Before your purchase, it is important to consider the use you plan to make of your ukulele, and how “serious” you are about that use. We’re talking serious fun here, which depends on the quality and playability of the instrument itself. Suffice it to say, regardless of all other considerations, the primary focus should be on how seriously it will be played. Let that seriousness be your measure of both quality and price.
Buying a ukulele can be an overwhelming and tricky job, especially if you’re looking for a beginner or basic ukulele. There are so many from which to choose, and quality is not always a function of price. Keep in mind though, that if you want more than a toy and want a ukulele that you can play seriously, it’s unlikely that you will get much acoustic value by responding to a pitch of ukuleles for sale $30 or $40 (pun intended).
When you consider price, remember that you won’t get much more than a toy for $30 or $40, one that you can’t really play seriously, and one with not much to offer in the way of acoustic value. Having so many different types from which to choose, coupled with the need for a quality, well playing instrument, makes for a thorny undertaking. This can be especially unnerving it you are looking for a beginner ukulele, but don’t just want a toy.
Extend that serious consideration to whoever is the intended user, if it’s for someone else. Regardless of the user’s age and level or playing proficiency, how serious will that person approach this instrument’s playability? If this is a gift for someone just learning to play (a beginner ukulele makes a very unique Christmas gift), is that person serious about playing, even if just playing for fun? It has been suggested that putting a low quality ukulele in the hands of a beginner is a huge mistake.
Although you can expect to pay more for quality, it may not necessarily be as a direct proportion. There are some exceptions; while you can expect to get what you pay for, some very well playing instruments are still very reasonably priced. A good principle to follow is that whether for a beginner or for an established player, and regardless of the age, the more serious you are, the more you can expect to play, and the higher the quality you will need. Successful melding of quality and price should be your goal and will for the most part determine your budget. With that in mind, let’s look briefly at the four types of ukulele.
Soprano For a beginner the soprano is a good place to start. Early ukuleles were just about all soprano-sized. It’s the smallest, and from the beginning it became the classic size with the classic sound. Many gifted ukulele players swear by the soprano. Simple to play by comparison, nothing quite compares to strumming away on the smallest, some say the purest, ukulele.
Soprano is good for playing chords and beginner strumming and is easier to learn to play than the others. A lot of finger picking on the soprano is another story. It is harder to master more difficult routines on soprano and its resonance can sometimes seem thin.
Being smaller, sopranos will usually be priced lower and you will have more from which to choose as compared to the other three. A smaller instrument can also be good for smaller people, like kids. Don’t be fooled though, many of the best ukulele players are large people with large fingers who favor sopranos.
Concert Halfway between the soprano and the tenor is the concert ukulele. This can be a great compromise if you want to strum and finger pick, and for those not comfortable with the tenor size uke. Concerts offer more resonance for a fuller tone but maintain the unmistakable sound of a ukulele and not a guitar. It has the same tuning as the soprano, gCEA, and the same traditional sound, but with serious practice you can learn to play whatever you want to play.
Since it is a little bigger, the concert sounds bigger than the soprano, with more middle range and a somewhat deeper, mellower, more alto sound. It’s bigger, but not by much, and some say a concert is easier to hold than the smaller soprano. The concert is an instrument that offers the best of both worlds, traditional ukulele sound with more complex playing potential.
Tenor The tenor ukulele can be used for more advanced solo playing i.e. Jake Shimabukuro. It has more of a guitar-like tone, more finger room that allows faster play, and lends itself to more complex runs. Its size produces a deeper, fuller, more resonant quality in sound and tone. The fourth string can be tuned an octave lower, giving it even further range.
Baritone The baritone ukulele makes one think of a small guitar with a crisp, fuller sound. It is still a ukulele but whether you are just learning to play guitar, or you are a seasoned guitar player, you will find it relatively easy to play a baritone uke. It can complement your guitar practice and vice versa. Tuned like a guitar without the two top strings (base), it plays like a guitar with no top end.
Once you factor in cost plus your level of musical ability and interest in playing, that seriousness I referred to earlier, you are ready to go shopping for whichever ukulele best fits your need. There is, however, one additional consideration I want to mention, one that can make your selection even more meaningful. You can shop around for whatever suits your serious fancy, or you can consider making your own ukulele from scratch or building one from a kit.
The internet is loaded with ideas that can show you how to produce your own creation from scratch, and many sites offer a basic ukulele building kit that you can start with, and then add other components as you desire. You may want to check out the tramp art music culture where good quality instruments are made from everyday components, using a multitude of boxes for surprising resonance, i.e. a cigar box with a wooden back or a simple box you can make yourself.
Whether you purchase a completed instrument, build from a cigar box ukulele kit or a conventional ukulele kit, or if you decide to build your own from scratch, you’re in for some serious fun. And remember this serious observation-you can’t play a sad song on a ukulele. Here’s to you; good luck and good building.