Choosing an Ukulele

Price Range:
Below £25
This is a toy with poor strings and poor sound quality. It is made from cheap laminated woods. This is for people who either don't intend to play much or just want to have fun with a few chords. It is however ideal for a young child if you're not sure they will stick with it. I would look at Makala (From same company as Kala), Stag and Mahalo brands. They (well except Stag) are well known mass produced brands from China - Exactly what you want in this price range.

£25 -£100
This is ideal if you're an adult starting out and not sure if you want to commit to a couple of hundred hours worth of playing. These ukuleles are still made of laminated woods that are not as great in terms of tone quality but at least they are better quality laminates. Look for brands like Lanikai, Stag, Kala (from same company as Makala) and Ohana.

£100-£200
If you really want to learn how to play and enjoy a life of Ukulele, then I think you need to be in this bracket (at least). You can get a decent sounding, playable instrument in this price range.
The brands mentioned in the £25-£100 bracket also have nicer instruments in this £100-£200 price range. In addition to them I would also look at Antonio Carvalho and Oscar Schmidt (Marketed as Ashbury in UK).

£200+
This is for when you have already played about 200 Hours worth and you're going to stick with it. You know lots of chords and you're starting to show off your skills to family and friends at Christmas. In this price range you need to ensure that your instrument is made of a nice solid tone wood. The wood will be either:
  • Soft and round sounding hardwood such as mahogany, mango, acacia or koa.
  • Louder bright softwood like cedar, lacewood or spruce
Koa is a hardwood native to Hawaii. It is a type of acacia but slightly more dense than common acacia. Koa is prized for producing a beautiful soft rounded tone and is the most expensive. You can also get grades of each of these woods - Basically getting what you pay for. Don't be fooled by a cheap instrument made of koa. This may not be real Hawaiian koa and it certainly won't be solid.

Brands you should consider in addition to the previous price bracket are, Pono, Kanile'a, Ko'aloha, Kiwaya, Kamaka, Ko'olau, G-string, Honu & Martin. A lot of these top-end instruments are hand made in Hawaii or at least hand finished there.

Build You're Own:
Have a look at UK Luthier, Pete Howlett. He runs courses where you can assemble and finish your own high quality instrument. Check out his site as it has some great videos.

Electric:
These can be a lot of fun if you want to rock out a bit. Do consider the pick up type. If you go for a passive piezo type you are more likely to preserve the ukulele sound. Check out brands like Eleuke (They have some nice shapes if you want to look like a rock star) and Risa who have a very cool looking Uke (pictured here).


Sizes:
I'm not here to give you what Wikipedia already tells you here.  I'm just trying to give you some buying considerations.

Soprano
This is the standard traditional size.
Pros are:
  • That you can reach any chord shape possible which might be too much of a reach on a tenor
  • They are cheaper than larger ukes.
  • They are easier to travel with than larger uses
The Cons are:
  • If you have big man-fingers, you'll be struggling early on to fret down and make good chord action. D and E Major are examples of chords you'd want to experiment with.
  • Fewer frets than a larger uke and therefore slightly limited range (not really an issue?)
Concert
This is a good all-rounder - A happy medium if you're not sure about Soprano or Tenor.

Tenor
This has the most frets and therefore the greatest range from the "standard" tuned ukes. It can be difficult to stretch your fingers out for some alternative chord shapes but a common enough choice for pros. You do tend to get a louder tone from these ukes. They are easier for men to play when they're starting out but don't forget Bruddah Iz had fingers bigger than yours and he played Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World on the Soprano beautifully.

Because they're bigger ukes, they are a little more expensive.

Soprano Travel Uke
Get something with a high quality solid spruce, cedar or lacewood top. These are louder and brighter than hardwoods such as koa. These little ukes really benefit from this and you'll be surprised at how good they sound.
A travel uke is a soprano with a narrow depth of body. Check out the Kala Travel Uke. My Teacher Lorraine has one and it is a very nice little uke.
The main thing about these ukes is that they are so small and easy to get around the city with.

Sopranissimo or Pocket Uke
This is the smallest playable uke. You can really take this anywhere. Not my cup of tea though.

Supers
These are Sopranos, Concerts or Tenors than have a longer fret board similar to the next size up ukulele. The top-end hand-made brands in Hawaii tend to offer a lot of customisation and super sizing is one of these options.

Baritone
This is the biggest. Before you choose this you should consider that it is uses "G" tuning rather than the standard "C" tuning that most other Ukes use. The chord shapes are the same, so you can still play the same stuff as long as you know that the actual key will be wrong (Which isn't a problem if you're playing solo).

