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I want to buy an ukulele, and I have no idea of what to expect or what to look for. Which brands have a good quality-price ratio? What types of ukuleles are there? What do I want to avoid? What to look for?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

There are four main sizes of ukulele: Soprano, Concert, Tenor, and Baritone. Soprano, Concert, and Tenor are all tuned the same so it's just a question of fretboard size and resonance. The Baritone is tuned differently and probably not what you want. You should choose among the other 3 based on what size is comfortable--go to a store and try them out. Many men find the Soprano to be too small to comfortably play. I think the ideal size is where your fingers naturally fall one to a fret at the lowest frets, without having to compress or stretch your fingers.

Lanikai and Kala are the two brands I would recommend picking from. They're probably the two most common to find in a typical music store and are good quality. Make sure to get one with machine tuners, the kind where there's a worm gear:

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Pretty hard to find a uke today without machine tuners - the mass-produced cheap ones have them. Having said that, I don't actually see a problem with violin-style peg tuners. – slim Aug 22 '14 at 12:16

I always say that a bad first guitar will hold a learner back badly. However I don't hesitate to recommend starting with a ukulele from the bottom end of the market, because:

  • nylon-strung instruments are more forgiving of cheap construction than steel-strung guitars
  • they are so cheap -- little more than a round of drinks -- they can be treated as a throwaway purchase

So I say, go ahead and buy one of these very cheap soprano ukes from brands such us Mahalo. These are often the ones painted in bright colours, or printed with fun designs.

Then get learning. This uke will not hold back your technique as a beginner, even though it might not sound as great as a better uke.

Once you can play a few songs, you'll have the experience to know what you find wrong with your cheap instrument.

  • You may decide that a soprano uke is too small for your hands, and move to a larger instrument in a lower pitch range.
  • You will probably notice poor intonation on your cheap uke
  • If you try out a more expensive uke in a shop, you'll be struck by the improvement in tone and sustain.

Depending on the circumstances in which you intend to play, you might also consider an electric-acoustic uke at this point.

Never spend significant money on an instrument without trying it out. Go to a bricks-and-mortar shop, and ask to try out the uke you're considering. Although factors such as the wood used for construction, or the type of tuning heads, contribute to the quality of the instrument, the only really important things are how it feels, and how it sounds (OK, let's admit it, also how it looks).

You'll probably find you'll still want to keep your cheap uke around - because it's fun and colourful; in case someone comes around and you want to try a duet; to take places you don't want to risk your more valuable instrument.

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