So you are ready to take the plunge and buy your first Ukulele. Hopefully this will help you make your mind up a bit.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT SORTS OF UKES ?
The baritone is tuned completely differently and is so big it is nearly a guitar…. so I will concentrate on the other three.
These three sizes of ukuleles are usually tuned the same way (standard tuning). So if you have learnt lots of chord shapes on a soprano you won’t have to learn new chord shapes to play a standard tuned Concert Ukulele.
The most obvious difference in these ukes is size. The Tenor has a longer neck and a bigger body than the Soprano. A tenor typically (but not always) has more frets and a longer neck. If you are used to playing guitar you might well find a tenor easier to play than a Soprano.. there’s a bit more room on the neck to put your fingers. Necks are not a standard size though and so sometimes you can’t beat going to an actual music shop and trying a few ukuleles. The most common uke is probably the soprano but I think the tenor is coming up close on its heels in terms of popularity For children though the soprano is an ideal size.
As the tenor uke also has a bigger body it also tends to be a bit louder and has a fuller, deeper sound. I mainly play soprano ukes, the soprano has the most pleasing ukulele sound in my opinion. The Concert is a size in between the soprano and tenor and so is a good compromise between the two. As Concert ukes become more popular the price has come down too
ARE UKES EXPENSIVE ?
Well, ultimately that’s something only you can decide. If you are on a very tight budget and you aren’t totally sure that you will really get into uke playing then it is probably sensible to buy a bargain starter soprano uke. You can pick these up for as little as £15. BUT, remember you have bought a musical instrument for £15. So it will sound like a £15 musical instrument. You may have trouble tuning a cheap uke, and it may not stay in tune very well…. but the chances are it will be playable and it’ll get you started.
Most people I know start off this way though (I did). Within a few weeks you will probably know if you are hooked or not. If your ukulele is constantly by your side, often next to you on the sofa, and you feel compelled to pick it up every now and then and have a little strum, the chances are you are hooked. If you have given it a name, you are probably hooked. If you have a brand new uke still in it’s box and still out of tune, and it’s packed away in the understair cupboard, my advice would be not to spend any more on a better one……. Maybe try another hobby.
If you can afford to spend a bit more than £15-£20, for about £35-£40 you will get a reasonably nice looking and sounding soprano ukulele. For a bit more you will get an entry level Tenor or Concert Uke.
If you are looking to upgrade then my advice is to spend as much (within reason) that you can afford. If you are prepared to spend about £100 – £150 you will get a very nice ukulele that will give you years and years of pleasure. I have become increasingly convinced that Ukes in the £50-£100 bracket are hard to tell apart and that you need to jump towards £150 to make a noticeable difference…. But maybe that’s just me. And there are plenty of bargains out there… and deals from time to time. The ukulele market is now huge and changes quite quickly with new makes and models
So, the first thing you need to do is set your budget and then decide whether to go for a soprano, a concert or a tenor…. Then take the plunge
THINGS TO LOOK FOR
By and large the more you spend the better your uke will sound, it will also be easier to tune, it will stay in tune and it will be easier to play. There are lots of different woods out there and people have written at great length about the merits of Dao wood over mahogany but to be honest if you are going to spend a decent amount of money on one then it may be best to go to a music shop and play a few, or ask to listen to a few being played. Different woods have very different grains and colours, so if aesthetics are important (and of course they are) then you need to look at the different types of wood to decide what you like…If you are not spending a fortune (or you have reasonably deep pockets) then it may be as well to take your chances on the internet. Personally, I would be very wary of buying a second hand uke unseen. Any cracks on the main body may affect how it sounds and it may be difficult to tune or keep in tune. A ukulele should have a good straight neck and the strings should be as close as possible to the neck as possible but should individually ring nice and clear when plucked. There shouldn’t be any vibration or buzzing in the body. Mostly though it should feel nice to hold and shouldn’t have too much weight in the head (the end with the tuning pegs). If it feels “top heavy” it will be hard to hold, and to play. The Makala soprano uke (with a dolphin on) is a decent start uke. these sell for about £35 .. and they come in lots of funky colours too ….
