Best Ukuleles According to Uke Hunt Readers

For a few years now I’ve been collecting people’s ratings of their ukuleles on the review section of Uke Hunt. It’s been interesting watching the list of the highest rated ukes take shape. Now that there are plenty of ratings I thought I’d take a look at those at the top.

The list is determined by a Bayesian average of ratings submitted to the site (that means the number of ratings as well as the average of the ratings is important). So if you think your uke deserves to be on the list you can help get it there by rating it. There are links to ukulele makers here and luthiers here.

There are two notable trends. The first is how many of the top five are very much family owned and run concerns. The other is that four of the top five all start with K. There must be something special about K.

1. Kamaka Ukuleles

Top of the list is the oldest surviving ukulele maker Kamaka. They were founded in Hawaii in 1916 by Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka. Kamaka’s most enduring innovation was the introduction of the pineapple ukulele. Kamaka realised that ukuleles have no need for the figure-8 shape (they’re just mimicking larger instruments that need to accommodate legs and arms) so you could significantly reduce the time and cost of ukuleles by making them oval shaped.

After Kamaka Sr’s death in 1953, Sam Kamaka Jr took over the company and introduced the iconic double-k logo and the Gold Label series of ukuleles. Followed by the White Label line in the 70s.

Sam Jr and his brother Fred continue to stick by Sam Sr’s warning: “If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.” Their ukuleles are the top of the field and clearly loved by their owners including their biggest endorser Jake Shimabukuro.

Quintessential ukulele: Kamaka pineapple ukulele.

2. Kanile’a Ukuleles

Currently only 0.01 of a star behind Kamaka comes another of the famous Hawaiian K Brands: Kanile’a. Kanile’a was set up by husband and wife team Joe and Kristen Souza in 1998. They make their ukes in Kane’ohe, Hawaii.

As well as their top end ukes, they have the more affordable Islander ukuleles made in Asia.

Kanile’a are also big supporters of young ukers (and Uke Hunt favourites) Honoka & Azita, Karlie G, UkuLise.

Quintessential ukulele: Kanile’a K1

3. Mya-Moe Ukuleles

The youngest company on the list and another husband and wife team: Gordon & Char Mayer. They exploded onto the ukulele scene in 2008 rapidly attracting high praise and a stellar list of players including Eddie Vedder, John Paul Jones, Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling and Jerry Douglas. Their process is slow and meticulous. Making each ukulele to order and checking for quality at every stage.

Gordon and Char were later joined by Aaron Keim luthier of Beansprout ukuleles and musician with The Quiet American and Boulder Acoustic Society.

If this has whetted your appetite and you’re hoping to buy one then tough titties. They’ve announced they’ll stop making ukes in June 2018 and are completely booked out until then.

Quintessential ukulele: The Classic

4. Kala Ukulele

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Kala who pump out ukuleles by the barrowload. They’ve ensured that there’s been a supply of cheap and reliable ukuleles all through the ukulele boom. As time has gone on they’ve moved up the price range and released higher and higher quality instruments.

As well as the standard ukulele, Kala have had huge success with their bass ukuleles. And have recently launched a line of high-end ukuleles made in their hometown of Pentaluma, CA.

Quintessential ukulele: Kala KA-S

5. KoAloha

The third for the big three Hawaiian K brands, KoAloha. KoAloha were established in 1995 by the Okami family and have been releasing, in my opinion, the most beautiful ukuleles around.

KoAloha’s chief designer is Alvin Okami. His innovative and sometimes outlandish ideas are showcased in KoAloha’s Signature Series ukes including the Pineapple,Juke-a-lele, sceptre“>Sceptre, and Gambalele.

Quintessential ukulele: KoAloha Sceptre whose unusual body shape apparently came to Alvin Okami in a dream.

Six to Ten

6. Cordoba: A bit of a surprise to see them on the list. You don’t hear much about Cordoba’s ukuleles. But their showing here has got me interested in giving them a go.

7. Gretsch: Best known for their guitars, Gretsch have also been putting out ukuleles since the 50s.

8. Pono: I’ve long been tempted to buy myself a Pono. Their ukuleles look and sound great.

9. Luna: Mostly known for their highly patterned guitars, Luna moved into the ukulele world a few years ago and have picked up plenty of fans.

10. Martin: A legendary name in ukuleles who have been in the game since 1917. Their vintage ukuleles are treated with something approaching reverence. But their more recent attempts have been more hit and miss.

View Comments

12 Comments

  1. Oolongtea August 30th, 2017 8:38 pm

    Cordoba ukuleles are really not bad at all. I’ve never tried anything other than their entry level ukes, but all of them had a clean finish and quite a nice volume imho.
    Not really surprised but still a bit sad to see Luna on the list, and what’s more, in front of Martin..

