What size ‘ukulele you play means a lot visually and sonically, but almost nothing when it comes to actually playing music (except for your familiarity with the feel of the size). Different strokes for different folks. It’s a matter of personal preference what sized uke you decide to call your own.
The Effect Of Size On Sound:
Besides the obvious physical differences, sound tops off the list of what makes each ‘ukulele size unique. If you have Jake Shimabukuro play the same song on four different tenor ‘ukuleles of similar quality, you would notice that they are different, but not in a huge way. However, play the same song on a soprano, concert, tenor, and then baritone and you’d find a much larger range of sounds.
This is due mainly to the resonating space each ‘ukulele has. The smaller the space or surface, the higher the sound. The bigger the space or surface, the lower the sound. Think of a drum kit. Each individual drum functions in the same way, but, assuming everything else is there same, the size dictates the pitch. The ‘ukulele follows the same principle, but instead of producing one note it produces many and the size affects the general tone of the sounds produced.
Also part of the picture is:
You’re probably thinking that “scale” is a sequence of notes that go “do re me…” That’s one definition, but it also refers to the distance of the ringing string – from the nut to the saddle. The length of the scale obviously changes the spacing of the frets, but it also affects how the strings feel to play and sound.
All things being equal, a long scale has more tension than a short scale. Think of a soprano ‘ukulele. It has a scale length of 13-14″ tuned to GCEA. A set of soprano strings are chosen for those tensions and measurements. But put those same strings on a 17″ tenor scale and try tuning it to GCEA and you’ll find that the tuning gets pretty tight before you reach concert pitch.
The tension and scale length also affect the tone of the ‘ukulele. A long scale gives the harmonics and overtones more room to ring and thus has a bright, chime-y sound. A shorter scale forces the overtones into less space for a thick, fuzzy tone.
The scale, length, and fret specs presented below are just averages. Every luthier uses different dimensions.
- Scale length: 13-14 in./Total length: 21 in.
The smallest “normal” size in the ‘ukulele family, the soprano has the recognizable plinky sound that everyone associates with the instrument. If you tell someone that you play the ‘ukulele, odds are that they’ll picture you holding this size (after all, it’s the size Tiny Tim – and many other pop culture uke icons – used).
Some players who rip on the soprano size are: Ohta-San, early Eddie Kamae, George Formby, and many of the old-school, pioneer Hawaiian players like Ernest Ka’ai.
Samuel Kamaka came up with this signature variation on the soprano in the 20s. It’s basically the same size as a soprano, but without the waist. The sound is a little bit more full due to the increased soundboard surface area.
- Scale length: 15-16 in./Total length: 23 in.
The poor concert sized ‘ukulele is kind of the underdog on the size chart. It spans the middle ground between the soprano and tenor sizes and is loved as a compromise for those looking for something in between.
- Scale length: 17-18 in./Total length: 26 in.
Tenor ‘ukuleles are becoming more and more popular as people get used to the less-traditional sound. It offers the longest common scale for GCEA tuning which makes for tight strings ideal for finger picking and any application that needs a stiff response.
Because of this the tenor is a popular performance instrument and it is the size of ‘ukulele most commonly found onstage. Some great tenor players are: Jake Shimabukuro, Herb Ohta Jr., James Hill, David Kamakahi, and Brittni Paiva.
- Scale length: 19-20 in./Total length: 30 in./Usually tuned: DGBE
The baritone ‘ukulele is the biggest of the lot and the unique baritone tuning requires some knowledge or quick transposing to play familiar GCEA songs. Because it’s tuned a fourth down, the baritone is like a small guitar missing the two top strings. This makes it a popular conversion instrument for guitarists looking for some of the ‘ukulele sound. Unlike the other sizes, baritone ‘ukuleles are almost exclusively strung with a low top string (linear tuning – low to high).
Some of the great jazz ‘ukulele players favor the baritone size because of the big frets that allow them to squeeze chords in way up the neck (Byron Yasui, Benny Chong).
Recently a couple of new tuning options for baritone have come to light. These include a high-D tuning that mimics re-entrant standard tuning at a lower pitch and also an octave ‘ukulele tuning. This oddball uses very heavy string gauges to recreate GCEA, but an octave lower than on a normally tuned ‘ukulele.
With the advent of the ‘ukulele becoming so popular, companies are pushing the envelope with new ideas and building styles. Some of these include oddly sized ‘ukuleles that aren’t very traditional.
Little, itty-bitty, this one. With an 11″-ish scale, a pocket uke might very well fit in a big pocket. It’s popular for traveling around, but takes some nimble fingers to fret hard chords!
Just an extra-small soprano with a scale to the tune of 13″+/-.
A bass ‘ukulele is essentially an oversized baritone with HUGE strings on it that are tuned to the same pitch as a traditional bass guitar – EADG. It’s much more travel friendly than an electric bass (and especially an upright!) and has a fat, thumpy tone that makes it a fun alternative to its steel string counterpart (though they are making those kind of ukes too now).
Some brave companies are manufacturing ‘ukuleles that have mismatched body and neck sizes. This configuration allows for the ‘ukulele to have the sound of the smaller body, but with the benefits of the longer scale.
- Longneck Soprano/Super Soprano – A soprano body with a concert neck.
- Longneck Concert/Super Concert – A concert body with a tenor neck.
- Longneck Tenor/Super Tenor – A tenor body with a baritone – or almost baritone – neck.
I think the “super” thing is probably just a marketing ploy. (Unless you wear a cape when you play.)
An ‘ukulele-sized guitar that is tuned to ADGCEA. It’s as if you put a capo on the 5th fret of a guitar.