Are you considering the possibility of taking your first step in your musical journey? Perhaps you're a seasoned musician and want to try the ʻukulele, or you already play it and want to get another one. Whatever the case, look no further! In this short guide, we'll go over what to look for, how to determine your priorities for your ʻukulele, and how to use those priorities to guide you through your decision. Let's begin!
Comfort vs. Tone
There are three main sizes* of ʻukulele which all have the same tuning**, but differ in comfort and tone. The three sizes are as follows, from smallest to largest:
- Soprano (AKA Standard) - smallest
- Concert (AKA Alto) - mid-size
- Tenor - largest
- shorter neck, smaller body, more comfortable for
people with smaller hands and stature
- less frets, smaller frets
- mid-size neck and body, best if soprano is too small, good for children to grow
into, decent for guitar players
- more frets, wider frets
- comfortable for most hand sizes
- larger neck and body, best choice for guitar players, good for larger hands and
stature, typical choice for professionals
- widest frets, easier to play high notes
- can be comfortable for all hand sizes
- brighter tone
- clearer/louder high end
- softer/restricted mids and lows
- deeper tone
- clear highs and mids
- louder/more crisp low end
- deepest, most full tone
- clear highs and mids
- deepest lows
I recommend starting with the size(s) that is most comfortable, then let the tone be the tie-breaker. Once you establish the size you prefer, then look in that size for the rest of the criteria below.
*Baritone is larger than the tenor size, but is traditionally tuned to the highest four strings of the guitar at D, G, B, E from top to bottom; so chords and notes are much more related to a regular guitar than ʻukulele
**Standard tuning for soprano, concert, and tenor is G, C, E, A from top to bottom, all in the fourth octave; same as the guitar's highest four strings in 5th position, with the fourth string traditionally tuned an octave higher
2. How it's Made
Imports vs. Hand-Made
Imported ʻukulele are machine-made, and usually use more cost-effective materials and building methods. The few imports that are hand-made are usually considered to be comparable to local, hand-made instruments, depending on the builder.
- machine made = durable
- good value
Hand-made ʻukulele are generally made in Hawaiʻi and the continental U.S. by professional luthiers, whether they work in brand-name factories or are independent builders.
- higher-quality materials
- hand-made = better sound
- higher-quality craftsmanship
Laminated vs. Solid Wood
Laminated wood is much more cost-effective for manufacturers. It resembles plywood, but is much thinner, and will typically have a softwood as the middle layer (i.e. spruce or cedar, often used as a tone/top wood on solid-wood and solid-top instruments).
- decent initial sound
Solid wood is considered higher quality and is king in the instrument world. There is only one layer of wood for the body, and is preferred by musicians and luthiers alike. It costs more, but you get what you pay for.
- higher quality
- better initial sound
- sounds better with age
Satin vs. Gloss
Satin finish is sometimes called a "matte" or "natural" finish. It tends to have less layers than gloss, and usually doesn't have a reflective surface.
- more natural feel
- natural aesthetic
- less-restricted sound (more volume and/or sustain)
Gloss finish, as well as paint finish, tends to have a more reflective and transparent surface.
- more detail in wood
- slightly restricted sound (less punch, slightly softer/sweeter sound)
- more protection from the elements
Volume and Sustain
Volume is defined as the loudness of sound and is measured in decibels. "Soft" and "loud" are two common words used to describe volume.
What to Look For
- decide whether you want a louder or softer ʻukulele
- "louder" is not always "better"
Sustain refers to the length of time that a note lasts from the time it is played to the time it can no longer be heard. The longer the note lasts, the more sustain the instrument has.
What to Look For
- decide if you would like more or less sustain
- sustain and volume usually work opposite each other: more sustain = less volume
*this is not always the case
In the end, it's always best to try an instrument before buying it. Here at ʻUkulele Puapua, we like to have you try an instrument, listen to your response to the way it sounds and feels, and make recommendations accordingly. Now that you are better prepared to walk through this process yourself, we wish you the best in finding the best ʻukulele for yourself. Share this blog if it helped, and come and visit us if you're looking to buy an ʻukulele! We always enjoy helping people through this process.