“Wow! That ʻukulele is so expensive!” “Wow! You got it for how much?!” “Wow! I bet my grandapa’s old uke in the attic is worth a lot of money!”
Ever heard anybody say something like that?
Price, value, and quality are what make the world of uke-commerce go round. Lots of people talk about which ʻukulele prices are good, which ones are bad, and which need a second opinion. But what isn’t talked about nearly as much is why an instrument costs as much as it does.
Factors That Affect an ‘Ukulele’s Price:
The price of an ʻukulele can only exist if the market will bear it. Price = perceived and actual value. If someone somewhere wants the uke you have to sell, you might be able to charge a high price – if you can get it in front of the right buyer. If not, you’ll have to charge a lower price to attract buyers.
Demand and personal value aside, there are several factors that will affect the price of an ʻukulele. Each play a part in the final cost, but can’t be picked apart in too much detail without knowing specifics.
Since the profit/loss picture will be different for every company, I’ve created some very vague, ballpark figures to give you an idea what things might (or might not) look like on paper. Don’t take these numbers literally. I got them from some quick poking around on the web for the sake of an argument. Nothing more. At the end of the day, the retail price is the retail price.
First off, where and how the ʻukulele is made has, as far as I can tell, the biggest impact on price aside from the cost of materials. Basically this comes down to the question: is the uke cheap to produce or not?
Budget ʻukuleles are usually made in Southeast Asia where labor costs are terribly low. When you have a factory full of folks working for $3 per hour, you can make a lot more ʻukuleles for the same amount than a Hawai’i-based mom and pop shop can.
Let’s pretend that the typical ʻukulele builder/assembler is working 40 hours a week. That’s 160 hours a month, give or take. Using generic wages, the cost for one employee is:
- Asia (@ $3/hour): 160*3 = $480
- Hawai’i (@ $25/hour): 160*25 = $4000
Just from a labor standpoint running a shop “at home” could cost almost ten times as much as it would overseas.
Something else to consider is that the larger the factory, the more steps in the build can be mass-produced and automated with machines. If there’s one person making nuts, one person making saddles, one person thickness-sanding soundboards, etc…, these parts can be created much faster than in a shop where one person is building each part, one at a time, as he needs it. Of course there can be many varying degrees of assembly-line production depending on the number of employees.
A word about quality
Because of the nature of industry, wages reflect skill. Perhaps $3/hour covers the cost of a guy who can learn how to press the “start” button on a CNC machine all day every day. But there’s no way $25/hour covers the skill and expenses of a luthier who can build an ʻukulele from scratch, start to finish. The necessary skills for each of those jobs are night and day with a gap of many years, if not decades experience.
With that in mind, you can usually figure that the build quality of a more expensive ʻukulele put together by two guys is higher than that of one assembled by 10. When someone is only focused on a single, repetitive small job (like inlaying fret dots), it’s hard to see the big picture. But when someone experienced builds from an ʻukulele from start to finish, you can be sure that they notice details that would otherwise be lost in a large production warehouse.
A boutique luthier is also focused on creating the best possible product. This means he or she will take the time to get things just right, whereas somebody building to a deadline might get it “close enough” and call it good. “Close enough” isn’t very often going to make for a great ʻukulele – especially if that’s the M.O. every step of the way down the production line.
Cost of the wood, tuners, and and other random pieces are included in the ʻukulele’s cost. That’s just business. Losing money on a build by using materials worth more than the final price tag doesn’t make much sense, even for the most amateur builder.
The biggest material cost for builders is in the type of wood. 5A koa costs around $300 for a uke set (as of January 2018). This is the gold standard for building ʻukuleles, but also comes at one of the highest prices since koa is fairly rare.
If you’re interested you can find places on the web that show the board foot cost of some common woods. Better yet, take a tour of your local mom-and-pop lumber yard or mill and see what they have lying around. Keep in mind that the “board foot” price needs to be adjusted to reflect how many tops, backs, and sides you can get out of the piece.
Often you can save money on a uke if you’re willing to compromise on the wood’s appearance. Certain locally sourced woods can be had cheaper and still sound just as good as their flashy counterparts.
By using a laminate made of several thin pieces of wood, a builder can use a pretty, high-quality wood for the top layer, use cheaper woods for the rest, and still end up with a nice-looking instrument. While laminate woods typically don’t have as rich a sound as solid wood, they are much more stable and will require less warranty work down the road at a fraction of the price of solid wood.
