How to Buy a Ukulele: 3 Easy Steps
During my years working at an independent guitar shop, I've learned that many first-time ukulele buyers struggle with one problem more than anything else: too many choices.
A quick search for "ukulele" on Amazon returns thousands of different brands, models, sizes and prices. How can a beginner be expected to sift through all the results and find the best fit?
Luckily, choosing the perfect ukulele is easy if you break it down into three simple parts:
Make & Model
By working through these three simple steps, I've found most people are able to find the perfect ukulele with minimal frustration.
In A Hurry?
There's a lot of good info in this article, but if you want to cut to the chase here are my top three suggestions for affordable beginner ukes:
Kala KA-C (about $100): A natural choice for any entry-level player. The KA-C is a high quality, no-frills instrument that will grow with you as your playing improves.
Kala KA-15S (about $50): A smaller and more budget-friendly ukulele from Kala. The small soprano body on this model won't sound quite as rich as the KA-C, but it's still a great uke for the money.
Cordoba 15CM (about $100): Cordoba produces beautiful, well-made ukuleles at a beginner price point. The 15CM is a little more ornate than the KA-C or KA-15S.
If you find this post helpful (or have a suggestion) let me know in the comments!
A price range of $75 to $200 is ideal for beginners
... but you don't have to spend that much!
As a general rule, try to buy the best ukulele you can comfortably afford.
I certainly wouldn't want anybody to spend more than they're comfortable with, but there's something to be said for spending a little extra on a beginner ukulele.
Why? Over the years I've seen this situation play out time and time again:
- A person buys a very cheap ukulele
- The ukulele performs poorly and the person doesn't enjoy it
- The person gives up on the ukulele
It's discouraging to see this happen, especially when the difference between a cheap toy ukulele and a real instrument is often just an extra $20 or $30.
Cheap Ukes & Toy Ukes: $25 and Under
There are countless cheap ukes available for under $25, and the vast majority are simply toys. If you're serious about learning play the uke I highly recommend avoiding instruments in this range.
I know it's tempting to save some money by purchasing a cheap uke, but the quality of these products is often so bad that many are nearly unplayable right out of the box.
If at all possible, save up for something a little better!
Budget Ukes: $25 to $75
Budget ukes are ideal when you want to test the waters without breaking the bank.
Ukes in this range are better than the ultra-cheap products available for under $25. Still, they are less than amazing when it comes to craftsmanship, playability and tone.
Some players will be satisfied with a budget uke, but many people will eventually want to upgrade.
A uke in this price range might make sense if you have limited funds or just want to experiment. Otherwise I'd encourage you to move up a level.
Beginner Ukes: $75 to $200
Most ukes in this category offer a great balance of quality and affordability. Compared to budget ukes, beginner ukes generally play better, look better, and sound better.
There are hundreds of good ukes available in this price range, so chances are you'll find something you like.
Unless you're on a tight budget, it's almost always worth it to save up for a ukulele in this price range.
Mid-Level Ukes: $200 to $600
Martin C1K (Image Source: Zzounds.com)
When you get to this price range you'll start seeing ukes that are made entirely out of solid wood.
Many players prefer solid wood ukes because they typically sound better than the laminated wood used in less expensive ukes. Ukes made with solid wood tend to have more warmth, bass, and volume.
Solid wood is great, but it's expensive. It's also more sensitive to temperature and humidity, which can require additional maintenance in certain climates.
The quality of ukes in this price range can vary dramatically, so do your homework before buying. A poorly built solid wood uke isn't necessarily better than a well made laminated uke.
This price range also has a large number of "fancy" beginner ukuleles. These ukes are similar to what you'll find in the beginner price range, but they offer upgraded cosmetic features.
There's nothing wrong with paying a little extra to get a cool-looking uke. Just remember that a higher price doesn't always equate to a better instrument!
High End Ukes: $600 and Up
Kamaka HF-1D (Image Source: Ukes.com)
Ukes in this category will typically come from well known American companies (i.e. Kamaka and Martin) or smaller independent builders.
Ukes in this range are often out of reach for first-time buyers, but if you've got the funds it's hard to beat a beautifully crafted high end uke.
SOPRANO, CONCERT, and TENOR ukes are all good for a beginner
... but we recommend a concert or tenor!
Ukuleles come in a wide range of sizes, but the most common are soprano, concert, and tenor.
Don't let the array of sizes worry you. Soprano, concert, and tenor ukes are all tuned and played the same way. If you can play a soprano, you can play a tenor (and vice versa).
So why bother with different ukulele sizes if they're all tuned and played the same way?
The answer comes down to tone and playability.
The very first ukuleles were soprano sizes. The concert and tenor sizes were introduced around the 1920s to offer players a larger instrument which had a fuller sound and was easier to play.
How Ukulele Size Affects Tone
As a general rule, a bigger body means a bigger tone.
Concert and tenor size ukuleles tend to be warmer, richer, and more resonant than the smaller soprano size ukes. The larger body sizes also produce more bass and volume.
Sopranos have a more subdued voice than the larger sizes. This doesn't mean they sound bad, but they do tend to be quieter and more "tinkly" when it comes to tone.
