10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Ukuleles (Before I Bought One)

Jemsite has been doing a series called 10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Guitars (Before I Bought One) and I know a good idea when I steal one. The concept: if you could hop into your DeLorean, whack it up to 88 mph and visit yourself when you were buying your first instrument, what advice would you give?

In about 50 years’ time I imagine myself sitting in a comfy chair and my grandkids scurrying up to me in their space-pyjamas and asking, “Granddad, what was life like before the internet?” And I’ll say, “Put down your hoverboards, jump up on my knee and I’ll tell you.” Then I’ll twirl my mustachios wistfully and reply, “It was FUCKIN’ AWFUL!”

Back when I got my first ukulele – during my teenage guitar obsession – there were no internets, YouTubes or blogs to teach a boy anything. I didn’t know anyone who played ukulele. I’d heard George Formby and one other song with a ukulele once. I didn’t have a clue. As a result, it took me many years to see the potential of the uke. So here’s what I’d tell the fat, ugly, stupid, teenage me as he wandered into Bakewell Music Shop to buy a ukulele.

1. The strings don’t go fattest to thinnest.

Just to prove how ignorant I was, I actually tried restringing it the ‘right’ way. It didn’t occur to me that the people who made it might have had a better idea of how to string it than I did. I did have a book. But it was a very slim, old one. I either didn’t read it or it failed to mention this fairly important detail.

2. Good ukuleles exist. Your local music shop doesn’t have one.

Bakewell is famous for it’s tarts (and they are exceeding good). It’s not famous as a centre of outstanding luthiery. The uke I bought was complete junk. I didn’t even know there were better ukes. I think this is the main reason I rarely played the uke for many years.

Message to me: buy a Martin ukulele or six. They might seem expensive now but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

3. Good ukulele strings exist. Your local music shop doesn’t have them.

The same goes for the strings. In fact, I don’t remember them selling strings at all. I don’t know where I would have been able buy good strings. God, I love you, internet. I’m going to miss you come the post-apocalyptic Mad-Max world.

4. Tighten the screws. It might stay in tune.

I think I did eventually work this one out myself. But only many months after giving up on ever getting it to stay in tune.

5. Ukuleles are not little guitars.

I started figuring this one out pretty quickly. After trying to strum it with a plectrum for 3 minutes I realised that clearly wasn’t the way to go. It took me much longer to figure out that the high-G string could be a help rather than a hindrance (partly because it took me a while to figure out it was a high-G string).

6. Eventually, you won’t want to play the guitar any more.

Actually, I might gloss over this fact lest it puts me off picking it up in the first place.

7. Fewer strings means harder, not easier.

Not entirely true, I know. But it is more of challenge to play difficult pieces on the uke. And more rewarding.

8. Don’t steal plutonium from the Libyans.

9. In about 15 years time ukuleles are going to be the coolest thing in the world and you’re going to be writing about them every day. You should practice more.

There’s no getting round the fact I’m a mediocre player. It might be the fact that I’m not naturally musically talented. But more practice certainly couldn’t harm.

10. You like her. She likes you. Just ask her out you useless, spotty idiot. And sell your sister to organ harvesters and put the money into Google and Microsoft.

No, it’s nothing to do with ukuleles. But if I’m time traveling here, I’m not going to spend all ten on ukuleles.

What do you wish you’d known about ukuleles before you bought one?

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217 Comments

  1. Jim Demello August 13th, 2016 5:51 am

    I am an ESL teacher in China and two years ago was given a cheap but playable uke from my students. Having played guitar since I was 12 (am 62) it was easy to transition to fingerpicking the uke and now that is all I play. I have a Chinese Kala though I thought Kala was an American made product so I suppose it is a knockoff but it is a good little instrument. I feel the uke is fun while the guitar was always laborious. Just bought a ukulele (Rainie – chinese brand) for two of my former students how learned You Are My Sunshine and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on my ukulele. I have learned Pengyou (still trying to remember the Chinese words though) – absolutely beautiful song. Got the tab from Ukulele Chord Melodies by Mike Lynch and it has an amazing Misty tab. Cost 29.95 for kindle pdf but a great investment – unusual for me as I am such a stingy beast. Rock on.

