The Best Ukulele
What is the Best Ukulele?
Finding the right ukulele can be a difficult process. Ukuleles come in a large variety of sizes, shapes and building components. All these factors influence how the uke will sound and there are so many choices today. This is a guide intended to help you understand what you should be looking for in a ukulele and to help you find the best ukulele for your budget and skill level.
our Top 10 Ukuleles
The Best Beginner Ukuleles under $100
- Donner DUC-1 Mahogany Concert
- Kala KA-15S Mahogany Soprano
- Cordoba 15TM Tenor Ukulele
- Lanikai LU-21C Concert Ukulele
The Best Beginner Ukuleles under $200
The Best Intermediate / Advanced Ukuleles
The Best Electro Acoustic Ukulele
Ukulele Buyers Guide
What Is a Ukulele?
A ukulele is a small, fretted, Hawaiian string instrument. It is sometimes described as a tiny guitar, but this is inaccurate. While both are fretted string instrument, they have several notable differences. While a guitar has six strings, the ukulele has only 4. The ukulele’s first string is actually higher pitched than the two strings below it, giving it a unique sound.
Things to Consider When Buying a Ukulele for a Beginner
The most important factors to consider when buying for a beginner are how well it says in tune and picking the right size. If the instrument doesn’t stay in tune practicing will sound awful, and it is easy to be discouraged. The second factor is size. If the instrument is too big or too small you will find it very difficult to play.
If you go into a music store, you will likely see some extremely cheap options for around $20-$40 dollars. It might be tempting to buy one of these and be done with it, but I strongly advise against that. Isntruemnts in this price range are pretty much guaranteed to never stay in tune. If you invest in a ukulele that is $50-$100 dollars you can get an instrument that will stay in tune, and you will have a choice in what size you want. While a $50-dollar ukulele won’t be made of quality materials and won’t sound as nice as a $500 one, if it stays in tune and is the right size learning will be fun and enjoyable and you can upgrade to a better one later. The best ukuleles are usually $500 or more.
Materials & Construction
The most important wood in determining how an instrument will sound is the tonewood. Ukuleles use a variety of tonewoods. This is a guide to some of the most common ones and how they affect the sound.
Mahogany is a very common tonewood, especially in cheaper ukuleles. The laminate version is called Nato wood. Mahogany has a warm, clear sound. It has a good balance between highs, mids and lows. It’s clear and balanced sound makes it ideal for those just starting out who aren’t sure of their preferences. Mahogany has a darker brown appearance.
Spruce is very common in acoustic guitars, and that has carried over to ukuleles. Spruce is a stiff but light wood. Spruce is brighter than Mahogany, but it is also well-rounded like Mahogany. Spruce has a much lighter appearance than Mahogany.
Maple is a heavy wood with a flat sound. Maple is good at reducing feedback or unwanted overtones in an instrument. For this reason, it is often used on the backs and sides of ukuleles. The exact color of Maple varies, but it is a lighter colored wood.
Koa is the traditional wood used to make ukuleles and most manufacturers in Hawaii still prefer it. Koa is known to have strong resonance and sustain as well as a bright sound with an emphasized mid-range. Koa is believed by many ukulele players to be the best tonewood. Its high reputation and the limited supply of Koa wood means that Koa ukuleles are some of the priciest available.
Parts of the Ukulele:
The strings you have on your ukulele have a big effect on how it sounds. When buying strings, it is important to get the right size strings for your instrument. It is also important to change your strings periodically. Old strings won’t stay in tune as well, are more prone to breaking and have a muddier sound. You should change your strings every 3-6 months.
Ukulele strings are made from a variety of different materials. At first, they all had gut strings made from animal intestines. Some people today still prefer the sound of gut strings, but they are more expensive because few manufacturers make them. Most modern-day ukuleles have nylon strings, which manufacturers switched to because they lasted longer and were cheaper. Fluorocarbon strings have also been becoming more popular because they are louder, and some people find them to have a brighter sound. Occasionally you will see metal wound strings, like those of steel string guitars. Finally, there is Nylgut strings, which is a material invented by string manufacturer Aquila. Nylgut is supposed to combine the positive attributes of both nylon and gut strings.
Cheaper ukuleles will usually come with cheap, low quality strings. Investing a couple of bucks in higher quality strings is a cheap way to improve the instrument’s sound
Neck, Fretboard and Frets
The neck is the long, thinner part of the ukulele. On top of the neck is the fretboard, which has elevated lines which are the frets. The fretboard and neck have little influence on the quality of sound of the instrument. The most important thing to watch out for when it comes to the fretboard is that the frets are even. Uneven frets can cause the pitch of a note to be inaccurate or the string to buzz.
