Ukuleles are a fantastic gateway drug into the world of music. Cheap, relatively easy to play and providing a chirpy, crisp sound, for many they are their first step on the path of a life or career in music.
A solid and quality built ukulele will maintain a perfect tuning condition, can last for a very long time, and comes with all necessary accessories that’ll make the playing experience easier for the beginner and professional alike. This buying guide will give you a head start on getting the information you need to make the most informed purchase.
Ukulele vs. Guitar: The Similarities
On the face of it, it’s understandable why someone may confuse a ukulele for a miniature guitar. The general anatomy of a ukulele will be very familiar to anyone who has played the guitar. Whatever size uke, the instrument will feature a body, a neck, a fretboard, and a headstock, as well as a nut, bridge, saddle, strings, and tuners. Like a guitar, a uke will sometimes also include electronics, in the form of an under-saddle pickup and preamp with various volume and EQ controls.
Ukulele vs. Guitar: The Differences
However, there are more differences between a ukulele and a guitar. Firstly, in most cases, a ukulele will have just four strings, compared to six you’d find on a typical guitar. They’ll also have fewer frets. From soprano to baritone, you may find anywhere between 12 and 21 frets. This is less than standard guitars, which will generally have between 19 and 24 frets.
Ultimately, this means that ukes are slightly easier to learn and play than guitars. They also require less pressure to play due to the lower string tension. This means they’re brilliant for beginners. Another key difference is that ukuleles sound much brighter and happier than a guitar. Of course, a twinkly soprano uke will sound different to a deeper tenor uke, but all have a sound that’s easily distinguished from a guitar.
This is half down to the size of a uke compared to a guitar, but also because they’re tuned differently. Typically, a uke has G-C-E-A tuning, although a baritone ukulele is an exception with D-G-B-E.
Finally, you should be aware that a ukulele will cost less than a guitar. It’s not always the case, but you’ll find that a decent entry-level uke may cost $40, whereas a decent entry-level guitar would be nearer $100. At the higher end, $500 would get you a great uke, but you may need to spend double that to pick up a guitar with similar woods, tone, craftsmanship, and electronics.
The Best Ukulele Brands
There are plenty of good ukulele brands out there, but the brands below are the most common. They all have solid ukuleles for beginners and also offer some top-notch professional-quality ukes. There are also other brands out there like Pono and Kanilea that offer only very high-end ukuleles.
Kala Ukulele was started in 2005 by Mike Upton and has its main office located in California. Despite being a newer brand, Kala is now one of the most well-known brands of ukuleles in the world. It may be the best brand of ukulele for beginners and intermediate players looking to get serious about playing the ukulele because they provide high-quality instruments at very affordable prices.
Started in 1997, Cordoba is a guitar company based in California that specializes in nylon string acoustic guitars. Cordoba provides lightweight, responsive instruments and they have a wide variety of ukuleles across the soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone sizes. Cordoba ukuleles are well-known for their quality. They have a large fan base of well-known musicians including Bon Iver, One Republic, Leonard Cohen, and the Decembers.
Luna Guitars was co-founded by Yvonne de Villiers, who was an accomplished stained-glass artist. She was inspired by her bass playing mother to begin making guitars that were both beautiful and unique. Luna was founded on Yvonne’s belief that customers should be seen as more than just a sales transaction but part of a larger community. Since 2005, Luna ukuleles have been known for their unique looks and high quality.
Lanikai was founded in 200 and is distributed by Hohner, a company well-known for producing quality folk instruments. Lanikai is a popular brand for ukulele players and is one of the best ukulele brands because they offer a wide range of both entry-level and high-end models at a reasonable price.
Alvarez has been in the guitar game for decades, but they’re newer to the ukulele scene. A severely underrated instrument-maker, Alvarez makes awesome guitars that sound and play great, and their ukuleles are no different. Pick up any Alvarez uke, and you’ll know you have a quality instrument.
What to Look for in a Budget Ukulele?
Assuming you aren’t a complete beginner, you should know what style of ukulele suits you best, whether that’s a baritone, tenor, soprano or concert. So, unless you’re gigging or performing regularly, electronics on ukuleles under $100 category are probably best avoided. Not to say they’re particularly bad, but they aren’t particularly versatile and are prone to breaking.
That being said, some budget ukes, like EleUke Electric Peanut, are very good if you’re looking for electronics, but ensure you have a good use for them. If you rarely plugin, you may be able to get a better quality uke with no electronics for your cash.
Another thing to look out for and avoid in a budget uke is plastic. While some cheap plastic ukuleles are fun to look at, with elaborate colors and graphics, they offer little in the way of tone and don’t feel very nice to play. In short, if you’re spending $20 on a toy ukulele, you can’t expect anything in the way of quality.
In general, go for a wooden-bodied ukulele, of which there are many in this range, even if they are laminates. When searching, it’s worth avoiding anything with plastic hardware, such as plastic nut or saddle. However, several budget models offer bone and graphite as a material of choice, so there’s no excuse to use plastic.
Because of its relatively low price, the ukulele is a great instrument if you want to get started playing music. Even higher-end ukes cost about the same as good entry-level guitars. If a guitar, mandolin, banjo or other instrument is too expensive or intimidating, the ukulele may be the instrument for you.