  2. Patti September 2nd, 2016 12:11 am

    Jim Demello..thanks for the info about Kala ukulele. Hve been looking for a beginner one for my daughter..would though be just as interested about teaching in China. Private message me if you get this. Patti.newell@gmail.com

  3. Brian Policoff September 19th, 2016 5:19 pm

    Hey there, your Kala is probably legit. Although they are designed in Hawaii, and the materials sourced internationally, like most things now they are assembled in China. Its still a great little instrument! Enjoy
    Brian

  4. Jim Demello September 19th, 2016 11:00 pm

    Thanks Brian. Good to know.

  5. Jen October 3rd, 2016 2:57 am

    I have a Kala baritone — LOVE it. I have cheaper sop and tenor. Kala wins!

  6. Keith McIntyre October 3rd, 2016 11:30 am

    To Jen, thank goodness, here’s another baritone player. Have you discovered yet the true value of the size, tone volume,playability and general flexability of the tonaly superior pitch. Heavier strings, but not a lot, wider spacing if your blessed with male fingers that have spent 54 years squeezing bass strings.Full scale, I mean, not bass ukes Having said that, I’ve nearly finished my uke bass conversion, an Aria half size acoustic 6 string. Any one want to fool with this kind of thing, the Aria has an advantage over other half sized guitars, hey appear to be made from similar gauge materials as full size models so they take the strain really well. No too bad for $$, mine was $165NZD new and as I mentioned in a previous message here Iv’e strung the thing with light gauge bass guitar strings off one of my other full scale models and tuned to G/C/F/Bb it stopped most of the string rattle that cant be avoided by not being able to get the needed tension that full scale instruments get naturally.Any uke you may be messing with like this, a tailpiece will help take the pull off the lower top area and prevent the top and saddle/bridge area from lifting. Geez I ramble!! Happy plunking folks…Haggis

  7. Nikka October 4th, 2016 9:20 am

    I want to know more about ukelele. I’m used to playing guitars but I don’t have any idea how to start with the uke.

  8. Geoff October 29th, 2016 6:34 am

    Nikka Buy a Chinese made uke. Most of them play really well these days . They won’t break the bank . With modern engineering standards in most large factories gone are the unplayable toys that were around 15 or 20 years ago. EBay or Amazon have lots. If you spent $200 or more you would be loath to throw it in the back of the car or let others have a play at a bbq. I have a soprano which cost $ 39 aud a tenor for $45 an acoustic electric baritone $130 and recently a Bass uke $230. Caramel ukes are well made and very affordable. Dr uke or Ukulele Mike on you tube are all you will need to learn.

  9. Jay February 13th, 2017 3:36 pm

    For MOST players, the value for a solid wood uke is over-rated. For MOST players, the le$$ you $pend, the more you’ll get for your money. This not to say you should NEVER spend a lot on a uke. But know this: a good player will get more music out of a toy uke than I could get out of $6000 Kanahakamoanamania. At a certain point, which is different with each player, price REDUCES value. Do you really want a uke that you can’t take to the beach? If your $30.00 laminate uke breaks, It’s two burger meals to replace it. If you fail to properly care for a big-bucker (or even if you do) One crack, and it’s value is mostly gone. If you come upon a uke that you simply must have, by all mean buy it! Let your senses (and your sense) decide. I’ve played gorgeous garbage, and plain-Jane perfection. I’ve sold four-digit ukes without remorse, and have an $80 that’ll be around forever. In the final choice the higher was not better than the lower. Have fun!

  10. John Lawton February 14th, 2017 8:56 pm

    @Jay (“Feb. 13, 2017”)

    Oh, no. I disagree. I started with a $30 uke (cheapest I could find online as I was experimenting with switching from playing right-handed to playing left-handed, having failed once a decade with guitars as a “righty”). (I have since upgraded that uke to a $100 by putting in Grover tuners to replace the pegs and putting in a EQ/tuner/pre-amp.) I now have a $250 uke, which is a much better uke, sounds much better (unamplified; my $30 uke sounds very good when recorded through the pickup–see below), stays in tune much better, etc.

    But, after two years of daily playing, the $250 uke is already showing wear and tear, and I’m pretty good about how I treat it. But, I play it a lot! And, that causes “normal” “wear-and-tear”.

    You get what you pay for and when you buy a cheap musical instrument you get cheap performance.

    If you’re serious about playing a uke, you’ll eventually want a good one. You’ll learn that you take your “beater” (my $30 uke + $35 tuner + $35 pre-amp/EQ) to the beach in a gig-bag (if you’re semi-serious) or a hard-case (if you’re really serious) and take your best uke out only in it’s hard-case, don’t take it to the beach, don’t take it to picnics, but, only to your most serious gigs.

