People love to buy ʻukuleles. So much so that there has even been an acronym created describing the predicament – UAS: ʻUkulele Aquisition Syndrome. And why not? An ʻukulele is a thing of joy. More ʻukuleles = more joy, right?
That said, I write this more for the folks looking for their next special, workhorse ʻukulele who want the best bang for their buck – whatever that might be.
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.
Mr. Byron Yasui was kind enough to let me use a great article he wrote called What I Look For In An ʻUkulele. I’ve used excepts of it here to augment certain sections. You can also find the entire piece here: What I Look For In An ʻUkulele.
Big Picture ʻUkulele Factors:
Before you zoom into looking at the details of your new ʻukulele, it’s best to take an overview of what you need.
The first thing to consider is what you want this new ʻukulele to do. Will it be a beach/lake-side beater? A display-in-a-wall-mounted-case piece of art? A stage-ready, touring machine? Each has its place and you need to figure out where you sit on the spectrum. Compromises abound when shopping for an instrument!
The Beater/Party Uke
Some ʻukuleles need to be extra sturdy at the sacrifice of some other things to hold up under extreme conditions. These conditions can normally be filed under “outdoors.” Nature is not a friend to wooden instruments.
To combat rain and other adverse conditions, you want the ʻukulele to be made out of as sturdy a material as possible. Obviously, the best would be something waterproof like plastic or carbon fiber. Bugsgear makes an Aqualele that is all plastic (except for the tuning pegs). Blackbird makes a higher-end carbon fiber instrument that is also significantly rainproof.
But that’s less than charming to some people and tends to not sound as nice as wood. An alternative that would still take a beating is a uke made of laminated wood and sealed with a thick finish. Or a compromise between the two like a Flea, which has plastic back and sides with a laminated wood top.
The Best-Sounding Uke
Everything else aside, there are situations where you want to have the best possible sounding ʻukulele. The studio, in your living room, at the kani ka pila – relatively safe environments where the build compromises needed to make a great sounding ʻukulele can sacrifice a bit of durability.
We all know what sounds good when we hear it, but getting an instrument to that point is mostly a mystery except to those few who build them. Several builders contributed their thoughts to the sound section later in this guide.
In general though, the best sounding instruments are hand made, solid wood, and lightly built. Of course, any Joe Blow (or world class builder) can build an ʻukulele within those guidelines and make it sound terrible.
The stage demands a different set of qualities in an ʻukulele. The main being a pickup system that kicks it. This encompasses the pickup itself, but also the install that can make or break the tone of the produced signal.
Another thing to consider is the durability of the instrument. Gigging is pretty demanding on gear for one reason or another. You might not want to perform with your $10,000, one-of-a-kind instrument because bad things always seem to happen when you least expect it.
James Hill on an ideal performance ʻukulele:
- Light construction: My number-one consideration! If it’s over-built then it just won’t sing.
- Balance: Often the neck and headstock are too heavy (bulky tuners, chunky neck). This really throws off the instrument’s mojo.
- Neck edges: I always run my fingers along the edge of the neck to feel for sharp fret-ends. It’s like a litmus test: if the luthier is worth their salt, they’ll make sure the frets don’t protrude from the side of the fretboard. If they DO, you’ll probably find other small details that have been overlooked!
- Intonation: I’m actually quite relaxed about intonation. I’ve never played an instrument with 100% perfect intonation and I think it’s such a personal thing… no instrument can have 100% perfect intonation because it’s an inexact science. Many would disagree, but that’s my opinion. It’s also something that can be fine-tuned. Of course, an instrument has to have excellent intonation but I don’t get my tail in a knot if it’s less than perfect.
- The Top: I prefer a soft-wood top. Period. If you’re going to be playing un-amplified with fiddles, banjos, basses, cellos, guitar and mandolins you need the loudest sound you can get. That means a soft-wood top, probably spruce or cedar.
The size of ʻukulele you choose is the most obvious factor in your shopping quest.
Bigger ukes have more finger room and a more even, warm tone. Vice versa for smaller ʻukuleles. Or maybe you want something more unconventional…
Something to consider when looking for an instrument is how many frets it has. If you play lots of Jake-like arrangements where you’re constantly up past the 12th fret, be sure to put your money towards something that will accommodate that. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean you have to use them. But if they’re not, you’ll never get them back.
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.
If you want more details than are provided below, I wrote an article on what affects the price of an ʻukulele. It dives into the material and labor costs of building ukes along with an expanded price ranges section.
