How To Buy the Right Ukulele

james' two cents Jul 13, 2022

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By James Hill

People often ask me, "how many ukuleles do you own?"  My answer is always the same: "If you still know how many you have, you don't have enough!" 

Ukuleles come in all shapes and sizes.  Compared to many instruments they're very affordable which makes them fun to collect! That's the good news.  The bad news is that beginners are often overwhelmed by the choices out there.  Let me give you three tips for buying your ukulele.  Or, if you already have an instrument, 3 tips for buying your next ukulele! 


Tip #1: It's the Sound that Matters

There are four main sizes of ukulele: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. Surprisingly, the soprano, concert and tenor sizes are usually tuned the same way so you can switch from one to another very easily.  The size only has an impact on the tone of the instrument and comfort you feel when you play it.  As a rule of thumb, when you hold the instrument in the crook of your arm, your thumb and index finger should land where the neck and the body meet.  That's the sweet spot for strumming and picking so it's where you want your hand to be most of the time.  If it naturally lands there, you'll have less strain when you play. That being said, plenty of people with big arms and big fingers play beautifully on the soprano.  And many players with small arms and fingers sound great on the tenor.  At the end of the day, what matters most is the sound you like. 

Buying an ukulele is like buying a pair of shoes.  No matter how great they look, you still need to try them on

The smallest ukulele, the soprano, makes an intimate, music-box kind of sound; it sounds more "plucky."  The concert size is still a bit plucky but tends to have more sustain.  And the tenor can be quite lyrical because the strings are longer and the body is more resonant.  The largest ukulele, the baritone, sounds more like a guitar.  Small, medium, large or extra-large.  It's your choice.  But make no mistake: it's the sound that matters most.  If you know your sound, you'll find your size.


Tip #2: Try before you buy! 

Buying an ukulele is like buying a pair of shoes.  No matter how great they look, you still need to try them on and walk around in them!  The best thing to do is take an hour or two, go to a music store and try out a bunch of ukes.  My rule is simple: if I start playing and I can't put it down, it's the one for me!  If you can't get to a music store and you decide to order online, just make sure the seller has a good return or exchange policy.


Tip #3: Get the best you can buy... but mind the gap!

An ukulele is an investment.  The return on your investment is the enjoyment, the friendships and the learning that you'll experience as you progress.  The better your instrument, the more you'll want to play.  The more you play, the better you get and the upward spiral continues.  I'm not saying break the bank.  I'm saying get the best instrument you can afford.  You won't regret it.  But be aware that there's a gap in the market between the most expensive entry-level instruments and the least expensive high-quality, handmade instruments. 

For example, the best of the entry-level, factory-made instruments might be $300.00 but even the most affordable handmade instruments might start at $800.00.  What does that mean for you?  It means stay on one side of the gap or the other.  Get a really good entry-level instrument for around $300 or $400 or make the jump to a custom, handmade instrument.  In my experience, a $500 ukulele just isn't that much better than a $300 ukulele.  It's not until you make the jump to a solid-wood handmade instrument that you'll see a major improvement in quality.

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James Hill is award-winning musician and renowned teacher. He is the founder of and the author of many popular ukulele books including Booster Uke, Ukulele Jazz and The Ukulele Way 

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