It can be tempting to buy a cheap ukulele if you’re on a tight budget, but there are a few things you should consider before making a decision. This article will help you steer clear of the junk and find a good uke that fits your budget.
The cheapest ukes you can find start at around$15-$20 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.
I should point out that some of these toy ukes aren’t actually all that cheap because they have been plastered with images from popular children’s entertainment franchises. I can promise you this doesn’t make them any better, just more expensive.
For around $25 you can get a ukulele that’s a whole lot 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 OK 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 (myself included) suggest restringing them with Aquilas, which have a great tone and can improve the sound of a inexpensive 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 reasonable 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 serious, playable starter uke see my page on the best beginner ukuleles.
You should note that all of the U-30 models are soprano size ukes. As I mention in my article on ukulele sizes, sopranos are the smallest of all the uke sizes and can be tricky to play for some adults. They also have a thinner, less powerful sound than the other, larger sizes.
Kala makes really solid ukes, and that level of quality is mostly there in their Makala line. The price difference comes mainly from the use of less expensive materials and components, although the playability and build quality of Makala ukes is less consistent than the standard Kala line.
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 uke to strum on while you learn but don’t want to spend too much, then the Makala is an ideal choice.