There is a popular meme and T-shirt slogan that shows a guitar next to a ukulele with the quote "Uke I am your father." Of course this is a play on the famous quote from Darth Vader in the movie The Empire Strikes Back, and while it is a funny, it is not true.
The guitar is not the father of the ukulele, it is more like a distant cousin. The ukulele is descended from the machete, which was small and similar to a guitar. It was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants who were needed as laborers to replace the decimated native Hawaiian population.
While the ukulele may have had a tragic origin it has since become a symbol of happiness, just simply playing a uke can bring a smile to one's face.
It has gone through waves of popularity like during the jazz era, later again in the 50s and 60s, and more recently in the past 15 years it has exploded. In 2008 there were only a few ukuleles hanging on the music store walls, now many shops dedicate a good portion of their acoustic displays to the uke.
Whether you are a multi-instrumentalist or a first time musician you can't go wrong with such a portable, easy, and fun instrument.
(One quick note; we use 'a' ukulele as many pronounce it 'you'kulele. It is technically pronounced 'oo'kulele which would be preceded by 'an'. A minor detail, but still worth a mention.
We also make bad musical puns like 'A minor' as the temptation is hard to resist!)
The soprano is roughly 21 inches and is the original ukulele. It is tuned to G4 C4 E4 and A4, this is known as reentrant tuning as the G is high, C lower, and then back up again to E and A.
Most stringed instruments move from low too high in order. Sopranos can also be tuned one step up to ADF#B, this is known as Hawaiian tuning and can really make some ukes sound a lot brighter than GCEA.
The concert is 23 inches and was invented during the jazz era when ukes were all the rage and they needed some more projection (this was before common amplification of instruments).
It has a slightly longer scale length and can use the same GCEA tuning as the soprano (and also of course ADF#B). This size is great for beginners as it provides more volume yet still with that quintessential ukulele vibe and sound.
The tenor is 26 inches and was invented around the same time as the concert. It is also tuned GCEA, however some players use a low G3 string instead of G4.
That famous ukulele song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole used the low G tuning. The tenor is also a great starter uke as it has a longer scale length and more room on the fretboard.
The baritone is 29 inches and the odd man out. It is really a cross between a tenor 4 string guitar and a ukulele, and it is tuned to DGBE. It has a deeper sound and is great for songwriting, but it doesn't sound like the other ukulele family members.
It can be tuned to GCEA, but you must buy special strings. If you try to move DGBE up 4 steps it will break the strings or the instrument.
There is also a sopranissimo (smaller than a soprano) and a bass uke which is strung with very fat strings. These are both kind of novelty ukuleles as they aren't very practical in many cases. Another style of ukulele gaining momentum is the 8 string, as more companies are building these models.
They also make a banjo ukulele, or banjolele, which comes in the same sizes as above except with a banjo body. Banjo ukes are becoming more popular and affordable, some players find they have more projection and a unique ukulele sound. George Formby and Peter Sellers helped make the banjo uke popular many years ago.
Most beginners choose the concert or tenor, recently the tenor has become the most popular choice. This observation is not backed up with data, just noticeable trends in the world of ukuleles.
It makes sense why the tenor uke size is so popular, it still has that ukulele sound, but with a larger fretboard and better sound projection. Generally baritones are not first time buys, except for those switching from guitars as they are comfortable with chord changes in DGBE.
However GCEA is only four steps above DGBE, so once you know how to play one ukulele you can play them all, the fingerings are the same you will just need to do a quick transposing.
Don't let the size issue become too big a deal, starting with soprano, concert, or tenor is fine. And don't fall prey to the "fat fingers" myth, some very tall and large people play the ukulele (and the mandolin too, which is even harder with double course strings).
It's all about practice, even the biggest fingers can learn to play the tiniest soprano. Also there is every chance in the world you will fall madly in love with your uke, and once you own one you will want another. So don't fret too much about the size of your first ukulele, instead focus on the pointers below.
As with buying any instrument, being cheap is a problem. You get what you pay for and the last thing you want is to buy an instrument that isn't even playable. Luckily with ukuleles they are not as complicated to build as guitars and other stringed acoustic family members.
