The ukulele is one of the best beginner instruments. It is inexpensive, a portable size, and just loads of fun!
Although it has Polynesian roots, with a strong tie to Hawaii, the ukulele has expanded beyond island tunes to encompass all genres of music. Popular artists like Jake Shimabukuro, Jason Mraz, and even Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder have brought the ukulele into a more popular music spotlight. It is no wonder it has become such a phenomenon in recent years.
If you are looking to purchase your first ukulele, you may not be aware that there are different types of ukuleles. Each one is a different size, makes a slightly different sound, and can be tuned differently. With each type of ukulele comes a slightly different experience and sound that will appeal to new and seasoned players differently.
what are the different types of ukuleles? The different types of ukulele are, in order of size, the soprano ukulele, the concert ukulele, the tenor ukulele, and the baritone ukulele. All types of ukulele can provide that tingy, island sound you desire, but each type will also provide a certain playing experience.
The Four Types of Ukuleles
Before digging into the four types of ukuleles, let’s go over some of the basic terminology used to describe ukuleles, their size, and their features. Some key terms to describe the features of a ukulele include:
- Length. For the purpose of this article, length is meant to describe
- Neck. The neck of the ukulele is the long, slender piece of wood or plastic where the left hand creates the finger shapes and chords.
- Body. The body of the ukulele is the largest part of the instrument. This is where the strings are connected and the right hand strums when you play.
- Head. The head of the ukulele is at the top of the neck on the opposite end from the body. This is where the tuning pegs are for the strings.
- Frets. Frets are raised lines on the neck of the ukulele. They are markers to help make the chords and notes. Number of frets also provides the range the instrument can play. More frets on the neck means the ukulele will have a wider range of notes and tones available to the instrument.
The one feature that all ukuleles have in common is that they all have four strings. While these instruments may look like tiny guitars, the main difference isn’t the size, it is that ukuleles have four strings while guitars have six strings (or sometimes twelve strings).
For the vast majority of ukuleles you will encounter, the strings are made of nylon. Less common are strings made of fluorocarbon. Flourocarbon is similar to nylon, but has a brighter overall tone. The fluorocarbon strings have been known to last a bit longer as well. In more rare instances, metal strings can be used on a ukulele to produce a more tingy sound.
The soprano ukulele is the most common size of ukulele and is likely what you picture when you think about the ukulele. Often the soprano ukulele will be referred to as a “standard ukulele.” This stems from the soprano size being the original size of the instruments. Through the years, the instrument evolved to encompasses larger sizes with different tones to create variety.
It is the smallest size of ukulele and measures approximately 21 inches (52 cm) long. The neck of the soprano ukulele typically has between 14 and 17 frets.
Standard tuning for a soprano ukulele is GCEA. When tuning the strings of a soprano ukulele, the G string is the top string when you are holding the ukulele with the neck in the left hand. From the top strings, the strings going down are tuned to C, E, and A respectfully. Unlike the ukulele’s cousin the guitar, the tones do no go from lowest to highest in sequence on the standard tuning of the ukulele. In fact, the second C string is the lowest string on the ukulele.
Soprano ukulele can be a fantastic starting point for beginners, especially for youth. Children and teens can find the fun-sized instrument to be more well-suited to their smaller hands. Adults with smaller than average hands may find it more enjoyable to play a soprano ukulele than some of the larger counterparts as well — and definitely more comfortable than a standard guitar. Another bonus is that, generally, it is easier to find an affordable option in the soprano ukulele size than in some of the larger ukulele sizes.
The next type of ukulele is the concert ukulele. The concert ukulele is slightly larger than the soprano ukulele. The average size of a concert ukulele measures in at approximately 23 inches (58 cm). The neck is about an inch longer than the soprano ukulele with an average of 14 to 17 frets. In some exceptions, a concert ukulele will have more fret on the neck.
The concert ukulele gets its name because of its larger size. The neck is approximately one inch larger on the concert ukulele than on the soprano. The body of the concert ukulele is also larger providing more space for sound to resonate. With more space for the vibrations, concert ukuleles can produce bigger sound that is well suited to performing, hence the “concert” name.
If you are looking to perform with a ukulele, particularly in a acoustic setting, the concert ukulele could be a better fit for you. Concerts are often preferable, as well, to players with larger hands that struggle with the daintier size of the soprano use. There is also a bit more of a range of notes and chords available with the addition frets in comparison with the soprano ukulele.
The next type of ukulele is the tenor ukulele. The tenor ukulele is bigger than both the concert and soprano styles of uke. Total length of a tenor ukulele is approximately 26 inches (66 cm) long with 17 to 19 frets on the neck.
The longer fret board and bigger body of the tenor ukulele provide the player a wider range for more advanced playing. For this reason, the tenor ukulele is popular for playing intricate solos, riffs, and licks more modeled after the style of a lead guitarist. Because of this, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro utilizes the tenor ukulele to perform the complex songs and covers. If you’re wanting to play a lot of guitar-style solos on the ukulele, or translate a lot of guitar heavy tunes to the uke, a tenor ukulele might be preferable for your goals.
The tenor ukulele is usually tuned to the standard ukulele tuning of GCEA, just like the soprano and concert ukuleles.
Here’s a video demonstrating the different types of ukuleles:
The last and largest type of ukulele in this series is the baritone ukulele. Average size of a baritone ukulele is approximately 30 inches (76 cm)long. Frets for a baritone ukulele range from 19 to 21 frets.
What sets the baritone ukulele apart from the other types of ukuleles, besides its larger size, is the tuning. Instead of the standard GCEA tuning, the baritone ukulele is tuned DGBE. The DGBE tuning is exactly the same as the highest four strings on the standard tuning of a guitar.
This different tuning can make finding resources and learning for beginning ukulele players difficult for the baritone ukulele. This is because many resources assume your ukulele is tuned to standard tuning. For example, lets say you look up the chords or tab for a popular song you would like to learn on the ukulele. Chances are the resources you find will assume your ukulele is in standard tuning when it provides the chords to that tune. If you try to play those chords on a baritone ukulele, you will quickly find it doesn’t match up to the original song because the tuning is so different.
However, if you are already a seasoned guitar player, you may find transitioning to a baritone ukulele a bit easier since the tuning is the same as the four highest-pitched strings on the guitar. Seasoned guitar players may also feel at home with the longer neck and bigger size of the baritone ukulele, even if it is much smaller than a traditional acoustic guitar.
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.