Intro to Baritone Ukulele – A Starter’s Guide

intro to baritone ukulele

The ukulele is a popular instrument that is easy-to-learn and fun to play!  It can make virtually any song sound great and people love hearing their favorite tunes played on a ukulele.  The small size of ukuleles also means they are very portable — making them the perfect option for taking camping or traveling.

But did you know there are many types of ukuleles?  The largest ukulele is called a baritone ukulele.  It is a great choice for anyone interested in a ukulele with a deeper and richer sound.

If the idea of a baritone ukulele sounds interesting, you have reached the right place. This guide will share all of the information you need to know about baritone ukuleles including where they came from and what materials they use.  We’ll also share some of the best ukuleles on the market.

A (brief) history of the baritone ukulele

The ukulele was first created by instrument makers in Hawaii in the 19th-Century, to emulate the Portuguese machete — a small instrument used by Portuguese immigrants.  “Ukulele” loosely translates to “jumping flea” in Hawaiian, which may be a reference to the quick finger movements of skilled ukulele players.  The ukulele eventually became popular internationally and has been used by some very prominent musicians over the years.

The baritone ukulele was sold commercially sometime around 1950 in the United States.  There are conflicting stories about who was responsible for the design of the baritone ukulele, with both Arthur Godfrey and Herk Favilla developing the instrument at different times.

Herk Favilla was an accomplished guitarist and luthier living in New York.  According to Herk’s family, he designed the baritone ukulele to be a guitar-like instrument that made it easier for beginners to learn guitar.  His baritone ukulele was larger than a ukulele, but smaller than a guitar.  It came with 4 strings that were the same tuning as the bottom four strings of a guitar.

Herk began producing small numbers of baritone ukuleles in the 1940’s.  By the late 1950’s he began selling them through the family guitar store, named Favilla Brothers.

Arthur Godfrey also developed a baritone ukulele around the same time.  He was a well known guitarist and television star in the 1950’s who recorded with musicians including Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.  Godfrey asked Eddie Connor, a musician he knew, to design a larger bodied ukulele that had a lower pitch.

Connor developed a cutaway 4-string baritone ukulele with the same tuning as a guitar.  Godfrey played it on television many times and it can be seen in the 1966 movie The Glass Bottom Boat.  Connor’s version of the baritone ukulele was put into production in the late 1950s by the Vega Company of Boston, Massachusetts.

How do baritone ukuleles differ to other ukuleles?

The four most common types of ukuleles are soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.  The main differences between each type of ukulele are:

Soprano ukuleles (Standard ukulele)

The soprano is the second-smallest ukulele available, with the pocket ukulele being the only ukulele that is smaller.  The Soprano ukulele is often called the “standard” ukulele as it is the most common type of ukulele used by musicians.  Most songs featuring ukulele would have been recorded with a soprano ukulele.

A soprano ukulele is usually 21 inches (53 cm) in length, with a scale length of 13 inches (33 cm).  The scale length is the playable part of the guitar, from the nut at the top of the ukulele’s bridge to the bottom of the fretboard.  They usually have 12 to 15 frets and a tonal range of C4–A5 (C6) — which can produce higher pitches than a traditional classical guitar.  Soprano ukuleles are normally tuned G, C, E, A, however it is common for players to sometimes use A, D, F♯, B or G, C, E, A.

Concert ukuleles (Alto ukulele)
Concert ukulele is slightly larger than a soprano ukulele and is capable of reaching additional high notes.  They are usually about 23 inches (58 cm) in length, with a scale length of 15 in (38 cm).  Concert ukuleles often have more frets than a soprano ukulele and a larger tonal range of C4–C6(D♯ 6).  They normally use the same tuning as a standard ukulele.

Tenor ukuleles (taro patch, Liliʻu)

A tenor ukulele is bigger still, at around 26 inches (66 cm) with a scale length of 17 inches (43 cm).  It adds some lower notes to the range of a concert ukulele, with a range of G3–D6 (E6).  This means it can reach notes as high as a concert ukulele but can also reach some lower notes.  They are usually tuned in one of two ways — G4 C4 E4 A4 (“High G”) or G3 C4 E4 A4 (“Low G”).

