5 Best Ukuleles: A Guide for Beginners
By Mason Hoberg
Like any other instrument, finding the best ukulele for your needs can be a bit of a challenge. There are dozens upon dozens of different options, all of which come with their own pros and cons.
So if you’d like to learn more about this distinctive instrument, you’ve come to the right place! This article will give you all the information that you need to make an informed decision, as well as giving you a few solid recommendations.
|Kala KA-15S Mahogany Soprano||The value you get from Kala KA-15S Soprano Uke is nothing short of amazing at this price point. Great craftsmanship and setup, mahogany top, and comes with high quality Aquila Nylgut strings. It has a sweet tone, and for the ridiculously low price it's a perfect way to get into the ukulele.||Amazon|
|Epiphone Les Paul Acoustic/Electric||A great sounding uke with some serious character and looks. This concert size uke looks and feels like a miniature Les Paul. It sounds good (once you replace the strings with better ones), the details are well thought out, and best of all it's acoustic/electric which means you can plug it into an amp or PA to play live.||Amazon|
|Oscar Schmidt OU5 Concert Ukulele||Once you finish being mesmerized by its gorgeous finish, you'll be impressed the warm and rich tone of the Oscar Schmidt OU5 Concert Uke. We wish it was made of solid koa wood as opposed to laminate, but laminate keeps the price lower. When you're ready to move past beginner/budget ukes, take a close look at this one.||Amazon|
|Luna Guitars Tattoo Concert Ukulele||This concert size uke has a beautiful tattoo design and features mahogany top and sides. Considering it's under $100, it is set up very well and the fit and finish are impressive. Most importantly, it sounds very nice. No matter your skill level this is a suitable uke with a very unique look.||Amazon|
|Godin 36080 Ukulele||A high-end tenor size uke that looks as good as it sounds. It's more electric than acoustic; It's missing a sound hole, so it's not as loud and resonant as 100% acoustic ukes. The electronics allow you to plug into an amp or PA, where this ukulele truly shines. If you record or perform you'll be blown away by its quality.||Amazon|
- Types of Ukuleles
- Ukulele Terminology
- What Does A Ukulele Do?
- How Much Should I Spend on a Ukulele?
- Top 5 Ukuleles
- Tuning Your Ukulele
Eddie Vedder proves it's quite possible to look cool with a ukulele.
Types of Ukuleles
Likely the most important thing you need to know is the range of sizes ukuleles come in. There are four main types of ukuleles, from smallest to largest: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. In this section we’ll explain these sizes.
Soprano: A soprano is what people typically think of when they picture a ukulele in their heads. Also referred to as a standard ukulele by some manufacturers, it is the smallest of the most popular variants, which gives it the brightest tone that typically cuts through the song in that characteristically ukulele fashion. Typical length is 21”, with 10-12 frets, making it very comfortable to play for smaller hands and kids.
Concert: Concert sized ukuleles are generally more comfortable for full-grown adults. This size and larger are more comfortable to hold and play for larger hands. Typical length is 23”, with 15-18 frets.
Tenor: The bigger the instrument the deeper the tone. The tenor will fit in between the concert and baritone, and be more bass heavy than the concert and soprano. Ukuleles sized tenor and smaller typically utilize the same tuning. Typical length is 26”, with 17-19 frets.
Baritone: The biggest ukulele, the baritone body size is generally tuned a fifth lower. The voicing of the instrument also sports characteristics similar to that of a classical acoustic guitar. Typical length is 29”, with 18-21 frets.
Familiarizing yourself with the various terms and features specific to ukuleles will help you make a more informed buying decision. Let’s define some common things you might see:
Solid Top/Back/Sides: When a ukulele is advertised as sporting a solid top (or a solid top, back, and sides) it means that that section is made out of solid wood as opposed to laminate. Generally, a solid wood instrument is considered to have a richer tone than its laminate counterparts (the top is primarily responsible for the tone of the ukulele, so at the very least look for that to be made of solid wood). Another benefit of solid wood is that, like a good wine, it becomes better as it ages. Over the years the instrument will sound sweeter, richer, warmer, and more complex.
Acoustic/Electric: When a ukulele is advertised as being acoustic/electric, it has a pickup (generally a piezo) that allows the instrument to be amplified. If you intend to play live, investing in an acoustic/electric ukulele might make sense. That way, using a guitar cable you can plug it into an acoustic guitar amp or PA system. If you don’t amplify your ukulele and play along with other instruments, you run the risk of not being able to hear the ukulele over other louder instruments.
Parts of a Ukulele:
What Does A Ukulele Do?
