How to choose ukulele for beginners? (Buying Guide)
The ukulele is a small, cute ukulele guitar that, in the hands of a master, is capable of exciting, stirring, tuning in a lyrical way and even calling for exploits. However, learning to play this instrument is easy for both adults and children. How to choose a ukulele for a beginner and a professional? Let’s take a closer look at the offers of leading brands.
Regardless of your personal preferences and lifestyle (or even what you’ve heard about ukulele types...), there are three essential characteristics or basic guiding features that any ukulele buyer (beginner or pro) must consider when buying a ukulele.
(1) Ukulele sizes: soprano ukulele, concert ukulele, tenor ukulele, and baritone ukulele.
(2) Types of ukuleles in terms of materials and design (overall craftsmanship), and lastly
(3) The best price for any selected ukulele.
Even so, shopping for a ukulele or "Uke” is pretty much like buying any other music instrument out there in the market today. The choice is always driven by among other things; taste and personality, type of music played (or aspiring to play), price against quality and build (which significantly determines the quality of sound produced or intonation especially for lutes), as well as preferential features such as size, colour, and shape.
Interlude: "Never go for brands or brand hype when buying a Ukelele for the first time... the difference is never that serious for beginners…unless you want it to be…".Be patient and don’t be afraid of kissing as many frogs as you can before meeting your match…"
In essence, the best ukulele for beginners doesn’t necessarily need to be the best ukulele brand out there...
However, despite your skill-level on the ‘’uke‘’, or whether you're looking to upgrade, replace, or find a beginner's ukelele, you will definitely want to be keen on certain key aspects and features that differentiate decent ukuleles from crappy imitations that leave you with nothing but disappointment.
So how do you get it right with your first or next Ukulele purchase?
Here is a mash-up of personal experience, several online ukulele shopping guides and reviews, as well as tips from ukulele professionals to provide you with the best ukulele buying guide...
Hopefully, this information will help steer you in the right direction even when shopping for more ukuleles in the future.
Look into the Ukulele History
Ukulele was born in 1889 in the Hawaiian Islands, when Portuguese immigrants, furniture makers decided for their own pleasure to make a tool similar to that which is so popular in their homeland. This tiny guitar, called “jumping flea", was destined for long life and huge popularity. Production of the ukulele was supported by King Kalakaua himself, who liked the way his personal musicians performed with this instrument.
Now, ukuleles are used by many groups and individual musicians, performing in different directions and styles. Manufacturers do not get tired to offer new ukuleles, which have long since become international. Whole orchestras appeared in which ukuleles of various kinds are used, and, it should be noted, their work is in great demand all over the world.
Accordingly, the desire to learn how to play the ukulele arises from a huge number of people, and the question of which ukulele to buy here is all you need to know.
1. Types of Ukuleles:
Let us deal with the types of ukuleles, the main ones are only four, they differ in size and structure: (from smaller to larger in size and number of frets).
Soprano, Concert, Tenor, Baritone
#1 - The Soprano Ukulele
Soprano ukulele (Source)
The first ukulele ever made was the Soprano ukulele which is actually the "standard" ukelele size that most people envision whenever ukes are mentioned.
Being the smallest in the family, Soprano ukuleles measure 21 inches from tip to tip and have a 13-inch scale (saddle/bridge to nut) with 12 to 15 frets. They may not be ideal for people with large fingers but sopranos are equally popular with both adults and kids.
#2 - The Concert Ukulele
The Concert ukulele is slightly larger and wider than the soprano (23 inches end to end) and it has a 15-inch scale with 15 to 20 frets that provide more space for manoeuvring from fret to fret. Many beginners always find themselves stuck between the concert and the tenor but this is definitely a nice place to start.
#3 - The Tenor Ukulele
Tenor ukuleles，on the hand, measure 23 inches and are considered the middle child of the ukulele family if you think of it that way...
They come with a 17-inch scale and 15 to 25 frets which provide more versatility with the high and low notes. Logically, the longer neck means that there is better fret-to-fret action which also allows for the flawless plucking of single note chords.
Although any skilled ukulele player can juggle between the sizes with relative ease, the tenor ukulele is especially recommended for beginners with a relatively huge stature or just large fingers. Basically, those who don't feel comfortable with the concert which is also highly recommended for beginners.
#4 - The Baritone Ukulele
The Baritone is the largest of the ukulele family, and of course, the Barry White of them all...!
Baritone ukuleles usually measure 30 inches from end to end and come with a 19 or 20-inch scale and a longer neck that can accommodate 18 or more frets. Basically, in addition to providing you with those cool deep notes, more frets and neck space mean that you can play around with the notes with more versatility.
