Letís have a look at size first. The Ukulele comes in a number of varying sizes, each with itís own characteristic sound and qualities. If you are beginning, there are three sizes that you are likely to consider.
These are the Soprano (the smallest), the concert (the middle sized one) and the Tenor which the largest of these three. There are other sizes, namely the sopranino ukulele, the Baritone and the bass, and also some hybrids like the long neck soprano and ukuleles with double rows of strings like a mandolin, but these are usually for the more experienced.
Just to give you an idea of the average sizes of Ukuleleís, here are the overall lengths (tip to toe)
The photo to the left shows comparative size of the Soprano (on the left), Concert (middle) and Tenor Ukulele.
One of the advantages in selecting from the soprano, concert or tenor is that they are all tuned the same. So, if you are playing or learning to play with a group, all the chord shapes are the same (They all produce the same chord) This may or may not make sense to you right now, and another way of saying this in a general way is the old saying Ďeveryone singing from the same hym sheetí.
So, how do you choose from the three? The main consideration for the beginner is what you are comfortable playing. After you have got a degree of playing experience and practise, it will be fairly easy for most players to then play different sizes of ukulele if they want to. Letís take a look at each of the Soprano, Concert and Tenor ukuleleís characteristics.
The Soprano Ukulele
Many people start with the soprano because being smaller it is the cheapest (all other factors being equal) and it is the size that has been established in the market for the longest period so lots of companies make one. Itís the logical choice for most young children and some adults. Being small, itís the easiest to carry around too.
But before you rush off and buy a soprano ukulele, here are some reasons why it may not be suitable for everyone. It can be too small for some adults. Nearly everything is smaller on a soprano ukulele. The physical aspect of holding one can to some people feel constrained
and cramped. Also, the distance between the frets is smaller than on the concert or tenor ukulele, so when putting your fingers in place for the chords, your fingers are bunched up closer. This wonít be a problem for some adults though, as itís not just about size. How supple and articulate you are will also be key factors. Of course, if you are older and/or have a bit of arthritis, you might well find a concert or tenor ukulele easier.
Sound quality is also something to consider. The soprano ukulele is usually fairly quietly spoken (compared to the concert or the tenor ukulele). It is however, a sound that many ukulele players like, and probably associated with the original ukulele sound (rightly or wrongly).
But, if you like a bit more volume or want to be able to be heard in a group, consider the concert or tenor.
The Concert ukulele
Being the middle sized ukulele, the concert is the one that a lot of adult beginners will feel instantly comfortable on. Having said that, there are players that feel cramped on anything smaller than the tenor ukulele and other players that don't seem to mind how small or large an instrument they play.
The concert ukulele sound is usually quite punchy and louder than the soprano. The strings feel tighter, which requires less of a delicate touch.
The Tenor ukulele
The sound of the tenor ukulele is bigger and fatter compared with the soprano and concert variants.
Strings (just like the concert) feel tighter than the soprano.
The tenor ukulele is going to be more expensive of the three (quality being the same) but if itís the right size for you, itís money well spent and It wonít be much more money.
Although the concert and the tenor ukulele are bigger, all are still quite a portable size especially when compared with bigger instruments like guitars.
Ukulele quality, suitability and build types
A likely first ukulele
Most people will buy something cheap or at least relatively cheap for their first ukulele.
Most if not all of these instruments are a laminate construction. This means that the body top, back and sides are made from thin sheets of wood glued together with the grain going different ways. This is a relatively strong and durable construction method. The alternative method is to use solid wood, which is more expensive, not so durable but usually gives a better sound. So your first ukulele is likely to be a laminate construction and as long as the instrument is well set up, there is nothing wrong with that. (see paragraph on setting up)
Laminate, Solid woods and combinations
On most stringed instruments, the top is the part that does most of the sound amplification (Iím talking about acoustic amplification here not electric).
A solid top instrument with laminate back and sides is a combination which gives a balance of good sound production and durability coupled with not too much cost, although usually a fair bit more than the cheaper all laminates.
All solid wood construction is usually considered the highest and most expensive specification but Itís not the whole story. With any musical instrument, what it is made from is important, but how well it is made is more important especially if the manufacturing is going to realise the potential of high quality solid woods. So, if a laminate ukulele is well made and designed, it can give a very good sound. Conversely if the quality of design and construction on a ukulele using solid timbers is poor, It is unlikely to perform and sound well.
Higher specification Laminate Ukuleleís
Laminate construction is also used on some more expensive ukuleleís especially if the wood used is curly grained, less stable or needs to be made very thin to make it responsive.
Laminate construction can allow often very attractive woods to be used that would otherwise be less suitable.
A mid range ukulele
Some people may already have musical experience on another instrument or perhaps will just want to start with a higher spec ukulele.
A laminate is not out of the question, but an all solid wood ukulele or perhaps a solid top with laminate back and sides could also be considered.
This usually comes down to a balancing of looks against performance, which is always a personal choice.
Itís worth mentioning again here, that if a laminate ukulele is well made and designed, it can give a very good sound.
Conditions of use of your Ukulele
Another important point when considering whether to buy solid or laminate construction are the conditions the ukulele is to used in. Extremes of heat, cold or extremes of humidity are not good for any instrument, but solid wood is going to fare less well. If you are going to use your instrument in extreme conditions, you are probably best with a laminate.
Setting up of a Ukulele
The final setting up and checks of many musical instruments are often done by the retailer.
The purpose of setting up a ukulele is to firstly make sure that it plays clearly and in tune and secondly to optimise the players comfort.
Just to give a basic idea of whatís involved, a typical set up may include setting heights of the strings above the fingerboard at the nut and the saddle (both ends of the string),
levelling frets and smoothing fret ends.
Buying from a seller that has a workshop and does a set up can be very beneficial for your playing as well as giving peace of mind.
The above composite photo shows the same ukulele with the strings left high at the nut and then lowered.
Playing on a ukulele with the strings set too high at the top nut is not only harder work , but because you have to push the strings down further to the fret, this also stretches the string and
makes the ukulele sound out of tune.
String Height above Fingerboard
The above photo shows the same ukulele with the string height set correctly and again with the string height set too high. In both photos the top nut is the same height. It is the bridge saddle height (not seen in this photo) that has changed.
The higher string height is again going to be more difficult to play and also not play in tune because of having to stretch the string down to the fret.
Checking the fingerboard
Checking the fingerboard
The above photo shows a technician checking the fingerboard.
We check for high frets by placing a straight edge against the frets and feeling for any 'rocking'
of the straight edge, which would indicate one or more frets that are higher.
Our section on 'Setting up of a Ukulele' is only designed to give a basic insight into some of the things a technician will undertake, and not a comprehensive account.