Mike Dickison - Writer of Kete Ukulele
Mike was kind enough to let me put up an edited extract from his soon to be released book Kete Ukulele. The book is a great guide to everything new ukulelists need to know. You can find out more about it here.
Like potato chips, it's hard to stop at just one ukulele. This is called by aficionados "Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome" or UAS. You start with a soprano, then want a tenor for the low G, then a "beater" uke you can throw in the car, a custom one from the local luthier, a koa Hawaiian, a resonator, the antique Martin you saw on eBay...
Cheap ukuleles are very common, but are false economy. If you begin learning with a cheap ukulele, be prepared to get a better one fairly soon. That is, if the poor sound and the difficulties of keeping it in tune don't put you off the instrument altogether.
Once you've decided on a size, there are three basic choices available to you.
Most cheap ukuleles are made in China. Anything rainbow-coloured in the vicinity of NZ$40 is of strictly limited use. It might make a starter ukulele for a kid if you're not sure about their commitment. If you buy an Ashton, Mahalo, or Makala from a specialist guitar store, as opposed to an instrument barn or "rock shop", they should offer to set it up properly for you; this involves checking the nut and frets and perhaps the bridge position.
There are other things you can do remedy the worst faults of a cheap ukulele:
- Replace the strings with just about anything but the cheapest you can find. Expect the strings to stretch for a week or two.
- Tighten the tuning pegs with a screwdriver. This will stop them slipping; they should be tight enough to turn with a little exertion.
- Get an electronic tuner and tune regularly. A clip-on specialised ukulele tuner will help a new player get into the habit of staying in tune.
Avoid the cheap rainbow "Flying V" ukuleles. They have perhaps the worst sound of any instrument I've played. Just for looks.
In many cheap ukuleles, the action is too high, so the string actually stretches when you hold it down. You can fix this by taking a very small triangular file and making a few strokes on the nut, in each groove that the strings pass through.
- Steve Evans
In the NZ$100-300 price bracket the ukes are usually perfectly playable. Kala is a common brand with reasonable action and tone. Flea Market Music sells Flukes and Fleas, which are plastic-backed but have a good sound; they're a common beginner instrument in the USA. Genuine Hawaiian koa wood gives an excellent sound, but at this price range is likely to be just laminate (unless it's specified as solid wood).
Finger a string at the 12th fret and test to see if it's truly an octave higher. If it's not, you may need to get the bridge of the ukulele moved.
- Peter Stephen
Over NZ$400 you should be able to find a solid-wood instrument, like a Hamano or Bushman. If you have the budget, consider getting a ukulele made by a local luthier, preferably one who has experience with ukuleles, not just guitar. If you can, discuss different woods, inlays, and ornamentation with them. Unlike most instruments, having a ukulele made for you is not too extravagant.
Need one say "buyer beware"? Sellers on eBay should be posting multiple close-up photos of the entire surface, and mentioning any cracks in the body. Tuning pegs and strings can be tightened and replaced, but cracks and sprung internal bracing from abuse or poor storage might not be immediately obvious and can be very difficult to repair. If you're not familiar with the model, post a question at a discussion forum like the one at fleamarketmusic.com (but search for older posts on the same model first).
James Lee - Teacher at Cowlitz Ukulele Association
We find that nearly any ukulele under $50 will do for a beginner. However, psychicly, the more expensive or prettier the ukulele the more a person will want to play it. But, I have a blue $25 Mahalo soprano with Aquila strings that sounds just as nice as a $60 Lanakai w/e them. Strings help a bunch! I now have Aquila on everything and tell everyone to try them.
Most people will phone me and ask questions about what price, kind, quality, starter, etc. ukulele they should purchase before taking our class. I give the the best knowledge I know but encourage them to buy a ukulele with gear tuners. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to tune an instrument and we feel that if they can't tune their ukulele quickly they will toss it.
We teach all ages. And I literally mean "all ages". (7 to 90 yr. old) Most senior people. The main thing I see that is a major problem is tuning, especially for those that have no or very little experience with a string instrument. Thus, we tell all beginners to buy a ukulele with gear tuners....not friction. We do share that a more expensive ukulele ($200+) will have better friction tuners than a $100 one. (Keep in mind most of our contacts are seniors on a limited income and play $100 - $150 Lanakai's.) A beginner person that comes to class with friction tuners has a hard time tuning b/c #1, they're not accustomed to tuning, and #2, 1 to 1 ratio really throws them off. The least little tweak and they're a half step higher or lower in pitch.