consider
Finally, I want to touch on two aspects that could make a huge difference in your ukulele playing experience: strings action and strings type.
When I say the string action, I’m referring to the length between the top of the fret wire and the strings. Generally, lower action is preferable because you won’t need to apply a lot of pressure to the strings to play. That can be very tedious.
However, you don’t want the action to be too low, either. That will result in an intolerable buzzing noise, so you want to target a balance between both. Among cheap ukes, you either find the action to be too high or too low, but in a quality ukulele, you’ll find the right fit.
Strings make a huge difference in how your ukulele sounds. They pave the way for high tension, making the ukulele much easier to play and enabling you to produce top-notch tones.
While there are many brands and types of strings, Aquila strings are the safest and most popular. Aquila Nylgut, in particular, is extremely durable and produces a beautiful sound. I prefer them more than nylon strings!
How to Pick a Ukulele – Final Words
There you have it! That’s my ukulele buying guide and all you need to consider when purchasing your new ukulele. In a nutshell, sizes, tone, tonewood types, solid woods vs. laminated, budget, and strings are the determining factors that will make your search easier.
When it really comes down to it, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all recommendation to make; it boils down to your preferences and skill level.
There’s absolutely no right or wrong ukulele for you to get started with. There’s just the right ukulele for you. All I can say is that you just need to make your search as extensive as possible to buy a ukulele for life! Also, take your time at the music store, especially if it’s a first time purchase.