The Ukulele Buyer’s Guide for Guitarists

By | March 11, 2015

Here’s part four of a series I’m writing – a compendium of ukulele information with the migrating guitarist in mind. If you missed it, check out the previous installment: Chords

Ukulele Buyer's Guide

10-15 years into this latest wave of ukulele happiness, more ukulele manufacturers have cropped up than you can shake a stick at. Prices range from $30 to well over $3,000. As a result, by far the most common question asked by folks who are new to the instrument is what ukulele to buy. One could easily write a book on this topic, but I’m going to try to stuff it into a single blog post. Here goes!

First, I’m starting on the presumptions that 1) you’re a guitarist and know crap when you play it, 2) you’re new to the ukulele and 3) given #2, you’re probably not spending a huge sum on your first (or second) ukulele.

The $50 and Under Set

Because you’re a guitarist (and a fine human being) the most inexpensive ukuleles are out. As a guitarist, you’ll notice right away how cheap they are and how poor they sound. So unless that’s literally all you can afford, I’d skip them. I’m talking about the $50 and under ukuleles here. I don’t recommend these as a class because you get what you pay for. I’ve heard more than one luthier say that ukuleles are harder to build properly than guitars and really shouldn’t be much less expensive. Would you ever consider buying a $30 guitar? I didn’t think so.

Laminate vs. Solid Wood

Before we go further, let’s cover the difference between laminate and solid wood acoustic instruments. If you’ve only played electric guitar, you may not know this. Acoustic aficionados can skip this section.

Laminate is a construction method for the body of acoustic instruments that involves gluing very thin layers of wood together. The concept is a little like ply wood but not as ugly or chippy. Laminate ukes have a nice looking layer right on top, so to the untrained eye they look like a solid wood ukulele. Laminate results in a very strong, thin and still fairly resonant material that works well for acoustic instruments. The benefits of laminate are low price and the ability to withstand lower humidity levels (a bit more on this later). The drawback of laminate instruments is that they tend to sound a little more plasticky or flat when compared to solid wood instruments.

Solid wood means just what it says – the boards you see making up the instrument’s body are one piece of wood all the way through. Some ukuleles have solid wood just on the top (where the sound hole is) with laminate on the sides and back. These can be a good value because the top is responsible for most of the tone coming out of the instrument, while the back and sides just need to bounce the sound waves to the top – something laminate can do well. All solid wood instruments have solid wood top, sides and back. Sometimes different types of wood are used for the top vs. back and sides because of the different tone-bounce jobs just mentioned.

The benefit of solid wood is that it sounds better – deeper, more complex, woodier – you really have to hear – and preferably play – an instrument live to tell the difference. Even high quality recordings, in my experience, lose most of this subtlety. The drawbacks of solid wood instruments are price and sensitivity to humidity. Solid wood ukuleles typically start in the $200’s.

Solid Wood and Humidity

Sound-wise, solid wood ukuleles win almost every time. But they are a bit of trouble if you live in a climate that is either naturally arid (like a desert) or gets really cold and requires heat (like New England). If the wood in a solid wood ukulele gets too dry, it starts to contract as the dry air sucks out the natural moisture from the wood. Since the wood is very thin and glued together, this can lead to cracking, which is very bad for your ukulele’s sound and structural integrity. For this reason, solid wood ukes must be kept in a case with a humidifier when relative humidity is much below 40%. Of course, you can take them out and play them, but they should be stored with a humidifier.

I for one find keeping my ukulele in its case a real bummer. I’m prone to hanging my ukulele on the wall with a wall mount and picking it up for 5 minutes here and there throughout the day. When my uke is on the wall as opposed to in its case, it just gets played a lot more.

As a result, I have an inexpensive laminate ukulele that I use during the New England winters, while my solid wood ukuleles are tucked away in their cases with humidifiers. My laminate Kala KA-T is my main winter uke. During the summer, when it’s not so dry, my Pono MT replaces the laminate uke on the wall.