From toy to clunky first-instrument, this is where most people start. The quality isn’t anything special at this point, but you certainly don’t need to baby an ʻukulele that only cost $30. The Makala Dolphin is one of the more well-regarded cheap ʻukuleles.
Children delight in the bright colored, and decorated fun ukuleles that are available in the low-cost ukulele groups. So if an for the infant who is 2…., a student in school….., or a Senior is 102….. very low-cost ukes are extremely important and are grossly under-used.
Worthy brands of low-cost ukuleles are Mahalo, Diamond Head, and many, many others.
There are no bad ukes!
~Roy Cone from UkuleleWorld.com
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.
For many people who can spend a few bucks more … the ukuleles from $50 to $150 are an actual gold-mine of value and pleasure without wrecking the family budget. There really are some carefully constructed, nicely finished, easily playing, good sounding ukuleles available. Production ukuleles are precision factory made and are very uniform from uke-to-uke.
Modest priced ukuleles are generally made from laminated wood, but that is not bad. Laminates are stronger, stable…. less apt to warp and develop hairline cracks along grain separations. Laminates are not the cheap plywood type material that goes under the shingles on the top of your house. Even sometimes grain patterns in the outside laminate ply is attractively displayed.
And even better in this group are the smoother and better tuning pegs, precision geared tuning machines, carefully constructed polymer strings that are not just rebranded nylon fishing lines, better fingerboards, nuts and saddle inserts.
Finishes are not spectacular, yet they are well-done, protective and serviceable.
Brands….. hum?….. your would never guess that I would mention our Talina brand which we import. I think there are at least 200 brands in this group. We like the Oscar Schmidts, Kala, and especially Ohana brands.
~Roy Cone from UkuleleWorld.com
This is a 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.
I’ve always thought the Pono ʻukuleles are well made for the price.
Oh, there are so many absolutely beautiful, absolutely great sounding, precision semi-custom built ukuleles available at this time.
I call these “furniture-buyers” because as with furniture a lot of effort is devoted to grain details of the solid woods used, precision book matching, precision internal bracing and so very carefully construction…… and mirror perfect finishes. Beautiful inlays begin to appear that don’t sound a bit better, but give the instrument a lot of GEE-WHIZ.
Almost all of the better builders have some of these ukuleles at the top of their lines. There is no best because as they say “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”
~Roy Cone from UkuleleWorld.com
Getting into Hawaiian handmade solid wood ‘ukuleles like Kamaka, KoAloha, and Ko’olau. Great, uncompromised sound and “soul.” As far as I’m concerned, this is sort of where the standard of the ʻukulele lives. Any of these ʻukuleles, baring a fluke inconsistency, will be a great workhorse for just about anybody.
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.
[…] custom builders are the “brain-trust” for making ever better looking, more assertive, delightful playing ukuleles. Custom builder do endless experiments seeking even tiny improvements….. results are often just a pile of sawdust. An “Eureka” is hard to come-by.
Custom builders take the customer’s dreams and then build ukuleles far better than the customer thought possible. Although there are custom builders in many countries, those that come to my mind are part of the Ukulele Builder’s Guilds of the Hawaiian Islands.
Although these custom builders compete for sales, they readily share with each other the things that work…. and the things that do-not-work.
~Roy Cone from UkuleleWorld.com
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.
How Much Should You Spend?
At the end of the day, how much you CAN spend on your next ʻukulele is going to come down to how padded your coffers are. For someone who drives around in a Porche, a $5000 custom Moore Bettah might feel like an “expensive” ʻukulele, but for the college student, $300 might break the bank. Both will most likely provide similar amounts of satisfaction and happiness to their respectful owners because of their value to each.
Don’t take out a loan for your next uke! There are great instruments to be had for only a couple hundred dollars (or less!).
That said, if you know you’re in it for the long run, buy the best you can afford. You’ll never wonder how much better a Kamaka is than a Pono if you just bone up and buy it – IF the funding is available to you. At a certain point though (upwards of around $2500), you can’t buy more quality and any additional money is going towards “bling” and the name brand.
Stepping vs. Leaping
There is a sort of natural progression that happens when you start playing ʻukulele.
- You get your first cheap ʻukulele to see if you even like playing.
- Then you realize its shortcomings and you buy a better instrument – something that addresses these concerns.
