Things to know before you buy a Uke
So you’re looking to buy your first ukulele?
The ukulele is a really fun way to introduce people of all ages to the magic of music. From kids learning about music for the very first time to adults interested in taking up a new hobby, the ukulele has mass appeal because it’s so easy to learn for beginners. There aren't many instruments that can be picked up as quickly as the ukulele can be, and part of this is due to the instrument’s small size and easy operation.
However for many people not experienced in music, the ukulele can still be a challenge to learn and master, even with its many benefits. But they are so fun and sound so great you can see why they are so popular.
On the whole, your average local music shop is unlikely to have very good quality ukuleles. Most only stock a few Mahalos in every colour of the rainbow, to appeal to a wider audience. These are great for young kids to get the feel of an instrument, but they aren’t really the best ones out there for someone who is serious about playing ukulele as an instrument.
There are some local music shops that do stock local and unique brands, so make sure to do your research before you head out to the shops so you don't accidentally go home with a toy.
With all the different sizes, woods, types and brands out there on the market approaching ukulele for the first time can seem a little daunting!
So what are our tips to help you find the perfect uke?
Firstly, think about what size uke you want.
Ukuleles commonly come in four different sizes: Soprano, Concert, Tenor and Baritone.
Soprano (51 cm) This is the smallest traditional ukulele and the size most of us associate the instrument with. This size is ideal for young children and smaller than average adults. It typically has 12-15 frets and a standard tuning of GCEA.
Concert (58 cm) Instruments in this range are bigger, louder and a bit easier to play than Soprano models. They have 15-20 frets and tend to be a little louder than Soprano.
Tenor (66 cm) Ukuleles in this size range begin to sound and feel a bit like classical guitars. This makes them ideal for guitarists looking to branch out and learn a new instrument. Having a low G string on your uke can also help bridge that guitar/uke gap.
Baritone (76 cm)
These are the largest and least popular ukulele sizes. Falling somewhere between a guitar and ukulele, these instruments aren’t as easy to transport and play as traditional ukuleles are. They also feature a different tuning than most ukuleles. These instruments are typically reserved for very large adults, or musicians seeking to add an unconventional new instrument to their repertoire. They are also useful in ukulele orchestras.
Speaking of Guitar...
For all the Guitar players wanting to add uke to your repertoire don't assume you will nail uke straight away just because you already play guitar. Guitar and ukulele are not the same. While ukulele can be one of the less difficult instruments to pick up it is still not a guitar and cannot be played in the same way. For the most part uke players don’t use plectrums, they finger pick. And having two fewer strings doesn’t necessarily make it much easier, sometimes it can actually be harder due to the new unfamiliar chord shapes needed.
TIP TWO Get the best quality ukulele you can afford.
This is the most important tip of all for ukulele beginners if you are really serious about wanting to learn how to play the ukulele.
Many people believe that beginners just need to buy a cheap ukulele. That way they can get a feel for the instrument without having to fork out a lot of cash if they don't end up enjoying instrument. And if they like it they can change to another better ukulele later. This attitude is already setting a beginner uke player up to fail.
Buying a cheap ukulele usually means you spend your money on a low-quality ukulele. As a result, it might be harder to play and enjoy, and you might end up disappointed with your instrument. Plus it actually means you end up spending more money in the long run if you do like the hobby.
It probably isn't the best idea to attempt to take up a new hobby with the thought in the back of your mind that you might not like it. So before you go looking to buy a uke truly ask yourself if this is something you want to do and not just a fad you want to follow for a week or so.
If you had that hard talk and you still want a uke, buying the best quality uke that you can afford for yourself is the best thing you can do to set yourself up to succeed because you are starting your journey with an instrument that feels good, looks good, sounds great and that makes you feel good when you play it.
The better the quality the easier and more enjoyable it will be for you to learn. As a good rule of thumb, the nicer your ukulele looks, the more beloved it is. We're not saying go out and buy the best and most expensive uke out there to start, but we do recommend that you purchase the best quality uke that you can afford.
So what should you spend?
Good ukuleles typically start around the $100 mark. Anything lower than that can be of a questionable quality. Definitely ukuleles that sell for $50 or less are generally of very poor quality, they make great toys for kids to play on and get a feel for an instrument. However, many of these lower range ukes are not setup correctly, and never can be and they just won't stay in tune.
Our biggest tip is if you are tossing up about whether or not you want to buy yourself a uke go out and sample as many ukes as you can. If you are camping and you see someone strumming a uke, ask them about it, and if the moment seems right ask them if they will let you try it out.
Go to music shops and feel the ukes out, you don't have to buy straight away.
You want to compare as many as you can.
Maybe you like the feel of one type and the sound of another, what is it about that sound that you like? What is it about the feel? Was it the neck? Was it how your fingers moved across the frets? Was it the ease of tuning? All these things need to be considered as much as possible beforehand.
Starting with a ukulele that is enjoyable to play will be the most beneficial thing you can do to assist your journey as a musician....and you can always buy more ukes as your skills and interest grow.
Quality strings are key!
If you see ukuleles with black strings that feel very plasticky, you can be absolutely sure that the sound and quality won’t be very good. Good ukulele strings aren't that expensive and they can make a huge difference. The best-known brand for quality affordable nylon ukulele strings is Aquila, they offer good stability, durability and a warm, traditional ukulele sound. The strings also need to be in a good condition, not old and breaking. So regular string changes are important.
As far as Uke basses go, we see a lot of people using rubber strings, but we prefer a nylon wound string like the ones made by Galli.
Make sure you choose the right strings.
A string’s size determines how long it is. If you get the wrong string it won't be long enough, so make sure you get the appropriate string for your instrument. If by accident you put steel strings on your uke instead of nylon strings you will severely damage your instrument.
Let's talk about timbers.
If you have done a little bit of research already, you will have noticed that there are all kinds of different woods used for ukuleles:
Monkey pod, Mahogany, Mango, Koa, Blackwood, Rosewood, Cedar, Acacia…the list goes on.
Wood choices mostly depend on personal preferences and budget.
Koa is the quintessential Hawaiian wood, so most ukuleles that come from Hawaii are made of Koa. This kind of wood has a beautiful grain, a very warm sound and is just plain amazing.
Koa wood is used on the more expensive ukuleles. A great Aussie alternative that we use on our ukes is sustainably harvested Queensland Blackwood, it is a relative of Koa and has many of the same tonal properties.
The mid-range ukuleles are usually made of mahogany (of course solid mahogany ukuleles are more expensive). Mahogany sounds a little bit softer than Koa, but it’s still a good choice of wood and less expensive than Koa. Besides Koa and mahogany, spruce is the most common wood type. Spruce is used on the lower-end ukuleles, such as Mahalos.
Below are some of the timbers that we use in our ukuleles and guitars.
Solid or laminated wood ukulele?
The way the timber is processed is probably one of the more important factors when it comes to wood tones and how their properties are used.
The terms solid and laminated speak for themselves. Simply put, solid means that the wood you see on the outside is also the wood on the inside. Laminate refers to ply wood. Laminated instruments are cheaper than solid ones: cheaper wood is used on the inside and a thin layer of better wood is used on the outside.
What ukulele brand to choose?
Since there are a lot of decent quality brands out there, this is one aspect that you really need to go with your gut on. The most popular ukulele brands currently are Kala, Mahalo, Lanikai, Pono, Kamaka, Luna, Kanilea and of course our own aPurla brand ukes!
It's important to pick a brand that reflects your ethics and what you are looking for in a uke.
Do your research about the ukulele you’re going to buy, so that you end up buying an instrument you will enjoy for many years to come.