    The best uke in the world cannot make a bad-, inexperienced-, or unmotivated-/un-practiced-player sound good. Only practice can do that: practice practicing and practice performing, in private or in public (I have bad anxiety/sleep-disturbance problems with the latter–DARN!). But, the better your uke sounds, the easier it is to play; the better it’s built, the more joy you’ll feel when playing. That’s VERY important on those days when you get bored (and we all get bored with instruments, exercise machines, inverting tables, etc.) and don’t want to get started playing. It’s important when you play your uke day after day after day because a cheaper built uke won’t hold up. That’s why my $30 (+ $35 + $35) uke stays in it’s gig bag; I can’t afford to play it all the time because it would fall apart. Already, after 2 years of 1 to 5 hours of daily play, my $250 uke is creaking and groaning. . . not a good sign.

    Now, my next uke is NOT going to be a $1500 Martin (that WILL come later). It’s going to be a $200 baritone (which will immediately be re-strung left, with a low-D (10 semi-tones below “middle-C”). That’s because I need a “beater-to-moderately-good bari” in the same price range as my “good” tenor, which is essentially a beater as I play it every day. I’m a poor person, otherwise, I’d buy nothing but high-end, top-price ukes.

    Remember, in musical instruments as well as in electronics-in-general (and musical instruments with internal electronics): You get what you pay for. When you buy a cheap instrument, you get cheap performance. When you buy a good instrument, you get good performance if you’re capable of creating a good perforomance. When you buy a great instrument, you get great performance if you’re a great performer. Buy the best you can afford for yourself, for your most important audiences (and that includes, you, yourself, and–did I say, “You”?); and, buy some beaters for everything else. :D

  11. Jay February 15th, 2017 3:09 am

    I don’t disagree on any particular point, But that’s not been my experience. I still maintain that for MOST players, the difference in sound doesn’t always equate to cost. If a uke is junk, well, it’s junk, and it’s best to avoid cheap ukes unless you can get your hands on one that speaks to you. By all means, spend what you can afford-full stop. But there’s a lot of good sound out there at almost any price point.

  12. John February 15th, 2017 3:48 am

    I agree, @Jay, there is a lot of good sound at any price (“point” is unnecessary). But–and this is a big BUT–a cheap uke won’t maintain it’s sound as well as an expensive one. That’s why Stradivarius (and other great) violins command such high prices, even though they’re decades and decades old (1 hundred? 2?): their sound is stable for a very long time. But, we’re picking nits. Buy what you can. Get what you like. “Different strokes for different folks.” I like to buy cheap and buy a lot (1 bass guitar, 1 slide/lap-steel, 1 lefty-acoustic guitar, 1 righty-electric guitar, {drums and e-drums don’t count in stringed instrument discussion}) and see which ones I can play the best the fastest, then either modify them to fit me even better, or buy a better instrument (I’m a hardware hacker from a way back! ‘er?). For me, that was originally a $30 uke (Rogue soprano, that doesn’t get played because it doesn’t sound as good unamplified–amplified, it holds it’s own against the $250 Ibanez tenor) and a $250 uke (the Ibanez, which sounds very good, but, is aging quickly–both gifts, actually; so, I didn’t spend a dime ‘cept for strings) with a $1500 Martin in the future, provided I don’t buy a bunch of $30-50 ukes in various paint schemes, i.e. American Flags; pineapple or banana shapes, etc. But, my next uke WILL be a Kala baritone, about $200, from a reliable supplier, Sweetwater Sound (hey, Chuck S.–should you ever read this–that there is a shameless plug for my favoritely “Sweet” company). That’s a good compromise. Still, I know that it is a compromise.

    It’s been real. It’s been fun. But, it hasn’t been really fun, Jay, so, I’m outta here (’til next time).

    l8r dewd

    PS by the bye: that’s Ibanez: EEE-bah-Nehz(“EEE” like “Eeek, there’s a mouse! “bah” like “open your mouth and say ‘ah'”, but with a ‘b’ on the front of the ‘ah’. And, “Nehz” like ‘n’ + “eh” + ‘z’ without the “ee” on the end of the ‘z’). Named after a Spaniard (last name, Ibanez) who built guitars in Spain, then Japan, then sold the name to a Japanese conglomerate that first got “world wide recognition” by selling cheap “rip-offs” of more expense Fender electrics and now makes a pretty good guitar, uke, bass, etc. at reasonable prices.