- What you don’t realize when you buy the next one is that it ALSO has some shortcomings! So you need a new ʻukulele that’s even better…
This can go on for several instruments until you finally find “ʻukulele nirvana.” There is, of course, no such thing, but you reach a certain point where your playing can’t keep up with the quality of the ʻukulele and you remain happy.
I think this is a healthy process. It allows you to step up your knowledge in notches without jumping into an expensive instrument you know nothing about. In my opinion, you need have at least a vague idea of what you are looking for. Impulse purchasing is not a luxury most of us can afford. That knowledge comes from playing for a while. So why not do your experimenting on something a little less nice and a little less 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.
For example, my order of ukes went:
- Day 1: $40 Toleno soprano that mom bought for me to start on. I learned the basics on this and that I wanted to stick with it. (There’s probably more people who stop here than those who continue playing.)
- Several months in: $120 Hula Ukes tenor. The Teleno taught me that I wanted a bigger, nicer instrument. Conditions met. (I also wanted a pickup, but the guy at the music store convinced me to wait – and I’m grateful for that.)
- 2 years in: $700 (at the time) Kamaka HF-3 tenor. This was bought after a LOT of research, playing more, and getting a “real” job. (Finally got the pickup!)
- 8 years in: Moore Bettah custom tenor. After “doing my time” I got a custom ‘ukulele from Chuck Moore.
I’m pretty much at the top with Chuck’s ʻukulele so the next time I might get a new uke is when it wears out, I want something “different,” or I accidentally find something that I like more.
Each time I knew better what I liked and what I needed from an upgrade.
Shelling out after a month of playing will undoubtedly get you a good instrument, but even when spending buku bucks you have a lot of decisions to make. Those decissions are much more informed if you play for a while and learn the ropes.
Getting A Custom ʻUkulele
If you decide that you want to go the extra mile and have an ʻukulele specifically built for you, get out your wallet and dream big.
The first step is to locate a luthier (ʻukulele builder) that you want to work with. Qualifying factors might include: their work, location, price, personality, etc… Most builds include the building of a relationship between the luthier and yourself so be sure you like them!
I’m not the most hip guy in this area. I think I’ve sold one ʻukulele over my years of playing. But if you’re concerned about being able to flip an instrument and make back most of the money you spent, here are some guidelines.
- Buy brand name. Selling a Kamaka is much easier than a uke by some no-name startup company.
- Keep it clean. Any ding or scratch counts against your asking price.
- No stickers or signatures. It will be hard to find a buyer who has the same tastes as you if you’ve altered your ʻukulele unless you’re intentionally going for the “collectable” thing.
- Be willing to ship it. Try and sell a uke in three different locations and I bet you’d be able to ask three different prices. What the market will bear varies greatly by location. Selling to a bigger audience gives you a better chance of getting the best price.
I made this meme several years ago for fun and it’s pretty spot on. If you like playing ʻukulele (or even just like the idea of the ʻukulele), chances are you won’t be happy with just one. There’s always a better instrument or something different to look forward to (baritones and banjoleles and electrics and…!). That’s great. But I do worry about one specific type of person that doesn’t seem to quite “get it.”
This is the “buying this uke will make me sound better” player. For the most part, he is incorrect in his statement. A new ʻukulele is not going to make YOU sound better if you have neglected to practice necessary skills. The ʻukulele might sound better than your last one. It might even be easier to play (which can lend itself to improving your playing). But it’s not going to make you a more skilled ʻukulele player.
That is the hard-ass in me talking, but it’s true and it’s sort of sad to watch people throw money at a problem that can be fixed with some dedicated practice. 90% of a players sound comes from their skill/fingers. Think your ʻukulele is holding you back? Try handing it to James Hill.
I’m not saying that a new ʻukulele can’t raise the potential quality of your sound or inspire you to practice more, but the act of buying another ʻukulele will, in itself, not make you a better player and is a poor excuse for being lazy. Trust me. I’ve experienced several new ʻukuleles and each time I find I’m no further along than I was. *Sigh…* Back to the woodshed!
This embodies tone, which is a very personal thing that’s hard to put into words. Aside from that, the attack for the note for each fret of each string must be buzz free, the sustain must be reasonably long without a sudden decay, the projection must be reasonably far reaching, and all of the above must be even from lowest to highest note with no sudden spikes or drops. The result will be an instrument that sounds very full.
~Byron Yasui – What I Look For In An ʻUkulele
I’m not a scientist, nor do I desire to dissect something that comes down to very personal preference and has been written about before. So my input on this section shall be short, containing some links to great resources that explain everything I would want to share.
