Ukulele sizes look significantly different from each other, but musically, there’s less difference than you might think.
The main big-picture factors are:
- Sound: In general, the larger the uke, the more focused and big the sound is
- Feel: In general, the larger the uke, the more stiff and precise the strings react
Digging deeper, the first thing to understand is “scale length.” This refers to the distance of the ringing ukulele string, from the nut to the saddle:
The length of the scale affects the spacing of the frets since those distances are a percentage of the total distance. The scale also changes how the strings feel to play and sound.
All things being equal, a long scale has more string 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.
Common scale lengths:
The Effect of Size on Sound
Besides the obvious physical differences, sound tops off the list of what makes the ukulele sizes unique.
If you have Jake Shimabukuro play the same song on four different tenor ukuleles of similar quality, you would notice that they sound different, but not in a huge way. However, play the same song on a soprano ukulele, concert ukulele, tenor ukulele, and then a baritone ukulele and you’d find a much larger range of sounds.
This is due mainly to the resonating surface each ukulele has. The smaller the body chamber, the higher the sound. The bigger the body chamber, the lower the sound.
Ukulele Size Comparison
You can get a rough idea how each uke stacks up to the next in this size chart:
- Scale length: 13-14 in./Total length: 21 in.
If you tell someone that you play the ukulele, odds are that they’ll picture you holding a soprano sized uke (after all, it’s the size Tiny Tim – and many other pop culture uke icons – used).
The smallest and lightest of the “normal” sizes, the soprano has the signature, plinky ukulele sound that everyone associates with the instrument. It’s usually tuned
G-C-E-A, but many folks – especially in Britain and Canada – will tune it up a step to
A-D-F#-B to get a tighter string tension and an even more jangly tone.
This size has tight fret spacing and is a great fit for a child’s small hands, though anybody with nimble enough fingers can enjoy a soprano’s classic vibe.
Some famous 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.
Here’s Ohta-San playing Star Dust on a soprano ukulele:
And here’s Roy Smeck ripping with a more traditional high-g string and strumming style:
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.
Vintage Kamaka Pineapples are quite a collectors item these days, but budget options can also be found new from several manufacturers.
- Scale length: 15-16 in./Total length: 23 in.
The concert size ukulele is the perfect Goldilocks option for those who want a bit of the soprano twang, but with a little more of the tenor’s elbow room.
This size is great if you’re not sure what you want in an ukulele. And if you have small hands that feel stretched on a tenor, the concert still has a full sound with a shorter scale.
Here’s the late John King on his signature concert-sized Stradlele:
- Scale length: 17-18 in./Total length: 26 in.
Tenor size ukuleles are becoming more and more popular as people get used to the less-traditional sound. It offers the longest common scale length for
G-C-E-A tuning. This makes for a tight string feel ideal for finger picking and any application that needs a stiff response.
The tenor is the most modern, “cool” uke size. Because of the wide frets and fuller sound, it’s often used to pursue intricate contemporary music. It’s common for a tenor to be strung with a low-G for an even lower sound.
If you have large hands, a tenor’s fret spacing will feel more roomy than a little soprano. But it’s also a good deal heavier due to the volume of material used to craft it.
The Martin T1 tenor is a modern take on their classic ukes.
G-C-E-A is considered “C6”) are great for creating a more warm, powerful sound and matching vocal qualities.
The tenor ukulele is a popular performance instrument and it is very commonly found onstage these days. Some great tenor players are: Jake Shimabukuro, Herb Ohta Jr., James Hill, David Kamakahi, and Brittni Paiva.
Here’s my mentor, Herb Ohta, Jr. playing a couple stock Kamaka HF-3 tenor ukes (first bit of video):
- Scale length: 19-20 in./Total length: 30 in.
The baritone ukulele is the biggest of the standard sizes and the usual
D-G-B-E baritone tuning requires a unique set of knowledge.
Because it’s tuned a fourth down at
D-G-B-E, the baritone uke is tuned like a guitar missing the two top (lowest) strings. This makes it a popular conversion instrument for guitarists looking for some of the ukulele sound and simplicity. Unlike the other sizes, the baritone ukulele is almost exclusively strung with a low top string (linear tuning – low to high).
Some of the great jazz players favor the baritone ukulele size because of the big frets that allow them to squeeze crazy chords in way up the neck (Byron Yasui, Benny Chong).
Because baritone is one of the least-conventional ukulele sizes, it’s more often used to experiment. Case in point, James Hill:
Other Ukulele Sizes:
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.