How do you choose? The Ukulele Buyers Guide
So you’re buying a ukulele, and since you’re reading an online buyer’s guide, you’re probably having trouble deciding what to purchase. You may even be feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the options. Don’t worry, we’re about to make this easy.
Let’s start with the basics. Ukuleles come in 4 basic sizes or styles.
Soprano, Concert, Tenor, and Baritone. The soprano, concert, and tenor have the most in common and all generally use the same standard tuning. (G – C – E – A) The baritone is the “odd man out” and is generally tuned (D – G – B – E)
The Soprano is the smallest of the group and typically has a scale length of 13”. The Concert is the next largest with a scale length of 15”. The Tenor is the next size up with a scale length of 17”. The baritone is the largest of the group with a scale length of 19”.
You may be asking yourself at this point: “What’s a Scale Length?” Answer: The scale length of an instrument is the distance from the saddle to the nut.
Now that we know that Ukuleles come in different sizes, how do we decide which size is best for you? The answer generally boils down to personal preference, but here are some things to consider when choosing.
What type of sound are you looking for?
If all other things are consistent, the larger the instrument, the larger the sound. Tenor models tend to have a bigger, fuller sound than the concert models which tend to have a slightly bigger and fuller sound than the soprano models which tend to have a sound that is brighter or “more focused”.
It’s important to note that all other things are not always consistent. For example, a $500 soprano or concert ukulele can certainly have a “bigger” or “better” sound than a $100 tenor.
What feels or “fits you” the best?
Smaller players tend to prefer smaller instruments and larger players tend to prefer larger instruments. If you have large hands or fingers, you may want to consider the Concert or Tenor options. Since these instruments are a bit larger, they offer more “real estate” on the fret board. This simply means that since the fret board is larger, there is more space for your fingers to fit which may make the process of making chords a bit easier. Again, personal preference reigns king. It’s perfectly acceptable for a small child to play a tenor or baritone, and at one point or another, we’ve all seen a giant Hawaiian man playing a teeeeny tiny soprano. Neither player is wrong. At the end of the day go with whatever works or feels best for you.
Woods and Construction
Ukuleles are made from a variety of materials, and they are all a bit different. More expensive, or “higher end”, ukuleles tend to be made from solid woods where less expensive models tend to be made from laminate woods or composite (plastic) materials.
One of the biggest factors in an instrument’s sound quality is what type of wood that it is made from. Different tone woods have different densities, characteristics, and properties, which produce different sounds. Next we’re going to look at some popular choices of tone woods and how they affect the sound of your instrument.
Mahogany has a warm well rounded sound. It’s one of the most common types of wood used for ukuleles, and is known for having nice round and rich tones in the upper mid-range. Mahogany has a clear sound without a lot of overtones which makes it a great choice for an instrument being used in a recording session or for someone who wants something that falls in the middle of the spectrum for a nice all around sound. It’s not too boomy in the bass or too bright on the top end. Mahogany is light brown in color with darker brown grain and coloring and generally has a consistent grain pattern.
Spruce is the most common wood used for the top of acoustic guitars, so it’s not surprising that it has become a popular choice in the tops of ukuleles. Spruce tends to be stiff and lightweight. It makes for a great all around choice and works well for most playing styles. There are a variety of different types of spruce that come from all around the globe. They all vary somewhat from one another, but all tend to be bright, clear, and full sounding. Since spruce is the most common choice for woods for the tops of acoustic guitars, it also tends to be one of the most familiar sounding woods to our ears.
Maple is similar to spruce in that it is lighter in color, but differs in that it is heavier and has a greater density than that of spruce. Since maple is a hard wood, it has very little overtones. Most people will describe its sound as being bright, crisp and articulate. Maple is a beautiful wood that offers several different types of figuring, or grain patterns which results in several different “looks”. It is strong and durable and makes for a very sturdy feeling instrument.
Rosewood is a tone wood that is used for the backs and sides of instruments, but rarely used for the tops or soundboards. Rosewood is a dark wood with a rich appearance and resonate sounds. It is bolder and more aggressive sounding than mahogany and pairs nicely with a spruce top.
Koa is a tropical tone wood and over the years it has been the most common choice for traditional ukuleles. Koa is a gorgeous looking wood with a rich sound and plenty of overtones. Koa has a nice warm sounding midrange and has many of the same sonic qualities of mahogany if they were simply more exaggerated. Koa is a bit more expensive than most of the other tone woods, but it is widely regarded as being the “Cadillac” of tone woods when it comes to ukuleles
Now that you know a thing or two about ukuleles, it’s time to select the best instrument for your needs. Here are some recommendations for all different types of players.
Do you need to plug in?
Some ukuleles come with what is called a pickup. A pickup is a set of built in electronics that allows the player to plug the instrument into a sound system or recording interface. If you’re going to perform or record with your ukulele, a pickup is generally the way to go.