Beyond the woods used, cost of materials might include the below parts. I used StewMac, a well-known luthier supply company to get these ballpark figures. Cheaper ukes will use much cheaper parts.
- Tuning machines ($15-100)
- Saddle (~$5)
- Nut (~$4)
- Frets (~$5)
- Carbon fiber for truss rod (~$17)
- Inlay materials ($4-Priceless)
- Pickup ($50-150)
Also, is a case included with the uke? This is often provided with nicer instruments because the builder knows the case fits correctly, their ʻukuleles are safer to ship, and they add value for the buyer. Most times the additional cost of an included case is less than its normal retail price.
All told, the price of goods needed for a typical higher-end build might look like:
Wood: $250 + Tuning machines: $50 + Saddle/Nut: $10 + Frets/Fret dots: $10 + Pickup: $100 + Case: $30 = $450 for a “K” brand level uke
These numbers are VERY rough and are probably quite high for most builds since StewMac catters to hobby builders buying enough supplies for one or two ukes at a time. The bigger the building operation and the bigger the parts orders, the more money can be saved from bulk discounts and buying things “at cost.”
Tied to the materials is the size of the ʻukulele. Obviously you need more wood, frets, glue, etc… for bigger instruments. Because of this, if you’re looking at the same model in two different sizes, figure that the larger instrument will probably cost more.
When I was a teenager shopping for my first “K” brand ʻukulele, there wasn’t a KoAloha tenor to be found anywhere. They were flying off the shelves as soon as the music shop could put them up. As such, KoAloha – and the music stores – were having no trouble moving product. That meant they could be stiff with their prices and, if I recall, KoAlohas were more a bit more expensive than their counterparts at that time.
Was this because KoAloha makes a superior instrument to Kamaka or Kanle’a? Nope. It was just because people were excited to play a KoAloha and willing to pay for it.
Supply and demand affects the prices even more sharply when the pool of ukes available every year is as small as it is with very in-demand luthiers. A builder who makes four instruments per year and is exceedingly popular can ask $20,000 for a uke and get it; people will pay whatever it takes to have that ʻukulele.
Kamaka is the oldest builder of ʻukuleles. They survived the slump business period leading up to the ʻukulele’s recent popularity growth. Because of this – and because their quality has been uncompromised over the years, they are world-renowned for making quality instruments.
If you’re a startup business building basically the same style uke as a Kamaka for the same price, you’re going to have an uphill battle selling your ʻukuleles for a while. This isn’t necessarily because your instruments aren’t as good as Kamakas – heck, they could be better – but until people recognise your name and associate it with a uke of similar quality and sound, it’s hard to ask for a competing price. This is specially true these days since more and more people are buying ʻukuleles sight unseen (or unheard). What would you choose: a Kamaka or XYZ Ukes? Right.
I think the hard-to-find KoAlohas I spoke of above were a byproduct of what seemed to be the company’s first big look at popularity. Before that they hadn’t really been a “thing” and were only known because of the artists they sponsored. But now they are a well-established brand known for their “better than the weather” warranty.
Usually “vintage” means an instrument is over 25 years old. Up to that point, wear and tear reduces the value of the ʻukulele. But once passed, how old the instrument is might become a factor in the price.
This is, as far as I can tell, due to the fact that the more time passes, fewer and fewer instruments from any given era survive the sands of time. The price reflects how well the instrument has been cared for along with age.
Whether you are in Hawai’i, Napal, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, or some other point on the globe, ʻukulele prices are going to be affected by your whereabouts.
The current exchange rate plays a part in the cost of a uke around the world. For instance, go to New Zealand and things are more expensive. A $500 ʻukulele in US dollars is $690 NZD (as of January, 2018) even before import cost and whatever premium kiwi stores add to the price.
The bigger question is whether wages reflect the higher price of goods in your corner of the world. If yes, the value-to-cost ratio might not be too far off from what you might find where ukes are “cheap,” like the US. If no, even though the prices might not be any higher, small wages make it feel more expensive on your pocketbook.
If you have a great ʻukulele builder right down the street from where you live, you can probably avoid all shipping costs by buying directly from him. But if you live in the mountains of Peru 100 miles from anyone and mail only comes by helicopter once a month, I doubt you can find anyone who will comp you the shipping cost.
Then again, The Ukulele Site doesn’t charge for international shipping on orders over $800.
