Some people consider the Ukulele to be a guitar for a five-year-old. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is very much an instrument in its own right; in fact, George Harrison from the Beatles played one regularly.
And for those that saw it, how could anyone forget Joe Brown’s version of ‘‘See You in My Dreams”. The song he sang that closed the “Concert for George” at The Royal Albert Hall in London on the first anniversary of George’s death.
And it wasn’t only those two. George Formby made his name playing one but is most often seen in pictures with his “Banjolele.” The instrument has been in some famous hands. If you are buying your first Ukulele, you might need a little help and some appreciation of this great instrument. So, I put together this Ukulele Buyer’s Guides to make sure you buy the perfect uke for your needs.
Aloha to the Uke
Portuguese immigrants arriving in Hawaii in the 1800s brought with them their “Machete.” We know it as the Ukulele. It was a common instrument in their homeland, and it didn’t take long to catch on in its new home.
The “Jumping Flea,” the Hawaiian translation of “Ukulele,” became a part of Hawaiian culture and is still associated with that part of the world.
A Much-loved Instrument
Today it is played in many places and loved in all of them. This is no mini guitar. If you were to say that to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, you would certainly offend them.
Today there are “orchestras” all around the world, and it has developed into a global instrument. It is played in concerts, recorded in studios, and played on TV.
So what is this little instrument all about? Before we talk about buying one, let’s just mention the components. If you have a feeling for what the instrument is about, it will help you when you come to buy one. And yes, some of these parts are similar to the guitar.
This is the part of the Ukulele that is responsible for the generation of its sound, as the vibration of the strings is transmitted through the soundhole. But also off the top of the instrument or what is called the soundboard.
The Body comes in three pieces, the top, the back, and the sides. The woods used in construction will create a marked difference in the sound created, as they do on a guitar. There are a variety of woods used to make ukuleles.
Koa wood is a common choice as it is a dense wood found in Hawaii. Another advantage is that it comes in a variety of grain patterns and colors. This allows the manufacturer some design options. The tone is best described as balanced across all strings.
Another hardwood, sometimes used for the body as it produces a dark, warm sound. Mahogany is more often found on the neck than the body.
Well-known for its bright, crisp sound, this is a great wood for the top or soundboard. Very common on acoustic guitar tops, Ukulele Luthiers often make Ukes from this wood on all sides. An excellent wood for those that like a sharper, cleaner sound.
Another common wood for instruments, Cedar is not found very often on standard ukuleles. The overall sound it produces is mellow and nicely rounded. And it is very good at projecting the lower notes.
This makes it an ideal wood for tenor and baritone ukuleles that require some bottom-end clarity. If you are looking for a Cedar instrument, then look for one made from Western Red Cedarwood.
Occasionally, you will find other woods, each with its positives for sound. Redwood was a great sounding wood, but due to “over-harvesting,” it has all but disappeared.
You may also find some bodies made from Rosewood as this generates a warm sound. This wood, though, is usually found on the fingerboard.
The Range of Woods
As there are so many woods used in the manufacture of the body, this offers you some choices. You can choose a wood that gives you a sound you like. Or you can choose an instrument made from wood with a nice finish and color that appeals to you.
This can vary in size depending on what sort of Ukulele you buy. I will look at the various options a bit later. But the neck length can vary from thirteen inches having 12-15 frets, to nineteen inches. As I said earlier, the neck is often made from Mahogany.
A strip of wood or laminate that is on the top side of the neck and holds the frets. You may hear it sometimes called a fingerboard. It will usually have fret marker dots to help you with finding notes. It is often made of Rosewood as this is a very hard wood.
This is located on the body at a given distance from the top of the neck, or nut. It has a saddle that holds the strings in place. They are at a set height away from the body to allow vibration without any rattles. The strings are tied and knotted in place.
Placed at the top end of the neck, this is where you find the tuners. It is usually a separate piece attached to the end of the neck. Woods can vary for their construction.
Usually set up in a two by two formation on a Ukulele. These tune the instrument and adjust the tension of the strings.
This complements the operation of the saddle on the bridge. It helps to hold the strings in their correct position at a given height from the fingerboard.
Let’s Look at the Types of Ukulele
This would not be a very good ukulele buyer’s guide without an explanation of the different types of ukuleles. The Ukulele has four basic variations. Understanding the differences will help make your decision much easier.
This is the most common type of ukulele you will see and was the first style made. With a scale length of 13 inches and an instrument length of 21 inches, it is also the smallest Ukulele. It produces a bright and crisp sound. Ideal for children and beginners.
Slightly larger than the Soprano, it has a scale length of 13 inches and an instrument length of 21 inches. The sound is very similar to the Soprano, but the Concert tends to be a bit louder and deeper.
This style will give you a much deeper sound with more resonance. Scale length is about 17 inches with a total length of about 26 inches. The strings are placed a little wider on this instrument, making it suitable for those with larger hands.
The largest of the styles is not quite a bass instrument, but it has a much deeper sound. The scale length is between 19 and 20 inches; the total length is about 30 inches.
Some Interesting Variations
Some manufacturers have introduced some variations to the Ukulele. You can now buy acoustic-electric instruments with a pickup. This is similar to what you would find on an acoustic-electric guitar. You might choose this if you play with a band that is amplified.
Also available are Ukuleles with extra strings, and you can get six or even eight strings versions. Likewise, there are Ukuleles crossed with a Banjo known as the “Banjolele,” as used by George Formby, as I have already mentioned.
The most common shape of the instrument is the Figure-8, which is a guitar-shaped style. These days you can even get Figure-8 Ukuleles with cutaways giving you better access up the fingerboard.
Additionally, there is a Pineapple shape. It may not surprise you to know that it looks a bit like a pineapple and originated in Hawaii. And the least common is the “Boat Paddle.” Not meant for that purpose, I am sure; it just resembles it.
There are some extra things you may need. You can get some nice Ukulele packages that include a bag for the instrument and an electronic tuner and metronome. If you opt for just an instrument, these will cost extra. You will also need to buy some picks and possibly a spare set of strings.
These will vary with the quality of the instrument. But, generally speaking, a decent instrument isn’t going to break the bank. Here are some great examples:
Looking for more great Ukulele options?
Then check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Luna Ukulele, the Best Lanikai Ukuleles, the Best Tenor Ukuleles, the Best Baritone Ukuleles, the Best Bass Ukulele, and the Best Electric Ukuleles you can buy in 2021.
Also, have a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Concert Ukuleles For Beginners, the Best Ukuleles for Beginners, the Best Ukuleles for Kids, the Best Ukulele Case, the Best Ukulele Straps, the Best Ukulele Tuners, and the Best Ukulele Capos currently on the market.
Ukulele Buyer’s Guide – Final Thoughts
Let me just finish by returning to the woods used in manufacture. Ideally, you want solid wood. Laminated woods are going to be cheaper, but you can sometimes still get a good sound. The woods used will have an impact on the sound you create, as will the size of the soundhole.
When buying a Ukulele, the tone, the playability, and how easy it is to play are the prime factors. Have plenty of fun with it; it is a great instrument.
Until next time, let your music play.