Any ʻukulele will eventually destroy itself from the pressure of the strings.
Whether it lasts one year or 100 depends on many factors.
But no matter what kind of uke you play, you can do a lot to insure its safety by investing in a proper case. Since there are many options, I’ve put together a guide to help you choose what will best serve you as an ʻukulele case.
In my opinion, an ʻukulele case is a hands-down, no-brainer. Without one your ʻukulele is exposed to the elements 24/7.
Even if your ʻukulele doesn’t leave a relatively safe space, like your house, it can get knocked off a desk, sat on, or warped by extreme conditions.
There are only two reasons you might not need a case:
- You store your house-play-only uke on a wall hanger. While this doesn’t protect from impacts, it usually keeps the instrument up and out of the way of trouble.
- The uke is strong (like the Outdoor Ukulele) or cheap and expendable. Sometimes they go hand in hand and you won’t worry about it getting sat on because A. it’s cheap and B. it might even survive.
That said, it’s not a question of if, but when something will happen to an unprotected ʻukulele.
Types of ʻUkulele Cases
A good hardshell case offers the most protection you can get for an ʻukulele.
Depending on the quality of case, you can stand on it, sit on it, drop it, and otherwise abuse it – all while your instrument remains inside, unscathed. As long as the latches are shut tight and you keep it out of the middle of a busy freeway or a jet turbine, you can have complete peace of mind that your instrument is safe.
Just like buying an ʻukulele, case shopping is best done in person. This is because a tight fit is essential for getting the most protection out of the case in impact situations. Your instrument should fit snuggly with the lid open and, when closed, the lid should gently hold the top in place.
The weight of a case usually corresponds with protection. A heavy case is built out of sturdier materials (or more of them). Line a Uke Crazy, Oahu, and Ameritage case up in a row and weigh them and you’ll find that the Ameritage is WAY heavier! Which case would I feel most comfortable jumping up and down on? The Ameritage.
Pay attention to the quality of hinges, latches, handles. This hardware takes the brunt of daily abuse and are usually the first components to break. Sometimes they are shoddy to start with. Look for smooth latching motions and avoid anything that feels “crunchy” or doesn’t line up well.
These are great cases, usually fastened with a zipper all the way around and made with stiff foam covered in nylon fabric.
The protection factor is not as high with these cases, but they are light. While it would protect from everyday dents and dings, crushing blows (such as shutting it in the car door) would almost certainly do your instrument in.
Due to the build, there usually isn’t soft foam inside to cradle your ʻukulele. Instead there is just velvet covered hard foam that is sized large enough to fit most ukes. This makes for a loose fit and is another reason these cases don’t protect as well.
Foam ʻukulele cases are pretty generic so your options are limited. I had something like this one for years. Buy the one with the biggest gear-pocket!
Backpack cases are a traveller’s best friend. They vary widely in design and construction materials, but all aim to accomplish the same thing: transporting your ʻukulele on your back in as comfy a manner as possible.
Making a case back-friendly and light is always a compromise. The soft-sided fabrics that you can haul around for hours without getting sore are not in the same class as a wood or fiberglass shell. But if you’re traveling with your instrument in the first place, you’ve probably got a good feel for keeping your uke out of trouble.
That said, modern backpack gig bags like those by Mono and Gator are tough. They are made from thick pieces of foam that work on all sides to create a stiff structure. I know many artists who travel internationally with world-class ʻukuleles in these cases without trouble. Naturally, they always carry it on the plane and never check it in the cargo hold (this should go for ANY case).
I found a Ritter backpack case at the thrift store on my first day of school at the Institute of Hawaiian Music for $15. It served me well jamming from class to class for a year and a half.
“Gig bag” covers a wide range of protection, the common point being that the case is soft-sided. Some have generous soft foam sewn into the case, others are simply a piece of vinyl with a handle and a zipper. Only expect enough protection to handle little bumps and light rain.
The Oahu pro gig bags are really nice. Highly recommended if you decide to go this route.
What is the Best Case for You?
“Best” is always a sticky word. But for the sake of argument, let me throw out a couple ideas that might help you make a better decision when buying a case.
Your uke lifestyle has everything to do with what case you should have. Where you store it, how you transport it, and the situations you play your instrument in all make a difference.
At the end of the day, a hard case is the best protection you can give an instrument. Anything else is a compromise.
If you only play your ʻukulele at home you could just get a gig bag. It would keep the dust off and add some mild protection from a ding here or there. But if you like to keep your uke on the couch, a gig bag would make me nervous. In that situation, a hard case would do a much better job keeping everything in one piece if your buddy leaps onto the couch in an inspired fit of relaxed revelry.
Suppose your band practices downtown and there’s a parking garage feet away from the jam space. A heavy hard case would be overkill, unless you were also the gear guy and have to unload an entire PA onto a cart, throw your uke on top and teeter your way to the elevator. Then you’d certainly want a hard case so you don’t have to worry if your ʻukulele falls off the front and gets run over.
