Here’s part two of a series I’m writing – a compendium of ukulele information with the migrating guitarist in mind. Read the previous installment: Introduction
For all intents and purposes, guitars come in one size. Ukuleles, on the other hand, come in four common sizes, with a couple additional outliers. Each of the four sizes is 2″ longer in scale length (distance from nut to bridge) then the previous. Soprano is the smallest at 13″, Concert is 15″, Tenor is 17″ and Baritone is 19″.
Among less common sizes are the Sopranino or Sompranissimo that is smaller than the Soprano with a scale length of 11″. And on the other end of the spectrum, the ukulele bass is the most recent size to be introduced, and measures 2 inches longer in scale length than a baritone at 21″.
These sizes also differ in their traditional tunings. While soprano, concert and tenor all share the same traditional tuning of G4-C4-E4-A4, baritones are typically tuned lower at D3-G3-B3-E4.
All these sizes cause the obvious dilemma of deciding what size to buy. To each her own, of course, but most guitarists, in my experience, end up playing a tenor or baritone, finding the soprano and concert sizes a little too small.
I play a tenor and that’s what I recommend to guitarists just getting started with the ukulele. Tenor is the size played by famous ukulele players like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill. As the largest ukulele that is commonly tuned the same as the smaller sizes, it’s a good choice for guitarists if you’ll be playing with other ukulele players. And the larger body gives off a louder and richer tone, without being so large as to lose the trademark ukulele sound.
While the baritone is closer to a guitar in sound and feel, you’ll need to find special baritone versions of books and tabs, and playing printed tabs with other ukulele players is a challenge at best. Many players think baritones sound more like guitars than ukuleles. In my view, if you’re just looking for a travel size guitar, those exist and have all six strings. But if you want the benefits of a baritone (size and tone) without the tuning challenge, you can buy special strings to allow the baritone to be tuned in the traditional GCEA tuning.
The very best way to get a sense of the sizes is to go into a music store and try them out. The second best way is to watch Aaron from my favorite online ukulele shop play the sizes from smallest to largest.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series: Tuning the Ukulele