Essentially, there’s no right and wrong when you’re trying to choose the best ukulele. Many will deem the tone of a ukulele as the most important aspect to the instrument, as it should be, but that doesn’t mean there is one specific correct tone, rather what you want it to sound like.
Besides the tone, a ukulele’s shape, size, and a bunch of other features will factor in the overall quality of your instrument, so without further ado, here are a few points for you to consider as you make your decision:
The type of material used in the build of a ukulele’s body, as expected, will affect the produced sound quality. It’ll also have a significant impact on the instrument’s price tag. Construction materials include:
Ukuleles made from plastic are the cheapest models. They have the least quality of sound – if you can even call it that. They’re mainly directed towards children and would make a great gift for your little musician.
However, if you’re serious about playing the ukulele or perhaps thinking about starting a career, we strongly advise against buying a plastic body ukulele.
Costing fairly more than plastic but still within the affordable range, a ukulele made from laminated wood is a better choice for aspiring musicians or just beginners in general.
Ukuleles are basically built of multiple layers of wood glued to each other. They’re a bit stronger than plastic but less durable than solid wood. The sound quality isn’t that great, but it’s a solid start.
A ukulele made from solid wood means that it’s constructed using only one type of wood, no layers or combos.
It offers the best quality of sound, with richer tones and deeper acoustics. This, of course, means they’re the most expensive among materials, but don’t worry, there are some amazing mid-range solid wood ukuleles for those on a budget.
This type of ukulele is the sturdiest, ideal for musicians looking for a long-term commitment with their instrument, or just anyone searching for high quality.
One thing you should note is that not all solid-wood ukuleles are the same. Different types of wood account for varying sound qualities and depths, as well as a wide range of prices.
The most common types of wood involved in crafting a ukulele’s body are:
Mahogany is one of the most popular types of wood used for musical instruments, and ukuleles are no exception. It’s a hardwood with low density, loved for its warm and dark tone. Mahogany trees can be found in numerous parts of the world, but they’re native to south Florida, the Caribbean islands, and Venezuela.
Lightweight yet sturdy, cedar is often used to achieve a lower, more mellow tone. It comes straight from the Mediterranean region as well as the western Himalayas.
As a native Hawaiian wood, you can easily figure out why it’s considered the traditional standard for ukuleles. This dense tropical wood has lovely patterns, comes in a range of colors, and produces bright, focused, uplifting tones. Frankly, everything a ukulele should be.
Spruce is a softwood native to central Europe. It’s usually used to make guitars, but it’s gaining popularity in the ukulele world thanks to the happy and loud tone it produces.
Not only does rosewood give mid-range and low tones, this hard and dense wood also adds style points to your instrument. It’s widely used to build fretboards and bodies of both ukuleles and guitars.
This Brazilian and Indian native wood shows rich color and rot resistance, making it a reliable material for musical instruments.
Another feature of a ukulele that contributes to the kind of tone you’ll be getting is the shape of its body, so let’s get to know the three major shapes:
Exactly as the name suggests, this shape looks like a regular guitar, except smaller. The curved upper part is called the upper bout while the larger lower part of the body is called the bout. The narrow portion between the two bouts is namely, the waist.
This shape is very common as is, but modern designs have cutaways in the upper bout to make it easier for players to access the upper frets.
If you picture a ukulele in Hawaii, this should be the shape that pops into your head. Samuel Kamaka came up with the design in the 1920s, and ever since, it was linked to the Hawaiian land and tropical atmosphere.
The rounded pineapple shape is what gave ukuleles a more distinct look, paving the way for musicians to take this instrument more seriously, as opposed to a guitar wannabe.
If you think the name “cutaway” implies that some part of the body has been taken away, then you’d be absolutely right!
Here, you’ll see the right-hand shoulder of the ukulele’s body has been cut back to facilitate playing on the top frets. Such a shape is often found on concert, baritone, and tenor ukuleles, but not so much on the soprano.
One of the biggest mistakes a beginner can make is picking up a random size ukulele, only to end up with the wrong purchase.
There are about 7 sizes of ukuleles, each with a characteristic set of features that affect the tuning, and in turn, the sound output. We’ll be discussing sizes from the smallest and up, but you should know that the most popular ones are: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.
Also known as piccolo and sopranino, pocket ukuleles were named after their small size. It was made for casual use, but it’s rare to come across nowadays as the soprano sort of overtook the job.
The soprano ukulele is generally considered the standard, and smallest, size of the instrument. It’s a popular size thanks to its classic bright ukulele tone, suiting all sorts of players from beginners to experienced.
A little bigger than the soprano, the concert ukulele will produce a similar bright sound, only louder and richer. It makes a fine choice for beginners due to the extra space.
The larger size of the tenor allows it to give a fuller sound, making it an excellent choice for a stage performance.
If you’re already familiar with guitar tuning, then a baritone ukulele should be right up your alley! It gives a louder deeper sound compared to previous sizes. A baritone ukulele may also be called bari or bari uke.
Bass ukulele isn’t exactly popular, however, if you’re looking for that warm kick of bass, you’ve arrived at your destination.
As you’d expect from its name, contrabass, also named U-bass, was designed to cover the opposite spectrum of bass sounding.
The missing puzzle piece of the sound quality of a ukulele is none other than its strings!
While shopping for a ukulele, you’ll notice most starter/budget units feature nylon strings. This is often the case because such strings are cheaper to manufacture, particularly in mass production. They also offer a sound quality that’s pretty close to the original gut strings, although a bit lacking.
As a step up, some brands offered fluorocarbon strings, obviously at a higher price. These strings are louder, brighter, and less sensitive to temperature changes.
However, as we climb the quality ladder, you can bet you’ll find Aquila Nylgut strings waiting at the top.
Why? Well, not only is Aquila the one brand that’s known for making ukulele strings as a specialty but also their patented Nylgut material is the first and only synthetic string to combine the extremely desired sound of genuine gut strings with the mentioned perks of nylon.
Investing in high-quality strings can really make all the difference. Even if you don’t but the most expensive ukulele, quality strings can totally improve your experience.
Oh, and while we’re at it, be sure to purchase backup string sets to avoid the frustration of unexpected breakage. (Thank me later!)