For beginners, learning to play the ukulele is a friendly start. Generally speaking, the ukulele is more affordable than most other instruments. It is also small in size and you can learn and practice anywhere and in any situation be it on the couch, on your bed, or even at the beach with a straw hat just like the Hawaiians. Besides, the nylon strings on the ukulele are also friendlier to beginners’ fingers with no callus than its big brother the acoustic guitar. Finally, having fewer frets than acoustic guitars makes it easier for beginners to have a grasp on it as well.
However, choosing a Ukulele for you to start with can be tricky. Ukuleles are different in types, sizes, and shapes and these features directly affect the tones and playability of the ukulele. As what happens on guitars, the body woods are to be carefully considered if you want your future ukulele to sound as you expect. So, in today’s ukulele buying guide, we will walk you through the important information that you may need when choosing your ukulele.
Introduction of the Ukulele
The Birth of Ukulele
In 1879, Portuguese professional craftsmen and instrumentalists Manuel Nunes, Joao Fernandes, and Augustus Dias arrived in the Hawaii islands. They worked as immigrants in the sugarcane fields while inventing and developing a native instrument from their homeland. Hawaiians were surprised not only by the beautiful color of the instrument but also by the quick movement of the player's fingers across the fingerboard. Since then, Hawaiians have called the instrument Ukulele, which means "jumping flea" in English. There are still some other stories about the ukulele. But whatever the true story behind the ukulele, it became the most popular instrument in Hawaii. This is largely due to the three craftsmen mentioned above.
The Development of Ukulele
After its birth, the ukulele quickly drew people’s attention. The ukulele was promoted by the royal family and nobles, such as King Kalakaua, Empress Emma, and Empress Liliuokalani, who all played the Ukulele. As a result, the Ukulele was accepted by many Hawaiians, from fishermen and taro growers to Kings and queens, who loved to learn and play the Ukulele. Around 1915, the Ukulele became popular in North America. Hawaiian music hit San Francisco and then swept the country, boosting sales of the Ukulele in North America. The cyclone also swept across the Atlantic to Britain. In the next two decades, the popularity of the ukulele brought fierce competition to manufacturers in both Hawaii and the United States. In the 1940s and 1950s, great British musicians like George Formby and American musicians like Arthur Godfrey continued to popularize the Ukulele, keeping it in the mainstream of American music. Great players like Roy Smeck and Eddie Karnae continue to play the ukulele. But by the time of Tiny Tim in the late sixties, the ukulele seemed to have been forgotten. In the next several decades, the ukulele is back on the scene and has been steadily heating up ever since.
Components of the Ukulele
The Anatomy of The Ukulele
As the little brother of the guitar, the ukulele consists of similar components as its bigger brother.
Same as the acoustic guitar, the headstock of the ukulele is built together with the neck and it holds the tunning machines. Usually, the name of the brand or the trademark is carved here.
The tuners, also known as tuning machines or tuning pegs, are screwed onto the headstock exerting tension on the strings and keep the instrument in tune. There are sealed tuners and open tuners depending on whether the machinery of the tuners is exposed. Normally speaking, the seal tuners are more stable and do not need any lubricating maintenance.
Nut and Saddle
The nut and the saddle are a pair that lie respectively at the end of the headstock and on the bridge. They are stably fixed to hold the strings in alignment at both ends with the neck.
Neck and Fingerboard
Built together with the headstock, the neck is usually glued into the body of the ukulele. It is the part where the fretting hand places so the feel of the neck is significant as it affects the playability of the instrument. Besides, another function of the neck is to hold the fingerboard on which the frets are directly mounted.
The body, as of the guitars, is where all the acoustics come from. The body is almost an enclosure space but with a soundhole on the upper part. It is composed of a soundboard, also known as the top, back, and sides. When the strings are vibrating, the soundboard absorbs the vibrations coming from the saddle. Then the soundboard and the body resonate generating soundwaves in the body upon coming out of the body after being reflected on the back. Pay special attention to the body’s resonances when you choose your desirable ukulele.