Generally, the ukulele is used to either provide extra texture to a song (like how modern country uses the mandolin) or to give a song a more Hawaiian feel. Because the instrument is tuned in the same intervals as the top four strings of a guitar (top meaning highest pitched in this context) the instrument can easily be picked up by the average guitar player. However, there are a few extra considerations involved in choosing a ukulele because of the different mechanics at play in the instrument.
Similar to the mandolin, it takes a lot of care on the part of the manufacturer to build a good ukulele because of the instrument’s small size. The overall size of a ukulele is a lot smaller than a guitar, so in order to have a similar amount of response across the frequency spectrum a ukulele actually needs to be made of better quality wood than the average guitar.
Another thing to consider is the fact that a ukulele is never going to reach the volume of the average dreadnought acoustic. So if you plan on jamming with your buddies, you’re going to need to invest in an acoustic-electric instrument.
How Much Should I Spend on a Ukulele?
Unlike a guitar, the average listener isn’t really going to be able to tell a good ukulele sound vs. a mediocre one because the instrument simply doesn’t get as much exposure as a guitar. Off the top of your head how many popular songs can you think of that used the ukulele? Now think of how many popular songs have used the acoustic guitar. The number of the latter definitely dwarfs the former.
While that may frustrate a few of you who are really into the ukulele, it actually makes things quite a bit easier on the rest of us. Because the average listener rarely hears a good ukulele sound, odds are they won’t be able to easily pick out a cheaper one.
Considering that, if all you’re looking to do is add some ukulele sound to your songs you really don’t have to spend a lot. For that purpose, you can easily get a useable instrument for under $200.
However, for those of you who want to pursue the ukulele seriously (and more power to you for doing so!) you’re going to want to shell out a bit more. We’ve found that you don’t start getting a truly great ukulele sound until you hit the $400-ish mark, which is admittedly still pretty cheap when you consider how much time you’ll be spending with the instrument.
Top 5 Ukuleles
The ukulele is an instrument that means different things to different people. For some of you, it’s just a novelty instrument that you use to add some variety to your songs. And there’s nothing wrong with using it like that. And for others, the ukulele is the instrument that you’ve chosen to seriously pursue. Again, that’s perfectly fine. However, because of this we’ve chosen to highlight the pros and cons of a variety of instruments.
Also, we believe that it’s important to clarify what the word “best” means in this context. For the musicians out there who simply want to experiment with the ukulele, buying a $700 custom made instrument is ridiculous. And for those of you who view the ukulele as their main instrument, buying a sub $200 isn’t necessarily a great option either.
Just try to remember that the “best” option is always going to vary from person to person. And what works for you may or may not work for your neighbor. So without further ado, here are the best ukuleles as decided by Equipboard.
Kala KA-15S Mahogany Soprano Ukulele
We normally kick things off with our top-of-the-line recommendation, but this time we couldn’t help starting off with a ukulele that not only is a phenomenal value for the money, its quality, workmanship, and tone are fantastic - way above what you would expect for its very affordable price tag. We’re talking about the Kala KA-15S Mahogany Soprano Ukulele. The value you get from the entire Kala KA-15 series is nothing short of amazing at this price point. With the Kala KA-15S in particular, you’ll find a quality mahogany instrument that is very playable.
With budget-priced instruments, often what suffers most is the build quality, fit, and finish. At the price point of the Kala KA-15S, we half expected to find a instrument that had cheese graters for frets (cheaper instruments with shoddy craftsmanship will leave sharp edges where the metal frets meets the wood of the neck, shredding your hands). However, the fit and finish of this Kala ukulele was really an unexpected and pleasant surprise. Too many people put down their instruments because of the physical discomfort or frustration at not having the strength and dexterity to play the notes on stringed instruments. However, the KA-15S is so well put together, we don’t see that being an issue. The setup was excellent on our uke straight out of the box, making it very user-friendly to pick up and start strumming. And speaking of strumming, the KA-15S comes strung with very high quality Aquila Nylgut strings, which are some of the best ukulele strings around - this is a huge plus (and also about a $7 value right there).