The headstock is at the end of the neck of the ukulele. The headstock also doesn’t have any impact on how the ukulele sounds. There are several different headstock shapes, the most popular is the three-pointed crown headstock. Some heads are slotted, and others are solid. Usually the brand name is on the headstock, and some headstocks have decorative designs.
Tuning pegs are incredibly important because if you have bad ones your instrument will never stay in tune. There are two types of tuning pegs, friction pegs and gear pegs. Friction pegs rely on the friction between the peg and the headstock to keep the string in tune. Gear pegs use an interlocking gear system to keep the string in tune. Usually gear tuners will do a better job at keeping a instruemnt in tune but tend to be more expensive.
Soundboard and Soundhole
The soundboard is the wood on top of the body. The soundhole is the hole under the strings. The soundboard and soundhole have the biggest effect on how a ukulele sounds. The tonewood used in the soundboard has the biggest effect on the overall sound of the instrument. The size of the soundhole in relation to the size of the body influences the instrument’s sound. Usually a smaller soundhole increases the amount of bass sounds heard.
Bridge, Saddle, and Nut
The bridge is the part of the ukulele on the body where the strings go in. On top of the bridge is the saddle, which creates tension in the strings. On the end of the fretboard is the nut, which is usually made of the same material as the saddle. The height of the saddle and nut affect action, which is how high the strings are off the fretboard of the guitar. A low action makes it easier to press down the strings and therefore easier to play, but if the action is too low it can cause the strings to buzz and give the instrument a muddy sound. A higher action makes it harder to press down on the strings, but some prefer the tone or feel of a higher action.
The saddle and nut are usually made of either plastic, bone or some other synthetic material such as Tusq. Cheap ukuleles have cheap plastic saddle and nut, Tusq is usually considered mid-grade quality, although some prefer its sound over more expensive choices. Most consider bone to be the best material available and its used on the most expensive instruments.
Shapes & Sizes
Ukuleles come in a variety of shapes. The most common is the guitar shaped ukulele. The pineapple shape is another popular shape that matches the ukulele’s island feel. The boat paddle shape resembles that of a boat oar, it has an oval shape with a flattened bottom. There are also banjo ukuleles which look and sound like a miniature banjo.
Ukuleles come in four main size. In order of smallest to largest they are soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The first three are all tuned the same. The baritone ukulele is tuned like the high four strings of a guitar. Usually a concert size is a good choice for beginners, not too small and not too big. If you do have large hands though you may want to start with a tenor.
Acoustic vs. Acoustic-Electric
Some ukuleles have a pickup installed that allow them to be plugged into an amplifier. While this comes in handy if you start playing shows, acoustic-electrics are more expensive and usually beginners won’t need an acoustic-electric. If you are already a musician playing shows and you want to start using the ukulele in your performances, it may be a good idea to start with an Acoustic-Electric.
New vs. Used
Most people think it is best to buy instruments new. This usually means you can trust there is nothing wrong with it or be able to return it if something is wrong. If you buy used however you can usually get a better sounding instrument for the same amount of money. Some stores and websites even have return policies when buying used instruments. Both options have their benefits.
If you are a beginner, you may be wondering what accessories you will need. A tuner is essential for beginners and clip-on tuners are relatively inexpensive. A case is also probably a good idea. Hard shell cases offer more protection but are more expensive than soft cases. Lastly, you may want a strap. Ukuleles are typically played without a strap, but you may feel more comfortable with one.
A Brief History of the Ukulele
Ukuleles are a traditional Hawaiian instrument. It was invented in the 1800’s and was based off various Portuguese guitars. People sometimes use the British spelling “ukelele.” The instrument became popular in the continental United States between the 1920’s but declined in popularity after the 1960’s.
Some popular Ukulele songs
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole brought back interest in the instrument with his popular covers of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.”
The creation of Youtube helped renew interest in the ukulele as well and Jake Shimabukuro’s cover of “While My guitar Gently Weeps” was one of the first videos to go viral. He covered other popular songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Mumford and Sons’ song “I Will Wait” also became a popular song to cover.
The Best Ukulele Reviews
Beginner Ukuleles Under $100
The Donner DUC-1 is a great value that makes it a great beginner choice. The concert size and rosewood fingerboard make it relatively easy to play for anybody with small to medium sized hands.