The bridge is where the saddle is placed. It acts as a vibration conductor as well. The bottom end of the strings is also tied on the bridge to provide tension.
Categories of the Ukulele
The biggest reason why choosing ukuleles is complicated is that there are various types of them and some of them even have names in Latin. Variations are also provided in the same type. So, the next part informs you of various kinds of ukulele and their differences.
Specs of Different Ukulele Types
The first ukulele ever created is a Soprano type. It is the smallest among the ukulele family and is also the most common ukulele associated with people’s impressions. It is regarded as the standard model for many ukulele manufacturers because of its origin. The Soprano incorporates a 13’’ scale length (the length of the vibrating strings) and a 21’’ full length. It offers sweet and bright sounds we usually hear from a ukulele.
As the biggest member of the ukulele family, the baritone features the deepest bass frequencies and is capable of producing the loudest sounds in the family with a 19'' scale length and a 30'' scale length. Its body length and fretboard scale make it the most playable one for players with big hands. Unlike the other 3 types of ukuleles, the baritone is different in tuning. The four strings of the baritone are tuned in G3-D3-B3-E4 starting from the lowest strings. It is the exact same tuning as the highest four strings on the guitar so it is easiest to learn for guitar players.
Same on the acoustic guitar, manufacturers managed to integrate electronics into the ukulele. An acoustic-electric ukulele normally incorporates a built-in pickup which allows vibrations of the strings to be transformed into signals that can be exported to amplifiers and sound interfaces through the preamp that is normally placed in the one side of the ukulele. Since the nylon strings on the ukulele do not generate relatively loud sounds like the steel strings on the acoustic guitar, an amplifier or interface would be significant if you plan to perform live in a slightly bigger venue or an open space. Normally, the built-in preamp of a ukulele features sound control and tone control for adjustment. Some also include a tuner in the preamp. You can also get an EQ control on the Donner acoustic-electric ukulele.
What Affects the Tones of the Ukulele
Generally speaking, there are two types of ukuleles. Although the shape does not affect the tones as much as the tonewood, it is worth mentioning for the subtlety.
Guitar Shape: The guitar shape is the most common and standard shape of the ukulele. Some people call it the gourd shape because its upper body is smaller than the lower part. The guitar shape features a beautiful curve in the waist of the instrument and cutaways on the upper body is also provided on the ukulele for more accessible higher frets and solo playing.
Donner DUC400 21-inch Guitar Shape Ukulele
Pineapple Shape: The pineapple shape ukulele is designed with a rounder and less curved body than the guitar shape. Its design language speaks in Hawaiian as shown in its body shape and decorations. The rounder body of the pineapple gives it a slightly warmer and more resonant sound. But it is hard to tell a big difference between these two shapes.
Like most other acoustic string instruments, the tonewoods of the ukulele are significant in the instruments' acoustic characteristics. However, a good musical instrument is not made by placing all the components on a piece of raw wood. The wood only contributes to a part of the excellence. The craft and the unity of all the components are also important. As you dive deeper into the sea of instruments, you will find that instruments are made out of various types of wood combinations and each one of them bears its characteristics. Don't get lost in the woods. Good tonewoods are very important but the craft is also the key.
Laminated and Solid Wood
Like what happens with the acoustic guitar, laminated wood and solid should be your first concern when choosing a ukulele. When the concept of laminated and solid wood is mentioned, it refers to the body material of the instrument. Solid wood means the body is made of a single type of tonewood while laminated wood means the body is made of several layers of wood that is glued together with grained veneer on the top to make the body look natural. Although these two types of woods may look alike, the tones are what set them apart. Generally speaking, solid wood features better resonances for its unity.
