You’ve always had that burning desire to learn “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” just like Israel Kamakawiwoʻole or maybe you just want to strum “You Are My Sunshine” around a campfire – what’s your first step? Unless you plan to win a Grammy for air ukulele you’ll need an instrument. Read on. I’ve played for many years. I can help you save time and lots of dough on your first instrument. (Want lessons? I teach via Skype and in Ottawa, Canada. Contact me here.)
What kind of instrument?
There are four kinds of ukuleles, from the smallest, soprano, to the largest, baritone. Most baritones are tuned like a guitar and are played a bit differently, so for beginners, I’d suggest a soprano, concert, or tenor. Any ukulele will work for lots of different kinds of songs. Some instruments come with a pickup so you can plug it into an amp. While this is nice to have, it’s not important unless you plan to perform. If you’re just playing alone or with friends and family, you don’t need to amplify it.
Evaluating an instrument
Even a new instrument needs to be looked over well. Make sure it has no major cracks. (Minor scratches in the finish don’t matter as much and may get you a discount.) Look down the neck from the tail to the head (where the tuning keys are). Does the top of the ukulele look pretty flat or are there more bumps than a dirt road after a heavy rain? Is the neck straight? It should have a slight slant but it shouldn’t have a bow (warped neck). Do the tuning keys feel tight? Are there any rattles when you strum the strings?
Does the ukulele fit?
If you’re buying for a young child, a soprano is probably good. For everyone else, its best to pick it up and see how it feels. I’ve had students with pretty big hands play a soprano so it’s not always about size. Some players with mobility issues (arthritis, etc.) might feel better with a concert or tenor. Your best bet is to go to the store and pick them up to see which one feels best to you.
A music store is the best place to get your first instrument. Don’t worry about the brand. Go to a reputable brick and mortar music store. Tell the clerk you’re a beginner. Get one of their cheapest ukuleles. If you’re in the US or Canada you’ll probably spend at least $50 for a soprano. Bigger ones cost more but are still affordable. It may not be something Eric Clapton would play – does he play ukulele? — but why buy a BMW when a Chevy will do? After you learn to play a few things, then you can buy the Rolls.
Buying from a brick and mortar music store is good because if anything goes wrong with that ukulele, you can take it back. Buying on line can work too but it’s a hassle if you have to return it. Also, it’s always great to play it before you buy it. It’s hard to evaluate an instrument from a picture.
Friends and family
Is there an instrument you can borrow? If they hand you the neck and the body separately then obviously, it’s not going to work. But if the cracks are smaller than the Grand Canyon and the strings seem to hold their pitch, it might be good for you.
eBay, Craig’s List, yard sales and the like
Unless you have an experienced player helping you, avoid these sites. If you do have help, make sure you can see the instrument before you give the seller any money. Have your helper play it.
I had a student once who bought a fetching pink guitar on eBay for $25. She lucked out. It was playable. But for many others, it’s like winning the lottery. You never know what you’re going to get.
Never ever ever ever buy a ukulele from a pawn shop. They’re overpriced and usually lousy.
Discount stores like Walmart
Again, never buy one here. They don’t hold their tuning and often, they’re hard to play. For about the same price you can buy an instrument at a music store.
Get a case. Gig bags (the ones made of soft material) are great because they’re light and have shoulder straps. Get one with a little padding inside. Hard shell cases will offer more protection and cost more. I’d only get one if I was going to fly with it. Sometimes a music store will give you a deal if you buy the ukulele at the same time.
You probably won’t need a strap, especially for a soprano, but some people like to have them.
Tuners are great. While there are lots of apps that will help you, I like having a tuner that clips on the instrument. They’re portable and won’t pick up room noise like apps will.
Many people play with their bare fingers. However, some play with a pick. Be sure to get a felt pick like the one below. A plastic pick, like the kind used with guitars, can scratch your instrument. A felt pick will give you a better sound.
Enjoy your new instrument and if you want lessons, be sure to contact me.