This first article overviews the reasons a guitar (same principles for ʻukulele) sounds the way it does and how to describe some of these things. A short, informative read.
This next link is more of a reference for those who really want to get nitty-gritty describing sounds.
I believe that the potential greatness in an ukulele lies within the wood that we use. I as the builder try to unlock the potential that the woods used to create the instrument have, so it is crucial to use the best woods possible.
~Pepe Romero Jr.
Used to be that an ʻukulele was constructed with Koa – that was it. But since Koa is becoming more scarce and the public is opening up to new tonewood possibilities, there is now a wide variety of options on the market.
Which tonewood you decide on for your ʻukulele is just one more piece of the puzzle. All other things the same, the wood will affect the sound of the ʻukulele. How much really depends on a million things. Listen to a production Kamaka and a production KoAloha back to back. Same wood? Yes. Do they sound the same? Absolutely not.
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. It costs builders less to use laminated woods so many low-end ʻukuleles are constructed with them in an effort to maximize profits on a cheap uke.
You can tell if an ‘ukulele is made from laminated wood by checking a couple of things:
1. Examine the rim of the soundhole. You can usually see the different layers of wood in the thickness of the top.
2. Check the edges. Where the top and back meets the sides is an additional place to look for the tell-all layers of wood.
3. Look at the soundboard. You can sometimes see where skinny strips of wood are put together (running parallel to the strings). Keep in mind that even solid wood ‘ukuleles have bookmatched tops and a seam down the middle, but laminated instruments will sometimes have seams in more places on the top. This is probably the least reliable way to spot a laminate ʻukulele.
Of course, that was in the “old” days before the el cheapo ʻukulele companies realized that the more people they faked out the more ukes they could sell. Nowadays you’re much more likely to find binding around the soundbox and the soundhole to hide these obvious giveaways.
Laminated wood usually doesn’t sound as good as solid wood (it has a tighter, more focused sound that some say lack depth), but it is more durable.
Solid wood will cost you more, but it generally sounds better than laminate. This is due to the fact that a solid piece of wood transfers sound vibrations better than several glued together. You do have to be more careful with a solid wood ‘ukulele because they are damaged easier (and usually cost more). Bottom line: you are paying for a better sounding instrument. Plus, solid koa looks 100 times better than just about anything that is laminated (though the guys at Kala are getting pretty good at recreating visual depth in a 1/32th of an inch piece of wood).
In order for an ukulele to have a beautiful tone with good power and projection they need to be built lightly. It is too easy to overbuild ukuleles. The vibration of the top, and entire instrument drives the sound production, so I focus on making an instrument that pumps and vibrates freely. When you have an instrument set up properly and is lightly built it is also easier to play because there is less tension built into the top making the instrument more relaxed in your hands.
When you have an ukulele built this way it is inspiring to play, it really sings with a rich tone, power, sustain and overtones. Ukuleles like this are something to fall in love with.
~Pepe Romero Jr.
It seems that each ʻukulele builder uses a different bracing pattern, thickness of wood, finishes, etc… to make what they claim is the best-sounding ʻukulele. You can learn about these different procedures and techniques from a Google search or book on lutherie. (You might have to seek out guitar-specific material, but the concepts are generally the same.)
When I asked my friend (widely renowned as a world-class ʻukulele builder) about what build specs would *technically* make the best-sounding ʻukulele, he declined to give me an answer because of his lack of confidence in what actually makes the magic happen. The variables that occur when building an ʻukulele are profound so to name one thing that makes the tone better is sort of an educated stab-in-the-dark.
With the previous point in mind, imagine five ʻukuleles built the same exact way (a production uke) and with the same strings. Most likely they will sound similar. But most likely there will be one that sounds better than others (perhaps by a wide margin). What? They’re the same ʻukulele! Yes, but the amount of things that went right for that one ʻukulele add up to more than the rest. There’s no way to quantify this, but assume it would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to try multiple ʻukuleles of the same model.
Handmade ʻukuleles will have a larger margin of error by default, so while this might not be noticeable in five Kalas of the same model, five Kamakas will probably each sound unique.
The proof for me was when I was shopping for my Kamaka. I decided that the HF-3 was the model I wanted and the guy at the music store said “Okay, I’ll bring some out.” I proceeded to play four or five instruments, all great. But the one I ended up buying was obviously the winner sound-wise from the first strum. Even my dad (zero musical experience) who was standing by said that it sounded best.
