It can be tempting to buy a cheap ukulele if you’re on a tight budget, but there’s a lot to think about before you make a decision. This article will help you steer clear of the junk and find an good uke that fits your budget.
The cheapest ukes you can find start at around $12 online. These ukuleles really are just toys–they’re very poorly built and are pretty much unplayable as an actual instrument. Ukes in this category usually come with a host of issues right out of the box: poor intonation, low quality strings, bad neck, uneven frets, etc.
I wouldn’t even recommend these ukes for kids, since for just a few dollars more you can buy a much more playable ukulele that might actually help the child foster a genuine interest in music.
For around $20 you can get a dirt cheap ukulele that’s leagues better than the above-mentioned toys. Of all the ukes in this price range, the Mahalo U-30 series (pictured below) is probably going to be your best bet.
These are decent ukes for the money, but they’re still going to have some issues. The strings that come on these ukes are usually pretty bad and will have a very thin, plasticky quality. Many players suggest restringing them with Aquilas, which have a great tone and can improve the sound of a cheap ukulele tremendously.
Intonation is also frequently a problem. Without getting too technical, an instrument with poor intonation will deviate from the correct pitch as you move up the neck. In other words, your notes may sound sharp or flat if you’re playing on the higher frets (the frets closer to the soundhole).
These are decent instruments if you’re buying for young children or are looking for a spare to take to the beach, but you’re looking for a really good, playable beginner ukulele I’d recommend something like the Lanikai LU-21C or the Kala KA-C.
Kala makes really solid ukes, and thankfully that level of quality carries over to their Makala line. The price difference comes mainly from the use of less expensive materials and components. The Makala body is made of agathis, which is less expensive than mahogany and less desirable as a tonewood. The strings are generic black nylon, as opposed to the high-end Aquila Nylgut strings that come on all Kala ukuleles.
If you want a good beginner ukulele to strum on while you learn but don’t want to spend too much, then the Makala is an ideal choice.
Going Beyond A Cheap Ukulele
If you have a little more money to spend, I’d suggest stepping up to something a little nicer. Kala and Lanikai both make great beginner ukuleles for around $100–check out my article on the best beginner ukuleles for more.