When people decide to buy a ukulele, they quickly learn that there are a ton of choices. A quick search for ukuleles on Amazon returns over 1,000 products of different brands, models, sizes and prices.
This simple ukulele buying guide is designed to show you how to choose a good quality ukulele that meets your needs and fits your budget.
Start With Price Range and Body Size
I recommend narrowing your search by first determining your price range and body size.
In my experience, most ukes in the $50 to $100 range are reasonably well-made instruments that sound good and are comfortable to play. You can certainly spend more, but it’s not necessary to get a great beginner ukulele.
These are instruments that you can play for a long time without feeling like you need to upgrade. And, if you do decide to upgrade, your old uke will make an excellent second instrument for camping, travel, or loaning to friends.
What to Expect as You Spend More
What’s the benefit of spending a little more on your first uke? There’s not a single answer to this question, but as you increase your budget you’ll start to see ukes with the following traits:
- Fancy cosmetic features like binding, inlays, and rosettes
- Exotic woods and materials
- Solid wood top, back, and sides (for improved tone)
- Electronics for playing through an amp
- Better overall craftsmanship and playability
At a certain price point, you’ll find yourself in the realm of high-end, US-made ukuleles from companies like Martin or Kamaka. These instruments are widely regarded as some of the best ukes money can buy, but they’re considerably more expensive than the mass-produced import products.
Avoid Really Cheap Ukuleles
I know it’s tempting to save a few bucks and buy a ukulele for $25 or $30 online–especially when it may not look all that different from the more expensive models.
The problem is that ukes in this price range are more prone to construction issues that can affect tone and make them difficult to play. In my opinion, many very cheap ukes barely qualify as real instruments. And the cheaper they are, the more of a chance you’ll run into trouble.
Players who purchase these ultra-cheap ukuleles often find themselves frustrated and discouraged, which isn’t how you want to feel when learning a new instrument. On the other hand, a good quality beginner uke will be fun to play and will motivate you to pick it up and practice more often.
Some first-time ukulele buyers get a little intimidated by the array of sizes, but it’s not as complicated as it seems. Soprano, concert, and tenor ukes are all tuned and played the same way, so if you learn on a soprano you’ll be just fine playing a concert or tenor.
So why bother with different ukulele sizes if they’re all tuned and played the same way? The answer mostly comes down to tone and playability.
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 soprano ukes. The larger body sizes also produce more bass and volume.
Sopranos are typically a little quieter and have more of a “tinkly” that is more treble-heavy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth thinking about before you buy a ukulele.
How Ukulele Size Affects Playability
Concert and tenor ukuleles have a longer scale length than a soprano.
The scale length is the distance between the nut and the saddle, which are highlighted on the diagram below.
A longer scale means the frets are further apart, giving 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 (like me).
Which Ukulele Size is Best for Beginners?
I think these any of these sizes are fine for a beginner, but I personally prefer the larger concert and tenor body sizes. I think their richer tone and ease of playability makes them an ideal starting point for most beginners.
However, I don’t want to create the impression that sopranos are “bad.” Many folks love the soprano for its compact size and bright, sparkly tone. Soprano ukes are also less expensive than equivalent concert and tenor ukes.
While it’s good to have a basic understanding of ukulele sizes, I think it’s important not to obsess too much over choosing the “right” size. It’s also worth mentioning that many players have multiple ukes of different sizes. Once you fall in love with the ukulele, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to expand your collection to include ukes of all sizes.
What Are 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 a little different from a soprano, concert, or tenor. This unique tuning means that baritone ukes aren’t really practical for most standard ukulele music.
Recommended Ukulele Models
Once you’ve narrowed your search by price and body size, it’s time to pick the model.
Below are some of my favorite ukes that fall into the $50 to $100 beginner price range. These models are all good ukuleles that score well on build quality, playability, tone, and customer service.
Amazon Top Sellers: Lohanu LU-C and LU-T
The Lohanu LU-C and LU-T are the highest-rated, best-selling concert and tenor ukuleles on Amazon.
This Canadian-based company sells exclusively on Amazon, and by cutting out the middle man they can offer impressive package deals at prices that are tough to beat.
The LU-C concert and LU-T tenor both include a gig bag, tuner, extra strings, strap, and picks (which most uke players won’t use, but it’s still a nice thought).
While Lohanu’s ukes get glowing reviews for build quality and tone, one thing that makes them stand out from their crowd is their lifetime warranty and dedication to customer service.
Best Budget Ukes: Kala KA-15S and Donner DUS-1 Soprano
If you’re hoping to save a little money when you buy a ukulele, these ukes from Kala and Donner are worth a look.
The KA-15S is a clear crowd favorite and one of the best budget ukuleles on the market. In my review of the KA-15S, I write about how it’s a well-made entry-level uke that looks good, sounds great, and is easy to play.
It’s a perfect choice for beginners seeking a respectable starter uke, but it’s also an excellent option for seasoned players in search of an affordable second instrument.
While the Donner line might not have Kala’s brand recognition, their DUS-1 Soprano is on par with the KA-15S when it comes to build quality, playability, and tone. Considering that the Donner includes a gig bag, tuner, and other accessories, it’s arguably the better value of the two models.
Good Value: The Hricane UKS-1 Series
Hricane ukes are among the best-reviewed ukuleles for sale on Amazon.
Like the other models I’ve highlighted in this section, the Hricane UKS-1 series combine quality craftsmanship and playability into a surprisingly affordable package.
The UKS-1 is available in a soprano, concert, or tenor size and includes a padded gig bag.
Best Beginner Ukuleles With A Solid Top: Aklot AK Series
Aklot makes the most affordable, highest-quality solid top ukuleles I could find. Their basic mahogany-top uke is available in a soprano, concert, and tenor size and includes a gig bag, tuner, and other accessories.
Why is a solid top important? In general, a ukulele with a solid top will have a warmer, richer tone than a similar model with a laminated top. The trade-off is that solid wood is more expensive than laminated wood.
Aklot appears to be another company that sells direct to customers through Amazon, helping to keep cost down by avoiding retailer markup.
Cordoba 15CM and Luna Tattoo
These two ukes don’t fit neatly into any category, but I still think they’re good beginner options.
I’ve always felt that Cordoba’s ukuleles were nicely made, and I like that the 15CM has a cool looking faux abalone rosette and bound fingerboard–features you won’t usually find on a ukulele in this price range.
The Luna Tattoo concert ukulele has a unique Hawaiian design laser-etched onto the top. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’re looking for something a little different this uke is worth checking out.