The KA-15S sports a mahogany top and sides, which are satin finished. The satin finish on our model was really well done and gives the instrument an understated vibe where the grain of the wood and the pores are still visible, but the ukulele has a subtle styling appeal and has a vintage simplicity about it. The neck feels great and the 12 brass frets are fit into the rosewood fingerboard well. The neck features position markers along the side where the fretboard is also marked at the 5th, 7th, and 10th frets. The nut works very well, and is made of a plastic material that kept the strings in place and avoided intonation issues. The one area we think could be notably improved is the open geared tuners. If we’re being picky, the tuners feel a bit cheap and second class. It’s not that they don’t work, but the pearl buttons feel a bit plastic-like for our liking. Having said that, we feel a bit odd complaining about that because of where this instrument is priced, and overall, the fit and finish are a superb value for the money. Speaking of tuning, some users suggest giving this ukulele a couple of weeks for the instrument and strings to “settle in” - until then you might experience the strings slipping a little and causing tuning issues (a very worthy companion to this - or any - ukulele is the Snark SN6X Clip-On Tuner made specifically for ukulele, to make tuning effortless and accurate).
The sound of the KA-15S is where the instrument shines. As a soprano, it has the classic ukulele sound and excels at having an even and balanced tone. It’s telling that when hearing the Kala KA-15S, most people would not be able to tell the difference between it and an instrument that costs 10 times as much. As one reviewer puts it:
“The uke is dynamic, resonant, and truly is the sum of all the aforementioned parts. Single notes sing out and have great harmonic content. Chords ring and project very well. I have played every note on the fingerboard and none of them are dead or have any intonation issues whatsoever.”
And, with as good as it sounds and feels in hand, you’re still not afraid to take it to the beach or use it around the campfire because it is so accessible.
Before you dismiss this as a beginner instrument, it’s worth noting that one of the most popular ukulele players on the planet right now - Vance Joy, who you might recognize from his hit Riptide - plays Kala ukes exclusively.
Bottom Line: This day and age, getting a very high quality acoustic stringed instrument at a super affordable price is tough. The Kala KA-15S Mahogany Soprano Ukulele manages to completely blow expectations out of the water. It’s simply an amazing value for the money. The Kala has received a staggering 1400+ reviews online, and the vast majority are glowing and positive. Professional quality, fit, and finish + crisp and rich tone + an unbelievably low price tag = you really can’t go wrong, whether you’re a beginner who’s uke-curious or a seasoned guitarist jumping into the wonderful world of the ukulele.
Epiphone Les Paul Acoustic/Electric Ukulele
Next on our list is a ukulele with some rock and roll heritage. Epiphone - part of Gibson - is a well renowned manufacturer of acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and basses. With the Epiphone Les Paul Acoustic/Electric Ukulele, they’ve made a ukulele that’s not only painted to look like the venerable Les Paul, it actually feels like you’re holding a miniature Les Paul.
From the way it’s packaged when it arrives at your doorstep, all the way to strumming your first chord on it, the entire experience of this ukulele is quality. The packaging exceeds expectations, and the box it comes in is sturdy (hint: until you can buy an actual ukulele case, just use the box it comes in!). Epiphone even includes a very high quality, thick gig bag that feels like it will protect your instrument, which is a nice little bonus. This is a concert size ukulele, which is one size larger than soprano; that is, it’s a nice adult-friendly size. The construction is top notch, which is the quality you would expect when paying a little more for the Epiphone name. The body is mahogany, and the top is a AAA grade flame maple top. It comes in two finishes - Cherry Burst and Vintage Sunburst, and both are very, very nice.
In terms of the little details in the fit and the finish, we’re very happy with what we got. The geared tuners are pretty decent, and most importantly precise. You get 19 frets, and they’re actual metal (silver nickel). Epiphone even thought to include strap buttons/holders, so you can attach a normal guitar strap and rock out with your mini Les Paul uke. Since this is in fact an acoustic/electric ukulele, it has a built in piezo pickup, which means you can hook it up to an acoustic guitar amp or PA system for playing live (or recording). Just be aware that it unfortunately does not have volume or tone controls.
In terms of sound, this Epiphone Les Paul Acoustic/Electric Ukulele sounds pretty great. It’s actually a bit quieter than we expected, likely because we’re comparing it to an all-acoustic ukulele (the sound box on this one is a little smaller). Still, the tone is sweet and can even be described as delicate, which is a good quality for a ukulele to have.
A couple of quick notes - first, many reviewers agree (us included) the strings that it comes with from the factory aren’t great. Get yourself a set of Aquila 7U Concert Ukulele Strings and the tone of this ukulele will drastically improve (these are the strings that most people get with it). Second, if you think the pickguard is an eyesore, you can remove it! Check out this user’s review as he explains how to go about it.
Bottom Line: The Epiphone Les Paul Acoustic/Electric Ukulele costs about twice as much as the Kala KA-15S. Is it worth it? It depends how much you care about having a few specific things: a piezo pickup, an included gig bag, the Les Paul styling, and of course the Epiphone brand name on the headstock. We have to admit, the Les Paul styling gives it a very cool feel. It also helps that the fit, finish, and tone are all pretty great.
