The ukulele is part of the guitar family, having traditionally been built in Hawaii. The instrument is synonymous with that south pacific sound. In recent years, the humble ukulele has gone through a significant boom in popularity. With that in mind, this article is designed to give the beginner an insight into what to look for when buying a ukulele.
So you are looking for a ukulele for sale?
Maybe you have decided to take up an instrument and this is your first purchase. A ukulele is the ideal place to start when learning the basics of musical chords, song writing and performance. They are relatively cheap to buy when compared to other musical instruments, and you can start to hear great results in a matter of hours. There are a wealth of resources online. The aspiring ukulele player can use these to learn basic chords and songs.
When learning to play a ukulele, many find that they progress quickly. This means they are often looking for an intermediate level instrument within a relatively short space of time. With that in mind, we have put together this handy guide on what to look for if you are buying your first instrument, or if you are taking that next step and upgrading.
As well as considering what to look for, we have also put together some suggestions for the best ukulele brands for beginner and intermediate players in 2019. All are at a suitable price point for beginners and intermediate players alike.
What to look for when buying a ukulele
As with any musical instrument, there are a few things that you should consider when purchasing a ukulele. By taking the time to consider these points, you can avoid some of the pitfalls surrounding buying an instrument. So let’s dive right in…
One of the biggest mistakes that any beginner can make when starting to learn an instrument is buying a badly manufactured product. Cheap is not always best, even if you are just dipping your toe to see if you like playing. A cheap, or badly constructed instrument can hamper any progress, even at a basic level. This causes frustration and may give you a false sense of what you are capable of.
Starter tips for buying your first ukulele
Set a realistic budget. (See our reviews below)
Don’t be fooled by bundle offers. Just because you are spending $100+ on a bundle, it doesn’t always follow that the ukulele is going to be OK. Budget for the instrument first and foremost. Many will come with gigbags as standard, but accessories like leads, cases, tuners, etc. can come later.
With stringed instruments, poor construction is even more of a problem. Ukuleles are no exception. To be able to get a consistently good sound from a stringed instrument, means being able to press the strings down on to the neck and “Fret” the notes cleanly. This involves 5 components of the ukulele. All 5 need to be aligned and work in unison to be able to play a note easily.
The five key components are:
- The neck of the ukulele – The neck should not be warped or bowed
- The body of the ukulele – Body and neck need to be joined so the “Bridge” and “Nut” align
- The “Nut” at the tuning peg end – A plastic or bone part that the strings rest on.
- The “saddle” at the soundhole end – A plastic or bone part that the strings rest on.
- The “Frets” on the neck – These are set into the neck at regular intervals.
If any one of these components is set incorrectly, or affixed poorly, then no amount of lessons will help you sound good. If an intermediate or advanced player cannot make the instrument sound good, then a beginner has no chance.
A good rule of thumb when looking to buy a ukulele is to buy from an actual music dealer, a store, or select a reputable brand. Avoid supermarket chains, toy shops or gift shops as the instruments you will find there are likely to be no more than toys.
Like their cousin, the guitar, ukuleles are available in a wide range of materials. Ukes can be made from solid wood, which is preferable, or laminated sheets on more budget instruments. When it comes to wood choice, each has its own sound characteristics. Materials will be a matter of personal taste.
The soul of any stringed instrument comes from the wood. It is the relationship between the vibration of the strings, and the resonance of the wood, that gives a ukulele its tone. You should be looking to buy an instrument with the best materials within the price range you are looking at.
A rule of thumb when considering materials for beginner and intermediate ukuleles
This is the most budget way of building a ukulele and you can see this construction used at the beginners and intermediate level. Laminate/ply ukes will all sound fairly similar in tone. The main characteristics are a more brash and tinny tone than that of a solid wood. Think of the difference between a good, budget Hi-Fi speaker, and a basic laptop speaker. The laptop speaker will produce a tinnier range of sounds. This is the same as a ply laminate. The warmth and tone is simply not in the wood.
This shouldn’t stop you buying one, as some laminate ukes are set up well and are very playable for beginners. Buying one of these instruments might mean that you want to trade up sooner though. So bear that in mind.
With the increase in demand for budget ukes, we now see a much wider range of instruments using solid wood tops and necks.
Solid woods used for entry-level ukeleles
A popular hardwood, mahogany has a “Punchy” sound if used for the body. Being a robust and hard wood, it is good for the fretboard too.
This may be used for the main body on the better quality budget and intermediate instruments. Spruce has a loud and warm characteristic to it. A spruce body will be “brighter” than a mahogany one.
A hardwood, used primarily for the bridge and fingerboard. Hard wearing and an industry standard for ukes and guitars alike.
