Buying Ukuleles

Ukulele_Wikimedia

Buying One Ukulele

If you are a teacher and needing to buy multiple units, scroll down to the "Classroom Sets" info below.

Otherwise, focus for a minute: This is kinda boring.

I've been watching ukulele buying habits for years and here's what I know:

  • You'll probably buy it from the wrong place.
  • You'll probably end up with the wrong size.
  • You'll probably end up with the wrong quality.

So, let's fix that:

The wrong place: Music stores are going out of business across the country due to Amazon. If you have a music store in your town at all, it must pay for staff and the building ... and prior to Amazon, they could afford that by selling the "entry level" stuff with significant profit margins. Those margins are now gone and so are most of the music shops. The ones that are left usually do not care about ukuleles because there are literally pennies in profit in them. As a result, often their staffs are barely knowledgeable about ukuleles, and so you end up with whatever they happen to have on the shelf whether it's right for you or not. I have solutions! If you're in Denver, you should come talk to me first. I don't care if you end up buying from somebody else, but you'll at least be knowledgeable. If you're not in Denver, you'll probably be looking at Amazon. Please don't shop by price. I've had students bring me their purchases for years and here is what I know. You'll probably be okay with:

  • Mahalo (for entry level)
  • Kala or Ohana (for next level)
  • Cordoba (for upper level ... probably best to not buy the cheap ones)

I would tell you without reservation that you're rolling the dice on most other brands ... and I've played and repaired almost every brand.

The wrong size: When you walk into my shop to buy a ukulele, I am interested in two things right away -- how big are your hands, and how fat are your fingers. (I've tried to think of a more politically correct term for "fat fingers" but all I can come up with is "sausage links" and that seems worse.) Most adults should be playing tenor sized ukuleles. If you have extraordinarily small hands, you might play the soprano sized, but it's rare. If your fingers are shorter, you might need concert size. If you have fat fingers, you will have a challenge making a D chord properly and I might end up fitting you for baritone ukulele (although I'd rather have everybody start on an ukulele in standard tuning since there are more resources available). Prior to shopping for your ukulele, print out this PDF and it will give you a guide to what you should be buying. There are thousands of dumb ideas floating around about what is the "best" size. The size that fits you is the best size.

The wrong quality: Most people shop for musical instruments by price. Normally that's a disaster, but this is ukulele and we should be honest about what we buying and selling.

  • Your first ukulele should be cheap, but not too cheap. You don't know if you'll like playing it, you don't know if you'll take care of it, you aren't going to sound good even if you buy top of the line. Buy an inexpensive ukulele with a straight-ish neck to get started. That's going to be somewhere between $50 and $80. Change the strings to fluorocarbon. Buy the best clip-on tuner you can find, get a gig bag with backpack straps, and stay off YouTube. Plan on:
    • Ukulele: $80 (tenor size laminate)
    • String Change: $30 (fluorocarbon) Have a pro change them.
    • Gig Bag: $30 (back pack straps and padding)
    • Tuner: $20 (get the best one money can buy)
    • Music stand: $50 (don't buy the cheapies)
    • Total cost to get up and running: $210-ish

 

  • After you can play a bit and you find out this is fun and quality sounds are emanating from your rig, it's time to upgrade. Weigh the price difference between laminate tops and solid tops. Generally speaking, solid woods tops are going to sound better over the long haul, but laminate tops are less likely to crack. If an ukulele is a solid top, you'll see the words "solid top" in the description, and if it doesn't say it you can be assured it's a laminate. Check the necks to make sure they're pretty straight. Perfect ones don't exist as far as I can tell. You'll also pay for "fancies," so if you like abalone inlays, or gold tuning machines, or decorative fretboards, those cost extra. Sound should always be your driving decision-maker, and from about $200 to $600 most all ukuleles sound good. Ukuleles above $600 or so usually have the best possible sound, but "the best" is a subjective term.

 

  • Finally, when you've completely sold out to this activity, you might begin looking for all-solid wood handmade ukuleles built from woods like cedar, spruce, mahogany or koa. Lots of luthiers are experimenting with other woods, but take your advice from classical guitarists and realize they don't use [insert the name of cool looking wood here] because it doesn't sound as good as cedar, spruce, mahogany or koa. Top of the line ukuleles run in the neighborhood of $2500, and if you're paying more then you are probably paying for the name on the headstock with the good marketing program behind it. And yeah, you might do that for the pride of owning that brand.

 

Classroom Sets

School budgets, eh? Am I right? Here's the no-frills truth:

The ukuleles on your purchasing department's approved list will stink. I know the brands you're likely to find there and I know the wholesaler most of you will be using. Those ukuleles are cheap, sound terrible, and break easily. If that's the only choice you're allowed, get them and change the strings right away, and then start teaching melody playing techniques as if your life depended on it. Strumming those ukuleles will cause you to leave teaching and start selling insurance.

A bad classroom set of 30 will run in the neighborhood of $750. A good set will run closer to $1000. You will be teaching using soprano ukuleles and that's fine in elementary school, but in middle and high school you'll need to consider buying concert or tenor sizes and of course the price goes up.

Make sure you budget for a few tuners and you'll need to teach a few students to be your "advanced tuning team." Cheap ukuleles almost always come with a little canvas carrying bag. You'll need to get a big plastic tote box to store them. And as I mention everywhere, for the love of humanity, don't let your students use capos or picks. Teach them to play the right way, and if you were trained on guitar, ask yourself how often your college professors let you use a pick.

Plan for some maintenance costs. Strings break, tuning machines fall off, nuts and bridges crack or become unglued. Often, it's easier to throw away a broken ukulele and buy new, but you may have a local music shop that takes pity on the ukulele and will give you a deal on repairs. I do that here in Colorado because I hate seeing these little guys in the trash can. Most of the things that break on low-priced ukuleles can usually be fixed inexpensively.

If you want better sounding, properly set up, and supported ukuleles, especially if you're in Colorado, you should probably email me. If you're nowhere near Colorado, email me anyway and we can chat about how wonderful you are. And, we can troubleshoot the best way to make your students musical life much better.