YOUR FIRST UKULELE

Q: My first ukulele: What should I buy?

In the vernacular of stringed instruments, the word for "size" is "scale".

Scale is determined by the distance between the nut and the saddle.

 

From smallest to largest, the most common uke scales are sopranino, soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. Soprano is the classic scale seen most often in pictures and from which the others are derived.

 

Your body physiology, including the size of your fingers or hand should be a secondary influence on your choice. We've seen beefy bricklayer hands pull dulcet tones from a soprano - and small hands dance adeptly across the fingerboard of a tenor.

We don't recommend learning on a baritone, not even for those crossing from the dark side of the guitar. This largest member of the family is tuned G6 like the highest sounding 4 strings of a guitar, so chord formations differ from every other member of the ukulele family which are all tuned C6 (G-C-E-A). Notwithstanding that our workshops are based on C6 tuning, the baritone is more mini-guitar than uke.

OUR THOUGHTS ON SIZE

The sopranino is too small to learn on.

Consider a tenor later when it becomes apparent that you're in for the long haul and you'd like to expand your collection.

Whether to go soprano or concert depends on which feels better after balanced consideration of playability and feel, fit to your budget and the sound you are looking for. Soprano is the quintessential uke scale and purists feel it's the only size that matters because the others are all derivative. Theoretically, but mitigated by other factors like wood type, the bigger you go, the fuller the tone and fretboard ergonomics become more forgiving. A bigger sound doesn't necessarily a mean better sound: better is a question of personal preference and the sound character you wish to project.

 

The question then becomes "how deep do I dive?"

Your best bet may be a decent entry-level uke for less than $50.

$250-$450 will get you a very nice mid-priced instrument that are well built and play, sound and look wonderful - and may well satiate you from now until you're called to the big island in the sky.

You can absolutely count on anything from these makers for good workmanship from an asian factory, decent materials, with decent quality adornments and good to excellent sound and playability:

Ohana, Kala, Pono, Eastman, Luna, Gold Tone, Gretsch, Mickey Finn and select models from Lanikai are all mid-priced brands that get our nod.

 

Oscar Schmidt and Fender do not get our recommendation because in our opinion while they are well made, they look much better than they sound.

 

Something to aspire to as your interest and skill develops, serious ukes start at around $500 and can easily cost $2500 or more. These instruments divide into two categories:

"Workshop" instruments are made by hand by more than one individual in family-run boutique factories. We love Koaloha for their extraordinary open sound, and also highly reco the other two "K's": Kanile'a and Kamaka.

 

Then there are one-of-a-kind instruments crafted uniquely by one set of hands. Ukulele specialists tend to turn out much better instruments than guitar luthiers who make the odd uke. Guitar makers have a tendency to use too much wood.

 

Already convinced your uke will become an instant BFF?

Bypass the entry-level category and head straight for the middle aisle. You'll likely outgrow the limitations of an entry-level instrument quickly so put that $50 into a nice case.

 

OUR TOP 3 ENTRY LEVEL RECOS

We enthusiastically reco two brands above others in the lower-cost range for their high quality for value ratio: Luna and Gretsch each sound great, play comfortably and are well made for the money: the Gretsch G9110 Concert is an excellent buy at around $120 as is the G9100 soprano ($100).

 

Harder to find at retail, the Luna "Tattoo" is readily available online. This uke and indeed the whole Luna line gets highest marks overall for balanced high value in sound, aesthetics and workmanship in the across the entire range from entry through upper mid.

_______________________                                              Gretsch  ↑
 

←  the Makala "Dolphin" is a lot of instrument for less than $50. Its shaped back contributes to a big sound, tuners and intonation are decent, it's nice to play and comes in a broad range of well-chosen colours (we like their orange, yellow, black and royal blue best). The workmanship in this instrument is noticeably better and more consistent than almost all other brands of coloured ukes.

Low cost-of-entry means you can arrive at the gate to ukulele heaven with something worthy - and if you decide to improve your position down the road, the uke you buy now becomes the one you toss into the backseat next time you head up north.

 

 

 

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←  

Luna: beautifully designed, sound great, well made, reasonably priced.

RELATED

→   Where to buy ukuleles in the GTA 

→   Good article from The Ukulele Shop 

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CAUTION!

Choose with care and avoid that cute Mahalo for less than $30. You'll likely need to go over several with an eagle eye before finding one that has OK finishing, reasonable intonation up the neck, and tuners that don't jam. You may not know what to look for just yet and frankly, it's not worth the effort given a plentiful supply of well-built and great sounding models from Kala, Lanakai and Ohana.

 

In addition to Mahalo, we are unable to recommend Emus and Beaver Creek due to inconsitent quality.

 

Low cost-of-entry means you can arrive at the gate to ukulele heaven with something worthy - and if you decide to improve your position down the road, the uke you buy now becomes the one you toss into the backseat next time you head up north.

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