Which size ukulele should I buy?
Ukuleles have less of a “tonal range” than the guitar. That is to say, the frequencies it produces contain less bottom end, or bass notes. This is because they are a relatively small instrument. To give you more choice as to what sound you can produce, ukuleles come in a range of sizes.
The four main ukulele sizes are:
Soprano – 21”
This is the most common size and has the traditional “uke” sound. Great for solo and band players alike.
Concert – 23”
Both the body and neck are larger on a concert ukulele. It retains the traditional sound, but is considerably louder.
Tenor – 26”
Growing in popularity, the tenor has a distinctively different sound, and introduces more classical guitar tones. Great for solo and band use, particularly if you want to bridge the sound between a ukulele and a guitar.
Baritone – 29”
The baritone ukulele is possibly the least popular in mainstream playing. It is far more guitar-like and has different tuning to other ukuleles and for that reason it may not suit a player looking to learn uke specifically. That said. The baritone does have its own unique character and so it may suit the more adventurous player who is looking for a less conventional sound. Great as a part of a group and in conjunction with other ukulele players.
Top tips when looking for a ukulele for sale
Stay away from supermarket, gift shop and toy shop instruments. Make sure you buy a real instrument and not a well made toy – check out the reviews below.
Set a reasonable budget. (The highest you can afford)
Look for an instrument that can be played by a more experienced player. Cheap does not mean best value. If someone who has played for a year or two cant make it sound good, this is the wrong instrument for you.
Consider buying accessories as a separate purchase, rather than buying a bundle. Bundles can give you a false sense of the instruments value and, in some cases, may make a poorly built instrument look attractive.
Think about how you will be using the instrument. A solo player looking to accompany a singer in a living room, or at barbecues, will have a different set of requirements to someone hoping to record in a studio. The latter may need better sound, and therefore, better wood choice.
If you are playing as part of a band, what sound space will you occupy?
It may be that the brighter soprano may fit into your bands sound. Maybe you need the bottom end of the baritone to fill the hole between a bass player and other instruments?
Do you want a traditional sound or are you looking for something to set you apart?
If you take some time to think about these points, then you are less likely to buy a ukulele that is wrong for your purpose.
The best ukulele brands – ultimate buyers guide
So, what about beginners and intermediate players? Which of the ukuleles on the market today will get you up and running in no time?
The following reviews are our suggestion for the best ukuleles available in the beginner and intermediate class in 2019. You will find a little information on the manufacturer and then a short review on one of their best offerings.
Ukulele Manufacturer: Mahalo
Mahalo, means “thank-you” or “gratitude” in Hawaiian. These ukuleles are entry level instruments. Manufactured in China for Kikutani Music, a musical products distributor based in Nagoya, Japan, they were developed to provide “real musical instrument experience at an entry-level price point”.
Prior to this, entry level ukes were generally considered toys and most were musically unplayable.
There is no doubt that Mahalo played its part in the recent resurgence of the ukulele. The sheer quantities sold worldwide prior to, and during the current ukulele boom, illustrate Mahalo’s position as one of the biggest suppliers of ukuleles for the beginners market.
Model: Mahalo MK1 TBR
The MK1 TBR is a soprano ukulele, made from solid wood construction. It uses Sengon for the body, and Jabon for the neck. These woods are likely chosen for their sustainability and cost. Whilst lacking any definable tone sound, the use of these woods over a cheap ply is a big plus.
The finger board and bridge are made from mahogany, with white ABS plastic nut and saddle. By using these materials, Mahalo has made sure that you have every chance of being able to have the ukulele set up to play to a reasonable standard.
- The Mahalo uses geared machine heads (tuning pegs), which will go some way to keeping the instrument in tune for longer periods.
- Variable quality out of the box, but as previously mentioned, these can be set up to a certain extent.
- To make it more playable, it may need to be set up.
A basic, but very playable choice for the absolute beginner. The MK1 TBR is the brown finish, with 3 other colors available. MK1TBS, Transparent Butterscotch, MK1TBU, Transparent Blue and MK1TRD Transparent Red. It sounds like you would expect a first ukulele to sound.
Ukulele Manufacturer: ADM
ADM, or All Days Music, are another manufacturer that sets out to give the beginner more bang for their buck. Their approach is simple design, using good quality materials for their Chinese manufactured products.
Featured Model: ADM Mahogany Concert
The Mahogany Concert is a surprisingly attractive instrument. Nice touches include; a soundhole inlay and closed gear chrome tuning pegs. These are not generally expected at this price range and go a long way to making this budget product look like a far more expensive instrument. Good work in the looks department from ADM.
