Buyers Guide: How do I Choose the Right Ukulele?
When you hear or see this little guitar, you're instantly whisked away to sandy white beaches with palm trees and blue skies. That's right, we're talking about the ukulele. A uke is the perfect way to bring that sunny, tropical feeling in your own home! But, there are so many to choose from—this buyers guide will help you decide which uke is right for you!
What is a ukulele?
The ukulele as we know it today has its roots in traditional Portuguese string instruments of long ago; the machete in particular. In the 19th century, immigrants from Madeira and the Cape Verde islands brought this miniature 4-string guitar to Hawaii, where it was embraced by to the ruler at the time, King Kalakauait. In the years that followed, the ukulele developed further and eventually made its début in the music of the Western world. It suffered a dip in the eighties, but it made a successful comeback about a decade later, and has been gaining popularity ever since!
What's in a name?
The name of this instrument can be interpreted in a few different ways. Some say it has to do with the word itself, which literally translated means, 'jumping flea'. This could refer to the sound of the instrument itself, or how the player's fingers jump around the strings like a flea. Others think the name refers to how happy the Portuguese people were when they finally found land—they played their machetes and danced and jumped around for joy. According to Queen Lili'uokalani, however, the name ukulele means "the gift that came here"; from the Hawaiian words 'uke' (present) and 'lele' (to come). It's up to you which interpretation you prefer!
Construction of the ukulele
Basically, the ukulele is a miniature version of an acoustic guitar with similar components: a hollow body with a sound hole, a neck with a fretboard, and tuners on the headstock. The main differences are the size, the fact that it has only four strings, and in most cases, the tuning. We'll get into strings and tuning later on.
The most common ukulele shape is similar to an acoustic guitar as well, but over the years, it's been expanded on by several other body shapes. A cutaway is practical, as it allows you to reach the top frets with ease. There's also the oval-shaped pineapple body, the pear, the pedal and the square-shaped ukulele. This last type is usually crafted from a cigar box. Each variety has its pros and cons, as well as a specific tuning, which you should also take into consideration.
With the exception of a few models, ukuleles are tuned differently than normal guitars (E-A-D-G-B-E). Each scale length has its own tuning, and the most common tunings belong to the soprano and concert models. Most consider the soprano to be the standard since the other models are based on it. The concert is bigger and offers a wider range, and is sometimes referred to as the super soprano. Before we get into intonation, though, it's important to mention that the top string is always tuned an octave higher, which is what gives this instrument its unmistakable sound.
It's still not clear which tuning should be considered the standard, "D" (A-D-F#-B) or "C6" (G-C-E-A). In any case, both are commonly-used for all types of ukes, from the sopranino to the tenor (which is slightly larger than the concert). Sometimes, particularly with the larger models, the A string is tuned an octave lower in the D intonation to give the total sound a bit more body and depth.
If your hands are too big for a small ukulele, or if you like to play in the lower regions, then you have a choice between three low-pitched ukes: the baritone, bass, and contrabass. Some of these models have six or even eight strings, with two of them doubled. These types of ukuleles employ linear tuning, which means the strings are tuned from low to high without any illogical jumps. Because they have more frets than their smaller counterparts, these larger ukes also offer a wider range. They also use aluminium-wound strings instead of nylon for a more powerful sound.
These days, almost any material can be used to make a ukulele. In the early days in Hawaii, however, they didn't have the possibilities we have today. The most commonly-used type of wood for ukuleles therefore was koa, a tree that is indigenous to the Hawaiian islands and was often also used to make surf boards as well. Because it is such a rare type of tree, there are very few instruments made of this typed of wood nowadays. Those that are made of koa are significantly more expensive.
A more affordable alternative that offers an equally beautiful sound is mahogany. Most of the ukuleles in our assortment are made from this type of wood, and it gives the instrument a clear, bright tone. Spruce is also a popular wood type, especially for the top of the instrument. There are also inexpensive models that are made of laminated wood or even plastic (polycarbonate). These are usually less comfortable to play, but they still offer that same familiar uke sound, albeit slightly less defined. The great thing about a plastic instrument is that it's unaffected by changes in temperature or humidity. For more information about wood types, have a look at our Buyers Guide for classical guitar.
The ukulele is an acoustic instrument, but there are a few fun variations available for this instrument as well. A common addition is a jack input so you can amplify it, which means you've essentially got a miniature electro-acoustic in your hands. The well-known brand Vox has taken this idea even further by developing a full-fledged electric ukulele and the VEU-33C Red Burst even has a built-in amp so you amplify it both internally and externally!
If you're an experimental musician, then the resonator ukulele might be something for you. It plays just like a regular resonator guitar and is made pretty much completely out of metal. The result is a distinctly louder tone that connects the bayou with the tropical shores of Hawaii. Should you find yourself in a studio environment, there are even ukuleles with a USB output, like the Fender T-Bucket.
Besides the multi-coloured, less-expensive plastic versions, there are plenty of high-quality ukes on the market that are anything but toys. Not convinced? Perhaps this will convince you: Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's cover of the world-famous ballad "Over The Rainbow", Pearl Jam's front man Eddie Vedder's entire ukulele album, and former Beatle George Harrison's extensive collection of ukuleles that he played regularly.
Before you buy a ukulele, there are a number of things you should take into consideration. Firstly: what are you going to use it for? Do you want an instrument to play for fun at parties? Then a plastic or laminated model will probably suffice. Do you want to play it professionally? Then it would be a good idea to invest in a higher-quality wooden version. Where you plan to play it is also an important factor—for performing live, a jack output is handy for amplification. The tone you want to play in is important too, considering the significant differences between the high-tuned and low-tuned models. No matter which type of ukulele you decide on, don't forget about accessories like a bag, strings and lesson books. Still not sure which uke you like best? No problem! That's why we have a 60-day return policy! Order a few different models and try them out until you find the one that's right for you!