A Comprehensive Ukulele Buyer’s Guide
Due to their sweet, melancholy sound and affordable price tags, ukuleles have always been sought-after instruments, but, in the wake of Billie Eilish’s recently released signature Fender uke, this humble instrument is perhaps reaching the peak of its popularity.
There’s never been a better time to pick up a ukulele and strum out some mellow chords; however, the fact that there are so many options on the market can make choosing your first uke something of a challenge.
Not to worry, though, friend. Today, I’m going to be helping you through the decision-making process with this comprehensive ukulele guide!
Essentials To Consider When Choosing A Ukulele
The ukulele is often wrongly thought of as something of a second class or “toy” instrument, but there are actually tons of variations to consider in regard to sound, form, playability, and materials.
Ukulele Body Size
Before you snag your first uke and enjoy some chilled island vibes, you’ll need to decide on what body size is right for you. There are three main forms of ukulele.
Usually measuring roughly 21” in length, Soprano ukuleles are the smallest of all three forms.
Sopranos have a lovely, quiet, twinkly timbre, and as they’re so small, they’re super portable and normally carry a very reasonable price tag. This Cordoba 20SM is the perfect example of a high-quality Soprano ukulele.
They typically have 12 frets, just under a two-octave range, and the open chords are played around the first five frets. Most consider them the ultimate form of uke for novices.
As Concert ukuleles occupy the Goldilocks zone between the Sopranos and Tenors in size, for many, they have that “just right” feel. They tend to feature 15–20 frets spread along their neck that makes up the top half of a 23” scale.
In terms of their tone, Concert ukes aren’t too dissimilar to Sopranos, but you’ll hear a definite boost in volume and depth.
Players with larger hands will benefit from skipping the Soprano and jumping straight to something like this Concert ukulele, as your fingers won’t feel so cramped when fretting chords.
Tenor ukuleles are the largest of the main forms and are commonly the professional’s uke of choice due to their volume, full-bodied tone, and jumbo frets.
Tenors measure approximately 26” in length, yet maintain the same 15-20 fret count as their middle-child sibling. At this scale, we hear a departure from that quintessential sweetness heard in the Soprano and Concert forms, arriving at an almost guitar-esque timbre.
These ukes are best reserved for later on in your playing career, as they can be quite pricey, and you won’t need the extra fret space at first. If you feel ready to take the Tenor plunge, I recommend checking out something like the Kala KA-TG.
Okay, so when I said there were three types of ukulele, I wasn’t telling the whole truth. There are also Baritone ukes that have an even larger scale than Tenors, but as their tuning is more reminiscent of a guitar, they’re quite detached from what I’d call the true essence of the ukulele.
How To Choose A Ukulele Size
There is no wrong answer here. The size you choose should depend on how the instrument feels to play and whether the sound inspires you or not.
What I will say is that the further up the scale factor you go, the less like a ukulele the instrument will sound to your ear, so if that typical sparkly sound is what you’re after, stick with either the Soprano or Concert.
However, the longer scale of both the Concert and the Tenor can be a real bonus. For the uninitiated, scale length refers to the distance between the nut and the saddle of a string instrument. The longer the scale length, the more wiggle room your fingers have to fret notes and chords.
Let’s take a look at the most common uke tonewoods and the impact they have on the sound of the instrument.
When it comes to ukuleles, the more mahogany, the better. It produces a well-rounded tone throughout the audio spectrum — it can be pricey, though.
Koa is the OG uke tonewood. Once upon a time, all ukuleles were made out of this dense material native to Hawaii. It produces lush tones and enhanced sustain. As such, it’s normally used for high-end models exclusively.
Rosewood is quite dense and resonant. It’s typically used to form the back and sides of a uke, enriching the low-end response.
Usually employed as a top wood, spruce excels when it comes to mids and treble. It’s commonly paired with mahogany to balance the tonal pallet of the instrument.
As a relatively soft wood, cedar is all about warmth. Its darkness of tone is unparalleled by any other ukulele material.
Laminated vs Solid Wood Ukuleles
Each section of a solid wood ukulele is made from a single piece of wood, while laminated variants are made from multiple thin pieces glued together.
Solid wood ukes boast fantastic sustain and a beautiful sound. Laminated ukes don’t sound quite as pleasant, but they’re tough and more affordable.
You get what you pay for when it comes to ukuleles, so it’s best to avoid the bargain bin options you can snatch for around $30–$40.
While beginners shouldn’t be spending their life savings on their first uke, it’s a much better option to allocate a few more bucks to bring home a quality instrument.
Do I Need a Pickup?
If you plan on playing some live shows in the future, it’s definitely worth considering a ukulele with a pickup, as ukes are naturally very quiet instruments.
The Final Word — Accounting for Individual Differences
Even ukuleles with the same scale length and similar woods will sound and feel different. They’ll have different neck shapes, different actions (the gap between the string and the frets), and different tonal qualities.
Sometimes it’s best to forget about all the technical stuff we’ve discussed here today, pick a ukulele up, close your eyes, play, and just feel your way to the perfect one for you!