The attention to design continues with the use of a solid mahogany body, rosewood neck and a really nice satin finish. The frets are well laid brass strips, which have been finished properly on the ends, so no sharp or badly laid frets to worry about. This means that the set up is pretty good, straight out of the box.
ADM Mahogany Concert Ukulele
- The overall build is surprisingly good for such a budget instrument. You can buy this uke, knowing that it will do the job.
- No major flaws, but be prepared to pay for a set up to get the most out of it.
This is a ridiculously good looking instrument for the money. There is evidence of cost control with the cheap plastic nut and saddle, and the cheap looking fret wire. That said, this instrument plays well and sounds OK too.
Ukulele Manufacturer: Oscar Schmidt
Any one who plays guitar will have heard of the Washburn company, which Oscar Schmidt is a part of. The company was founded in the early 1900s and has a lot of experience in providing quality instruments. At this level, they are outsourcing production to China, as you would expect. With a reputation to keep, you have the peace of mind that quality control is of the utmost importance to such an established brand.
Featured Model: Oscar Schmidt OU12
The featured OU12 is the soprano size, with a full range of sizes available. Again, we are seeing a full mahogany body, with nicely detailed rosewood bridge plate, plastic nut and plastic saddle. A nice satin finish adds to the appeal and chrome tuning pegs are also of reasonable quality at this price point.
Design is neat, with an understated sound hole detail, plastic beaded fretboard and nicely fitted brass frets.
If you are looking to plug in to an amp or studio mixing desk then you could consider the concert size OU2e which has an active pickup.
Oscar Schmidt OU12 Soprano Ukulele
- Limited lifetime warranty with fair use policy.
- Good quality finish
- Easy to play
- Cheap plastic nut and saddle
- Not really a con as such, but you will need to budget extra for a gig bag, and other accessories should you require them.
Oscar Schmidt have put a lot of effort into the looks and have done so without sacrificing the sound quality and playability. Tone is less brash than you might think, and aside from the cheap plastic nut and saddle, (which can always be replaced later), it’s a good offering.
Ukulele Manufacturer: Kala
Kala ukuleles hail from Petaluma, California. The company was founded by Michael Upton who has a long history in the industry. To quote Michael, the company positions its instruments as the “simplest way to enjoy music”. If you check out the companies website, you can hear the brands relaxed tone of voice and they seem to promote a cool, family business atmosphere. Artists that use Kala ukuleles include James Hill, Mira Goto and many more. The ukuleles are made in the far east and finished/shipped from California.
Featured Model: Kala KA-15S
The KA-15 is the entry level soprano ukulele from Kala. With a mahogany body and neck, simple rosewood bridge plate, Nubone nut and saddle and an understated, simplistic design, this instrument is all about value for money. The geared tuning pegs have plastic buttons which is a small difference to the chrome ones seen on some of the competition.
Set up is good straight out of the box and the silver nickel frets are a better finish than most budget ukes.
Kala KA-15S Soprano Ukulele
- All round value for money with a nice tone and good set up.
- Graphtec Nubone nut and saddle are higher quality than the cheap plastic on other models.
- Plastic tuning peg buttons are a bit cheaper than some of its competition, but they do the job nicely.
- No fancy design flairs or ivory beading as they have put the money into other more important parts.
A great sounding, albeit very basic looking Ukulele. Not the loudest of the bunch, but a really warm sound. Kala have struck the right balance between good sound and build quality with this model. No frills, but likely to stay in your collection as you develop as a player.
Ukulele Manufacturer: Lanikai
Lanikai is the name of a well-known beach in Hawaii. The brand really push their connection to the ukuleles traditional roots. They are focussed on providing the best you can get for the money. Their website quotes; “Real ukuleles for real musicians”.
With a wide range of tone woods and premium features, many of the Lanikai ukuleles have that instant quality feel to them. Lanikai are manufactured in China, with quality control and factory check-up at the point of shipping.
Model: Lanikai LU-22CGC
The concert Lanikai LU22CGC is an entry level offering from the company.
The body, sides and neck are made from a mahogany, and has a rosewood bridge and fingerboard. The gold colored hardware and white binding really set this apart as a beautiful instrument.
Lanikai LU22CGC Concert Ukulele
- Warm tone at a relatively low price point
- Good quality woods
- High construction standards
- Some users have commented that the frets can be a little rough and may need a light file.
When compared to higher budget instruments, this model is a real surprise; its sounds and plays like instruments at twice the price.
The cheaper models from Lanikai are a significant step-down. This model demonstrates why Lanikai ukuleles are so highly regarded, and they only get better at higher price points.
Great sounding, great looking, what more could you want? The gold hardware is a nice touch, which helps this model to look more expensive than it really is.
