Know Your Ukulele
by Frederik Nielsen, Mar 26, 2018 . 5 min read
Few people like the sound of cat song. Most people, on the other hand, love the sound of catgut strings – especially when they’re attached to a ukulele. Catgut strings, as the name implies, are of course made from the intestines of… cows and horses, mainly. But there’s much more you need to know about the cute ukulele than the grisly details of the strings. Taimane Gardner knows – but do you?
Know the sizes
Also known as the pocket ukulele (although you’d need deep pockets), this tiny cutsie thing is just 16 inches long, has 10-12 frets and goes from G4-E6 – perfect for those who don’t need to compensate for anything.
This is the standard ukulele size of 21 inches, with 12-15 frets and a range covering C4-A5. This is the size and sound most commonly associated with ukuleles.
Slightly bigger and louder than the soprano, but still the classic ukulele sound, is the concert AKA the super soprano. At 23 inches, it has 15-18 frets and goes from C4-C6.
The adolescent out of the bunch is the tenor: 26 inches long, 17-19 frets, and slightly deeper in sound (G3-D6) – closer to that of a classical guitar. This is the weapon of choice for many professional players, and is also called a taro patch or Liliʻu depending on the amount of strings (4, 5, 6 or 8).
Measuring 29 inches, the baritone has 18-21 frets and ranges from D3–A♯5. It’s not very popular, because its sound resembles that of a guitar. So people just… get a guitar.
Want to go deeper? The 30 inch bass ukulele is bass-ically (hardy-har) a baritone ukulele with polyurethane strings that can be tuned like a bass guitar (E2-B4) with a small body.
This is a thing. A ukulele contrabass. Kala makes them under the name of U-Bass and Rumbler, and at 32 inches, it goes from E1-B3.
Know the woods
The original classic wood from Hawaii is used i the most expensive ukuleles, and produces a sweet, mellow and warm sound, has a high end articulation and a balanced midrange.
Slightly more dense than Koa wood, mahogany is still warm and very soft with a good midrange. It’s also associated with ukulele in the mid-range price-wise.
Spruce is used in the cheaper ukuleles, but is not to be discounted. It makes a crisp sound with good bass response, and works well for the aggressive and dynamic strummer.
Less crisp than spruce is the cedar wood ukulele, which is warm and controlled – ideal for fingerstylists.
One of the most recognized tonal woods, rosewood works as well for ukuleles as any other stringed instrument, producing a bright and balanced sound.
Like rosewood, ovangkol is bright and balanced with a pronounced mid-range, making it a versatile choice for all kinds of players.
Less common wood types include monkeypod, mango and acacia – but the list is probably endless given the many enthusiasts making their own ukes.
Solid or laminated?
This makes a big difference for the sound, given that solid wood means you’re only dealing with that one type of wood, whereas laminated means it’s expensive wood on the outside and cheap on the inside.
Know the types
The half-pineapple shape of this ukuleles’ body isn’t just a novelty factor – it actually makes a stronger sound that resonates more than a traditional body shape. Good for soprano and concert ukes.
Like guitars, electric ukuleles can be fully electric with non-resonant bodies, or acoustic-electric, which allows for a bit more flexibility at live performances.
If you didn’t like the amount of frets on offer above, the cutaway is for you. The right shoulder has been chopped off, allowing you to access more frets.
The guitarlele, aka travel guitar and child’s guitar, is a hybrid guitar/ukulele with six strings. It’s ideal for travelling (hence the name) as it’s small but still versatile.
Like a guitarlele, this hybrid combines the ukulele with a bajo. It looks and sounds like a mixture of both, and comes with nylon strings.
The Harp Ukulele
Another hybrid, albeit more unconventional, is the harp ukulele. It’s a bit of a Franken-uke, sporting a bridge extension with unfretted harp strings.
If blues is your jam, the resonator ukulele (AKA resophonic ukulele or reso uke) might be for you. Its metal cone makes it louder and more twangy, perfect for slide playing.
Jazz players tend to prefer the mellow tone of archtop guitars, and you’d think the archtop uke had the same quality. It doesn’t. It just looks more fancy.
The Cigar Box (and others)
We’re now moving into novelty factor territory. Yes, the body is made out of a cigar box. Other novelty ukes include crossbow ukuleles and Pacman ukuleles. Google it.
Know the brands
I’m not going to advocate for any particular brands, as some are high end, some low end, and some cover all bases. Like I’ve described in a previous article, the technology makes even cheaper models sound better than ever before, and brands fluctuate in status as time goes on – so I’ll let you be the judge of which brand works best for you.
The common ones are: Kala, Mahalp, Lanikai, Pono, Kamaka, Luna, Kanilea, Hola!, Luna, Oscar Schmidt, ADM, Sawtooth, Diamond Head and Cordoba. Regardless of which one you go for, it might be worth checking out our guide to 7 Famous Ukulele Songs That You Can Learn, and get yourself a Roadie tuner to go with it!