I was first turned on to playing the uke waaaay back in 1979! I went to see “The Jerk”, starring Steve Martin, and there was a scene with him and Bernadette Peters (his girlfriend in the movie) walking the beach, Steve playing ukulele, and both of them singing. It’s a CLASSIC scene from one of Martin’s true masterpieces of comedy. Check it out HERE.
To this day, “You Belong To Me” from this film is still my absolute favorite song to play on the uke, especially if there’s a beautiful woman to sing the harmony part with me, and being that my wife sings like an angel… she fits that bill pretty handily!
But, of course, to learn the song I had to have a uke (the slang term for ukulele). Well, after doing my research then, and today, here’s what I learned about how to buy a ukulele.
In Hawaii… Size Matters
If you want to hear strummy song sunshine filling the rooms of your life, first things first: decide up front which version of uke is going to suit you best.
Version?? Yup. Ukes come in quite a few sizes. They are:
- the Sopranino ukulele (DGBE tuning)
- the Soprano ukulele (GCEA tuning)
- the Concert ukulele (GCEA tuning)
- the Tenor ukulele (GCEA tuning)
- the Baritone ukulele (DGBE tuning)
These are listed by size in ascending order. Thus, it goes from the Sopranino, which is really tiny, down to the Baritone, which is (obviously) the biggest.
Two through four on that list all use the same standard ukulele fingerings.
The first and last one, however, are different. Notice how the tunings is different?They use the same fingerings as guitar, except that you only have four strings to deal with instead of six.
Already play guitar? Great! Then you’ll go in knowing the chord shapes already for the Sopranino and Baritone, which is bound to get you up and running sooner.
But keep in mind, since the Baritone uke is the largest, it will sound the least like what people expect, and might not sound as, uh… Hawaii-like as you’d hoped.
What’s the most popular? These days, most people start out on a Concert ukulele. It’s not so small as a Soprano, which can feel like a toy, and is provides a good middle ground for most hand sizes. Chances are, if you saw a uke played on a YouTube channel by someone, or in a music video from the last ten years… .. it’s a concert ukulele.
Lastly, consider how the uke size will complement your own hand size. Do you have small hands? Or big mitts? Choose a uke size accordingly and you’ll be glad you did. Chords won’t be nearly as hard to stretch into if you think about the best match for your own dancing fingers and swaying palms. 😉
If you haven’t met Amanda and her ukes online yet, she gives a nice comparison of the different ukulele options HERE.
Isn’t she great?! Join her… in letting sunny sweetness pour out, from your hands to all of us!
In Oahu, It Goes to Eleven
Back in 2009, my band at that time decided to perform “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train one weekend for kicks. What a great song!! I love the energy, the lightness, the brightness… the absolute FUN inherent in that song.
It’s also Train’s highest-charting single ever. Know why? It’s gotta be the uke, baby!!
If you’re going to enter the hum-happy world of uke performing, you should also answer this question: do I need amplification electronics in it??
Of course, if you buy a uke with a mic and/or preamp in it, you’re upping the cost significantly right outta the gate.
But if you’re already in a performing band of some kind, and you know you’re going to be adding some joy-filled ‘uke moments’ in the show, you might as well spring for what will give you the best sound through the sound system. The best is always having an instrument ready inside for a P.A. system.
But if you do not get electronics in your uke, don’t worry! Any good sound person can throw a mic up in front of you, run a cable, and you’re gold.
You won’t be able to stray very far from that mic during performance, mind you; ukuleles don’t project a lot of sound, so since they’re soft you’ll have to stay right on the mic in order for anyone to hear you. But if you can live with that restriction, you’ve just saved a lot of money!
In Molokai, Looks Aren’t Everything
To declare the worth of the ukulele to the universe and beyond, the important thing is how it sounds. But everybody’s different, and how your uke looks can certainly come into the equation, even if it’s not the important thing.
The iconic, standard look of a uke is one that’s made of wood and shows the striped wood grain. In Hawaii, trees called ‘Koa’ grow there, so many ukes that come from that island are made from Koa wood. If you want authenticity, you can’t get better than a Koa uke.
But there’s also painted models that show no wood grain at all. If sporting your favorite color while singing sunshine is more yo’ thang… go for it!
All that really matters is, are you happy picking up your new instrument and playing it? Does it feel like an extension of you?!
One thing’s for sure… the more time you spend with your uke, the more that sensation will be there!
In Lanai, They Rock with Wood
Ukes tend to come in two kinds: Laminate or solid wood.
Laminate is going to be the cheapest, and solid wood is the most expensive.
Why? Because, basically, the more actual wood you find in a ukulele the more expensive it’s going to be. Real wood resonates loudly, provides the best, well-rounded sound, and usually, IMHO, looks a whole lot better too.
Laminated ukes are good if they’re for really young kids, who might just as well chase down and beat doggie with it as try to play a real chord. They’re tougher, made to withstand beating better.
But tone? Well, wood will always reign supreme there.
The top of the uke, where the hole is, is the most important part. It’s called the soundboard, or the resonating plate. Most of your tone and timbre are going to come from this important piece of wood, or (if you must) plastic.