In fact, the ukulele world is so hot right now that a new manufacturer pops up every month. And most companies sell very low priced ukes in hope to grab a piece of the pie. That's not always a bad thing, but you really don't want to fall into the trap of going too low.
Most of us buy online these days, which means we will not get a chance to test the ukulele before it is purchased. Since these instruments are so easy to build, they are straight off the factory assembly line.
The better companies will have quality control in place, but an occasional lemon will slip through the cracks. With a proper return policy you will not get stuck with a wall decoration.
When it comes to stringed instruments, the wood used is very important. Most ukuleles are made with mahogany or acacia, but we will also find spruce, maple, rosewood, mango, and many more. The species of wood will greatly affect the sound, however other factors like strings also play an important role.
The biggest factor concerning wood is whether it is laminated or solid. Laminated wood is made by using pressure or glue to hold different pieces together, while solid wood is just one lone piece. Solid wood is almost always the better and more expensive option, it has incredible sound qualities and requires more long-term care.
These days many ukulele soundboards are made with laminate wood to keep prices low. The technology has become pretty impressive so buying a laminate uke isn't necessarily a bad decision. Of course if you have the budget stick to solid wood, this will sound great and last a long time.
As far as which species of wood to choose, that can depend on a variety of factors. Generally sticking to mahogany for a first time buyer is great advice. If you are curious about other woods one great place to find more info is in reviews from past customers.
The intonation is how each note should sound on the fretboard. If the first string of a ukulele is tuned G, then the first fret will be G#, the next A, then A# and so on up the music scale. Each and every fret should sound exactly in tune as it is supposed to be.
If you order online, this is one of the first things to check once it is in tune. If you go to a brick and mortar store take a tuner or use one on your phone to check intonation. Now on the cheaper ukuleles it is not always perfect especially as we go higher up the fretboard. It's not likely to find perfection on a $60 instrument.
However if the intonation is too far off the instrument will not be playable. Anytime you try to play a chord the notes will be wrong, and it will sound horrible! Not only is intonation an important factor to check, it is a great way to get to know the notes on your ukulele.
Often lower priced ukuleles are padded with accessories to increase the chance of a sale. While this isn't always a bad thing, keep in mind that is less money being put toward the build.
If you find it absolutely necessary to have a gig bag, capo, and other goodies then go for it. Otherwise just stick to buying the best ukulele you can afford. Some accessories are really not necessary, straps and strap holders aren't generally important as the uke can be played without them.
The only accessory you truly need is a tuner, and that can be found online or in an app on your phone. The best tuners are those that show octaves and notes. This can save you a lot of time as a beginner, that way you know your G is a G4 and not a G3. For a beginner this can save hours of frustration.
If you decide to get an electric-acoustic ukulele you will of course need to buy a pickup or purchase one already installed.
Aside from making sure your uke has no major flaws and has a decent build, strings are one of the most important factors in buying a ukulele.
Great strings can make a cheap ukulele sound bright and even project more sound. Strings come in nylon, fluorocarbon, titanium, wound metal, and wound nylon. Do not ever put steel strings on a ukulele, it will break it! The most popular string is Aquila which many users swear by, however just like wood varieties different ukes may require other kinds of strings.
Martin ukes tend to sound great with fluorocarbons, and sometimes titanium strings can really make a uke sound brighter. Start with Aquila Nylgut and experiment with others as you get to know your ukulele better. If you buy a low priced uke they often come with very cheap plastic strings, if that is the case change them as soon as you get it.
As you learn to play your ukulele you will soon discover the pros and cons of what you purchased and can apply it to future decisions. As long as you buy from a reputable dealer with a good return policy you will likely get a great starter uke to get you going.
The reentrant tuning and fickle nature of new strings can be frustrating, but with time it will be no big deal. And in this current climate of ukulele popularity you will have no trouble finding a ton of resources to get you started on your new instrument (all the interactive learning software provided by FaChords have an option of ukulele fretboard).
George Harrison of The Beatles was a known fan and advocate of the uke, he once said you can't play it and not laugh. So welcome to the club of happy musicians who have discovered the joy of ukuleles, it will bring you many smiles and great tunes!
If you want to buy a ukuele, I can suggest you to check Ranch Guitar. I really like the instruments created by them.
Ranch Guitar has a great reputation, as reviews show. Check the website here.
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