Shopping for your first uke can be a little overwhelming. There are so many different brands, styles, and prices that it’s difficult to make sense of all the options.
As the manager of a locally owned music store, I’ve had the chance to play dozens of entry level ukes, and in the process I’ve learned a lot. Here’s my advice on finding a good beginner ukulele for under $100.
A Note on Cheap Ukuleles
There are a number of cheap ukes available for under $20, but I’d stay away from these. Many of these ukes are little more than toys, and they usually have a number of playability issues that will just end up frustrating you as you’re trying to learn.
However, if you just want an inexpensive “beater” ukulele or are buying a beginner uke for a child, then there are a few less pricey models that are worth checking out. See my cheap ukulele guide for more.
Ukulele Sizes: Which One Should You Choose?
Ukes come in four sizes:
- Soprano (smallest)
- Baritone (biggest)
Soprano, concert, and tenor ukes are all tuned and played the same way. Baritone ukes have a unique (but similar) tuning, which makes them a little less suitable for beginning players.
For most people I’d suggest going with a concert or tenor size uke. These are good middle-of-the-road sizes which shouldn’t be too big or small for most beginning players. Concert ukes are a bit smaller than tenors, which may make it easier for people with small hands to play certain chords. It’s also worth nothing that concerts are generally a little cheaper than tenors.
I mainly play concerts and tenors, and I usually lean toward tenors because I have pretty big hands and they feel more comfortable to me. For what it’s worth, I feel like I see more “serious” uke players using concert and tenor sized ukes, although there are a lot of amazing soprano players out there too.
The soprano size is the smallest and most traditional ukuleles size. Many folks love their traditional look and sound, and soprano ukes travel well due to their minimal size. They are also less expensive than their larger counterparts.
However, sopranos can feel very small to many adults. I personally feel their tiny-ness makes them a bit trickier to play than concerts or tenors. Sopranos also have a less powerful voice and aren’t as warm or resonant as the larger sizes. This isn’t to say they sound bad–they just tend to be a little more “tinkly” when it comes to tone.
Baritone ukuleles are tuned differently than the other three sizes, so they can’t be used with the majority of chord charts and song books.
Try not to obsess about choosing the right size. The important thing is that you get something and start playing ASAP! Besides, there’s a very good chance you’ll find yourself starting a collection and owning ukes of every size.
There are a number of uke makers out there, and it can be tough to tell them all apart.
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend many years working in a small music store that had a great uke selection, so I’ve had a chance to check out quite a few different brands. While there are many decent manufacturers out there, I think that Kala makes the best entry level ukes for the money.
Even the least expensive of the Kala ukuleles are very straight, playable instruments, and they sound great. I have personally sold hundreds of Kalas and have almost never had people bring them back to with problems (and those problems were promptly addressed by Kala’s customer service).
As far as specific models are concerned, I recommend the Kala KA-C or the Kala KA-T. These ukes both cost around $100, and for the money they’re hard to beat. For more detailed information about these models, see my article on the best beginner ukuleles.
These ukes are easy to find Amazon:
You may also be able to find these models at a local music store. Kala is a pretty popular brand, so there’s a good chance a music store near you carries them. You can check the Kala dealer list to see if there’s one near you.
Other Good Brands
I can recommend Kala ukes without reservation because I’ve had the chance to see and play hundreds of them over the years and have consistently been impressed with their quality. However, there are other excellent makers out there that you shouldn’t overlook.
I’ve also been really impressed with Cordoba ukuleles. For $99, the Cordoba 15CM is a beautiful concert uke that has some nice cosmetic features you usually only find on more expensive instruments, like a rosette and bound fingerboard.
About Ukulele Tonewoods
The type of wood used to build a ukulele can greatly affect its tone, but this only applies when talking about solid wood.
Most entry level ukuleles are going to be made entirely out of laminated wood–essentially very thin plywood. Using laminated wood helps keeps manufacturing costs down, but it also means the “tonewoods” listed in a ukulele’s specs don’t really mean anything. A laminated mahogany uke and a laminated koa uke are going to sound pretty much the same (all other things being equal).
If you’re open to spending a little more money, you may want to consider a solid top ukulele, such as Kala’s spruce topped KA-SCG or KA-STG models. A solid wood top on a uke will generally give you a warmer tone with more projection. However, you can expect to spend an extra $50 to $75 for a solid top.
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.