The $50-$150 Ukulele

Assuming you can afford to, this is what you should be spending on your first ukulele at a minimum. This gets you a well built factory made laminate ukulele. Because they are mass-produced, instruments at this price range can be a little more unreliable in terms of factory flaws than more expensive instruments, but much less so than at the considerably lower price points. I’ve owned several instruments in this price range and have been very happy with all of them.

There are dozens of good ukulele manufacturers in this price range, but for the sake of your time, I’ll list some of the biggest and best known brands, and ones that I have some personal experience with. The differences between these in this price range are largely cosmetic and personal preference.

Kala – These are at the lowest end of pricing that I’d recommend. They are very good values and sound good. The Makala line is their entry-level set and sell for under $100. If you can, I strongly suggest spending the extra $20-40 to get a Kala ukulele instead. They use better materials and construction and sound better.

Cordoba This brand is famous for its classical guitars. Their higher end instruments are fantastic and they definitely don’t tarnish their name with crappy low-end models.

Lanikai At the low-end these are very similar to Kala. I suggest starting with the LU line and going up from there. The real difference between Kala and Lanikai is personal preference. If you can find a shop that sells both, try them and buy the one you prefer.

Luna These are similar in quality to Kala and Lanikai but have cool etchings. If the look of your instrument is important, these are worth checking out.

A Word About Buying a Ukulele Online

Buying a ukulele online is something to avoid if possible. You can see what it looks like, and you may even be able to hear recordings of it being played, but recordings can never capture the true sound of an acoustic instrument when playing it. Nothing can replicate the experience of holding and playing the instrument. Ukuleles differ greatly in sound, playability and feel, so if you have a local shop that sells ukuleles, try to find one there you like.

Not to totally discourage you if you don’t – I’ve bought several ukuleles online and have had only good experiences. But I’ve also played many expensive ukuleles in shops that I might have been tempted to buy online but would never consider after having played them.

Especially at the lower price points, ukuleles will sound and play best if “setup” by a professional, and this is a service many brick-and-mortar retailers will do gratis. Out of the factory, some instruments will sound and play fine. Others will have minor flaws that are easily remedied by a professional. These mostly include fret issues and high action. Some online retailers will do a setup on inexpensive instruments, and its worth buying from one of these if you can. Among these are The Ukulele Site (my go-to ukulele retailer), Elderly Instruments and Uke Republic. You can probably save some money buying on Amazon, but your mileage may vary.

The $150-$250 Ukulele

This price range includes the higher end laminate ukuleles and the occasional solid top. In this price range, my brand recommendations are the same as the $50-$150 set – you’ll get your money’s worth on the more expensive models from these brands in this price range. These instruments will have better hardware (tuners, bridge, nut), better construction and more visual appeal. Some may even have solid wood tops or even be all solid wood.

The $250-$400 Ukulele

If you can spend the money, you’ll really get what you pay for right on up to around $400. Beyond that, you’re often paying for bling unless you’re buying a handcrafted instrument. This price range will get you a fairly high quality solid wood ukulele.

My advice is to buy the best and simplest instrument you can afford. For example, my Pono MT (my go-to uke) is a very simple looking instrument – matte finish and no bling to speak of. But it sounds and plays utterly fantastic, just as good as the blingier models costing almost twice as much.

When comparing ukuleles at various price points, don’t skimp on these essentials:

  • The species of solid wood used, if this is important to you
  • Material used for the nut and bridge – bone is great, Tusq is good
  • Quality of the tuner hardware

These factors represent what I’d call bling – they can make the instrument look great but won’t impact playability or sound. As a result, I’d skip them unless money is no object or looks are really important to you:

  • Binding – the decoration around the edge of the body, front and sometimes back
  • Rosette – the decoration around the sound hole
  • Inlays on the fretboard and/or body
  • Headplate – the material used or design on the instrument’s head, where the tuners are attached
  • Gloss finish on the body – depending on the method used, may negatively impact sound and/or projection

At this price range, I suggest you take a look at these brands:

Pono – I own two Ponos and can honestly say they play and sound favorably next to ukuleles 3-4 times more expensive. You cannot go wrong here. While they can get very pricey, the models under $400 are wonderful. The Ukulele Site is a great retailer you can trust.

Kala – The Kalas get very nice in this price point with all solid wood construction and impeccable playability and sound.

