The Ultimate Guide to Ukuleles for Beginners

It seems like everyone develops a crush on the ukulele at some point.It’s a great “first instrument” for young musicians.It’s a useful tool in the arsenal of multi-instrumentalists.And it’s a momentary fascination for aging rock stars.But regardless of which of these categories YOU fit into…When you first start out with the ukulele…It’s tough navigating through the endless sea of information to find the one best suited for you.

The 4 Common Sizes

ukulele sizesWhen comparing potential ukuleles…

Your first job is to narrow down your options to 1 of 4 sizes:

Soprano (20″) – which is the original and “classic” sized ukulele.
Concert (23″) – which has slightly more volume/depth than a soprano because of its larger size, as well as added playability for larger hands.
Tenor (26″) – which is larger still, and is the most popular size for advanced players, perhaps because of the wider range of tones it offers.
Baritone (30″) – which is the largest of the 4, but tuned differently, using the same DGBE tuning as the top 4 strings of a guitar.

The default option that most beginners start with is the soprano…since it is not only the “standard” size, but also the cheapest and most portable.

However, the concert and tenor sizes have their own set of advantages as well, the main ones being:

More volume
More bass
Better intonation

So any of the 3 smaller ones will do fine as a “first uke”.However, because baritones do not use the same GCEA tuning of the other 3, I wouldn’t normally recommend them for starters.Unless of course…what you really want is a mini guitar that sounds like a ukulele…as many guitar players do. In that case, a baritone is perfect.

5 Key Features of Ukuleles

1. Type of Wood

ukulele-woodsThe 2 most popular ukulele woods are undoubtedly:

Koa
Mahogany

If you consider Hawaii to be the top authority on ukuleles as most of us do…Then its worth knowing that for most Hawaiians, koa is the one and only wood that ukuleles should ever be made from.Beyond these 2 woods, what you typically see is multi-wood ukuleles, which use different woods for different parts of instrument, similar to how most other acoustic instruments are made.

2. Electronics

ukulele-electronics

When comparing acoustic ukuleles to acoustic-electric ukuleles…A few patterns emerge when comparing sound quality and price.
Notably…

Acoustic ukes usually sound better acoustically, than acoustic-electrics.
Acoustic-electric ukes usually sound better amped than they do acoustically.
The top high-end ukuleles are prized for their acoustic sound, and almost never come with built-in electronics.

And so…
If you want to play acoustically, go with an acoustic. If you want to play amped, go with an acoustic-electric.

3. Tune-ability

ukulele tuning pegsCompared to other stringed instruments…

One thing you’ll notice about the ukulele is that it can be insanely hard to keep it in-tune.

Especially with cheaper models…

And mainly because of their tuning keys.

While better tuning keys will:

hold their position longer
tune-up more evenly…

With cheaper models, you typically find a 1:1 turning ratio, where the slightest turn can result in a relatively large change in pitch.BAD!However, with higher turning ratios, the same sized turn will result in a much smaller pitch change, ultimately allowing for more precise tuning of each string.

4. Hi/Low G String

low-g-high-g-ukulele-tuningOne unique quality of the ukulele is that its standard tuning (known as High-G tuning)…Has a 4th string that is tuned a perfect 5th UP from its 3rd string.However…The alternative to this tuning, which is actually quite common, is Low G tuning, which drops the 4th string DOWN a full octave so that it is a perfect 4th down from the 3rd string.For beginners, the differences between these two tunings are of little consequence, since the chord shapes and strumming techniques are the same either way.But as you get more advanced, the difference between a low and high G string becomes more apparent, and you will naturally prefer one over the other.Logically, the Low G tuning makes more sense, because it provides more bass for your strumming, and a wider octave range for your melodies.
But ultimately, every player has their own preference.The good news here is…you can easily switch between a high and low G string at anytime. And with most ukuleles, you can do so using the same nut

5. The Top Ukulele Brands

ukulele-brandsAt least we’ve reached, the final, and in my opinion…Most important factor in the sound of a ukulele:The brand.More than anything we’ve talked about thus far…The craftsmanship and skill of the manufacturer is perhaps the biggest factor in determining the overall sound quality (and value) of any ukulele.With a great brand, you’re pretty much guaranteed a great ukulele.Does that mean you need a big name-brand to get a great sound? Of course not. There are plenty of boutique ukulele makers that make instruments as good or better than anything out there.However…
For beginners, it can be difficult if not impossible find and accurately assess the quality of these ukuleles from face-value alone.