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|Written by Paul D. Race for , , and|
Buyer's Guide for Ukulele - From Riverboat Music(tm), Once upon a time, Portuguese emigrants who settled in Hawaii reengineered the little guitar-like instruments they brought with them, using native materials. Long before 1900 the results of those experiments had been adopted by the native culture and had standardized into what we now call the ukulele.
Introduced to the United States about 1915, the ukulele caught on among jazz and popular music enthusiasts. It was inexpensive and portable, and less painful to start on than the mandolins, banjos, and guitars of the day. Some folks, to be sure, championed it as "easier to learn" than other instruments, but I think part of that comes from the fact that most players simply strummed; expectations were higher for the instruments that had been around longer. Students dragged them to college and young people took them to parties and beaches, much like the guitar craze of the 1960s.
In Canada, ukuleles were adopted by school systems to help students learn principles of music, much like recorders and flutophones are used in US schools.
By the time I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the "ukulele craze" had come and gone, and ukulele players were being marginalized in popular culture. On television, only beatniks or folks who were old and out of touch played the thing - unless you count talk show host Arthur Godfrey or comedians like Lucille Ball, who played it for comic effect. The ukulele had joined the accordian, tenor guitar, and tenor banjo on the list of "uncool" instruments.
Recently, however, there has been a revival sparked both by popular songs that featured ukulele and the rising popularity of virtuosos who have proven that the instrument is worth taking seriously.
Because of its size and strings that apply relatively little pressure to the bridge and neck, it's still easy to build ukulele-like instruments for very little money. True, the "throwaway" pieces at the low end of the price scale usually suffer from poor construction which allows them to warp or come apart and from poor tuners, which make the things impossible to keep in tune. But as of this writing (April, 2015), it is possible to get a ukulele worth starting on in the $100 range or a pretty nice one in the $300 range.
Features - Upgrades which might affect the price include solid tops, Koa construction (a native hardwood), and upgrade tuners. For example, a solid-topped ukulele will be louder and generally have richer tones than a laminate-topped ukulele. In addition, engineering advances such as X bracing sometimes find their way from guitar to uke.
Sizes - You'll notice quickly that ukes come in a range of sizes. Three of the sizes, "soprano" ("standard'), "concert," and "tenor" ukuleles use the same tuning, so if you're more comfortable using a concert or tenor uke, that's fine. "Baritone" uke uses a different tuning. I do recommend starting on a uke that uses standard tuning. Yes, you may love baritone uke, but you're far less likely to get handed one at a party and expected to play it.
Overlap With Tenor Guitar? The ukulele's recent rise in popularity has coincided with renewed interest in the four-string tenor guitar. In fact, several ukulele importers have started tuning baritone ukuleles in tenor guitar tuning and calling them tenor guitars. That said, tenor guitar is historically a full-sized guitar with four strings, so if you want to investigate that instrument please see our pages on the subject. If you buy a baritone ukulele with tenor guitar tuning, just tell your friends that you have a baritone ukulele, but you're tuning it like a tenor guitar. There's no shame in using alternate tunings on these instruments.
Ukulele as a "Baby Guitar"? - Sadly, some folks have promoted the ukulele as a sort of "toy guitar," something you can give a little kid to play with until he's ready for a "real guitar." The tuning is so different that it's not exactly a "stepping stone." Worse yet, this attitude diminishes the status of the ukulele as its own instrument, its own history, and its own distinctive uses and styles.
Tuning - Ukulele is almost unique among fretted instruments in that the string closest to the player's chin is typically the highest string on the instrument. Ironically, it shares that characteristic with the five-string banjo. Though they're not tuned the same, this does allow some traditional banjo picking styles, like clawhammer, to be used on the uke. Is it possible to restring a uke and tune it more like a guitar? Yes, but I would recommend using traditional uke tuning; otherwise you'll never learn any advanced uke styles, and real uke players will spot you as a "poser" in a hurry.
New Or Used? - Ordinarily I recommend checking the used market first, but during the height of the ukulele craze, millions of ukulele-shaped toys and wall decorations were produced, and virtually everyone who visited Hawaii between 1948 and 1970 brought back a souvenir that is shaped like a ukulele. If it has palm trees or the word "Hawaii" silk-screened on it, don't count on it meeting your needs. In addition, a recent attempt to shop for a decent used older ukulele impressed me with how many of the once-decent instruments have been mistreated and abused.
That said, in southwest Ohio, a lot of folks seem to have bought new imports and given up on them, so my 80-mile-radius "Craigs' List Survey" has turned up one toy, one souvenir, one 1940s Harmony baritone uke, and eleven lightly-used imports that were obviously bought on a lark or given as gifts. Oddly, several of those are priced almost as high at they cost online. If you see a local lightly-used, recently-produced uke that interests you, research it online to compare its features and reviews to others in the same price class. If you really can get a $200 uke for $100, go check it out. But don't assume it's a bargain just because it is used.
My next recommendation would be shopping in a real music store that has a uke teacher. Many - perhaps most - would-be uke players who give up before they put any appreciable wear on their instruments never took lessons. Apparently people still believe the 100-year-old urban legend that any idiot can play the thing without any work, learning, or practice to speak of. "Saving" $30 by buying a uke online and never getting past the second chord on the thing may not benefit you as much as you'd think.
If you buy online, you run about a 50% chance of getting one with manufacturing defects or shipping damage. The percentage of useless or damaged instruments arriving gets higher the lower you go in price. But it doesn't get much lower than 40% until you get into the $400 range. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try buying online, only that you need to have someone who understands fretted instruments on standby to look the thing over as soon as it gets to your house.
Note: It isn't as hard to start a ukulele company as it is to start, say, a guitar company. A host of businesses have started importing Asian-built ukes recently, and some of them come in and out of business so fast that it's hard to keep track, much less review their products.
I'm dabbling more in ukulele now than I have in the past, but I have not tried many models. I have a professional musician friend who loves the Luna ukes, so I've listed some of those below. If you click on the Amazon page for any of those, you'll see dozens of alternatives, some of which may be better, and many of which may be cheaper. But it's a start, and a way of illustrating the size differences among Soprano, Concert, and Tenor uke, all of which use the same tuning. I would say that "Concert" sized ukes tend to be more common than the other two sizes these days, but "Tenor" ukes are richer in the lower tones.
Whatever instrument you choose and however you get it into your household, we wish you the best and hope it brings countless hours of enjoyment.
Please check back for updates, and contact us with any questions, corrections, additions, or "reader responses."
Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*
Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.
Consider Buying Used: Before you spend $2000 on an instrument that will be worth $800 once you get it home, check out the used market for that sort of instrument in your area. Depending on where you live, or what kind of instrument you're looking for, it may not be an option. But if you can get a used professional instrument for the same price as a new student instrument, it is often worth taking the risk. Especially if you have a knowledgeable friend who can go along and check it out for you. In fact, many of our pages include links to articles on how to shop for used instruments of various types. However, we recognize that many folks have limited access to good used instruments, and everyone needs to see what is available in the various price ranges. So we do list, when possible, live links to real vendors with a good return policy, in case they're your best choice for getting what you want. Again, once you buy something, your satisfaction is between you and the seller.
Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the musical instrument market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online listing until I can find a replacement or another supplier.
*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.
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