Oscar Schmidt OU5 Concert Ukulele
When you’re ready to graduate from a beginner/budget ukulele to something a bit nicer, you should take a very close look at the Oscar Schmidt OU5 Concert Ukulele. Oscar Schmidt - a division of Washburn, a very reputable instrument manufacturer - has created a ukulele that’s both gorgeous to behold, and sounds just like a quality ukulele should.
The most immediately striking thing about the OU5 is how beautiful the finish on it is. Oscar Schmidt used koa tonewood for the sides and top, which has an extremely attractive grain and pattern. It’s hard to find an instrument in this price range that looks as stunning as this one. There’s one small issue, however - it’s a koa laminate, as opposed to being solid koa. For a solid koa wood ukulele you would have to shell out three times as much as this one costs, so in order to keep the price of this ukulele down a laminate was the sensible option. On the plus side, the glossy finish looks and feels nice. Looks aside, the OU5 is very well put together. Right out of the box the one we received was set up very well, with the action being nice and low (the action is the distance between the fingerboard and the string, with lower action being easier to play since you don’t have to press down as hard). It’s always nice when manufacturers take care to do a good setup at the factory, so the ukulele is ready to play as soon as it arrives at your doorstep. The Grover chrome tuners are a nice touch, and after the string “break-in” period, it stays in tune quite well. Remember, new nylon strings take some time to stretch out and get settled, so it’s normal for your OU5 ukulele to not stay in tune very well during the first handful of days.
Sound-wise, the Oscar Schmidt OU5 sounds like a proper concert-sized ukulele should. It has a very distinctive brightness, with the notes ringing out very clearly. While a solid wood koa uke would probably sound a little mellower and benefit from the ageing effect of the wood, the OU5 is no slouch; it has all the warmth and resonance you could ask for in an ukulele in its price range.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking to upgrade from your sub-$50 ukulele and want a more serious instrument, yet you’re not ready to spend $300 and up, the Oscar Schmidt OU5 Concert Ukulele hits a really nice sweet spot of quality and features. Sure, an all-solid-wood construction would be nice, but as we mentioned a solid koa uke would be significantly pricier. The great thing is that you get the full benefit of how good koa looks; this is truly a stunning looking instrument, and it’s very fun and easy to play. All in all, we like how this reviewer puts is:
“This is a wonderful instrument for both the first time user and the semi-serious amateur.”
Luna Guitars Tattoo Concert Ukulele
Featuring a unique “tattooed” aesthetic, the Luna Guitars Tattoo Concert Ukulele offers a great value to the budding ukulele player and experienced musician alike. This ukulele features a mahogany top, mahogany back and sides, as well as a mahogany neck with a rosewood fretboard. It also recently made a nice appearance on national television, but we’ll talk about that shortly!
As the name implies, the design that’s carved into this ukulele is inspired by Hawaiian tattoos, black ink against brown skin. About this particular design, Luna says:
“This design is based on a Hawaiian turtle (honu), a symbol of longevity and endurance rendered in a Polynesian tattoo style. The fret markers are stylized sharks teeth.”
This ukulele absolutely oozes style and character. The construction is mahogany, and there’s a nice richness to the wood grain. Believe us when we say it looks much better in person than it does in photos. All in all, it’s very well made considering we’re looking at a sub-$100 price point - the fit and finish is pretty impressive, particularly around the neck and frets (arguably the most important part for playability). Speaking of frets, here you have 18 of them, which is a nice extension from a smaller soprano ukulele. This Luna uke definitely gets points for having a “ready to play” setup from the moment you take it out of the box. It comes strung from the factory with Aquila strings, which are some of the best ukulele strings around. This is a plus and will save you a few bucks from having to replace the strings right away. We read a complaint about the tuners (a.k.a. tuning heads), but our particular Luna uke did not have any issue (aside, of course, from the usual string break-in period which can last a few days as the nylon strings stretch). Last but certainly not least, it comes with a gig bag, so you can keep this ukulele’s beautiful finish protected from dust, dings, and scratches.
The Luna Tattoo Concert Ukulele has a very nice tone. It definitely sounds better than what you may think for a ukulele priced this affordably. In fact, you can hear this sweet-sounding ukulele for yourself on an appearance it recently made on national television. On season 11 of the talent show America’s Got Talent, the eventual winner Grace VanderWaal sang and played her Luna Tattoo Concert ukulele.