Nevertheless, the solid wood that boasts excellence in tones also has its disadvantages. The stability and hardness of the solid wood are what have been disturbing the gear heads for years. In special climates where the temperature and humidity can change drastically in a day, solid wood becomes vulnerable thus cracking and deforming can easily happen. Even if you have to pay extra attention and do frequent maintenance to a more costly solid wood ukulele, the extra money you pay for it can be an investment. Solid wood instruments like guitars, ukulele, piano, and so on tend to produce mellower, warmer, and richer sounds as they age. Original instruments with decades of history can be priced at several hundred thousand bucks. It is like tasting a new bottle of grape wine that you can never finish and then you have the rich and juicy tastes of an old bottle years later.
Types of Tone Woods
The most widely recognized material for Ukulele is the rare Hawaiian hardwood species Koa, known as the Hawaiian Koa tree, which features light brown in color, beautiful grain, and flame patterns on the top in high-end products. It has a gentle sound similar to mahogany but its high frequencies are more prominent than mahogany. Koa has a higher density than Mahogany The tone is brighter and the low frequencies are weaker. Due to the oiliness of the wood, the high frequency is also slightly weakened. In summary, Koa’s tone is more focused on medium frequency. The high frequency is smooth and compress and the low frequency is clear but weak. Compared with other woods, the Koa tone has a stronger fundamental tone, is less dynamic, and is more compressed. When played vigorously, the sound is sweet. The wood has to be played for several years before the sound reaches its prime quality. The color of koa is a little too bright, like the walnut. It is a dark brown color and is often not painted to keep its special look. But it also looks beautiful when painted. The harvesting of Hawaiian koa trees has been banned and the actual Hawaiian koa is stored and become more expensive.
Mahogany is a commonly seen tonewood type grown in various regions of the world. It features beautiful grain and is usually used as the material for guitar and ukulele bodies and necks. Generally, although mahogany has numerous varieties and they are a little different in details, it tends to generate warm and rich tones with rich mid and low frequencies.
Maple is another commonly seen material for guitars. It features a bright look, high density, and hardness. Due to its stability and not being prone to deform, maple is used for nearly the wooden parts on the guitar. The grain on the maple is beautiful and maple with the flame-like grain is usually used for the top of a guitar body. Because of its hardness, it is usually used for the fretboard or bridge on the ukulele.
With high density, the rosewood is commonly seen on the fretboards of string instruments. On the ukulele, rosewood is commonly used for the fretboard and body. With the growing rarity of rosewood, manufacturers start to use Pau Ferro as the substitute for rosewood. So, you may also see the use of Pau Ferro on ukuleles.
Spruce is a popular kind of tonewood used in guitars. With the growing demands in ukulele, manufacturers begin to adopt spruce in ukulele. Spruce features white or beige. Its color is clean and neat and the grain is straight. The tone of it is crisp and bright.
Although softer than spruce, cedar is still a kind of hardwood. The tones it offers are mellow and full so it is often used on tenor and baritone which feature heavier sounds.
As mentioned above, the ukuleles are offered in four sizes. They are soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone from small to big. The bigger the size, the louder and deeper the output. If you are more into the brighter and crunchy sounds, go for the smaller ones. If you want your ukulele to sound more like a guitar, then bigger ones like baritone may be your choice. Also, pay attention to the playability and different tunings of the ukulele when you consider your purchase.
For most beginners, accessories can be a headache because buying them one by one after your instrument purchase is time-consuming and you have to wait for them to be delivered and pay extra money. As mentioned above, a digital tuner is highly recommended because of the ukulele's special tunings. You may also want to buy a ukulele gig bag considering the ukulele's mobility which is convenient for you to have on the road for practice or fun playing. A strap may also be needed as holding your ukulele while standing can be tiring and it affects your playing. As your playing time gets longer, you will also need consumables like picks and strings. Luckily, Donner offers every one of these items in the ukulele bundles. Besides the instrument, a Donner digital tuner, a pack of picks, a quality gig bag, a strap, and a set of quality nylon stings are included in the all-in-one bundle which can save you much time as a beginner. Be sure to check them out if you are interested.
If you still have any questions regarding the ukulele or anything relevant, feel free to contact us by hitting the Contact Us button. We will be there to help!