How to choose a Ukulele
Whether you’re a complete beginner wanting to learn a new instrument, a musician looking to branch out, or a ukulele enthusiast, there are a huge variety of instruments on the market and their popularity seems to keep on growing!
One of the great things about the Ukulele is its accessibility. Even if you’re a complete beginner, once you’ve grasped a few basics – a handful of simple chords and a bit of practice can have you playing a song in no time. And with so many tutor books and internet tutorials out there, not to mention the fantastic social scene with ukulele orchestras and groups thriving across the country, it’s never been easier to learn.
Having said that, we know there are a lot of serious Ukulele players out there and you may well be surprised by the variety and virtuosity that can be achieved on the Ukulele! There are a wealth of luthiers making beautiful, hand crafted Ukuleles with all the depth of tone, playability and versatility you’d expect from any hand made, professional instrument.
Whatever your skill level, and whatever your budget, there are a few things worth considering when purchasing a new instrument.
What makes a good ukulele?
1. Build Quality
There are a lot of cheap and cheerful ukuleles available out there. However, if you want to find a more serious instrument to enjoy playing long-term, it’s worth investing a little in something well-made, even if you are just starting to learn.
A better build quality essentially means the ukulele will be easier to play, with a properly finished neck and fingerboard and good quality tuners to keep the instrument playing nicely. Particularly important and a common problem with very cheap ukuleles is the nut - the plastic part over which the strings break at the top of the fingerboard: if you tune the ukulele so that the open strings are in tune then hold down a chord and it suddenly sounds a long way out again, the problem is probably the nut.
Nowadays even the entry level coloured Mahalo ukuleles are surprisingly pleasant to play and for a young child the Mahalo is a good choice: they're pretty to look at, good enough to learn a few chords on and robust enough for a toddler to be able to use without fear of breaking it!
The disadvantage to the very cheap ukuleles is that because they're so sturdy they don't vibrate very easily so they sound extremely dull. Becuase of this we would recommend something slightly better for an adult beginner. The Lani series of ukuleles starts at £39 and offers an adult something that will be a lot more rewarding to play in terms of sound. Kala are another popular brand that make great value instruments that are not too expensive for a first time buyer: their Ebony series ukuleles were our best selling ukulele over the Christmas period.
Reaching beyond the larger, commonlly available brands, there are also much smaller companies making ukes that are more hand made. These ukuleles are much more delicately built than their mass produced counterparts and this mades them louder, clearer and more responsive. A handmade or workshop-made ukulele will feature hand selected, high quality woods and parts, thinner varnishes that cause less dampening to the wood vibrations and an attention to detail that can only be achieved by experienced luthiers in a workshop environment. This means that overall you are purchasing an instrument which will play and resonate much better. Good examples of these workshop made instruments are the Uluru range, which are designed by the Ayers guitar company in Australia and made in a small workshop in Vietnam.
2. Wood Quality
The biggest distinction in terms of wood quality is whether they are plywood or solid wood. Most cheaper ukuleles are made from plywood. It's durable, cheap, and can look very pretty depending on the outer veneer. Because plywood is fairly stiff, it doesn't vibrate as easily as solid wood so is generally considered to be inferior to solid wood - having said that, the thickness of the ply used makes a big difference and some of the more lightly built ply ukuleles actually sound very good for the price. Since the wood you see on a ply instrument is only a top veneer, lots of exotic woods that wouldn't necessarily sound good if a solid piece are perfectly acceptable as a veneer, so there are lots of great looking exotic wood ukes that take advantage of this. Many makers will combine solid wood and ply, using a solid piece for the top but laminates for the back and sides - this keeps the cost down whilst producing a very good sounding instrument. A good example of this is the Kala KA-SCG with a solid Spruce top.
However, solid wood does have the edge when it comes to a great sounding instrument. Traditionally ukuleles were made from Koa, a species of hardwood indigenous to Hawaii, and later from Mahogany. Koa, Mahogany, Spruce, Cedar and Rosewood are all commonly used in ukelele making. If the woods are solid rather than laminated, then different species have different properties in terms of sound so a Koa ukulele will sound different to a Mahogany ukulele assuming all other factors are the same - whether it sounds better is a different matter! If you want an affordable instrument that is made from solid woods the Carvalho range from Portugal use solid Acacia (a relation of Koa), and brands such as Uluru exclusively use solid woods.
What size should I get?
Aside from a few specialist anomalies (we’ll come to those later) Ukuleles come in three sizes: Soprano, Concert and Tenor. They are all tuned to the same 4 notes, G, C, E and A, and they play at the same pitch, however the difference is in the body size and scale length.
Soprano is the smallest, giving a crisp, percussive tone – ideal for rhythmic playing and a sweet tone when played gently. They are also great for small hands and many youngsters find them a useful entry point before learning guitar. The downside is that some adult players find the small scale length restrictive – it can be difficult for larger fingers to make chord shapes in such a small space at first.
