Photo by Chris Devlin
If you are a fairly novice player and don’t know about stringed instruments, it’s nice to have an experienced player with you to help you choose your instrument. But that may not be possible and, ultimately, it is you who will live with the choice. So if you can do the choosing yourself, it promises to be a satisfying and memorable experience.
Here are 10 basic things to help you be more confident with your choice.
Remember you will be spending more time with this object than possibly anything else you own outside of your furniture. So don’t be cheap.
A great-sounding instrument can uplift you, make you want to play more and will make you sound good from the first strum.
How much are you willing to spend? Or, what is the most you can afford to part with? Think about how much you spend in other areas of your life (like your car or clothes) and figure out what an appropriate amount should be for you.
There are 3 main sizes of uke:
Small = Soprano (or the slightly larger but less available Concert)
Medium = Tenor
Large = Baritone
Try all three and decide which suits you best. This could be for physical reasons (large or small hands) or it might be the sound you prefer. Soprano and Tenor have the bouncy ukulele sound whereas the Baritone uke tends to be closer to a guitar – if that’s what you want.
Look closely at all the points where the various parts of the instrument have been joined. Check out the frets. Are they straight and cleanly inserted into the fingerboard or raggedy looking? If all the wooden joins are smooth and pleasing to look at, it’s a visual sign that the maker has taken care.
Does it look good on you? It’s unfortunate but true that modern audiences listen as much with their eyes as with their ears. How your instrument looks will send a message to your audience about you and the music you’re about to play. A beautifully inlaid uke will say one thing and a bright pink uke will say another. It’s not really a huge deal though and, if you play well, people will eventually listen no matter what. Generally, I would say don’t choose your instrument according to the colour, that is unless it also fulfils the other qualities you’re looking for.
With the uke facing you on the wall or on a stand, strum across the open strings. What does the sound make you think or feel? If you like the basic tone, that is a good starting point. Once you’re holding it and pressing the wood with the sound-hole pointed away, it will sound different again. However, some instruments lose their tone when you play them. Find out if the uke holds the tone all the way up the neck by pressing a finger across all four strings at some of the higher frets. Does the tone still sound full and ringing or has it become dull?
Does it feel good to hold while resting easily in your arms? If the neck and headstock are too heavy for the body, the instrument will be constantly tipping to one side. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker, because you can use a strap to hold the uke in place, but is that what you want?
A beautiful-sounding ukulele has great resonance. It sounds loud and full and the sound carries on without disappearing right away. This happens because a good uke is made from thin wood that is free to vibrate thanks to well-placed bracing (thin pieces of internal supporting wood). The physical light weight of your instrument is a clue that it is well-made and potentially great sounding.
Check that the instrument holds its tuning. The tuning pegs need to be sturdy and tight while also being easy to adjust. Planetary tuners with their hidden gearing (1:4) make tuning quick and precise while still looking like friction pegs. There is nothing wrong with good friction pegs either, so long as they stay in place and don’t slip during the middle of a song or when you accidentally brush them with your finger. Guitar-style geared pegs (they may come out sideways from the headstock) work well too if good quality.
There are several ways to check intonation and I offer this one as a way of doing a quick and easy test:
Tune the strings. Then play a chord like say G7, or E minor, and notice if the string that is not being pressed sounds in tune with the 3 strings that are being played as part of the chord. Does it still sound sweet?
Next move the chord up one fret with the fourth string still open. How does that sound? Move the chord all the way up the neck one fret at a time, strumming as you go. Even the discords along the way will sound sweet if the intonation is good. If it gets nasty and jarring, it means that the build of the uke is poor and the intonation is off. You will never sound good with this instrument no matter how how much you practice.
But keep checking the open tuning of the strings. New strings have a tendency to stretch and need to be regularly retuned for the first few days. If the strings keep going out of tune, this will confuse the above intonation technique.
(It’s worth noting that banjo ukuleles have a moveable bridge which can be adjusted to get good intonation. That is if all the frets have been well placed to begin with.)
Find out what is available in your music shop within your price range and read reviews about the instruments you’ll be handling. You might discover a fine instrument that is also a reasonable price. But try several if you can. Some companies can be inconsistent in their quality and two identical-looking ukuleles may sound and feel quite different.
If you really want to get into research, then the variety of tone-woods, strings and building styles will provide you with a world of interest but essentially if you are happy with the sound, the look and the feel of your new ukulele, then you’ve made a good choice.
This article first appeared in Ralph Shaw’s excellent Ukulele Entertainer eNewsletter. Sign up for it here: https://ralphshaw.ca/newsletter/