How Ukulele Size Affects Playabilty
Concert and tenor ukuleles have a longer scale length than a soprano. A longer scale means the frets are further apart.
The frets are the thin metal bars on the fingerboard. When they're further apart, your fingers have more room to maneuver. This means that concert and tenor ukes can be easier to play for some people because of their longer scale length.
The frets on a soprano can feel a little cramped for some players, especially those with larger hands or thick fingers.
My Recommendation: Concert or Tenor
For the reasons mentioned above, I recommend a concert or tenor size uke for beginning players.
I feel the richer tone and easy playability of these sizes makes them a slighter better option than a soprano.
Tenors might sound a little warmer and fuller due to the larger body size, and concerts can be a little easier to for some folks due to the short scale.
When you see somebody playing a ukulele on YouTube, it's most likely a concert or tenor.
Reasons to Consider a Soprano Ukulele
I don't want to create the impression that sopranos aren't "good" ukuleles. Even though I prefer concert and tenor ukes, there are lots of amazing sopranos out there!
Here are some reasons to consider a soprano:
- They have a traditional look and sound
- Players with small hands may find them more comfortable
- Soprano ukes travel well due to their minimal size
- They're less expensive than equivalent concert or tenor ukes
While it's good to have a basic understand of ukulele sizes, it's even more important not to obsess over choosing the perfect size. Just get a uke and start playing!
A Note About Baritone Ukuleles
There's one other common size called a baritone. It's a notch up from a tenor and is the largest of the four most common ukulele sizes.
A baritone ukulele has a tuning that's different from a soprano, concert, or tenor. This unique tuning means that baritone ukes aren't really practical for most standard ukulele music.
In many ways a baritone uke is closer to a guitar than a ukulele, but we won't get into that now...
Make & Model
It's hard to go wrong with KALA
... but there are lots of other good brands too!
Kala Ukuleles: A Safe Bet for Beginners
I've had a chance to play dozens of ukulele brands over the years. There are a lot of good uke manufacturers out there, but I feel Kala is a natural choice when it comes to beginner ukuleles.
At the beginner price point, Kala consistently produces ukes with very good craftsmanship, tone, playability, and consistency.
One reason I like Kala is that all they do is build ukes! Kala was founded with the mission of building high quality, affordable ukuleles for the average person.
While other instrument manufacturers simply added ukuleles to their lineup to cash in on the growing uke craze, Kala has been in the ukulele business since day one.
I have personally sold hundreds of Kala ukes and have rarely had issues with quality or craftsmanship. The few problems I did see were quickly taken care of by Kala’s customer service.
If you're the kind of person who doesn't enjoy doing hours of product research before a purchase, buy a Kala and rest easy knowing you made a good choice!
Best Kala Ukulele Models
These two models are simple but still very high quality. They each cost a little over $100, and at this price I think they're an amazing value.
If you want something a bit fancier, consider the KA-CG or KA-TG. These models have upgraded binding, a full gloss finish, and a rosette (the decorative circle around the sound hole). They're just a little more money than the KA-C or KA-T.
Those with a slightly larger budget may want to consider the KA-SCG or KA-STG. These models both have a solid spruce top and will be a little warmer and louder than the other models (which are constructed entirely out of laminated wood).
These tenor versions of three models are pictured below. The concert versions look the same but are slightly smaller.
If you're looking for something a little cheaper, consider the KA-15S. At just $55, this is great uke for the money.
For more detailed information about these models, see my article on the best beginner ukuleles.
Other Good Ukulele Brands
While Kala is an excellent choice for beginners, they're not the only game in town.
I’ve been very impressed with Cordoba ukuleles. For around $99, the Cordoba 15CM is a beautiful concert uke that has a few nice cosmetic upgrades typically only found on more expensive instruments (like the rosette and bound fingerboard).
Luna ukuleles have also surprised me with their overall quality. Most of their ukes have elaborate laser-engraved designs on the top, so if you're looking for something a little more unique then these ukes are worth checking out.
I discuss some of these model in more depths in my post about the best beginner ukuleles.
This is in no way intended to be a comprehensive list. The world of ukes is always changing, so it's impossible to keep up with all the new brands and models. The names mentioned above are simply a few of the lines I have personally played and feel good about recommending to beginners.
The goal of this article is simply to provide a framework for beginners who are overwhelmed a the sea of ukulele options.
I think it's a great system for beginners, but it's certainly not the only way to find the perfect ukulele. Stay open minded and be sure to consider all your options.
- Talk to friends who play. If you have friends who are into the uke, find out what they're playing and ask how they like it.
- Read reviews and forums (with caution). There's some good stuff to found on review sites and forums, but you'll also come across a lot "experts" who have more time than knowledge. Remain skeptical and verify everything you read.
- Check out local music stores. The selection at a brick-and-mortar store won't be as good as the Internet, but you'll have a chance to see and touch actual ukuleles before spending any money. You can also lean on the expertise of people who work with instruments for a living (like me!)
Whatever you do, just get a uke and start playing! Every day you spend researching online is a day you're not playing.
If you have thoughts or suggestions, leave a comment!