As the manager of a mom-and-pop music store, I’ve had a chance to play dozens of entry level ukes. While there are a lot of manufacturers out there making really good entry level instruments, in my opinion Lanikai and Kala build the best beginner ukuleles for under $100.
Kala and Lanikai consistently produce clean, playable instruments with straight necks and even fret work. They feel good and are easy to play, which is vital for beginning players because it’s frustrating trying to learn on a poor quality instrument that’s working against you.
The models I recommend are the Lanikai LU-21C (pictured) and the Kala KA-C, which are each around $100 and are the most basic ukuleles offered by these companies. These are concert size ukes, which is a good size for beginners. As I mention in my article about ukulele sizes, sopranos are so small they can be difficult to play for some people, and baritones can’t be used with standard ukulele chord charts and song books.
If you think you might want a slightly larger uke, check out the LU-21T or the KA-T, which are the tenor size versions of the LU-21C and KA-C. Since these models are bigger, they may be more comfortable for people with large hands.
The LU-21C and KA-C have nato or mahogany bodies with white binding and rosewood fingerboards. You can read more about ukulele tone woods here.
The wood used for the body is laminated, which is essentially a very thin plywood. Practically all entry level ukes are built with laminated wood since it’s cheaper and easier to work with than solid wood. The result is a less expensive instrument, but also one that doesn’t sound quite as warm or rich as a solid wood uke.
Many beginners don’t give much thought to a ukulele’s tuning machines (also known as machine heads or just tuners) but I consider them to be one of the most important components of the instrument.
Kala and Lanakai come with good quality die cast machine tuners. They’re not fancy, but they’re durable and provide smooth, tight tuning action.
On many cheaper beginner ukuleles you’re going to see tuning machines that are fiddly or have a lot of play, traits that can make zeroing on a note difficult. Cheap tuners also have a nasty tendency to cross thread, which means that the gears stop meshing properly and start cutting into each other.
All Kala and Lanikai ukes come with Aquila Nylgut strings, a premium line of Italian-made uke strings. They are designed to mimic the sound and feel of catgut, a type of string made from cow intestines which has a rich, warm tone.
Most entry level ukes come with nylon strings, which tend to produce a slightly plunky, plasticky sound. The Aquila Nylgut strings have a much deeper, mellower voice.
Both of these Kala and Lanikai ukuleles come with a one year warranty against manufacturing defects and craftsmanship. If your uke develops an issue within the warranty period, just take it to an authorized dealer and they’ll help you out.
There are a few things that aren’t covered by the warranties, but the primary non-covered issue is related to damage that can occur due to extremes in temperature and humidity. It’s worth reading over the warranties to make sure you have a full understanding of this. Don’t worry, they’re not too long.
Similarities Between Kala and Lanikai
Since the Kala and Lanikai brands grew from the same parent company and are built in the same factory, you’re going to see a lot of similarities between the LU-21C and the KA-C. In fact, these two ukuleles are pretty much identical except for the logo, so don’t agonize about picking one over the other.
Country Of Origin
In the interest of being thorough, I should point out that Kala and Lanikai ukuleles are made in China. A lot of people are disappointed when they learn this since they assume that companies with names like Kala and Lanikai must be based out of Hawaii. While I understand why people feel this way, the simple truth is that you’re not going to find a decent American-made uke for this kind of money.
For what it’s worth, the overall quality of Chinese instruments has improved dramatically over the last couple decades, and while they still can’t beat a high end U.S. built uke, I still think they’re putting out some of the best beginner ukuleles on the market.
While you don’t need much in the way of accessories when you’re just getting started, I highly recommend picking up a good tuner (I like the Snark SN-2) and a case. Read more about these on my ukulele accessories page.
Looking for Something Cheaper?
If you’re on a tight budget, there are some less expensive options you should consider. See my cheap ukulele guide for more information.