Concert sits in the middle, offering a slightly longer scale length (often much easier for big hands!) and whilst a punchy rhythmic tone can be achieved, finger picking styles sing out because of a larger body size.
Tenor has a larger body size and again, a longer scale length. The tone is rich, warm and well rounded – and it’s great if you want something with a bit more body and volume.
What is a Ukulele Banjo, or ‘Banjolele’?
We are often asked about Ukulele Banjos. What are they? How are they tuned? Are they more like a banjo or a ukulele?
A ‘Banjolele’ is tuned and played in exactly the same way as a Ukulele, usually with nylon strings, and is generally available in soprano or concert scale lengths. However, the body of the instrument is a smaller version of the body of a banjo – giving the instrument a unique banjo-like sound. It’s also much louder! It’s as easy to play as standard Ukulele, although often a lot heavier due to the metal frame of the body. If you've seen footage of George Fornby and his ukulele, that's a banjo uke!
Some banjoleles are simple affairs constructed a bit like a tambourine and others are more like miniature banjos with a resonator, which is essentially a dish attached to the back of the drum head to redirect sound in a forward direction. These tend to be louder and more strident than the open back version.
If you’re looking for a lightweight, travel friendly option, the Magic Fluke Firefly range is certainly worth a look. Made in the USA, they produce an incredibly authentic ‘Banjolele’ sound, akin to the tone achieved on vintage instruments, without the extra weight, starting from £199.
Which ukulele should I choose?
Ukuleles are relatively affordable instruments and even the cheapest Mahalo Coloured Ukulele at £25 plays perfectly well as a beginner instrument. For someone wanting a more natural look at a value price, we also stock the Lani LS-55 at £39.95.
However, it’s certainly worth thinking about what you want to use your ukulele for. If it’s just a case of having a bit of fun with the kids occasionally, an entry-level instrument will probably do the job. If you want to learn properly it’s worth investing in something that you’ll enjoy playing for a long time.
Towards the higher end of the market, Martin produces beautiful solid wood Ukuleles. Check out the Martin range: there's the S1 Soprano for an authentic, traditional ukulele tone, and some great Koa Concert and Tenor Models, like the T1K. All feature solid woods, with the same classic look, build and finish quality you’d expect from Martin guitars. We're also very fond of the Uluru band as mentioned earlier.
Do I need a pick up?
At this stage it’s also worth mentioning electronics. If you want to use your ukulele in public, you might wish to consider whether you need it to have a pickup to allow it to be amplified. Many ukuleles are also available as semi-acoustic models, making it easy to take your playing out and about. The Lani LC55-SMEQ for example, features a solid Maple top and built in pick up and tuner.
For players looking to amplify a high end or handmade uke, we stock a number of options including the LR Baggs Five O and Shadow Pro-Age pick ups, which can be fitted to any ukulele in our workshop.
Is there anything else I need to know?
As well as the standard Soprano, Concert and Tenor set ups, there are a number of other more unusual layouts for ukulele.
Baritone Ukulele is perhaps less common than the main three, but still widely used, especially within ukulele orchestras. Baritones have a much bigger body size and the same tuning as the top 4 strings of a guitar – to D, G, B and E. The Kala KA-MBG Baritone in Curly Mangowood is a great example.
6 and 8 String Ukuleles feature a similar set up to 12 string guitars, achieving a thick sound with plenty of volume. They are tuned to standard 4 string Ukulele tuning, but with some (or all) strings duplicated. A good example of this is the Uluru III 8 string, featuring a solid Mahogany Tenor body, satin finish and gig bag included.
An increasingly popular member of the Ukulele family is the Ukulele Bass. With thick rubber strings tuned to standard 4 string bass guitar tuning, they sound remarkably similar to double bass –even more so when they’re plugged in! This also makes them a great portable practice instrument for any bass player. The Lani LB-70 Bass at £179 is a good entry level bass, whilst the Kala U-Bass is pretty much the industry standard, featuring an all solid body, great build quality and with all the electronics built in.
For guitar players looking for something a bit different, or for a fun portable instrument, there is the ‘Guitarlele’ as made by Kala amongst others. It’s a tenor sized body with 6 strings nylon tuned to standard guitar tuning, meaning you can achieve the ukulele sound without having to re-learn chord shapes. There's also the very cool solid bodied Risa ‘Les Paul’ style 4 string Electro Uke, with steel electric strings tuned to low G Soprano.
Finally, we keep a comprehensive range of good quality ukulele strings, both in standard and more unusual tunings. For example, all standard ukuleles can be fitted with low G strings, to give a deeper sound. We also stock a good selection of accessories, books, picks, tuners, padded gig bags and hard cases for ukes of all sizes, so whatever you need to get started, we’ll be happy to help!