Buying an ‘ukulele is quite a process. Your ‘ukulele will be your best friend and will challenge you like nothing else. By using some common sense, you can find an ‘ukulele that fits you and your budget.
- Mr. Byron Yasui was kind enough to let me use a great article he wrote – What I look for in an ‘Ukulele. Lots of good professional info and insight.
The first thing to consider when buying an ‘ukulele is how much money you are willing to spend. Prices increase with the quality of the ‘ukulele – you get what you pay for. Try and find the “range” that your future ‘ukulele is in on the list below, this will shorten your search in the long run. These prices will kind of give you an idea what your money will get you, but due to the economy and growing popularity of the ‘ukulele you might find higher or lower prices if you shop around.
- Toy – You might find an ‘ukulele at the ABC store for $10, but it would probably not even be considered an instrument. While the price is right, these are (almost) impossible to tune (trust me, I try every time I see one) and will lead to discouragement quickly.
- $20-40 - This is a better place to start. I wouldn’t be too quick to suggest buying one of these, but lots of people swear by their pink Mahalo U-30.
- $40-80 – An ‘ukulele that would be perfect to start on (I started on one). This is probably soprano or concert ‘ukulele made of laminated wood. I like this range because you will get some build quality, but won’t be committing yourself too much in case you decide you don’t like playing as much as you thought you might. Something like the Lanikai LU-21C concert comes to mind.
- $100-$300 – Concert or tenor size ‘ukulele made of laminated wood, better build quality, maybe a pickup or cut-away. Like a Lanikai CK-TEQ tenor.
- $400-$600 – High-end laminate/solid wood, pickup. The Pono brand (Ko’olau’s budget models) is what I think of for this price range.
- $700+ – Handmade, solid wood, high quality tuning pegs. Kamaka, Koaloha, Ko’olau.
- Custom – These are made just for our heroes like Jake Shimabukuro, Herb Ohta Jr., and James Hill – start practicing. However, if your pocket is padded, there are a few luthiers who will build you a custom anyways.
Keep in mind that these numbers will vary by the ‘ukulele’s size. A concert Kamaka will be several hundred dollars less than a tenor.
I see a lot of people who are just beginning to play going out and buying a custom built Ko’olau. Don’t get me wrong; good quality ukes are the bomb, but you need to have an idea of what kind of great ‘ukulele you are looking for. That knowledge comes from playing for a while. So why not do your experimenting on something a little less nice and expensive. There is no shame in starting small. You’ll learn what you don’t want, and will hopefully have a chance to try some different ‘ukuleles and learn what sound you like before you buy your next ‘ukulele. My order of ukes went: $40 soprano that I learned the basics on, a $120 tenor that I got better on (by this time I had played many ‘ukuleles and picked the brains of every employee at the local music stores), then, when I had done a lot of research (and got a job!), I bought my current ‘ukulele – a Kamaka tenor. Don’t
Laminate vs. Solid Wood:
One big factor in determining an ‘ukulele’s price and sound is whether or not it is made out of laminated wood.
- Laminated wood is essentially plywood – a couple thin sheets of wood glued together to form a thicker, stronger piece. Almost all ‘ukuleles under $300 will be made of laminated wood – it’s cheaper for the builders to use. Laminated wood doesn’t sound nearly as good as solid wood, but it is more durable. I would take a laminated ‘ukulele to the beach, I probably wouldn’t take a solid wood one. You can tell if an ‘ukulele is made from laminated wood by checking a couple of things.
- Look at the rim of the soundhole. You can usually see the different layers of wood.
- Look at the soundboard, you can usually see where the strips of wood are put together (running from the end block towards the fretboard). Keep in mind that even solid wood ‘ukuleles have bookmatched tops and a seam down the middle, but laminated instruments will have seams in more places on the top.
- Check the edges. Where the top and back meets the sides is an additional place to look for the tell-all layers of wood.
- Solid wood will cost you more, but it sounds better than laminate. This is due to the fact that a solid piece of wood transfers the vibrations better than several glued together. You do have to be more careful with a solid wood ‘ukulele because they ding easier. Bottom line: you are paying for a better sounding instrument. Plus, solid koa looks 100 times better than anything that is laminated.
Things to check:
Look down the neck to make sure it is straight and doesn’t twist one way or another.
Fret and play every note on each string all the way up the fretboard to make sure that none of the notes buzz. Some buzzes can be corrected with a good set up and a pair of decent strings, others can’t.
Run your hand down the edges of the fret board to see if the frets are smooth. If they aren’t, they might cut your hand when playing.
Check intonation by playing the twelfth fret harmonic and then playing the note on the twelfth fret, do this for all the strings. If on one of the strings the two pitches differ radically, as you play up the neck, the pitch of the note will go sharp or flat. The intonation of an ‘ukulele is usually off by a little bit anyways because it does not have an adjustable bridge like an electric guitar.
Make sure that the nut and saddle are lined up over the neck. If they are not lined up, one of the outside strings (G or A) will be closer to the edge of the fretboard than the other. If this is the case, the string might slide off the edge of the fretboard when played carelessly.
Check for dings and scratches. A used instrument is more likely to be banged up. This may not be a factor for you – especially if the ‘ukulele sounds great.
Play it! Be sure to check out the entire range of sounds the instrument can offer. It’s a music store, everyone in there loves music (you expect), they won’t have a problem with you playing loud for a while. Advice: Just avoid songs that everyone associates with the ‘ukulele like “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” or (nowadays) Jake’s version of “Gently Weeps”. I’ve heard of stores that have banned guitarists from playing “Stairway to Heaven” or “Smoke on the Water” because they were so sick of hearing those songs over and over again. We don’t want to banned from doing anything.
Final tips for buying an ‘ukulele:
Talk to the guys at the music store. Most of the time they have great advice and the experience to back it up. Tell them what you want and how much you want to spend. From there they can guide you to ukes that will work best for you. (But don’t let them sell you something you don’t need.)
Check out all the local (and not local) music stores. If they carry ‘ukuleles, odds are they have a different selection to look at. Plus prices might be better at one store than another.
Talk to your friends and other musicians, ‘ukulele players or not, most musicians know a bit about other instruments and they can give you advice or at least assess quality.
Personally, I would never buy a high end instrument without being able to play it first. Each handmade ‘ukulele has its own quirks and even though most are all built using the same process, some will feel or sound better than others. Just because your friend’s [whatever brand] sounds unreal, doesn’t mean the one you buy online sight unseen will be as great (it probably won’t be bad – all handmade ‘ukuleles are “nice” – but some sing more than others.)
This is my main advice: When you are shopping for a higher end ‘ukulele, play every ‘ukulele in your price/size/interest range that the shop has to offer. This includes ukes of the same model (if there are three Kamaka 4-string tenors on the rack and two in the back of the shop, ask to play them all). If none of them sing to you, walk away and go back to the shop in a week or two. I went crazy looking for my current ‘ukulele, I visited the music shop(s) many times when I was shopping – it was on the other side of the island too, so I only could only go every couple of months. At the same time, I was learning all kinds of things about the instruments. That gave me plenty of time to think. I encourage you to do the same. Do your homework – spend your money on exactly what you need. Find an instrument that you connect with.