How easy or hard an ʻukulele is to play, to me, is almost as important as the sound. This factor really helps or hinders your playing. There are many small things that affect the playability of an ʻukulele, but here are a few key ones:
The action of an instrument is how high the strings sit above the frets. It can be adjusted from either side of the scale – at the nut and also at the saddle.
Low action makes it easier to press the strings down, but it also creates a bigger window for buzzes to happen and can choke the ringing potential of the string.
High action forces you to play harder because the strings require more pressure to come into contact with the frets. But high action lets the string ring free and can lead to a bigger sound.
It’s a trade-off. One setup might work better on one ʻukulele than another. It’s just a matter of personal preference.
The size of the frets affects the feel of the ʻukulele and how easy it can be to move around. In general, narrower frets have more precise intonation since the break point of the string is more focused. Wider frets can feel easier to play and wear out slower, but once they do wear out the wider surface area can give you more problems than a worn-out narrow fret. Taller frets are easier to push the string into contact with, but feel more “bumpy.” Shorter frets feel smooth, but require the string to be pressed right up against to fretboard.
Andrew Kitakis on the importance of a setup:
At this time we [Hawai’i Music Supply] have 3 full time setup techs with extensive experience as well as my help regularly as we get behind. Actually most are more than full time and Joel works on nothing but Hawaiian made and higher end custom ukes. This is his full time job.
While most [ukes] are fine straight from the company, they are not optimal in every way and this is all he [Joel] works on for over 40 hours a week. As much as people want to think that above a certain price range you will not need our expertise, the reality is that you will benefit from our dedication. Short of what Chuck [Moore] does, every single ukulele we sell requires attention to play up to it’s ability.
[…] setup has become this buzz word that many without real luthier experience throw out there as a way to market their value. And while they may try to emulate what they see, it can be more complex of an issue than they understand. About 5 minutes into the video at the top of this page Eli touches on some of the issues you have to comprehend in this process – http://www.theukulelesite.com/meet-the-team. Eli has only a few years of full time education and experience with this but our other two guys in setup, Chris and Joel, have been doing this for over 7 years and have setup well over 50,000 ukes. I know what we offer the community and always wish I could convey this better without it coming across as a marketing BS because it’s real and it’s our daily struggle to uphold in an honest, hard working effort to give the best value in ukulele that is possible.
Again, size comes into play with the playability of an ʻukulele. I won’t go into crazy detail because much of this can be found on the sizes page, but in general…
- Bigger ʻukulele = a stiffer feel across the strings.
- Smaller ʻukulele = a lighter feel across the strings.
Because of scale length the tension of the string and their feel changes across the sizes.
The cutaway is a mythical thing – or it was when I was still fairly green. It removes the lower bout nearest the fretboard to allow easier fretting access to higher frets – somewhere only GOOD players went (so I thought)!
Out of all the features an ʻukulele can have (besides maybe a pickup), I feel the cutaway on my Moore Bettah opened the most doors for me. It really does make it easier to reach five or more frets beyond what you normally get on a standard ʻukulele. Given the option, with my playing style, I will always say yes to a cutaway.
But it’s not for everyone. Some concerns people have are the price due to the cutaway making the build harder for the luthier and its effect on the sound. The cutaway essentially reduces the surface area of the soundboard so *technically* you might get a better sound without one. Another thing to consider is: will you actually use a cutaway? Be honest with yourself and your needs because once you add a cutaway to your ʻukulele wish-list your buying options drop well in half.
This is sort of a new-fangled thing in ʻukulele building that gets mixed reviews. A radiused fretboard is one that has a slight curve to it. Guitars have been built with a fretboard radius for a long time to help make barre chords easier on the hand across many strings. You won’t notice it until you feel or examine the instrument, but it definitely affects the way the uke plays.
The thought process is that a relaxed hand curves in the fingers. So having a curve in the fretboard allows for a more comfortable finger contact across the strings. This allows for easier chording – especially with barre chords.
The trade-off is that picking, bending, and tapping single notes gets a little more awkward because you’re adding another dimension to the mix – an angle you’re playing around. This becomes more pronounced when you play high up the neck.
You measure a fretboard radius in inches. The number used comes from the radius of a circle that fits the curve of the frets. The bigger the number, the bigger the circle and the more gentle an arc. Common radiuses from ʻukulele are 12″ and 16″, though I’m sure there are others.
[Playability] encompasses many things.
- Each fret should be filed and smoothed down at both edges of the fingerboard so that the left-hand won’t feel it when sliding up and down the fingerboard. The fret edges on one of my ukuleles actually caused my right index finger to bleed whenever I did excessive strumming over the fingerboard.