Even if the rest of your uke is laminate, or plastic, try to get this top plate made of real wood. It makes such a difference in the sound of the instrument.
In Maui, They Don’t Budge on the Budget
So, obviously there’s a lot of fun and, potentially, success to be had with a ukulele at your side.
Or front, as is more the case. 😉
But the big question is usually the same: how much do I have to spend?
Well, ukes range from $20 all the way up to thousands! Here’s a big tip though: If you spend less than $40, you’re probably going to get a toy, not an instrument. Save yourself the grief of learning on something that makes it as hard as possible for you to become adept.
Instead, save if you have to, but spend at least $40 and get yourself something that you won’t have to throw out with the next garbage heap because it hurts to play, sounds bad and cracks open at the seams when you just look at it.
As usual, whenever buying an instrument, spend the most that you can on it. The closer you are to the $100 mark, the more overjoyed you’re going to be with the resulting instrument. As long as you go with a reputable manufacturer, that is.
In Kauai, Perspiration Comes From Inspiration!
I wonder: what brought you here? Why suddenly are you wanting to get a ukulele?
Could it be because, like me, you saw and heard a uke performance that has just drew you to its power, its uplifting disposition… .. its tropical, easy sound that brings a smile to every face?
I’d bet ‘yes’. And let me tell you, there are some excellent reasons why it’s the perfect choice for entertaining people… including yourself:
- It’s easy to take with you anywhere
- It doesn’t shift pitch too badly with temperature/weather changes
- Practicing is fun!
- It immediately produces the ‘Island Smile’ on peoples faces
- You can play it as simply, or as masterfully, as you like!
Most people have only seen someone strumming simple songs on a uke and think it’s somewhat a toy. Well, you can play it that way, and that’s okay, but have you ever seen an incredibly skilled and advanced musician play an intricate piece on the instrument?? It’s amazing!!
Moreover, in our current YouTube-driven online entertainment community, there are quite a few skilled musicians who are (get this!) making six-figures (yes, I said six) from playing and teaching this fun, little instrument for people!
Any great achievement of that magnitude will certainly take its share of focused practice, but learning how to bring the best out of a uke is one of the most fun ways to spend hours of your life. If not years. Its sound is just so… so… happy!
To inspire you further and show you just how ‘worth it’ your efforts will be if you sweat out serious practice, take a minute to enjoy these epic masterpieces from uke virtuosos. And I dare you… not to smile!! lol
- Train – “Hey, Soul Sister”
- Julia Nunes – “Baby”
- Jake Shimabakuro – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
- James Hill – Voodoo Child (Hendrix Ukulele Cover
So? What’d ya think?! Those glimpses forever dispel the wrong rumour that the uke is only for silly little children’s songs or grass-skirt Hawaii crooning.
True artists can bring any instrument to life in inspiring ways, and sometimes, as it is for you right now, it’s a surprising, refreshing internal wake-up call… to come join the luau!
In Niihau, It Comes From Across the Sea
If this will be your first ukulele, don’t fear buying from the Internet. I’ve played a lot of ukuleles, and most of them feel pretty much the same. It’s only when spend more than $100 or $200 that you start to notice some substantial differences that make you go “Oooooo….!”
Buy from a reputable dealer and you’ll be fine. If it’s “Hozay’s Music Stohr” or some other questionable retailer that hasn’t been around long… well, you can feel free to stay away from that!
Check to see, before you push the big button tho’, if a CASE is included with your uke purchase. Even if it’s a gig bag made of cloth or plastic, it’s better than nothing, and just today I see at least twenty options that are under $70 and come with an included bag or case.
A case will also better protect the uke as it comes to you across the miles right to your door.
Another thing that is often thrown in with the purchase online of a ukulele is a tuner. Check to see if that’s included too. If you are just starting out a tuner will be needful, to get you used to what it means to be a musician who stays in tune. Trust me – you want to be one of those!!
If your choice does not come with one though, have no fear: there are plenty of tuner options, and they don’t have to be expensive. Read MY TUNER POST HERE to find out exactly what you need.
If there’s a music store around that you know carried ukuleles, you can certainly try them out there. Just make sure you check online pricing before you buy at a local store. They tend to jack up the prices to make more because they have to – they’ve got monthly bills to pay every month because of that building they’re in!
See You Under The Palm!
So that, in a giant’s nutshell of a few thousand words, is how you buy a ukulele!
Remember if you’re getting one for the first time, it’s really just important that it has four strings and holds pitch, and that means spend at least $40.
How the neck feels, what the wood grain looks like, whether the bridge has individual saddles or not… that’s all stuff that gets important once you’ve practiced enough to say, “Ya know what? I AM a uke player!” Until then, all that matters is learning chords and being able to play simple songs with and for your friends and family.
And believe me… they will LOVE IT!!
If you’re ready to pull the musical trigger and start strumming, you’ll be happy to know that we’ve listed the top 7 ukulele choices for this year so you don’t have to waste time in endless research. We’ve already done it for you. To see the best seven current uke choices, VISIT THIS ARTICLE!
When you get your happy uke, meet me under the communal sing-along palm tree. You know the one. We’ll get a little practice in, and…
… go… make… Hawaiian sounds!