If you're a guitar player you might consider a baritone because the tuning is similar and the frets are spaced wider than smaller ukes.

Strings:
Sometimes the C string (lowest tone string) is wire wound. This gives the string more weight so that you can it tune it quite tight to create the same tone. I however prefer to use nylon strings. Brands such as Worth and Aquila (pronounced Ackweella despite what you hear from a yank as this is Italian rather than Spanish). Try to get good strings on your uke when you buy it. They do take several weeks to settle when you put them on new. You'll be constantly tightening them during this settling in period.

Another important aspect of the strings is their spacing. If the strings are too close together, they can be more difficult to play. Not all ukes are the same. If you have large fingers, do consider buying a uke with a slightly wider neck. Each brand can be slightly different. I noticed that Oscar Schmidt actually market a wide neck version of one of their ukes. Check out the OU6W as played (sometimes) by Ukulele Mike. Watch this video of "Ukulele" Mike Lynch playing it here.

Tuning and Tuners:
Tuning
An ukulele is a 2 octave instrument which isn't a huge range like a guitar or piano but it is extremely versatile because you can play chords with significant interval spacing between your low and high notes. This is mainly because the frets are quite close together enabling you to reach wide note spans.

Standard ukulele tuning is "C" Tuning which is GCEA. The G string you would expect to be the lowest tone string but it usually uses "re-entrant" tuning which raises it by an octave to make the 2nd highest tone string between E and A. This makes it nice for strumming chords and creating simple chord shapes. You can put a "low G" on it if you like and many people do just this - Particularly those who play more finger style or have a 2nd uke to do this with.

Sometimes a soprano (or smaller) may be tuned a whole tone higher in "D" tuning ADF#B. This tightens up the strings a little, which some may prefer and in some cases, it could be a more resonant range for the smaller uke.
The Baritone is tuned to "G" tuning which is "DGBE". This is 5 semitones (or frets) lower than the standard "C" tuning. The other interesting fact is that DGBE are the same as the 4 highest strings on a guitar.

Electronic Tuners:
You can buy good tuners that clip onto the head of your Uke. You can use a general stringed instrument tuner such as a guitar tuner as long as it is Chromatic. This means that it will tune any note you want. I like the uke tuners as they are usually chromatic but also have a "C" or "D" setting to take any guess work out and make a quick job of tuning. I use the Kala ukulele tuner shown here. If you have a smart phone like an iPhone or Android, then download a tuner application for it. There are some good free ones available. I use one called "gStrings". See my Android section of the blog.

For a baritone uke, you will need a guitar or chromatic tuner. A ukulele tuner will only be suitable if it is chromatic or has a "G" tuning setting.

Tuning Pegs:
There are several ways to categorise tuning peg types.

First there are geared or non-geared:
Traditionally the soprano uke had non-geared tuners. They are more difficult to use but they do make the head lighter which can be useful on a smaller uke like a soprano or sopranissimo because it helps keep the instrument in balance.

Geared tuners are easier to use and for anything concert sized or bigger I would always choose geared tuners.

Secondly there are open or closed geared tuners:
Commonly closed tuners are used in Ukes under £200 and they are fine. However some people prefer the look of open "Grover" style tuners.

Intonation Test:
When you tune the uke, you are tuning the strings when they're open but intonation is about how well the uke remains in tune as you play down the fretboard. This mainly depends on how accurate the fretboard and bridge is.

When you pick up a uke and play it to see how good it is there are a few things to keep in mind:
  1. Play it also with the sound hole facing you, particularly if you are in a large open or noisy room
  2. When the uke has each string tuned perfectly does the G string on the 2nd fret sound the same as the A string open? Likewise, does playing an A on the other strings sound the same as the A string?
  3. When you play each string on the 12th fret do you get an accurate enough octave change from playing them open?
An ukulele isn't necessarily supposed to have perfect intonation as that isn't the spirit of the uke. However if you're comparing 2 ukes of the same price range you'll want the better of the two.

Ukulele Intonation Test Using Harmonics:
Playing a natural harmonic on the uke involves plucking the string whilst lightly touching the string at particular fret positions. Above the Fret wire on fret 12 is best because your finger should be touching the string exactly halfway down the string length. This doubles the frequency (raising by 1 octave). Pluck the string and then remove your fret finger and you should hear the string ring a higher tone. Now if you play the string whilst holding your finger on fret 12 normally, you should hear the same tone. If they are the same, you're uke has good intonation. I'll make a video of this, so do check my video section.


Where You'll Play:
You'll find that there are a lot of groups of people who get together to play their ukes and have fun (usually with alcohol). So do remember that it is worth getting a hard case for your uke.