You can often figure that shipping costs for a music store are factored into their retail price. Because of bulk orders, they probably don’t pay as much shipping as us plebs, but that cost is still coming through in one form or another. Other times I’m pleasantly surprised to walk into a shop and see the same prices as Musician’s Friend.
‘Ukulele Price Brackets:
Now that we’ve looked at some things that affect an ʻukulele’s value, let’s take a peek at how the main price ranges stack up and what features you can expect to find for your money.
There are lots of little price stops between what’s presented here, but these are more manageable chunks for a broad post such as this.
From low to high, here we go:
Coming in at under $50, these are the ukes that have streamlined overhead down to almost nothing per instrument. You can expect:
- The cheapest quality parts.
- Sloppy, assembly-line production.
- Bare-bones setup (unnecessarily high action is not uncommon).
- Soprano and (maybe) concert sizes.
- Bright colors and themes.
- Garbage stock strings that should be swapped out ASAP for something better.
The Makala Dolphin is the much-praised hero of the cheap ʻukulele buyer. It comes in many colors, handles unfriendly conditions, and plays well enough from the factory to be an acceptable first instrument.
Anything priced in this range is a bit of a gamble on quality, but I would certainly avoid spending less than $20. Maybe it will be serviceable, but more likely than not, it will:
- Not stay in tune
- Play out of tune/have buzzy frets
- Implode in a couple years
Even getting up to $30 will yield better quality. Heck, even a Mahalo Rainbow at ~$23 is a huge upgrade from something you might buy at an ABC Store in Waikiki.
Boy have things changed since I was shopping for my first upgrade to this price range! It used to be that there were very limited options and quality control was spotty, at best. Now you can find hundreds of options with amazing feature sets that are built pretty well for the money.
You can expect:
- Laminate materials.
- All ʻukulele size options.
- Nicer tuning machines.
- Lighter build weights for more resonance.
- “Starter kits” (see below).
It’s always hard to make sweeping judgements of any ʻukulele model, but I have to say I’ve liked the Makala, Kala, and Luna ukes I’ve seen in this price range.
The best bang-for-your-buck possibly resides in this price range. You get a well-made, very playable instrument at the middle or higher end of what’s produced in factories overseas. As long as it’s set up right, you could become very proficient before the instrument became a limitation (if ever).
At the same time, do be aware that some of these ukes are built with easy and cheap-to-add “bling” that boosts the retail price, but not so much the quality. These add-ons include: cheapo pickups, radius fretboards, laminate “koa” wood, 8-strings, cutaways, etc…
Don’t get me wrong, these things can be very useful. But only when you know you need them and how you will use them. Just because it has a pickup and a cutaway and looks like it’s made out of koa does not mean that it’s a better instrument than the one without those things.
You can expect these attributes for the price:
- Either solid wood or laminate materials, or a mix of both. A solid wood soundboard with laminate back and sides is fairly common.
- Attention to details: clean edges, level frets, a higher-quality build.
- Smooth, decent tuning machines.
- More feature options such as cutaways, pickups, and woods.
Kala, Pono, Cordoba, KoAloha Opio models, and Kiwaya are some of the favorites here.
Now these are nice ʻukuleles. Once you fork out this much money you’re looking at a workhorse instrument that, if set up correctly, could satisfy most picky players.
While still mostly made overseas, these instruments step up the value significantly. You can tell that experienced builders put time and effort into making these instruments the best they can be. And, honestly, the best that they can be is pretty fantastic. You’ll find professionals the world round that play ukes in this price range because they are highly functional, but can still be replaced in an emergency.
At this price you can expect:
- Solid wood. Nothing too fancy, but acacia, mahogany, or mango are still classic tonewoods.
- Nicer finishes.
- Performing-class playability.
- Premium stock strings.
Ponos are still a big player here (can you tell I’m a Pono fan?), as are the KoAloha Opio and Kiwaya. You also start to see some more specialized instruments such as the compact Romero Creations Tiny Tenors, Pono solidbody, and RISA steel-string electric ʻukuleles.
Another comparison from HMS: The Best Tenors From $500-700.
At this price tag you’re just starting to get into some of the more affordable Hawaiian handmade solid wood ʻukuleles by Kanile’a and KoAloha. These have great, uncompromised sound and “soul.” The craftsmanship found on these ʻukuleles is the best you can get before you step up to single-luthier production.