But if band practice was two blocks away from your house, you live in the desert, only need to bring your instrument, and you love walking, a backpack case seems like the obvious choice.
My Favorite Cases
Hawai’i chews up cases for lunch. Between the humidity and rain and heat and salt, the standard case lifespan drops severely out here on the rock. Which is to say, I’ve had a lot of cases over the years.
The best overall production case brand (especially now that Andrew Kitakis is at the helm), in my opinion, is Oahu. I’ve had more of their cases over the years than any other and I keep ordering more.
Especially with the recent addition of the pro-level Oahu fiberglass cases (and leather-covered fiberglass – sexy), there is an option for most situations. The Oahu Pro Gig Bag is a nice, high-quality case for soft-sided, light applications. The standard case is a decent, middle-of-the-road hard case (though, full disclosure, I’ve had a little trouble with the latches and handles on these. Hopefully Andrew has cinched down the quality control in recent years). And if you need something a little nicer – go for the fiberglass.
If you really need a bombproof case, there are really only two places to look: Ameritage and Calton. One makes production cases and the other specializes in fully custom builds.
An Ameritage Silver Series starts from around $240 for a soprano case. They are made out of wood and heavy as hell, but super strong. At these price points the build quality is fantastic and everything about it is lovely. Except for the weight!
Calton makes the best case in the business as far as I can tell. Jake has one. They are made from fiberglass and are custom molded on the inside to exactly fit your instrument. Prices are rumored to be around $800.
I don’t have personal experience with any of the new school backpack cases, but I’ve seen the Mono stuff up close on several occasions. It’s amazing the strength they’ve built into these cases using lightweight foam. I’ve thought about getting one several times, but they’re always out of stock when I look.
If you live in a dry climate you need to have a humidifier in your case to avoid humidity damage.
When there isn’t much water in the air, wood dries out. When wood dries out in an ʻukulele, frets begin to poke out from the edges of the fretboard, the top develops cracks, and many other – sometimes irreversible – problems develop.
Humidifiers go inside your case and slowly release water into the surrounding air, keeping the humidity steady and the wood happy. Another big reason to store your ʻukulele in its case when you aren’t playing.
An ideal humidity for an ʻukulele would be in between 45-60%. You can get away with higher or lower, but it depends a lot on the environment the uke was built in. It’s typically better to err on the damp side and go for a higher humidity.
I live in Hawai’i where it’s not uncommon to find the humidity at 90% or more (drying your hair literally takes all day). Even with this (too) high number, nobody bothers with dehumidifiers and problems from water saturation are rare. Because of this I don’t know a whole lot about humidifiers. I defer to the ukers in the desert.
For in-depth technical info about humidifiers, check out ʻUkulele Tonya’s Humidifier page.
Even in a case, an ʻukulele is not always safe. Humidity, as discussed above, can wreck havoc without you ever needing to take your instrument out into the real world.
But besides humidity, the main concern for a uke in its case is direct sunlight. Direct sun can manifest incredibly high temperatures inside a case before you realize it – especially if it’s black. The ʻukulele’s bridge will pop off first, but, given enough time, the rest of the glue joints will also start to fail in the heat.
Another source of crazy heat – even when the case is out of direct sun – is your car. Never leave an instrument in the car if it’s hot out. Especially if it’s sunny too.
This might seem obvious, but if your uke isn’t in a case, the case can’t do its job. When in doubt, put it away and never assume it’s safe.
Things to Keep in Your Case
When you go out to play somewhere, a number of shortcomings can be avoided if you pack some key items.
A tuner. Even if you don’t use it, someone else might.
Whatever you NEED to play. Fingerpicks, straps, etc… Always assume that no one else will have what you use.
Extra strings for the freak time that you break a string. If you use metal wound strings have an additional spare! These tend to break more often than plain strings.
For a Gig
Extra Batteries for your pickup, pedals, mic, etc… Just because you changed it recently doesn’t mean it will work – in fact, it probably won’t!
Extra Cable. The day you are least expecting it your cable will stop working.
Effects. If you’re picky about your sound, have everything you need in your signal before it goes into the board.
Duct Tape for securing cables to the ground, taping down setlists on a windy day, attaching broken straps, etc, etc, etc…
Zip-Ties are only slightly less useful than duct tape.
Bonus Points If You Bring:
A DI Box for the really rough gig when the board is far away and your friend’s DJ friend who offered to run sound didn’t realize that running a 50′ instrument cable doesn’t work very well.
Microphone – Some people are weird about having their own mic. If you’re not into sharing spit with the 1000s who have used the venue’s SM58 before you, bring your own.
A setlist is indispensable for keeping the band on the same page. If you’re the type like me who can’t remember songs until you see them on a page, this should be under your ʻukulele in the case at all times.