8 Things to Consider When Buying Your First Ukulele

Now that you’ve decided that the ukulele is right for you, it’s time to buy your first instrument.

There are so many ukuleles to choose from, and finding one that fits your needs can be quite the challenge. Hopefully after considering these 8 things, you’ll be better able to make your decision.

1. Price Range

As with most purchases, the old saying “you get what you pay for” is true of ukuleles as well. Here is what you can expect to find in the different price ranges. Prices are in USD.

$1 – $100: Most ukes less than $100 are very toy-like. Don’t expect good sound quality, intonation, action, etc. Also don’t expect the strings to stay in tune for very long, even after they’ve stretched. This class is only really good for children or those with no real desire to make music, though you might find a few gems in this price range that are playable.

$101 – $300: This is a good price range for those who are new, but still serious about the ukulele. Intonation and action should be fine, the strings should stay in-tune (at least after they’ve stretched), and the sound quality should be satisfactory. A few brands in this price range are Lanikai (from Hohner), Martin (the new model), and Bushman.

$301+: After about $300-$500 you have brands like KamakaGStringKoAloha as well as custom-made ukes and vintage ukuleles like those made by Martin. Just about all of what you find in this price range will be quality, but the exact price will depend on materials, aesthetic features, condition (if the uke is used or vintage), etc.

2. Where to Purchase

If you’re serious about getting a quality ukulele, it’s best if you can play it before you buy it, whether at a shop or by getting a uke with a return policy that lets you try it out.

If you go to a shop, you might want to bring someone along so you can hear what the uke will sound like to others when you play. Ukuleles (and musical instruments in general) seem sound better when you’re not playing them because when you play:

  1. You’re concentrating on playing and not on listening.
  2. The sound-hole is facing away from you so you’re not getting the best angle acoustically.

An alternative to testing a uke is listening to recordings done on it.

Trying a uke out also gives you the ability to see if the action, intonation, and general feel of playing it are good, and let’s you avoid any nasty suprises you might get by ordering one.

If you’re just looking for a junker ukulele, go ahead and order one. But, if you’re looking for a certain quality, I really recommend going to a shop where you can try it out, unless you can listen to recordings of the uke, or get it from a place with a “try before you buy” return policy.

3. Size

When it comes to size, you have 4 standard options (from smallest to largest): soprano (standard), concerttenor, and baritone.

If you’ve played guitar, and want a uke that’s as similar as possible, go with baritone, if you want something as different as possible, go with soprano.

If you’re fingers are wide, you might have trouble with playing a soprano, so concerttenor, or baritone would be a better choice.

If you want a deeper sound, go with baritone or tenor. If you want a brighter sound, go with soprano or concert.

It’s best if you can try out the different sizes beforehand, and purchase the size that fits you best.

4. Acoustic, Electric, or Both

If you’re planning on recording or performing amplified, and don’t want to bother with a microphone setup, you should consider either getting an electric ukulele or an acoustic with a electric pick-up installed.

5. Geared or Friction Tuning Parts

When it comes to tuning gear, you have two standard choices: Geared (also called Machine Head, or just Machine) and Friction.

Geared tuners are what you’d usually find on guitars, they can be open, where the gears are exposed, or closed, where the gears are encased. The standard set-up for geared tuning parts is a worm gear at the end of the string axle, and a worm at the end of the axle with the tuning peg head (the part that you rotate).

Standard friction tuning parts are one of two types. 1. a single axle that gets wider as you get to the head, so the further it’s pushed in, the more resistance it has when trying to rotate, or 2. A screw at the end of the head which, when tightened, brings a nut that is in between the head of the tuning peg, and the head of the ukulele, closer to the head of the ukulele which creates the resistance. The first is more traditional and the second more modern.

When it comes to cheap tuning parts (which come on cheap ukuleles), I’ve had better luck with geared tuners, though some people say just the opposite. With quality tuning parts, it’s more preference. I prefer friction because I find I can tune and detune quicker with them.

6. String Upgrades

Often the strings that come installed on a ukulele are not of the best quality. Changing strings is usually a pretty cheap and effective way of improving the sound quality of the uke.

One of my personal favorite stings is Aquila Nylgut strings. They are synthetic but made to sound as close to gut strings as possible (Hence Nylgut, from Nylon and Gut).

I recommend trying a few brands and materials and seeing what fits you best.

7. Re-entrant or Low Tuning

There are two standard ways of tuning the uke, re-entrant and low. Re-entrant is where the 4th string (the G string in GCEA tuning) is tuning an octave higher. Low tuning is like how guitar is tuned, where each string is higher in pitch than the next when strumming down.

If you want a brighter sound, go with re-entrant tuning. If you want a deeper, fuller sound, go with low tuning. With low tuning you also get an extra 5 low notes and a little more flexibility melodically.

8. Four, Six, or Eight Strings

8 Things to Consider When Buying Your First Ukulele
An 8-string tenor ukulele by Lanikai.

Although 6 and 8 string ukes aren’t as popular as the standard 4 strings, they’re still something to consider. The benefit with them is a fuller, louder sound.

With 6 string ukuleles, there’s 2 extra strings, one doubled with the 3rd string (the C string in GCEA tuning) and one doubled with the 1st string (the A string in GCEA tuning). The 3rd string’s double is an octave higher, and the 1st string’s double is an octave lower. Doubled strings are strings that are close to each other and played together.

With 8 string ukuleles, each string has a double. Each of the 1st and 2nd strings (A and E strings in GCEA tuning) has a double that is tuned in unison. Each of the 3rd and 4th strings (C and G strings in GCEA tuning) has a double that is tuned an octave away.

They’re both definitely fun to play, but I’d recommend trying one out first to see if they’re for you.

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