March 02, 2018

How to choose your first ukulele

Daunting as it may seem–with the hundreds of different models out there offering endless combinations of wood/finishes/embellishments, the fundamentals are still the same on how to choose your first ukulele. At UKULELE MOVEMENT, we will help you determine what would be the most appropriate for you based on your physical size, budget, and taste.


Ukulele sizes


Choosing your first ukulele...or second...or third should be based on size as the size equates to different tones it produces. Generally available in the four main sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone (in ascending order of size), the most common and popular size is the soprano since it is the smallest and regarded as the “true” traditional ukulele by many players. The suitability of the ukulele also depends on the size (thickness) and length of your fingers and hands. Many players with big hands find it difficult to play the soprano size because the frets are too closed together.

As the style of playing evolve–fingerstyle solos, jazz, classical solos–many players prefer ukuleles with a longer fretboard (hence the concert, tenor or baritone sizes) to provide a wider range of notes.

Another factor to consider with regards to size is the sound. Soprano ukuleles generally give a classic ukulele sound which has a higher, sweeter voice, while tenor ukuleles provide a fuller sound with better resonance, projection, and a lower voice, like a guitar. Just imagine a choir, Soprano = higher voice. Concert = mid-range voice. Tenor = lower voice.

Concert size ukulele

The concert ukulele is a good starter ukulele for players who want a classic ukulele sound but with more space for their fingers to move (the fret distance is wider than that of the soprano ukuleles).

Many professional players choose tenor ukuleles because of its resonance, projection, and the longer fretboard which is essential for a wider range of notes. Tenor ukuleles are good for fingerstyle solos and instrumentals.

Baritone ukuleles being larger, sound more like a guitar. They are tuned like the first four strings of a guitar DGBE. This makes the transition easier for a guitarist in terms of both the size and the tuning. However, as it is not a common size, most song arrangements and tabs are written for the standard C-tuning and D-tuning.


Many beginners start with a cheap ukulele that costs below S$30–$40. 
Cheap uke
It is a good way to start since you can buy it without serious consideration. However, cheap ukuleles are made of inferior quality woods and strings which make them sound like toys. The intonation of the instrument is also greatly compromised with frets and bridge that are not made for optimal playability. The string action may be very high making it very difficult to hold a chord and very often, the bridge comes off easily!

Most beginners “outgrow” their cheap ukuleles within a few weeks and worst still, some give up because it is frustrating when the intonation is wrong even when you’re playing it correctly. So it is advisable for beginners to get a fairly decent quality ukulele that they can progress with.

A ukulele of decent quality generally costs between S$60-$150. A reputable brand ukulele with all-solid premium wood like Hawaiian koa can cost up to thousands.

Wood & Sound

Different tonewoodsDifferent woods on the ukulele produce a different sound. Mahogany-top ukuleles tend to sound more mellow and warm while spruce and cedar top ukuleles sound bright and loud.

A common guitar and ukulele wood combination is to use Spruce for the top soundboard and Mahogany for the back and sides to give it more low-end bass. Rosewood was commonly used for the back and sides as well as for the fingerboard but due to recent amendments to the CITES regulations, more manufacturers are switching to more sustainable wood sources.  For more information on wood & sound, read article on Tonewoods by Simon Mok.




The action of the strings plays a big part in the playability of the ukulele. String actionThe action refers to the height between the top of the fret wire and the strings. The lower the action, the easier it is to play as not much pressure is required to press the strings. An action that is too low will set the strings buzzing when played so a fine balance needs to be achieved. Cheap or poorly made ukuleles often have very high action, resulting in poor playability.


Strings picThere are many different types and brands of strings for ukulele in the market. Strings play an important role in the sound of the ukulele. Good strings give good tension for ease of play and provide a good tone. Aquila strings are the most popular and most recommended strings for ukuleles. Its patented strings are made of Nylgut® which is a synthetic gut material with similar acoustical qualities of gut but without the shortcomings of high cost and short string life. Nylgut® offers greater resistant to wear and has great immunity to climate changes.

In recent years, fluorocarbon strings have gained in popularity due to the tone and durability of the strings. Again, there are many brands out there and it really is a very personal choice when it comes to strings. Some like their ukuleles to sound bright, other like them mellow, and yet others want only clarity. At UKULELE MOVEMENT, we carry a range of the best you can find, as they have been extensively tested in-house.

Tuning machine

Friction tunerThere are generally 2 different types of tuning machines (tuners) for the ukulele; friction pegs (left) or geared tuners (below right). Friction pegs as the name suggests, tune the instrument through friction of the pegs. The strings are tightened or loosened with a slight twist of the pegs. It takes a bit of trial and error to get the tuning right and it is not as easy to keep the instrument in tune since a slight move of the peg can affect the tuning by quite a bit. Tightening the screws at the tip of the pegs can help prevent it from turning after you have tuned your ukulele.

Geared tuners are a usually a better alternative for the novice as they allow for more precise tuning.Geared tuners Depending on the gear ratio, each turn of the peg moves the gear by just a fraction as compared to friction tuners. Hence, ukuleles with geared tuners tend to keep in tune and is easier to tune than those with friction pegs.

It all boils down to personal preference, some like their headstock to look clean without any tuning pegs sticking out from the side, and some don't mind.

On a final note, choose a ukulele that you like so that you will keep playing it. And you don’t have to stop at one! Many people own a few ukuleles for playing different types of music, they are so small and light that you can often carry more than one to a jam or a performance.

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