Ukulele Manufacturer: Luna
Luna ukes are built with design very much a main part of the deal. Yvonne de Villiers is an artist and designer who approaches the business of making ukuleles and guitars from a visual artist perspective. Their top end ukuleles have a very earthy, almost Celtic feel about them. With such a strong artistic bent, they certainly look the part.
Luna Ukes are made in China with strong quality control processes overseen by Yvonne and her team.
Featured Model: Luna UKE MALU
The Luna Malu is a concert sized Ukulele made entirely from Nato – mahogany and featuring the laser cut “peace” design. The fingerboard and bridge are walnut, which is a step away from the standard rosewood. Geared tuning pegs feature a mother of pearl finish to match inlays in the headstock. The graphite OEM nut and saddle are a nice touch and an indication that the instrument is at a slightly higher price point.
Luna UKE MALU Concert Ukulele
- Graphite nut & saddle
- Nice tuning pegs.
- Beautiful design
- Although using the Nato mahogany, the Malu sounds really crisp and sharp.
- As it is a slightly higher price point, it would have been nice to see some real leaps in quality. Perhaps some of that design input has pushed the price a bit. However, you can’t deny it’s a great all-round uke.
The Luna Malu is a beautiful looking ukulele, with some nicer quality components. It does sound cool. It may have been nice to have electro-acoustic at this price to give those moving into gigging and recording a real step up. As it is, you will have to pay a bit more for that, and look at the Malu electric version.
If money is not an issue, then you won’t be disappointed with the sound and feel.
Ukulele Manufacturer: Cordoba
Cordoba are best known for their Spanish/classical nylon string guitars. Their ukuleles have the kind of quality and feel as you would expect from a manufacturer who knows their stuff. Cordoba Ukuleles are part of a wider music group which includes Guild guitars, Aquila strings and, therefore, have a good pedigree.
Featured Model: Cordoba 15TM
This version of the Cordoba 15 is the tenor size model. Then natural finish really alludes to the Spanish guitar DNA. It is very well put together. The mahogany, neck, sides and top are finished off with ivory style bindings. Frets, nut and saddle are all nicely fitted. The Cordoba geared tuning pegs are great quality, with pearloid buttons.
Cordoba 15TM Tenor Ukulele
- Great finish and high-quality materials all round.
- Beautiful sound, that is reminiscent of a Spanish guitar.
- Larger, and so easier to play for those with big hands
- Not a traditional ukulele sound if you are looking for a purist sound.
- Again, a small point, but no electrics for those looking to play live or record DI
The Cordoba 15TM has a stand out sound. The tone is very smooth and warm. The whole package screams quality, and you stand to enjoy it for many years.
Ukulele Manufacturer: Diamond Head
Diamond Head is the ukulele range from Saga instruments. Saga have a wide range of stringed instruments in their repertoire. The Diamond Head ukulele range is diverse and features some really high-quality finishes.
Made in China from high-quality woods and components.
Featured Model: Diamond Head DU-400C
The DU-400C (concert), is made from quality tone-woods. A solid cedar top brings that warmer tone which is synonymous with the cedar. Back and sides are a beautiful flamed mahogany. The neck is also carved from mahogany and has a rosewood fingerboard, with abalone fret markers and a sound hole rosette.
The body is bound with a rosewood and maple edging. The saddle and nut are both made from bone, the best material for this purpose. Grover tuners are the first step into serious hardware. Another indication of this instruments fine construction.
Diamond Head DU-400C Concert Ukulele
- High-end components and finish at a relatively low price
- Beautiful Sound
- The best finish of the bunch in this review.
- Comes with a half decent case
- None to speak of. The most expensive ukulele in this article, so it may be out of reach for the out and out beginner. But, if you can stretch to this budget, you will not be disappointed.
The finish speaks for itself. This is a serious instrument, as it should be at this price point. Anyone moving up from a beginners instrument will immediately notice the high spec and tonal quality. This model still retains a traditional uke sound, but with that undeniable tone which any player would be pleased to have.
You can have a lot of fun with a ukulele and, if you spend some time thinking about your first purchase, the instrument will serve you for years to come.
The main manufacturers featured have all worked really hard to offer a competitive and easy to play instrument. With such a wealth of solid wood, entry level options, there should be no need to regret any purchase you make.
Ideally you want to buy from a reputable music store and help keep music alive. Building a relationship with an expert store will not only help you develop as a player, but it will help you network with other musicians and bands. However, I know that many of us do not have easy access to a quality music shop, so selecting one of the recommended instruments above will be a solid starting point. Most dealers have a social media presence and you can join conversations and ask advice. This means that you can join a vibrant musical community even if you buy online.
Until next time`