Baritone ukuleles

A baritone ukulele is much bigger than the common “soprano” ukulele, at 30 inches (76 cm) in length and with a scale length of 20 in (51 cm).  Most baritone ukuleles will have 18 to 21 frets, compared to a common ukulele’s 12 to 15 frets.  Baritone ukuleles typically have a tonal range of D3–A♯5(C♯ 6) which means they can’t hit some of the highest notes of a soprano, concert or tenor ukulele.  However, they can reach much lower notes.

The most common tuning for a baritone ukulele is D3 G3 B3 E4 — which is different to a soprano, concert to tenor ukulele.  C3 G3 B3 E4 is also often used by many ukulele players on baritone instruments.

If you already know how to play guitar, you will find it simple to use a baritone ukulele because of the D3 G3 B3 E4 tuning.  This tuning is identical to the bottom strings on a E2 A2 D3 G3 B3 E4 tuned guitar.  This means a guitarist can transfer the bottom sections of chords directly onto the baritone ukulele.

The lowest-pitched notes on a Baritone ukulele sounds very similar to a traditional acoustic guitar.  Many players enjoy having these lower notes available as they add more tonal color to the song they are playing — your playing won’t all be twangy high notes.  The larger size of baritone ukuleles also mean that the instrument is more resonant and has more sustain than a soprano, concert or tenor ukulele.

How are baritone ukuleles constructed?

A wide  variety of construction techniques are used to make baritone ukuleles.  While most baritone ukuleles will be made from timber, they can also be made from metal, plastic, or other synthetic materials.  Most baritone ukuleles are acoustic-only, but you can find some models that incorporate pickups and preamps.  The type of material used to create the ukulele will define its sound, so it is important to play ukuleles made from different materials to decide which materials you like the sound of.

Sold wood vs laminated wood

The majority of baritone ukuleles you encounter will be made from timber.  The more expensive models will use sold wood timber, with all faces of the ukulele being made from whole pieces of timber.

Some ukuleles may use laminated wood, which consists of multiple pieces of wood glued together and covered with a thin veneer.  Some ukuleles will use laminated pieces for the sides and rear, with a solid piece on the top — because the top has the greatest influence on the tone of the ukulele.

Solid wood ukuleles tend to be more resonant than ukuleles made from laminated wood.  They also change in tone as they age, becoming more mellow and warm.  However, they are less durable compared to some laminated wood ukuleles and vulnerable to splitting.  Your choice should depend on your budget and how each instrument sounds.

Common types of timbers used for baritone ukuleles

Koa is the traditional choice for ukuleles.  It is a hardwood that is native to Hawaii.  Koa is a very beautiful material with a balanced and rich sound.

Spruce has grown in popularity as a material for ukuleles in recent years.  It is a light timber with a dense grain that gives the ukulele a brighter sound.

Mahogany is a darker timber that delivers a rich, warm sound.   There are many types of mahogany available, so the timbre of a mahogany instrument can vary.

Cedar is a lightly colored timber that is quite soft.  It produces a sweet and mellow sound that works well for baritone ukuleles.

Rosewood is a dark timber that is often used on guitar and ukulele fretboards.  It is a dense material that is attractive and very durable.

Maple is a commonly used material for guitars and ukuleles.  It is quite hard and often used to make fretboards.

Ukulele manufacturers experiment with different timbers, so you will find many other materials in use, including beech, cherry, bubinga, and mango.

What does a baritone ukulele sound like?

Baritone ukuleles have a very interesting sound.  They don’t sound like a normal ukulele, but they also don’t sound like a guitar.  The materials used to make the ukulele will have a huge impact on its overall sound, adding more treble or bass to its sound as well as changing its overall timbre.

Baritone ukuleles will have more sustain than a standard ukulele, but less than most guitars (sustain is how long a note will continue ringing out once struck).  You will also find that baritone ukuleles have a richer sound with more warmth than a normal ukulele.  This is partially due to the larger size of the instrument, but the lower tuning also gives it a deeper sound.

What are the pros and cons of buying a baritone ukulele?