  2. J Boy Shyne August 31st, 2017 2:05 pm

    The Martin ukes made in Nazareth, PA, USA are all top of the line. With their hefty price tags they simply cannot be “hit or miss.” These ukes belong at the top of the list. They certainly are not inferior to the mass-produced Asian and Indonesian brands noted above.

    Further, the recent models Martin makes in their Mexico facility, at least the ones I’ve played, seem to be very good axes. And again, in my humble opinion, are superior to the Far East imports contained on the list. Aren’t the Cordoba’s the line Guitar Center carries? If so, the ones I’ve tried (years ago) were just awful.

    With all due respect to Woodshed, my uke playin’ brother.

  3. glennclewis63 August 31st, 2017 8:21 pm

    I purchased Cordoba’s top line tenor uke about 1.5 years ago and couldn’t be happier with it. I repeatedly have had players comment on how much sound it projects versus what they were expecting. The best part? I could have bought 2 of them for less than the price of 1 of Kamaka’s least expensive, basic entry level tenor. If I’m going too pay double (or 3, 4 or 5 times the cost) the price for one of the “premium” name brands, it damn well better sound twice (or 3, 4 or 5 times) as good. The fact is, they don’t, not even close.

  4. Glenn September 1st, 2017 5:32 am

    Interesting to see all my ukes (past and present) in the top 6. What I like about Cordobas is they have a comfortable feel and mine (20CM) has wide string spacing for the given nut width – the strings are spaced almost as wide as my old Islander which had a 1/8″ wider nut. Still really love my Kala long neck soprano even though it’s my cheapest uke.

    I had the opportunity to try a Kamaka when I was still fairly new to ukulele and it felt quality, but didn’t wow my untrained ear. The sub-$1000 Martins sound nice but feel a little rough around the edges to me – and yet I still want one. Go figure.

    Pono’s always get my attention. Luna’s probably there because you get something fancy looking for a low price and that fits some people’s definition of “ooh, shiny toy”.

  5. Woodshed September 1st, 2017 9:16 am

    Oolongtea: Thanks! I’ll give one a try if I find one.

    J Boy Shyne: Yeah, I was expecting Martin to be a lot higher. Perhaps Martin players are much more picky than others.

    glennclewis63: There’s definitely diminishing returns with ukuleles. Same with pretty much everything. But if you want the best you do have to pay top money for it.

    Glenn: You’ve obviously got good taste!

  6. Andreas Lammers September 1st, 2017 10:26 am

    Hope you had a great summer!
    The “Over the rainbow” version played in the Kala video sounds quite nice. Is that a version the transrcipt / sheet music of which is available somewhere under the rainbow, too?

  7. Martin September 11th, 2017 4:45 pm

    Ohana owners, where are you? Beat out by Gretsch and Luna?!?! Luna?!? Still, fun to read the rankings and nice especially to see Kamaka and Kanile’a up top where they belong. :-)

  8. Ron Hale September 11th, 2017 6:46 pm

    Got three Kala baris: low D, high d, gCEA with
    no complaints, Al. They might have issues with me though.

    Cordoba low D is on the way from Hawaii Music Supply who like the brand. That’s good enough
    for me.

    Fleas and Flukes? UkeHunters aren’t keen on them?
    Flea/Flukers aren’t keen on the site?

  9. Glenn September 11th, 2017 10:27 pm

    Martin – probably because they’re so easy to find. I could get either a Gretch or a Luna at several shops where I live, but not an Ohana to be found without a long trip out of town. Otherwise I’d probably own an Ohana or two!

  10. Oolongtea September 13th, 2017 6:53 am

    Martim, Glenn – agreed, but still, it’s like seeing Beaujolais Nouveau on a wine top 10. Imho there are way better ukes out there for the price of a Luna.

  11. Donna Besser Stone October 2nd, 2017 3:07 pm

    Kamaka, the very best… As in THE BEST. And, Cordoba, wow! I love my Cordoba 20TM CE acoustic electric which, at performances & jammin’ ALWAYS gets compliments on its beautiful tone. Also adore my Cordoba 24B baritone acoustic, loud & warm. Both Cordoba attracted me with their smooth, easy playing neck. Cordoba prices are a total bargain, belying the superiority of their precious ukuleles. Yes, I own 10 other ukuleles, including Kanile’a but Kamaka #1 and, really, Cordoba…My Got-To Ukuleles.

  12. Woodshed October 8th, 2017 8:02 pm

    Donna: Thanks! Good to hear from a Cordoba lover!

Got something to say?