#5 - Bonus Size Tip: The Sopranissimo, the Sopranino and the Bass
There is a smaller version of the soprano known as the sopranino (19-inches tip to tip, 12-inch scale, 12 frets) that is quickly rising in demand, and a pocket-sized sopranissimo (17-inches end to end with 11-inch scale) which is even smaller than the Sopranino...!
Meanwhile, the bass ukulele sits at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum in terms of intonation and pretty much everything else in a literal sense. Most bass ukuleles measure between 30 and 32 inches in total （end to end）.
However, there's less versatility for these ukuleles which is why they are considered specialized instruments.
2. Materials and Design
There are four main materials used in the manufacture and design of ukuleles today. Some ukulele manufacturers use a combination of two or more these materials depending on the cost of production or "price to quality" value.
Nonetheless, high-end ukuleles are almost always made entirely out of solid wood while mid-range (or intermediate and some entry-level) uke’s are mostly a combination of wood and laminate (a fancy word for thinly pressed plywood...) or sometimes they're made purely of the laminate. On the lower end, we find uke’s made of plastic.
Why Solid Wood?
Naturally, stringed instruments made entirely out of natural materials sound better and ukeleles are no exception to this rule. Even gut strings (processed from sheep intestines) sound better and feel great for the seasoned lute player compared to other types of strings.
In this regard, Ukeleles made of solid wood are mainly high-end or considered professional grade due to the quality of the tone they produce and their durability as well as a possible increase in value if well taken care of. The type of wood may also determine this presupposed value appreciation.
On the downside, wood is highly susceptible to the elements meaning that harsh weather conditions, including humidity, can ruin your ukulele. Ukuleles made entirely out of solid wood are also a bit more expensive. Unless they are mass-produced from locally available types of wood...
So which wood is the best for beginner ukuleles...?
Common types of woods (or tonewoods) used to produce quality ukeleles include Koa，Mahogany, Sycamore, Mango, Myrtle, Rosewood, Cherry, Ovangkol, Walnut, Maple, Bamboo, Cedar，Redwood, Spruce, and Ebony.
As to which wood is the best，well, it all started with Koa and then South American Mahogany was used for the first mass-production outside Hawaii, and then nobody could control the mayhem anymore as ukelele builders from all over the world went berserk chasing after the ultimate tonewood…
In reality, no math or science today can definitively point you to the best wood because even the best-categorized woods such as Koa and Mahogany have their own variations within their own species based on density and grain patterns among other things...
And then there's the all-important matter of the builder’s craftsmanship as well as the construction process or the other materials used for other parts of the ukulele such as the frets or the strings.
Why Wood and Laminate Combo?
The combination of wood and laminate is primarily to find a merging point for price and quality. Usually, these types of ukuleles have a solid top and back but the side is made of laminate. However，solid wood ukuleles still have better tone quality compared to ukeleles made out of the wood/laminate combo.
Nevertheless, ukeleles made out of laminate and solid wood almost sound as good as solid wood ukuleles because of the solid wood top but at a fraction of the cost. Another up-side is that although the wood(s) used in these laminate ukuleles can still be adversely affected by bad conditions or handling, they are not as vulnerable to humidity and temperature as solid wood ukuleles, which makes them logically more durable...!
Laminate is relatively cheaper to produce compared to solid wood and therefore ukuleles made entirely out of laminate tend to be fairly priced especially for beginners keen on good tone quality.
One key fact to note is that laminates are processed from any of the woods identified in the previous section. Most companies producing laminates for ukulele builders use different combinations of woods to bring out different tones.
Plastic is cheap to produce and process. It, therefore, goes without saying that the cheapest ukuleles available in the market today are made of plastic composites.
Bonus materials and construction tip: Types of Strings
The type strings also determine a ukulele's overall sound regardless of the size or shape of the ukulele.
As clearly shown in the image above. Ukuleles now come in all sorts of variations in terms of shapes, colours, and sizes.
The Verdict: Ukulele for Beginners What Ukulele type or size is best for you?
Word of advice from personal experience is, "don't be a cheapskate"…but of course, you are allowed to set limits to your expenditure and spend within your budget... no pressure...
It is very important to physically try out or play as many ukuleles as you can (either within your budget or just within reach...) before making your decision. This way, you get to touch the ukulele and get the feel of how it fits into your hands or it would sound as you play.
Physically shopping for ukuleles also allows you to check for so many other features and defects before buying a ukulele that won't stay in tune, or with sharp fret sticking out the fretboard, or with warps and chips or scratches and so on...