To the untrained eye, ukuleles and guitars can look nearly identical at first. Many models of each instrument have a classic figure-8 shape, a long neck, and strings over an open hole. However, on closer inspection, you can see many differences in the ukulele vs. guitar comparison. Here’s what you should know about the differences between them.
Size is the most apparent difference between ukuleles and guitars. Typically, ukuleles range from 17 to 30 inches long. The most common ukuleles, known as sopranos, are about 21 inches long. Professionals are more likely to use alto or tenor ukuleles, which are 23 and 26 inches, respectively.
Guitars start at 26 inches for the smallest versions, often known as guitar ukuleles. However, most people prefer getting a 3/4 or full-size guitar to play, which is 36 and 40 inches, respectively.
In other words, a typical guitar is one-and-a-half times to twice as large as a ukulele. You can quickly judge which category an instrument falls into by examining its size.
Ukuleles have four strings on them. Exact tunings can vary by instrument and style, but most people tune ukuleles to G-C-E-A. This note sequence works well for the lighter, higher notes you can expect to get on a ukulele.
Guitars usually have six strings, although you may see variants like the tenor guitar that drops back down to four. Beyond having a somewhat different sound, the higher number of strings means you can play much more complex melodies on a guitar.
Smaller guitars, including 1/4 and 1/2 sizes, usually tune A-D-G-C-E-A. Bigger guitars tune E-A-D-G-B-E, giving them an audibly deeper sound than smaller instruments.
The options above are the most common for guitars and ukuleles but hardly the only options.
For example, the guitar ukulele has six strings but keeps the four base notes of a regular ukulele. It’s hard to say which type of instrument it is, as you could make a reasonable argument either way.
You may also find specialty instruments, like a ukulele with eight strings or a guitar with twelve strings. The primary thing to keep in mind here is that regardless of string number and style, guitars tend to have a better range. That’s why serious bands almost always feature guitar players, though they may add a ukulele when a song calls for it.
String Material – Ukuleles
Many ukuleles start with nylon strings, which are softer and easier to press down than metal strings. However, getting the right note on a ukulele usually requires a low string tension, and nylon tends to go out of tune quickly. Many musicians need to tune a ukulele before every performance.
Some people replace the basic nylon strings with a synthetic called Nylgut. Nylgut is a nylon compound made to help duplicate animal intestines, which used to be the material of choice for strings. Nylgut has a brighter and clearer sound than nylon, but it also holds its tune and tension significantly longer. It’s a popular choice among beginners.
High-quality ukuleles may use fluorocarbon strings. You may recognize this as the same material often used in fishing lines, and its ability to hold and transmit tension works well in both fishing and music. These have a particularly bright sound and work particularly well on high-quality guitars.
String Material – Guitars
Most guitars have steel strings. Many people also use nickel plating or solid nickel on the three thickest strings, which helps modify the sound.
Steel strings have a bright sound, with more response on the higher end of notes. This trait tends to help them break through the sound of other instruments when recording as a group. Nickel is warmer and richer, with more sustain, so strings with nickel tend to work better for older genres and rhythm work.
Less commonly, people may use bronze or brass plating on steel strings. Brass (or 80/20 bronze) strings have a bright sound and work best on huge guitars.
Bronze, or phosphor bronze, has a mellower and warmer sound. Like nickel, they tend to work better for rhythmic music.
Ukulele strings have relatively low tension. Some may argue that the tension is too low, especially for nylon strings, as those tend to go out of tune unusually quickly. Re-tuning an instrument daily can be frustrating for some musicians, though with practice, these adjustments can become a habit.
The low tension on ukulele strings means they feel softer and easier to play. The result is that the strings are much more comfortable. However, many younger players prefer ukuleles over guitars for precisely this reason.
Guitars have a much tighter tension, which helps hold their notes longer. Guitars are more challenging to play but also tend to produce better-sounding notes.
Difference In Sound
Ukuleles have a softer, warmer sound than guitars. They also have a lower range of notes. Generally, ukuleles can’t project their sound as far as a guitar. There’s a little crossover between the largest ukuleles and the smaller guitars, but guitars are fundamentally louder instruments.
Guitars also tend to have a brighter sound than ukuleles, with a more distinct presence in the higher notes. The additional strings give guitars more range across their notes, making them sound much more complex than ukuleles.
Acoustic guitars are fundamentally louder than acoustic ukuleles. Size is everything when you’re talking about the volume of instruments like this, and there’s no question which of these performs better.
Soprano ukuleles are so small that they’re often a poor choice for performances, which is why musicians usually go a size or two up if they plan to play in front of a crowd. Guitars are suitable for most standard venues.
However, both guitars and ukuleles can produce similar volumes with the help of amps. Electric versions of both instruments exist, and it’s entirely possible to hook an electric ukulele up to an audio system. In short, volume isn’t necessarily a deciding factor, but you have to buy the right instrument.
Some manufacturers make acoustic/electric ukulele hybrids capable of working in both environments. These are often a good choice for musicians since it lets them stay with one instrument instead of bringing several around.
Wood – Ukuleles
Mahogany is a dark brown hardwood that offers a warm sound while playing. It tends to do best in the middle frequencies, and it projects sound much better than many other choices. On top of that, mahogany is cheap, so it’s a popular choice for beginners. If you’re not sure what wood to get, go for mahogany.