- I need more than a token cutaway because I often play single notes as well as chords in the highest register. With a wide cutaway, a minimum of 20 frets is workable but I would prefer 22 or even 24 frets.
- I prefer having several removable saddles of various heights, which will allow me to adjust the action (distance between fingerboard and strings) as my techniques change over the years, or as the style of playing demanded by my arrangement evolve.
- The string tension range I prefer is one that allows me to play with endurance while producing a sound that sings out. This may require tuning to pitches that are not the standard tuning pitches.
~Byron Yasui – What I Look For In An ʻUkulele
If you’re going to be performing with your new ʻukulele (or want to rock the distortion in your bedroom), a pickup is a must.
My two favorite pickups are the LR Baggs Five-O and the MISI Acoustic Trio with the Baggs having the advantage. Both have their pros and cons. So do other options, but in my time I’ve found those two to be natural-sounding, reliable, light, and practical.
Don’t take my word for it: do your homework and decide what YOU need.
This is a touchy subject with some people that don’t think it’s “traditional” to use a strap on an ʻukulele. I get that, but in the real world a strap is a very useful tool.
A pickup jack can serve as a strap button on the end of your ʻukulele. From there some people tie the strap off to the headstock, but this puts unnecessary stress on the neck so I’d rather have a second button mounted under the heel of the neck.
Out of all permanent add-ons, a strap button is the easiest to add so don’t worry about this too much in your shopping. In fact, very few ʻukuleles ship with strap buttons.
Machine Head (tuning pegs) and Amplification Add-ons: The Gotoh and Schaller type of tuners seem to work very well as long as they don’t add dramatically to the over-all weight, which could effect endurance. As a professional performer, an electronic amplification system is a must, but, again, it must be very light in weight, with volume control (and even EQ knobs or slides.)
~Byron Yasui – What I Look For In An ʻUkulele
This doesn’t need much space to explain:
If you like how an ʻukulele looks – great!
That said, don’t shop with your eyes. 5A koa is not usually the best sounding wood. An ʻukulele that looks great, but sounds like a tin can is a piece of furniture, not an instrument. If you’re torn between two ʻukuleles that are evenly matched in the previous aspects, then pick the one you like the looks of, but don’t let it be a deciding factor – unless that’s what you’re shopping for.
I have to agree with Byron on this one:
For me, appearance is near the bottom of what I look for in a ukulele. I would rather play an instrument that plays and sounds good, even if it looks horrible. What good are looks if the playability and/or sound are not to the player’s liking? Looks, I guess are important mainly for non-players, collectors, and luthiers trying to impress other luthiers. For players like me, the instrument is not meant to be a museum piece displayed in a glass showcase. Don’t ignore looks but keep your priorities straight.
~Byron Yasui – What I Look For In An ʻUkulele
Things To Check:
You did it! You narrowed it down from endless options to your perfect ʻukulele. Time to whip out the credit card, right? Wrong! There is still some work to be done yet.
The following assumes that you are lucky enough to be shopping for your ʻukulele in person.
- 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. Most buzzes can be fixed, but a brand new ʻukulele shouldn’t start out with any flaws.
- 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. There is no such thing as perfect intonation on an ʻukulele, but if it’s really off something is wrong.
- 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 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. This allows you to really get a feel for the sound of the instrument.
- Examine for overall quality.
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.)
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 when they get a new shipment.
Patience is key. We live in such an instant-gratification based society. This is a terrible way to buy an instrument. It’s like getting to know somebody. You might like them at first and then find out later that, even though it’s fun, you just don’t click. Of you might think somebody is not worth your time and then one day you realize you’ve been missing out. Same with instruments. Just because you have the money doesn’t mean you need to spend it.
Do your homework – put your cash towards exactly what you need. Find an instrument that you connect with.
In a perfect world, everyone would get to travel to Hawai’i to choose their ʻukulele. I don’t need to tell you that that doesn’t happen. A compromise is buying from one of the online ʻukulele emporiums. They can get an ʻukulele setup for you and shipped to your front door. Depending on the seller you might have a chance to correspond about what you’re looking for in a higher-end ʻukulele or fine-tune your selection.
The two main names are:
Finding your next instrument is a process. Don’t rush it. Know what you want and need and what your budget is. Be realistic. There’s no such thing as a perfect ʻukulele. But there’s the right ʻukulele for YOU.