Buying An ‘Ukulele

People love to buy ‘ukuleles. So much so that there has even been an acronym created describing the predicament – UAS: ‘Ukulele Aquisition Syndrome.onedoesnot

That said, I write this more for the folks looking for a workhorse ‘ukulele who don’t have the luxury of buying and then trying. Putting serious thought into buying an ‘ukulele is quite a process – a journey more like – and hopefully these are some guidelines and tips to make the road a little less bumpy.

Budget:

The first thing to establish when you are buying an ‘ukulele is how much money you are willing to spend. Of course we all want to drop $5000 on our dream uke with fancy inlay and features up the wazoo – and for some of us it’s worth it. But that’s not a realistic option for many people.

The good news is that the quality of lower priced ‘ukuleles has come up in leaps and bounds since I was shopping for my first ‘ukulele. Just about anything on the market these days is going to have a satisfactory setup for most beginners (and if not from the factory, many sellers will include a setup with your purchase). This was NOT the case only a handful of years ago.

  • <$200 - The low end of the spectrum contains many great instruments. I’ve always thought Kala ‘ukuleles were pretty good bang for your buck. You’re not paying for anything fancy here, though these days you might find something in this price range with a pickup. Keep in mind that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are lots of ways uke makers fake out buyers by adding something that costs them a few extra pennies, but has a perceived value of a lot more.
  • $200-600 – This a the range that has become very powerful over the years. You can really get a fantastic instrument without paying the premium price. Most likely solid wood construction, a pickup, nice tuners, and gobs more quality.
  • $600-1500 – Getting into locally handmade solid wood ‘ukuleles like Kamaka, KoAloha, and Ko’olau. Great, uncompromised sound and “soul.”
  • $1500+ – If you spend it they will build. For a hefty chunk you can get a customized ‘ukulele built just for you by a luthier or one of the smaller “big” companies like Mya-Moe.

Keep in mind that these are loose numbers and will vary by the ‘ukulele’s size. A concert Kamaka will be several hundred dollars less than a tenor.

Stepping vs. Leaping

I see a lot of beginners going out in their first couple of months and buying a custom built Ko’olau. Don’t get me wrong, good quality ukes are the bomb, but, in my opinion, you should have at least a vague idbuying an ukuleleea of what 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 a Kamaka tenor that I’ve had since 2007. Then the icing went on the cake after six years of “doing my time” and I got a custom ‘ukulele from Chuck Moore. Each time I knew better what I liked and what I needed from an upgrade.

Shelling out after month of playing will undoubtedly get you a good instrument, but even when spending buku bucks you have a lot of decisions to make.

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.

  • Laminate 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.
    1. Look at the rim of the soundhole. You can usually see the different layers of wood. 
    2. 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. 
    3. 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 dynamics 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.

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. 

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