Buying a New Uke
A lot of students ask me what to look for in buying a new uke, so I'll try to give my best advice here! Take this advice with a grain of salt - remember that ultimately, the uke chooses you. So if a particular uke is calling you, don't let me stand in your way. Who am I to stand between you and your uke of destiny??
Kala Brand Ukes
First off, I am sponsored by Kala Brand Music so I have to say that they're the best. I'll give you my rundown of shopping Kala here.
Shop at the Kala store: https://kalabrand.com/
In my honest opinion, Kala makes extremely affordable and reliable ukuleles, and they have a high standard of quality control at their shipping factories in Hawaii, Virginia, and their home base of Petaluma, CA. If you buy anything with "Kala" on the headstock, you know you're getting a quality instrument that will stay in tune and last a long time. Most Kala ukuleles are imported from China and factory adjusted on the mainland. However if you want to go even extra you can dig into the Kala Elite Series and even order a custom U.S.A. model, and these beautiful ukes are improving every year. I'll say that the first time I held one I was lightly impressed, but over the past few years they have been producing stunning ukuleles that look and sound top-notch.
They also have their budget counterpart, "Makala", which are surprisingly good for the price. I love their shark and dolphin series and take these little soprano ukes on trips all the time. They sound great, and at around $50 I'm never afraid to scratch or break them. The Makala Waterman uke is their all plastic model which is also wonderful for camping trips and bringing out to the beach. We brought two of them on our most recent trip to Hawaii, and just dug them in the sand and floated them out into the ocean. It was so awesome just kicking them around, strumming them on the beach, and being able to rinse them off at the end of the day was a major plus.
A few great starter ukes (click the pictures for the Kala store entry):
1) Makala Shark - extremely good sound for the price! great instrument to sling around and not be too worried about, without sacrificing tone quality.
2) Ukadelic Line / Waterman - love these plastic ukes that are durable, great for small kids to beat up, and perfect for beach and outdoor gatherings, you can rinse them off and dry them out for the next jam session. doubles as a bath toy =)
3) Color Chord - Also a plastic model, this one is pre-stamped with color coded fret markers to help remember your first chords. awesome for the classroom or any casual learner to start learning the ukulele.
4) Learn to Play Series - These Kala ukes are the perfect entry level models and come complete with a chord book, bag, and the learn to play program hosted by yours truly. These make great gift ukuleles too, so get your friends set up with some ukes so you can get jamming together!
My favorite upgrades:
1) Kala Long Neck Soprano - one of my favorite instruments of all time, this instrument is small enough for bike rides but has the extended fretboard to practice your advanced ukulele arrangements! Love taking this out on trips so I don't miss out on any practice opportunties.
2) Kala Archtop Tenor - if you're looking to upgrade your size or add electronics, I love the Archtop Tenor serious. Classy and stylish and also bigger ukulele for increased tone and resonance. This uke is perfect for accompanying your singing voice as the f-holes create a warm, slightly muted tone. Love doing my jazz arrangements on this instrument too, it totally fits the vibe!
3) Journeyman U-Bass - Looking to add a bass to your collection? The U-Bass is a perfect instrument to branch out and add to your ensemble. About 1/2 the size of a standard electric bass, this instrument provides the easiest transition to bass playing and still has massive tone and low end. I love the Journeyman because it comes with pre-installed roundwound strings and doesn't break the bank. Plus it matches my archtop ukes.
4) Ebony U-Bass with Roundwound Strings - Upgrade your U-Bass with this beautiful Ebony model, also with those roundwound strings!
So now that the message from our sponsors has concluded, some basics about uke shopping.
A Few Pointers
I highly suggest going to your local brick and mortar store (especially an ukulele store if you have one) to try out various ukes. Have a store rep show you some chords so that you can at least strum, hear, and feel each uke. Don't be afraid to ask for a demo as well, just so you can hear how the uke sounds when played properly. Remember that the uke chooses you, and everyone has different preferences. Make sure to pick a uke that you love to listen to, it'll make practicing a whole lot easier! Even two identical models of ukulele might sound different depending on the wood and construction of that particular uke, I've had many students find a typical model of ukulele that happens to sound better than 10 others of the same model!
When you buy your ukulele, especially if it's brand new, you'll need to stretch your strings. Most ukes will go out of tune right after you play them for a few days, so have a tuner (clip on tuners are the best) so that you can always retune your uke. An important part of the process is also manually stretching your strings by pulling on them firmly (but not too hard) and then immediately retuning your uke to pitch. You can watch a video of tuning and stretching the strings here:
Download the Kala Tuner App: www.kalabrand.com/start
Size It Up
If you want to join the "ukulele" community, your choices for ukes are soprano, concert, and tenor. These are all tuned the same (G-C-E-A) and use the same chords. The baritone is a lower instrument tuned like the bottom four strings of the guitar (DGBE), and unless you are super comfortable with playing guitar chords already, you might want to steer clear at the beginning of your ukulele career. Even more confusing is the guitalele, which is basically a uke with two extra strings (ADGCEA), that you play with guitar shaped chords.
