The humble ukulele has earned a reputation as being one of the easiest stringed instruments you can learn. This charming little instrument adds a nice touch to any performance, and can lighten up the mood in any setting. If you are planning to purchase your first ukulele, you should be aware of the various considerations to keep in mind.
There are dozens of ukulele variants to choose from, and picking the right one for your needs can be tricky. This guide will take you through the various steps in how to choose a ukulele.
Step 1: Choose a Size
Many people think of ukuleles as tiny acoustic guitars. This size contributes to their portability and nimble sound. However, this instrument also comes in many size variations. The four major ukulele sizes are:
The Soprano ukulele is the smallest ukulele variant. It is a mere 21” in length, but is also the most common ukulele size. In-fact, many consider the Soprano to be the standard ukulele size.
The Soprano’s small size usually means it is the most affordable ukulele variant. This type is well-suited for beginners who are interested in learning this instrument.
The Soprano typically has twelve frets, with most chords played using the first five ones. Its scale covers slightly less than two-octaves, which makes it suitable for playing most songs. Beginners should have no problem learning the basic chord shapes and positions on this ukulele.
The Concert ukulele is slightly larger than the Soprano. It has a length of approximately 23”, which puts its size in the middle of the Soprano and the larger Tenor ukuleles.
The Concert ukulele has more frets than the Tenor. However, its tone still resembles that of the Tenor, but with a larger sound and more depth.
People with large fingers who struggle to play the Soprano ukulele comfortably should consider purchasing a Concert ukulele. It features more space between frets, and is less likely to make your hand feel cramped while playing.
The Tenor ukulele is even larger than the Concert ukulele. It measures around 26” in length, and features wide spaces between frets. Many professional musicians use Tenor ukuleles in live performances due to their larger scale. This enables them to play a wide range of songs comfortably while making full use of the instrument’s large dynamic range.
A Tenor ukulele isn’t generally recommended for beginners. However, it never hurts to get acquainted with this instrument, as you will likely need one if you intend to work your way up to a professional performer level.
The Baritone ukulele is the largest instrument in our list. This ukulele has a length of approximately 29”. This puts it roughly halfway between the size of a Soprano ukulele and an acoustic guitar. It is also unique for its DGBE tuning, which is the same as the tuning on the bottom four strings of a guitar. This is in contrast to the standard GCEA tuning used on the other ukuleles in our list.
If you are interested in purchasing a ukulele for its bright and nimble tone, you may want to avoid getting a Baritone one. This variant has a darker and richer sound which works well for certain songs, but it doesn’t have the tonal qualities that most people associate with ukuleles.
Step 2: Select a Material
If you are familiar with acoustic guitars, you may already be aware that build material can have a significant impact on an instrument’s sound. This applies to ukuleles as well.
Like acoustic guitars, ukuleles are made from different types of wood. This “tonewood” impacts the instrument’s tone in different ways. Some of the most common ukulele tonewoods include:
Spruce is an exotic tonewood that is commonly used in acoustic guitars. It is known for being both stiff and light. When used in a ukulele, Spruce helps accentuate the instrument’s high frequency sounds and also provides great mid-range.
Spruce tonewood ukuleles are well-suited for many different playing styles. This makes it a popular choice for many first-time ukulele players.
Cedar is frequently used in ukulele soundboards. It is softer and less dense than Spruce, and is known for producing more bass and less pointed mids. Cedar soundboards are also believed to create richer and more complex overtones than Spruce ones.
Rosewood is commonly used for the sides and backs of acoustic stringed instruments. It is valued for its beautiful appearance and tonal qualities. Rosewood is known for its low-end sound and its warm tone resonance.
Mahogany is a popular tonewood used in many acoustic instruments. It is considered a hard wood as it is denser than both cedar and spruce. However, it is still less dense than other hard wood types such as rosewood.
Mahogany is known to produce a focused sound that accentuates low-mid and high-mid frequencies. Its overtones give the ukulele a distinct “woody” sound that many people enjoy hearing.
Koa is an exotic tonewood that is considered truly special. If you associate the ukulele with the state of Hawaii, then Koa is the tonewood for you. This wood-type originated in Hawaii and is frequently used in ukuleles built in the island state.
Koa is known for producing a warm and clear tone with pronounced mids. It features low overtones and excellent clarity, which makes it great for both performances and recording.
Many beginner ukuleles are made from laminated wood. This isn’t a specific wood type, but is actually a combination of many wood layers. This helps the instrument produce decent sounding tones while also being more durable than solid wood ukuleles.
Laminated wood ukuleles do not require much maintenance. They also do not need to be stored in special conditions to maintain their sound. This makes them a great choice for beginners who would like to focus on learning their new instrument before upgrading to a solid wood ukulele.
Step 3: Choose Strings
Strings play a crucial tone in determining your ukulele’s sound. The most common ukulele string materials are:
- Wound Nylon
Nylon is the most popular string type of ukuleles. They produce warm and mellow tones that many people enjoy hearing. Nylon strings are great for gentle strumming and playing chords. Most beginner players will be comfortable using these strings.
Wound Nylon strings have a nylon core that is surrounded by a polymer thread. This helps produce a richer sound compared to ordinary nylon.
Fluorocarbon strings are similar to ordinary nylon strings. However, they are known to produce brighter sounds and work well with the standard ukulele tuning.
As you can see, there are a few key considerations to keep in mind when purchasing a ukulele. Beginner players should consider investing in an affordable Soprano ukulele when they are just starting off. They can then upgrade to larger ones with higher quality tonewoods as they work their way towards playing in more professional settings.
Your choice of ukulele will affect your playing style and motivation, so consider reviewing the above guide before heading over to the music store and purchasing your first one.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.