What is the Best Ukulele For Me?
The ukulele is used as an accompaniment instrument by more and more musicians. The great thing about ukuleles is that, since they’re so compact, they can be incredibly cheap. But the range on offer is enormous, so you might be wondering which one you should pick. So, here, we answer all the most important questions! If you can’t see your question here? Feel free to contact us.
The ukulele is a small string instrument with a high-pitched, distinctive sound. Because of its format and just four strings, many people find it easier to play than a guitar. As such, the ukulele is also great for young children.
- 'Soprano' is the standard format: a safe choice for both young and old. It might be that the slightly bigger ‘concert’ or even bigger ‘tenor’ feels more comfortable for people with larger hands. If you want to play normal guitar chords, then take a look at a ‘guitar-ukulele’.
- Some are electro-acoustic. These can be connected to a live PA system, but can also be played acoustically. A nice little extra!
- It’s also a question of budget. Most of the time: the higher the price, the better the sound. So, fuller, warmer, refined, more sparkling… Also, a more expensive ukulele often has a more refined finish and is better at staying in tune. But the cheaper ukuleles we have available also sound great and are nice to play.
- An essential accessory for a ukuele is a tuner, since It’s very normal to tune up before you play, for a pure sound.
The ukulele – prononced ‘yoo-koo-lay-lee’, is a small, four-string instrument with a very high pitched, bright sound. Mostly, chords are played on it. Because of the compact format and small number of strings, many people find it easier to play than a guitar. It’s also a great introduction instrument for children, since the longer and wider neck of a guitar can be more awkward for smaller fingers.
The ukulele looks much like an acoustic guitar. All the parts also have the same names. But its origin is different since the ukulele is based on the traditional Portuguese string instruments, like the ‘machete de braga’, and ‘cavaquino’, that were brought to Hawaii in the 19th century by Portuguese immigrants. The ukulele was the favourite instrument of King David Kalakaua, who subsquently ensured that the instrument became inextricable from Hawaiian culture. So, why the name, ‘ukulele’? In Hawaiian, this means ‘jumping flea’, which maybe describes the way your fingers move as you play.
So, you want to become a ‘ukuleleist’. The first step is to choose the right format. The smallest, soprano ukulele (around 50cm long) is known as the standard ukulele.
If you’d prefer a smaller instrument and your fingers are small enough, then you might prefer the sopranino, also known as the piccolo. People with larger fingers usually go for a concert ukulele (also known as an alto-ukulele) or sometimes a tenor (around 65cm). In any case, most ukulele players start with a soprano or concert.
Are you a guitarist who wants to make the switch, but can’t quite get used to the high-pitched, cheerful sound? Then the lower-pitched baritone would be a good choice. For guitarists who prefer the six strings of a guitar, there is the guitarlele (also known as the guitar-ukulele or guitalele). The extra-low sounding bass-ukulele usually ends up in the hands of bassists. See Question 3 for more on this.
The standard tuning of the ukulele is GCEA (A, D, F#, B is also used). With most string instruments, like the guitar, the strings are ordered from low to high pitched. With a normal ukulele, this is also the case - apart from the first string: this is tuned to a higher pitch than the second string. The soprano, sopranino, and concert are often tuned in GCEA, as well as certain tenor ukueles. Some tenors have a low G, so that the first string is lower in pitch than the second, just as with a guitar.
For guitarists, the step over to a ukulele is not so big. The GCEA tuning of a ukulele is much like the tuning of the four highest strings of a guitar, but with a capo at the fifth fret (and the first string tuned an octave higher). The way that chords are gripped is also familiar. For an even easier switch, guitarists should maybe go for a baritone: it sounds exactly the same as the four highest strings of the guitar (DGBE). The tuning of the guitarlele is ADGCEA. This means that you can play exactly the same chords as you would on a guitar with a capo at the fifth fret. Bass ukuleles have the same tuning as a bass guitar: EADG.
If you buy a ukulele, strings will already be installed and all you need to do is tune them. But, when the sound starts to lose its sparkle, it’s time for a new set of strings. Replacing them is not so hard, and by choosing a different type or brand of strings every now and then, you’ll soon develop a preference. Also, it’s worth noting that the factory that made the ukulele probably didn’t install the most expensive strings.
Just like classical guitar strings, ukulele strings are made of nylon. Never put steel strings on your ukulele! Since steel strings apply a much higher tension than nylon strings, this could damage your instrument.
If there’s no clear format specificaton printed on the pack, then you’re usually looking at a set of soprano strings. If you want to be absolutely sure, then choose a set of strings that have soprano, concert, tenor, or baritone, clearly printed on the pack.
Just as you would with a guitar, you need to tune your ukulele regularly, so a tuner is very useful. If you want to put your ukulele away safely, then you can use a ukulele stand. And, besides a pack of spare strings, it’s never a bad idea to keep your ukulele safe when carrying it. Affordable models can be carried in a ukulele bag (also known as a ‘gig bag’), but you might prefer to carry a more expensive ukulele in a stronger case. Most players hold their instrument between their forearm and body, but if you would prefer to stand like a lot of other musicians, then you can use a special ukulele strap. Traditionally, a ukulele is played with the fingers or using a soft, felt plectrum. But because many guitarists have started picking up a ukulele, standard guitar plectrums are used more and more, for an extra bright sound. If you need help to start playing or want to learn to play certain songs, then a ukulele book is also an essential tool.
Traditonally, most Hawaiian ukuleles are made of koa, but since this wood is rare, alternatives such as mahogany and spruce are used. If you’re a beginner, you may not notice the effect that a certain wood type has on the sound, so it’s best not to worry too much about this. With more expensive models, the top of the body is often made of solid wood (‘solid top’) to ensure a distinctly full and rich tone: a good choice if you’re looking for great sound! Check the specifications when looking at a ukulele to see what it has been made from. If you want to learn more about materials, then take a look at our Guitar Gear Guide and Blog.
Wood is not always used as the base of a ukulele. Resonator-ukuleles are made partly or entirely of metal. More budget models even include versions that are partly or entirely made from plastics, like polycarbonate. They usually sound just as good as budget versions made of wood and have the added benefit of being less sensitive to shifts in temperature and humidity.
When you want to perform on stage, then you’re likely to need some extra volume. An electro-acoustic ukulele offers the solution. This is a normal acoustic instrument with a ‘pickup’ and an output for an instrument (jack) cable fitted. Sometimes controls for the volume and tone and a built-in tuner is included. In this way, you can connect the ukulele to a live sound system when playing on stage, often via a DI Box. If your ukulele doesn’t offer this, then it’s also possible to fit a pickup and a jack socket later. There are also pickups available that can be placed on the sound hole and removed again without causing damage.
Please note: There are also ukuleles available with no sound hole at all. These have a fully solid body, just like an electric guitar. If you play this kind of ukulele without an amplifier, then it will be extremely quiet. The acoustic sound of these instruments is therefore only useful for quieter practice.
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