Bottom Line: There’s an awful lot to like about this Luna ukulele. The engraved tattoo design sets it apart from other ukuleles, it sounds very nice, it’s set up extremely well and is easy to play, and surprisingly comes in at under $100! As one reviewer put it, “Great for beginner, intermediate and I suspect, for a professional as well.”
Godin 36080 Ukulele
Handcrafted in Canada, the Godin 36080 (also known as the Godin MultiUke) is a great option for the intermediate to advanced ukulele player looking for a professional quality instrument. The 36080 comes with either a solid spruce top for a brighter voicing (the sunburst finish) or cedar top for a warmer voicing (natural finish). It has a chambered mahogany body, and most importantly it is not a 100% acoustic ukulele; it has an onboard pickup and preamp with EQ adjustment, and truly shines when it’s plugged into an amp.
This Godin ukulele is a premium instrument, and its price tag reflects that. You’re definitely in pro territory here, and with an ukulele this finely crafted you won’t find yourself needing to upgrade anytime soon (perhaps ever). The setup on the one we tried was absolutely flawless - the action was low without any annoying buzz, and the perfectly radiused fretboard has a superb fit and finish. It not only feels high-end, but it looks the part too. This Godin uke is like a modern piece of art, and there are no flaws or imperfections on the finish to speak of. From the reviews we read through, it appears Godin is quite consistent with setting these up very well at the factory, so when you buy it you’re getting something you can pick up and play with no issues. After all, if you pay for quality, you should expect your experience to be great start to finish, and this Godin ukulele does not disappoint. It comes strung with D’Addario Titanium Ukulele strings, which are very nicely matched to a tenor ukulele.
This is truly an acoustic/electric ukulele, and in fact, it might be slightly more electric than it is acoustic. You’ll notice it’s missing a sound hole in the center of the body, and instead has onboard slider adjustments for volume, treble, mid, and bass. When played acoustically (i.e. not plugged in), don’t get us wrong, it still sounds beautiful - it’s just not as loud and resonant as 100% acoustic ukes. Some users describe it as “a bit thin,” and “rather quiet and kind of neutral tone-wise.” If playing by yourself it puts out ample volume, but if you’re playing with other fully acoustic instruments, the Godin might have a tough time keeping pace with the volume. We plugged it into a couple of acoustic guitar amps (a Fishman and a Fender) to test out its “plugged in” tone, and we were blown away. This reviewer says it well:
“...when plugged into an acoustic amp, this thing really shines. Bright and articulate while still sounding like a uke.”
The onboard EQ works very well, and allows you to sculpt your tone any way you see fit. Overall, the pickup system is very well done - it’s clear, loud, and we didn’t experience any feedback.
Bottom Line: The downside of this tenor size Godin ukulele is its price tag; it’s not exactly cheap. However, with acoustic handcrafted instruments, you often get what you pay for. Here you’re getting a ukulele with solid wood back, sides, and top, an almost flawless setup, and a state of the art pickup system. Put all of that together, and you get a ukulele that plays wonderfully, whether in your bedroom or the stage.
Tuning Your Ukulele
Just like you would any acoustic stringed instrument, you need to tune your ukulele. The tuning of the four strings is generally the same for soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles (with tenor ukuleles you can opt for a high G or low G). Baritone ukuleles are tuned a fifth lower. Here is what the common tunings look like:
Tenor: G4-C4-E4-A4 (for a high G), G3-C4-E4-A4 (for a low G)
If you have no idea what any of that means, don’t worry, it’s simple enough! Once you get your ukulele and start playing it’s very easy to figure out. Both when starting out and even when you’re more experienced, it’s helpful to use a clip-on ukulele tuner. “Clip-on” simply means that the tuner physically clips onto the headstock of your uke, and as you hit each string the tuner shows you how close you are to the correct pitch. Clip-on tuners make tuning extremely fast and easy. One of the highest rated and most recommended ones is the Snark SN6X Clip-On Tuner for Ukulele, which has gotten hundreds of good reviews and costs about $10. It’s a very worthy investment to go along with your brand new ukulele.
Also, a quick word of caution with your ukulele strings. Nylon strings are very commonly used on ukuleles, and they have a break-in period that can last a few days. After receiving their new ukulele, some people complain that it has trouble staying in tune, and tend to blame the tuners. In reality, all guitar strings - but nylon strings in particular - take some time to stretch out, and the unfortunate side effect of them stretching out is your uke going out of tune. If you experience this, just keep tuning your ukulele as you normally would, and trust that the strings will adjust after a couple of days.
So how did you feel about our ukulele buyer’s guide? If you have any experiences, opinions, or personal anecdotes that you’d like to share, feel free to tell us all about it in the comments section below!