  13. norman February 15th, 2017 10:56 am

    hey Jay, I agree . I always say research the sound till you find the one you like , then buy that sound… I did and surprisingly when I eventually changed the strings, (on professional advice) I lost the sound that everyone commented on…. after 2 years and many string changes I now have the sound back again that I paid $600 ( Mele Koa tenor ) 6 years ago. ( $12 for the return of the sound ) So, one needs to be aware that you may experience the same as I have….. A simple string change could change your relatively cheap uke into a masterpiece, or the reverse. Sometimes other people’s suggestions may not be what you need to do regarding the lovely uke you fell in love with. Take heed to what Jay has written. ….. norman

  14. Jay February 15th, 2017 1:52 pm

    I had the same experience with the $80 uke I mentioned. I put some Aquila RED strings on it. TOTALLY transformed the sound. Strangely, it didn’t happen on every uke. Some seem to like those some don’t. But it seems that ANY string change will make quite a difference. It’s a fun experiment.

  15. Jay February 15th, 2017 8:10 pm

    I’ve got blingy ones and plain ones. Nothing wrong with choosing whatever you like for whatever reason. It’s a sound argument that a more expensive (solid wood) one will actually get MUCH better over time. But some lammies sound great. I was heartbroken when one of my solid wood$$ cracked. In that respect lammies are safer,ONLY because when they come apart it’s less of a loss. I think most players instinctively search out better sound as they improve. EEE-BON-YEZ,yes?

  16. John Lawton February 15th, 2017 9:24 pm

    My upgraded Rogue soprano has Aquilla (UH–kee–Luh, NOT Ah–Quill–Luh) Reds on it. I like them better than the more expensive Nylgut that came on my Ibanez. But–and that’s a BIG BUT–I like them on my Rogue. I’m afraid to waste the money to buy some tenor reds for my Ibanez as it sounds GOOD with white Nylgut. But, My Rogue sounds so much better with Reds than the “stock” strings that I actually do get it out every once in a while. I just tried both ukes this a. (the ‘m.’s are redundant) through my new Peavey Vypyr I amp (good for bass, good for acoustic guitar {00p–forgot to get out the Ibanez acoustic and try it} which setting I use for my ukes, and–well, someone turned the pre- and post-gains up so bad I blew my ears out with feedback on the electric before I could get it under control. Bad amp. Bad amp! OK. !OK! Nice amp. Good little amp. I WILL play you later. As in right now! (I’m not generally fond of Peavey as it’s essentially garage-band-grade stuff, but, this amp rocks at low volumes which is what I need for a Variable Instrument Performance practice amp) . . . TBC? Yes, TBC! (Another shameless plug for Chuck S. Get your Vypyr at Sweetwater! I did!)

    One has to remember in all this, (1) that while there is a lot of science behind guitar-design and -fabrication (Yes, Lucy: an ukulele is a guitar, a down-sized version of a small guitar originally made by Portuguese sailors . . .) (OK, Ricky! Where do you think a lot of those Stradivius violins ended up? Being x-rayed, examined with internal scopes, and–in some cases–very carefully dismantled for even further examination including spectral analysis of the glues used . . ), and (2) while there is a lot of science behind string-design and -fabrication, and (3) music can be codified in many, many forms–traditional sheet music with staves, TAB, MIDI, MusicXML, etc.–practicing and performing music IS an ART-form. What trips your trigger may not even strike my flint.

    TBC? TBDL?

    [chuckle]

  17. John Lawton February 15th, 2017 9:30 pm

    OOP (an instance of 1 mistake is an “oop”. To be plural, i.e. “oops”, one has to make more than one mistake.).

    I forgot to mention that if it weren’t for having to fire it in a stove at about 500 degrees F (I’m guessing; I’ve forgotten . . .), I’d be thinking strongly of attempting to make a carbon-fibre uke body and neck, ‘cept, I’m no where near that good with my shaky, pre-maturely old, arthritic hands and fingers. Any uke makers reading this: THINK “carbon fiber, carbon fibre, carbon fiber, carbon fibre, carbon fiber. . .”

    L8r, dewds. I hear my Vyper VIP I calling me (Or, is that a tiny bit of rectived 60 Hz–thus 120 Hz–power-line hiss? Oh, well, the “call of the amplifier”, in whatever bandwidth and wave-shape.)! d>:

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