Cordoba – Their 30 models are as nice an instrument as you could wish for and squeak in at just under $400. But in the $200’s their 25 models are nothing to sniff at either. Definitely worth a try.

Different Types of Wood

Ukuleles are made with a broad range of woods. Your choice of wood for a laminate uke is largely a cosmetic decision as most if not all of the subtlety in wood tone is lost in the laminate process. If you’re buying a solid wood instrument, the wood you choose will impact the sound of the instrument to varying degrees depending on the manufacturer.

Woods used in acoustic instruments range from soft to hard. Softer woods give a more bassy or warm tone, while harder woods result in more treble, or a brighter tone. As noted above, the top piece of wood is responsible for most of the tone, while the back and sides are responsible for the volume of the instrument.

The most common woods used in ukuleles are mahogany, koa, acacia, spruce and cedar. The chart below shows where these woods sit on the tone spectrum.

Ukulele Tone Woods
ukulele tone woods

Koa is the traditional wood used in Hawaiian ukuleles. It is limited to Hawaii and so results in relatively high-priced instruments, typically above $400. Acacia is the same species as koa but isn’t from Hawaii. This makes it an inexpensive way to get very close to the look and sound of koa.

Mahogany is what Martin has used in their coveted ukuleles going back to the 1920s. Like acacia, mahogany is also plentiful and won’t substantially jack up the price, but looks and sounds great.

Before you go crazy with this decision, it’s worth noting that wood choice has a smaller impact on sound than most people give it credit for. Many ukulele makers shoot for a consistent tone in their construction regardless if the wood used, and the construction details (internal bracing, wood thickness, body shape, soundhole position and size, etc.) have a greater impact on sound than the type of wood used.

Gloss or Matte/Satin Finish

Another decision ukulele buyers struggle with is the finish. Gloss finishes give a shiny, polished look to the wood, and really bring out the beauty of the grain. Another benefit of a gloss finish is more protection for the wood. Especially on higher end instruments, gloss finishes tend to cost much more as its application, when done properly, is very time-consuming.

Another drawback of gloss can be reduced resonance, resulting in a more muted tone. This is more an issue with less expensive ukuleles as the process used in higher end instruments results in a much thinner and more resonant gloss. My concert Pono has a gloss finish and is louder and more resonant to my ear than my satin tenor Pono, proving once again that construction trumps all other variables when it comes to ukulele tone.

Matte or satin finishes aren’t shiny, but still look great. Many people, myself included, prefer the woody feel and simple look of a satin finish. They also tend to cost less and leave almost no tonal impact on the wood.

The High End of Ukuleles

The $500-$1,000 price range in ukuleles is worth venturing into if you have the money. Makers like Pono and Cordoba offer really great instruments in this range, representing the very high-end of mass production ukuleles, still mostly made overseas. Martin starts out in this range and are definitely with a look. I have loved the sound and feel of every Martin ukulele I’ve played.

Above $1,000 puts you into K club territory, as well as higher end Martins and the introductory Luthier made instruments.

The K club refers to the several Hawaiian made ukulele companies producing very high-end (mostly koa) instruments. Most of these company names start with K. Among them are Kamaka, Ko’Olau (makers of Pono), Kanile‘a and KoAloha. I highly recommend playing these before buying. The fact that they are hand-made and use a broad range of construction techniques, you may love or hate these various brands.

The Martin family of ukuleles largely lives in this range, and are coveted by players. While Martins are not hand-made in the sense that most of the K brands are, they are made in US or Mexico factories with an enormous focus on quality craftsmanship and design. Play one and you’ll see what I mean.

Finally, we have luthier made ukuleles. These are made by an individual or a few individuals, usually to a buyer’s exact specification. People reading this post are likely not looking for a luthier made instrument, so I won’t get into lots of detail here. Suffice to say you will likely wait months for your instrument and pay dearly for it, but end up with a one of a kind heirloom instrument. One company taking this process to a new level and definitely worth checking out is Mya-Moe.

That wraps up my buyer’s guide to ukuleles. Hopefully this has been educational and helpful. Stay tuned for the next installment in this series: Playing Styles!

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