As far as I’m concerned, this and the next price bracket is sort of where the gold standard of the ʻukulele lives. Any of these ʻukuleles, baring a fluke inconsistency, will be a great instrument for just about anybody and last for a long time.
For this price you can expect everything from previous price range plus:
- Premium tuning machines.
- Handmade in Hawai’i.
- More attentive construction styles for better sound.
Kanile’a and KoAloha are no-brainers here. My preference is Kanile’a for their sound and construction, but a lot of people like the honky KoAloha sound and you can’t beat their warranty.
Just because everyone gets all flustered and turned-on when “Hawaiian K” ʻukuleles are mentioned, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily the best for the money. Depending on what you want, you might find a small, mom-and-pop shop in your area that builds world-class instruments and can be competitive with the Hawaiian brands, price-wise. Mya-Moe is a great example of comparable quality in a non-Hawai’i location, though they are slowing down production as of 2018.
Once you past a grand, you’re flying free with all the best stock options in handmade ukes available to you. Take your pick of wood options, slot/standard headstocks, cutaways, even fancy variations like the “long-neck tenor” or the KoAloha “slimline” tenor.
Higher grade woods and more attention to detail make for higher prices. So while an ʻukulele made with a plain set of koa might exist at the bottom of this price range, one built from premium, curly koa with fancier rosettes and bindings will be at the top. The builds might not differ that much structurally, but the looks will. (Keep in mind that “boring,” straight-grain koa often sounds better!)
When paying prices in this range you can expect the same as $700-999 plus:
- Highly figured woods.
- More detail work.
- Premium, world-class sound and projection.
- World-class playability.
If you’re paying this much, as long as the brand you buy is well-regarded and not a “shot in the dark” (which can also pay off), you’re going to have one of the best ʻukuleles money can buy.
All of the above mentioned plus the extra mile. The sound and playability differences of the ʻukulele will be small from this price range to the last. Leaps and bounds in sound and style become smaller and smaller as the quality of the instrument improves. There are less and less obvious things to improve upon so it’s up to the skill of the luthier to pay attention to ever more detail and take a uke to the next level.
Since this price doesn’t quite pay the bills for most single-luthier shops, most ʻukuleles in this bracket will be on the very highest end of what you can get from a “brand name” like Kamaka or Kanile’a. Usually these nicer builds are overseen or built by the highest-ranking builders in the company.
- Super-duper premium woods.
- Upgraded inlays/rosettes.
Skill is acquired over time. Even if there was an exact manual for how to build a “perfect” ʻukulele, you’d still have to spend a lot of hours building to get anywhere near that target. Which is why long-time luthiers charge high prices.
When you buy one of their ukes you are paying for their expertise. All the countless hours they’ve spent honing their craft, experimenting, failing, inventing new techniques, etc… that allow them to work at the high level they do.
That’s not to mention out-of-pocket expenses that a self-employed craftsman has. Like putting money aside for retirement, paying for insurance – things that are normally covered by an employer.
So while $5000 may seem like a lot for an ʻukulele, it’s only that expensive because that instrument is worth every dime in the accumulative effort that has been put into it.All this extra effort can yield things like:
- Stunning, one-of-a-kind inlays.
- Arm bevels.
- Completely new designs like string-through headstocks (shown at right).
- Unique uses of materials.
When you get an instrument of this level you are purchasing a part of a story – a little piece of the luthier who has put their soul into the work. That makes these ʻukuleles much more personal to own and play. It also makes them one of a kind. Even if the exact build specs could be replicated, you’d end up with a different instrument in many ways. This is the beautiful and unpredictable way of handcrafted boutique ʻukuleles.
There was a neat fundraiser called Luthiers For A Cause that happened last year where six world-class luthiers were given the same set of wood to build a charity uke from. Each ʻukulele came out astoundingly different and is very worth a look (link above).
There are a million ways to approach buying an ʻukulele. How much you spend depends on what you hope to get. If all you want is a Loony Tunes uke to plunk show tunes out on, you will be able to spend relatively little because the novelty genre lends itself to a low-cost instrument. But if you want a beautiful custom work of art that sounds great and visually represents a part yourself and the luthier, plan on dropping many paychecks for it.
At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. Buy the best you can afford. But also remember that competition has brought the level of ʻukuleles up a lot over the years. You can spend less and get more than you ever would have for the price a decade ago.