While it loses some points for using a laminate mahogany wood and rather average tuning pegs, this is not unusual for this price range. The DUC-1 stays in tune well enough that you won’t have to be retuning in the middle of practicing. The DUC-1 has a good, warm sound which isn’t particularly special, but is excellent for this price range. Donner instruments also come with all the accessories you will need such as a soft case, tuner, and extra strings.
The Kala KA15S is an average ukulele overall, but its low price point makes it a good value. It is made of a cheaper laminate wood which is to be expected. It has gear tuners which will stay in tune a bit better than most options this cheap. It has quality Aquila strings which is a plus.
Overall its sound is nothing special but a step up from most budget alternatives. The soprano size gives it a bright sound, but this is balanced out by the mahogany wood giving it a better low and mid end than most budget sopranos. This is a great choice for beginners with small hands and younger players.
The Cordoba 15TM Tenor is on the upper end of the under-$100 price range. This shows in its design. It has an all mahogany body which is laminate, but the abalone design makes it look like a more expensive instrument. The craftsmanship that goes into this instrument makes sure it doesn’t have the small imperfections you may find in cheaper instruments.
The sound is a step up from some of the cheaper alternatives in this price range. The Cordoba 15TM stays in tune well. The tenor size is especially good for larger-handed people, and pretty much everyone except children will find this instrument comfortable to play.
The Lanikai LU-21C Concert is a popular and decent beginner ukulele. Its body is Nato mahogany. It has a very average design. The sound is better than the cheapest alternatives, but there are other better sounding choices in this price range. It has slightly better tuning pegs than the absolute budget alternatives, but it will still need to be retuned during longer practice sessions and performances. This is a good budget choice for beginners who want to learn on a concert size.
Beginner Ukuleles Under $200
The Oscar Schmidt OU5 Concert is an excellent mid-range choice. It uses Hawaiian Koa wood with a glossy finish for the body. Its neck is Nyatoh with a rosewood fingerboard. It uses quality gear tuners. The abalone finish on the body is an excellent touch and this isntrument looks beautiful. The sound is just incredible for its price. It’s sound is on the brighter end, and it has excellent projection.
The OU5 is an excellent choice for a beginner who doesn’t want to have to worry about upgrading their uke later. While it is in the pricier $100-$200 range the Oscar Schmidt OU5 plays like a much more expensive instrument than it is.
The Cordoba 20CM Concert is another fantastic uke in the under-$200 price range. It has a mahogany body with a solid top, which is a step up from the 15M line. The mahogany wood gives it a warmer sound than the Oscar Schmidt OU5. The satin finish with the natural wood rosette makes it a great looking instrument for those who prefer a simpler design when compared with the Oscar Schmidt. This is another great sounding instrument that beginner and intermediate players alike will love.
Best Ukuleles for Intermediate & Advanced Players
The Kala KA-ATP-CTG Tenor has a solid cedar top. The cedar wood along with its tenor size gives it a pronounced low end. It has quality Grover tuners with a slotted head design. While the Kala KA-ATP CTG sounds excellent and for the most part has excellent building materials, I docked some points of value due to its high price. With its higher price I was disappointed it had a plastic saddle and not a bone one. While this is an excellent sounding instrument, if you are looking for the best bang for you buck it may be better to go with one of the under $200 alternatives.
The Lanikai Kaena Solid Koa concert is one of the best ukuleles you can buy from a major brand. It uses the highest quality materials. Its body is all top-quality solid Koa. It has a solid mahogany neck with a high-quality rosewood fretboard. It’s nut and saddle are made of real bone. It has high quality Gotoh tuners. The abalone inlay on the head is beautiful.
These instruments are handmade in Hawaii and are built to last for generations. While it is very expensive, you get what you are paying for with this uke. This is easily the highest quality option on this list.
If you are a guitar player, you probably recognize the Martin brand. Martin is best known for making some of the highest quality acoustic guitars available. Their ukuleles are equally high quality. The T1K’s body is all solid Koa wood. The neck is made of Sipo wood, a type of African Mahogany. The nut and saddle are Tusq instead of bone, but that is really a minor flaw and some will actually prefer the Tusq.
While it is pricier than all the other choices on this list aside from the Kaena, it is an incredible value because this is such a fantastic instrument worth much more than what it is priced at.
Best Electro-Acoustic Uke
Luna is a brand known for making beautifully designed instruments. The High Tide Koa is no exception. The body is made of a Koa laminate with a satin finish that shows off the natural beauty of the Koa. The cutaway body makes playing the high frets easier. The neck is Nato and the fretboard is walnut. The fretboard has beautiful abalone inlays. Luna ukes have quite a nice warm sound with a pronounced low end. If you need an electric-acoustic for performances this is an excellent choice, and a great value.