The soprano is the smallest ukulele and most "Hawaiian" sounding. This is great for beginners and especially kids under 10 will appreciate the smaller size and ease of playing. Bigger hands may have trouble in the beginning to play the soprano, so make sure you try to hold one at your local brick and mortar to see if it's a good fit. Another consideration for soprano is that it only has 12 frets, which at the beginning sounds like plenty of frets, but if you go deeper into ukulele repertoire you'll find that some songs require you to play past the 12th fret. If you love the soprano sound but don't want to give up those extra frets, you can check out my favorite type of uke, the long-neck soprano. This has a concert length neck on a soprano body, which is great when you're practicing those advanced ukulele arrangements but don't feel like wielding your full-size uke.
The concert uke is considered the "standard" size. This has more frets than the soprano and sounds a little "bigger" than the soprano since it has a bigger body and neck. The concert is still plenty small for traveling and slinging on your back during bike rides, and can still get a classic ukulele sound. Adult beginners should consider starting on concert rather than soprano just because there's a little more space to work with on the fretboard, and it's overall a more versatile instrument. There is also more volume from a concert than a soprano, which is good or bad depending on your preference. Again, it's best to compare sizes at a store so that you ultimately walk away with the uke you want.
Lastly, the tenor ukulele is most popular among professionals as it has the most space on the fretboard, and has the biggest sound. Some professionals even prefer a wider neck to have more control over what strings they're playing, and you can experiment with your own preferences by trying a few models out. Bigger hands again might feel more comfortable on a tenor uke since there's more space between frets, so there's less of a chance of touching other strings while you're playing. Guitar players who want to pick up the uke will feel that the tenor is most similar to the scale of the guitar, so that's also an added benefit. The only caveat to playing tenor in my opinion is it sounds the least "ukulele-like", and at times can sound more like a guitar. This has nothing to do with the register of the uke (all sizes are tuned the same), but rather the resonance of the larger body, and the fact that the strings are longer and have a warmer tone. So again, when comparing at the store, also listen to the difference of tone when strumming and plucking, and decide if ultimately you like the bigger sound of the tenor versus the smaller more plucky sounds of the concert and soprano.
High G and Low G
A common question with ukes is the difference between high G and low G playing. This refers to the top string of the ukulele, which can either be an octave up, and higher than the C string, or an octave down, and lower than the C string. When you're buying your first uke, I suggest going with high G as it's the most common., and most materials online and in books are geared to high G players. However, some players love the more mellow tone of the low G ukulele, and I wouldn't want to detract from that. When students come up to me and are torn between both, I always tell them to just buy two ukuleles. Have one strung in high G and one strung in low G, then you'll never have to choose! And even if you only have one uke, it's not difficult to change the one string to suit your preferences, so definitely try them both out and see which you like.
To plug or not to plug
Many of my students also wonder if they should get an "electric" uke, technically we call this "acoustic/electric" or a "uke with a pickup," and I usually steer my more serious students to starting with the electric variety. If you have an intermediate budget, it's usually just a few more dollars to get the uke with a pickup, and it's very convenient to have the capability to plug into a sound system. I say this even to my students who are not currently interested in performing, because over the course of time, they might change their minds and want to get on stage with their instrument. For most import models and cheaper ukuleles, the standard pickup for the uke is called a "piezo" pickup, which collects vibrations under the bridge of the uke. What's nice about this, is that even cheaper ukuleles can sound very nice plugged in. It's almost like the great equalizer to be able to plug into a nice amp or sound system, add some reverb, and sound almost as good as the ukulele recordings you love to hear.
When you get into more expensive ukes, that's where you might have to make a tough decision on buying one with a pickup installed, or installing one yourself. If you're getting a handmade ukulele especially, those may or may not come with electronics just based on the person making them. So if you shuffle through the store and find a beautiful acoustic ukulele with no electronics, and you love the sound of that uke, it might be best to leave it alone and not drill any more holes in it. A beautiful acoustic instrument is easy enough to mic up if needed for performance. And perhaps that will just be an instrument you enjoy acoustically like a fine wine, and not bring it on the road to perform with on a regular basis.
On the other hand, you can also ask the maker to install a pickup anyway, in which case you can install more expensive pickups that better reproduce the natural sound of the uke. I'm no expert on pickups so you'll have to do your own research to figure that out. Again, most installing involves drilling, so if you have your uke of destiny already in hand, make sure you exercise extreme caution and pick the right people to work with your baby.
Personally, I prefer to play plugged in, it's easier to maneuver around the stage during performances and you will always be heard through the sound system. I usually get the ukes that already have onboard electronics, and this is also nice because some ukes will have a preamp on the body so you can control your tone straight from your uke. My current custom ukulele from Kala is equipped with the L.R. Baggs 5-0 ukulele pickup, which I am loving.
When all is said and done, I'll strum just about anything with 4 strings! So try your best to choose something that you personally love. I will say that if you spend at least $60-100 dollars on a uke, you'll have a quality instrument that you'll be able to enjoy. So happy uke hunting, and welcome to the ukulele world!