Spruce is a blonde softwood. Despite the name, it’s quite stiff and tough, so it’s reasonably durable for the cost. Spruce tends to do best with higher notes, so it’s a common choice among buyers who want to play upbeat songs.
Cedar is a faintly reddish softwood that leans toward deeper notes. It has more bass than some competitors, and it doesn’t do quite as well with the higher notes. That said, ukuleles focus on high notes to start with, so in some ways, this wood goes against the main point of using a ukulele.
Maple is a neutral hardwood that helps reduce feedback. It doesn’t particularly change the sound of the strings, so in some ways, it’s a pure option suitable for most circumstances. Many manufacturers will use maple for the sides and back, pairing it with a spruce top, but pure maple ukuleles are also available.
Rosewood is a dark hardwood with a warm, well-rounded sound. Manufacturers may pair it with a mahogany top to get a good sound balance for the final instrument.
Finally, there’s Koa, the first wood used to make ukuleles. Koa is outstanding in the high and middle notes, with a mellow warmth that matches ukuleles perfectly. This is the best overall wood for a ukulele, but since it’s indigenous to Hawaii, it’s quite rare.
Wood – Guitars
Companies experiment with many types of wood when creating guitars, though some materials are more popular than others.
Alder is one of the most popular choices for guitars, especially after Fender started using it in the 1960s. It has a full and strong sound, particularly in the medium and low ranges. Alder isn’t as good for high notes, so it’s not an ideal choice for guitarists who need to stand out from the crowd.
Ash is a popular wood with good sound throughout the spectrum. It’s brighter than some other woods, so it can cut through other sounds well, and manufacturers often use it for a single-wood guitar. However, it’s denser and heavier than some other materials, which can make it harder to play for a long time.
Basswood is a common and affordable wood, so it’s a popular choice in mid-range product lines. It’s light and soft, with almost no grain and a well-balanced middle in most notes. It doesn’t perform quite as well in the highs or lows, so manufacturers often use this as a tonewood on top of the guitar while using something else for the backs and sides.
Walnut is a dense, heavy wood that sounds similar to mahogany. Many people choose it primarily for its appearance, as it often has appealing grain patterns that stand out under simple coats. It’s also a popular choice for electric guitars, whose thinner design balances out the added weight.
Pricing – Ukuleles
Cheap ukuleles can be less than $35. These aren’t serious instruments, often shipping with poor strings and weak tones. A good musician may be able to tune them up to be decent, but they’ll never be good enough for serious performance. Cheap ukuleles are not a good choice as a test instrument, and quality does matter.
Budget ukuleles are around $50. These are a little more serious than the cheap options, with more consistency, but you’re almost definitely going to replace them in the future.
Beginner ukuleles go between $50 and $150. This is the best place to start if you’re serious about music, and even some professionals use options in this range. Ukuleles in this price range tend to be on the smaller side, which isn’t necessarily bad.
Mid-range ukuleles are $150 to $500. The truth is that many just look fancier than beginner options while being fundamentally similar, but you can also find more electronics to plug into amplifiers.
High-end ukuleles are $500 and up, with a few ending near $2000. As expected, these offer a significant improvement over anything else. This is also the range where you can find more specialty options, like harp ukuleles.
Pricing – Guitars
In the ukulele vs. guitar debate, it’s no surprise that the biggest instruments are more expensive.
Entry-level guitars are around $100 to $180. Anything below this range isn’t worth considering, while bundles with things like bags and straps usually push the price above $200. Although affordable, guitars here are objectively worse and may be more frustrating to play.
Mid-range guitars go from $180 to $800. This is the best range for people looking for a decent starting instrument. Most casual and some serious musicians use these. However, some do need tuning out of the box, so consider asking an expert to look it over before you start playing it.
High-end guitars are usually $800 to $1800. They usually have better wood and components, plus far stricter quality control standards. You can buy an instrument from a reputable manufacturer in this price range with a lot of confidence.
Premium guitars are $1800 and up, with some going into five digits. Most guitars here don’t sound fundamentally better than a high-end instrument, but they tend to have rarer materials or unique and interesting designs. Many signature models (made to match a specific musician’s needs) fall into this range.
Finally, you can order fully custom guitars. Decent options in this range are $2000 and up, with long wait times to get them. This is mostly worth it for professionals who have specific needs. If you’re a first-time buyer, don’t even look at custom guitars. You need to know exactly what you want, down to the finest detail, before ordering these.
Ease of Play
Ukuleles are easier to learn and play than guitars. They’re smaller, simpler, and more affordable, which makes them a great starting instrument. Ukuleles aren’t as famous as guitars, but they’re still quite popular. Adults can play larger ukuleles without much trouble, but small ukuleles may be difficult for some to hold.
Guitars are more complicated, so it takes longer to learn how to play them. However, guitars can also produce more complicated melodies and reach larger crowds. Adults often find guitars more comfortable, but they are much more expensive for a decent model.
The Difference Between Ukulele And Guitar, Final Thoughts
Ultimately, there’s no real winner in the ukulele vs. guitar debate. Instead, they’re different instruments, creating different sounds; only you can say which one you prefer. Ukuleles are lighter, cheaper, and more popular among casual players, while guitars are louder and more popular among adults and enthusiasts.
If you still can’t decide between them, look at guides for some songs you want to learn how to play. You may find that one of the instruments will let you play far more songs, and that’s a good way to choose.