Odd Shaped Ukes
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a uke shaped like a pineapple or a flying V guitar. In fact there is a lot to be said for melon shaped ukuleles but remember you are probably paying for this and so you tend to get less ukulele for your money. It’s your choice ultimately… style or substance…
Some ukes are “cut aways” this means that the underside of the body is cut away and so it makes playing notes higher up the neck easier. For most beginners though a cut away uke (which will tend to be more expensive) is probably not a good use of your budget. Also if you are a “leftie” then you will not easily be able to restring and play a cutaway uke left handed
Whilst we are on the subject…If you are left handed you have 3 main choices.
1) Spend a lot of money on a left handed ukulele
2) Learn to play right handed
3) Probably the most practical option….restring your ukulele. As long as the body shape of your uke is symmetrical (ie not a cutaway or other odd shaped uke) then this is a cheap and easy option. You basically take the strings off, turn it up the other way and restring it. You will then be able to play a “right handed” uke as a left handed player.
You will see some ukes advertised as Electro Acoustic Ukuleles or Electric Ukes. This means that you can plug them into an amplifier and pretend that you have joined Metallica. If however you are not likely to play your uke through an amp, or do any home recording, then it really isn’t worth spending money on a uke with a pick up. Also if you buy a purely Electric Uke it will be very quiet if not plugged into an amp. An electic uke is not a good idea if you have an image of you sat around a campfire strumming “Don’t Fence Me In”. An electro acoustic ukulele is one that can either be played acoustically or can be plugged in. The main difference with this and a plain acoustic uke it that it will be fitted with a pick up. There are different sorts of pick ups though, so be careful. If you want to simply plug your ukulele into an amp and turn it up to 11 then you need an ACTIVE pick up. If it has a passive pick up, they are cheaper, but you would need to buy a pre-amp. And so you don’t really save anything. Personally I would be very wary of buying a new electric or electro-acoustic uke with an active pick up for under £100. Active pick ups have to have a battery and so that is the easiest way of telling whether a uke has an active or passive pick up.
The quality of your strings make a huge difference and it is probably the one big (relatively inexpensive) improvement you can make to your uke. I am not on commission from them but I tend to use Aquila White strings.
They cost about £5-£6. These are a good string for strumming your ukulele. If you are into finger picking (where you pluck individual strings) then they possibly aren’t the best string. But if you are into finger picking your uke, you probably don’t need my advice. If a uke is advertised with aquila strings then (by and large) you are probably looking at a fairly decent ukulele. If your Uke only cost you £20 though then a £6 set of strings might not be such a great investment. It certainly won’t make your uke sound like a £2,000 instrument. (Yes. You can pay that, and more, for a ukulele)
If you are buying a ukulele you will need one other essential thing. A tuner. Your uke will be no use if you can’t tune it and keep it in tune and most people need a tuner to do this. Your best bet is a simple clip on tuner that clips on the head of the uke. You can leave it on when you play or take it off. These are relatively inexpensive and you should be able to pick one up for under £10… There is a make called Tiger and I find these nice and easy to use … I should add that I don’t get paid for name dropping
Just a note on tuning. For a ukulele in standard tuning the notes will be (from bottom string to top) G C E A. Just to confuse things the string that is usually referred to as the bottom string is actually the string closest to your chin when you play……… I didn’t invent this !! Unlike a guitar you may have noticed that the bottom string is not the thickest string (and therefore produces the lowest notes). The G string on most ukuleles is an octave higher and this gives the ukulele its familiar sound (it’s called re-entrant tuning). You do have the option to put a low G string on instead, but in my opinion you are losing part of the magic of the sound of a ukulele.
A case (or a padded gig bag) is a good idea if you are likely to be taking your uke out and about……. A strap might help you, especially if you go for a tenor uke. I like the hook on straps as they can quickly be put on any uke. If you buy an actual strap then you need to check first that your uke has pins for it to be attached. If it doesn’t you will have to take a drill to your precious uke to be able to use a strap. I don’t advise this… but it’s your uke !!
Hopefully this guide will be of some help and hopefully you will end up with a ukulele and join the growing number of people who are playing these amazingly easy and fun to play instruments.
Keep spreading the Uke love