Ukuleles are great, unique instruments that are incredibly fun to play. The instrument may have originated in Hawaii, but the influence of the ukulele can now be seen far and wide, both on the U.S. mainland and abroad, as the ukulele continues to surge in popularity.
While many companies on the mainland now make ukuleles as well, many of the best ukuleles are still made in Hawaii. Ukuleles have a huge range in prices and can be found for as low as $20 or as high as $5000, and beyond.
Getting started with ukuleles doesn’t have to be an expensive venture. We’ve found that there are a lot of great ukuleles available that are high quality, but also won’t break the bank.
A great quality ukulele will not only produce a better sound but will also be easier to play. For a beginner, this is important. When we’re looking for a new ukulele, we check for a number of things to determine if the ukulele is a high quality instrument that is worth taking home with us.
The below list will describe how to check a ukulele for quality and the most important factors to consider when looking for a new ukulele.
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Consider the Type of Ukulele
Ukuleles come in four major types, each having a different size and tonal range. These types are the soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone ukuleles.
The soprano ukulele is the original and smallest ukulele size. Most people think of the soprano ukulele when they think of the ukulele, so the soprano is what they’ll likely be looking for when making a purchasing decision. Soprano ukuleles make particularly great ukuleles for kids.
The larger types of ukuleles have longer fretboards, different tonal ranges, and an expanded resonance. A larger ukulele type may be preferred for someone who has big hands and needs more room for fingering each fret.
Check the Type of Wood
The type of wood a ukulele is made of has a large impact on the sound of the instrument. While one type of wood is not necessarily better than another, each type influences the tone of the ukulele and allows different elements in each ukulele’s tonal range. Some wood types make the ukulele sound brighter while some bring out a darker tone.
Koa is a type of wood that is native to Hawaii and is the traditional choice for the instrument. Many of the most high quality ukuleles are made from koa. Ukuleles made with koa are typically more expensive, however.
Mahogany is usually used in the mid-end ukuleles, and the sound can be a little bit quieter than those made with koa wood. Mahogany ukuleles provide a great value and are typically a great mix of quality and affordability.
Spruce and cedar are also common wood types but are on the lower end of quality.
It’s also possible to find ukuleles that aren’t made of wood at all! Plastic ukuleles are a relatively new phenomenon that have surprisingly good sound and extreme versatility and durability.
Check for Solid or Laminate Wood
While many ukuleles are made out of one solid wood, others are made from several types of wood. These are called laminated wood ukuleles and are constructed with several layers of thin wood glued together.
Solid wood ukuleles are typically high-end and feature rich and resonant tones. On the other hand, solid wood ukuleles are usually a bit more vulnerable to climate and weather variables.
Laminates are on the lower end, but can be a bit stronger and more resistant to climate variables. They may be the better ukulele choice for musicians who enjoy playing outside in more extreme elements.
Check the Ukulele’s Intonation
Intonation refers to the preciseness of the notes on the frets of the ukulele. With good intonation, the correct notes will sound when playing a particular fret.
Fret size, placement, and the “action” of the strings all effect intonation. Poor craftsmanship can lead to a ukulele which has inaccurate notes.
One great way we check this is to by playing the 12th fret and comparing the note that sounds to the open note of the same string. The 12th fret is an octave above the open string, so the notes should sound very similar.
While no ukulele has perfect intonation, it’s important that things aren’t too far off. A good beginner’s ukulele will have great intonation and not need major adjustments.
Make Sure the Strings Have a Good Amount of Action
The “action” refers to how easy the strings are to press down on and how far the strings are from the fretboard. When the strings are too far from the fretboard, they are harder to press down on. If the strings are too low, they will buzz due to scrubbing adjacent frets.
When we check a ukulele for quality, we like to make sure that the action is good. Strings should be close to the fretboard, but not so close that buzzing occurs. Between 2.5mm and 3.1mm is a good range for a beginner ukulele.
Look for Quality Craftsmanship
It is also important that the ukulele has good craftsmanship and to check the small details. When we run our hands along the length of the fretboard, the last thing we want is to encounter rough edges and risk irritating our hands and fingers.
Wood should be smooth and sanded down around the sound hole. The fretboard should be smooth and rounded. Frets should not be sticking out and protruding past the neck. Make sure the ukulele neck is straight.
Check for Trustworthy Tuning Gear
Very cheap ukuleles will come with pegs that are loose and will immediately slip back into place after tuning. When checking a ukulele, we like to test the tuning pegs to see how tight and secure they are.
While loose tuning pegs can be tightened with a screwdriver, it’s best to test the tuning pegs before purchasing a ukulele. If the screws on the tuning pegs look tight but the tuning pegs still seem loose, that may be a problem.
Check the Strings
Some great ukuleles come with poor quality strings. The strings that are on the ukulele initially may sound “dead” or may lack the vibrance we desire. Luckily, poor strings are easily changed.
Many quality ukulele strings can be found at local music stores. Just make sure to buy the right strings for your ukulele type.
Aquila, Worth, D’Addario and Martin all offer excellent string choices that will immediately improve the sound of any ukulele.
Start with an Established Ukulele Brand
We’ve already learned that many of the best ukuleles are still made in Hawaii. Many established companies exist that have earned a reputation for making quality ukuleles. These companies are often the best choice to find a quality beginner’s ukulele.
Kala is one of the most respected ukulele manufacturers and has many great ukulele for both beginners as well as more advanced musicians.
Other companies such as Lanikai, Luna, and Cordoba also have both high-end and low-end options to choose from. Oscar Schmidt is also a great brand which has choices that are a good mix of quality and affordability.
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Mahalo is particularly good at crafting ukuleles that are ideal for beginners.
Wrapping it All Up!
It’s hard to not be smitten by the warmth and bright sound of this instrument. Ukuleles work great as a first instrument but are also loved by many experienced musicians as well. Their portability makes them wonderful for a day at the beach.
As a beginner ukulele player it may seem daunting to pick the right one. The truth is, each ukulele has its own specific strengths and weaknesses. No ukulele is perfect.
While there are some important ways to check a ukulele for quality, each ukulele player will have their own individual preferences. The options are truly endless, and there are no wrong answers.