Here are a few of a baritone ukulele’s pros and cons compared to a common soprano ukulele:

Pros:

  • A deeper and richer sound
    The larger size of the baritone ukulele means that it is more resonant than a soprano ukulele. This gives it a deeper sound that is reminiscent of an acoustic guitar.  Many ukulele players prefer this style, particularly when playing the blues, jazz, or pop music.
  • Guitarists can play it immediately
    If you are already a guitarist, you will find the baritone ukuleles easy to play, thanks to its familiar D, G, B, E tuning. You will be able to play many of the songs you already know immediately.
  • Learning new songs is easier
    Because the baritone ukulele shares the same tuning as an acoustic guitar, you can often learn new songs using tablature or song sheets designed for guitar. This means you can immediately use the hundreds of thousands of transcripts written for guitar that are online — you won’t have to seek out ukulele-specific song sheets.
  • It is louder (usually)
    A baritone ukulele’s larger internal cavity also makes it louder than most soprano ukuleles. This can be useful if you are performing in front of people or playing with a band.
  • More generous spacing between frets
    Baritone ukuleles have more space between frets, which makes them easier for guitarists with large hands to play.


Cons:

  • You won’t be able to learn from ukulele song books
    Of course, there is a downside to having a ukulele with guitar-like tuning — you won’t be able to learn from certain ukulele song books very easily because they will show chords with a different tuning.
  • Less portable
    Although a baritone ukulele isn’t as big as a guitar, it is still less portable than a soprano ukulele.
  • There are less models available
    The baritone is somewhat of a “niche” product. This means there are less manufacturers making baritone ukuleles — limiting your choices when buying one.

 

Common baritone ukulele chords

If you are a guitarist, you will find learning baritone ukulele chords simple.  Just think of them as the bottom half of the chords you already know.  For a baritone ukulele that is tuned D, G, B, E:

G Major Chord: Place a finger on the third fret of the E string.

E Major Chord: Place your index finger on the 1st fret of the G string and your middle finger on the 3rd fret of the D string.

A Major Chord: Use your first three fingers to press down on the 2nd fret of the D, G, and B strings.

C Major Chord: Place your first finger on the 1st fret of the B string and your middle finger on the second fret of the D string.

This article has more information on chords for the baritone ukulele.

Common songs played on baritone

Here are a few easy songs that sound great on a baritone ukulele!

One love — Bob Marley
This classic reggae hit is easy to play, with only four chords (C, F, G, Am).  You can view the tutorial here.

Happy Birthday
It’s always fun to pull out your ukulele at a birthday party to help people sing happy birthday.  It’s simple to play and only uses three chords (F, C7, Bb).  Check out this tutorial.

Happy — Pharrell Williams
It’s hard to not smile when listening to this catchy upbeat track.  It’s easy to play on baritone ukulele and the kids will love it!  It only uses three chords — E7, C, and Bm,  Checkout the tutorial here.

There are thousands of other song to play on baritone ukulele.  Some of the best resources for finding ukulele sheet music include:

  • Ukulele tabs
  • Ultimate guitar
  • Live Ukulele

YouTube is also an excellent source of tutorials and song lessons for baritone ukulele!

3 of the best baritone ukuleles

If you are interested in purchasing a baritone ukulele, you will be happy to learn that there are many high quality instruments available.  Here are a few of the best!

Oscar Schmidt OU55CE Acoustic/Electric Baritone Ukulele
Oscar Schmidt has developed a reputation for making high-quality ukuleles in a variety of styles.  The OU55CE is a beautiful baritone ukulele with a laminated Hawaiian koi body, nyatoh neck, abalone rosette and rosewood neck.  It has 19 frets and a cutaway to make it easier to access higher notes.  This ukulele features its own pre-amp which can be plugged directly into an external amp.  It is an excellent choice for a beginner or intermediate player looking for a well made baritone ukulele.

Kala KA-B Mahogany Baritone Ukulele 

Kala make some very affordable ukuleles that are perfect for beginner-to-intermediate players.  The Kala KA-B is one of their most popular products.  It is a mahogany baritone ukulele with a walnut fretboard, cream binding, and a satin finish.  The hardware is also excellent quality, which is surprising for a ukulele that is so affordable.  It is a beautiful little instrument with a rich sound.  It also comes with a free gig bag, cleaning cloth, and tuner — giving you everything you need to get started on the ukulele.

Lanikai Acacia Koa Baritone Ukulele Model AC-B 

If you have a bigger budget, you could go for the Lanikai AC-B.  It is a stunning baritone ukulele with acacia koa body (laminated top), maple nut, satin finish, NuBone saddle, and Aquila strings.  It comes with all of the accessories you would need including ukulele picks, a polishing cloth and tuner.  You can expect to pay around $290 for this model, but it sounds fantastic and is guaranteed to provide you with many hours of fun!

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