Photo Credit: Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko
It's getting to be that time of year, where people start thinking about what kind of presents to buy for their loved ones, and buying a ukulele is a great gift for the holiday season.
However, here are the top 5 reasons why you should invest in a quality instrument rather than buying the cheapest ukulele you can find on Amazon.
1. It Won't Stay in Tune! - Cheap ukuleles are well known for having cheap parts which includes their tuners. This in turn, will guarantee frustration when your loved one is trying to learn this new instrument, something they absolutely do not need to struggle with. The barriers to learning the ukulele are relatively low, but there's no reason to throw in an instrument that constantly needs retuning when you should be worried about finger placement, rhythm, and having fun!
2. Cheaper Wood Means Thinner Sound - When we think about why a ukulele sounds pleasant to listen to, it is because the higher quality instruments are made from a good tone wood such as mahogany, willow, mango, myrtle, cedar, spruce, or koa. Cheap ukuleles are often made from a lower quality wood and it does not have the same tonal quality the other woods have. To make matters worse, to cover up this horrible sound, they are often lacquered with heavy layers of paint to attract the eye, and mute the sound. A good quality ukulele will sometime be stained a certain color, but will rarely have a solid color of paint because it will mute the natural acoustic properties of the wood.
This being said, you do not have to break the bank by investing in a hard wood ukulele off the bat. There are plenty of laminate ukuleles (this means they have a thin layer of a tone wood combined with a cheaper wood) that will sound far better than one made entirely of a cheap tone wood. Laminate ukuleles are more stable to humidity and temperature fluctuations and make great first instruments. One of my favorite ukuleles in my collection is a laminate willow ukulele made by Ohana and you can find a similar one here: https://mimsukes.com/products/ohana-concert-ck-15wg-laminate-willow-ukulele-s269-1
Photo Credit: Mim's Ukes
Buying for a child and want to make sure they don't break their ukulele? Outdoor Ukulele makes great durable, carbon fiber ukuleles that sound good, stay in tune and aren't too expensive either. On the plus side, they are also great in drastic weather conditions, so you'll never have to worry about ruining them by leaving them in a hot car. Here: https://www.outdoorukulele.com/
Photo Credit: Outdoor Ukulele
3. Cheap Ukuleles Are Not Set Up Properly
What's a "set up"? Simply put, manufacturers have certain standards for quality when they create their instruments, but they can't go over each individual ukulele and make sure there's no buzzing, uneven frets, or that the action (distance between the strings and the fretboard) is perfect for playability. Quality manufacturers will create instruments that are pretty darn playable straight from the factory, so getting a "set up" is a bonus, but definitely makes things easier for a beginner. This is not something a third party seller on Amazon is going to offer you, so all the more reason to purchase a quality instrument that can be "set up" (it is not worth trying on shoddily made instruments) from a dealer who can offer that service. Some will even offer that service for free when you purchase from them, like Mim from Mim's Ukes. You can find her here: https://mimsukes.com/
What does a "set up" do? For a beginner, this is huge. The beginner player is already getting used to the feel of strings beneath their fingers, which until they develop some callouses, can be a little painful, and having a properly set up instrument means that the action (distance between the fretboard and strings) can be lowered for maximum playability. This means they can put less pressure on the strings to create a chord and it will be easier and more rewarding for them to continue playing the instrument, which is the goal! A set up will also make sure that the frets are dressed (meaning they don't have any sharp or rough edges - ouch!), and that there's no buzzing on any strings which is unpleasant to listen to.
4. A Higher Quality Instrument Rewards the Player
A better sounding instrument that is easy to play is going to reward the player by incentivizing them to keep playing. Learning something new is its own challenge, and we don't need to make it harder by spending time with an instrument that doesn't sound good, doesn't stay in tune, and hurts your fingers. Plus, if you're new to the ukulele and find out what a joy it is to play and how easily those of us with minimal musical talent can accompany themselves to their favorite songs, you are going to find yourself tempted to buy a new ukulele pretty soon. Those in the know call this "Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome." Ukuleles are small, relatively inexpensive, and come in a variety of novel shapes, colors etc. Instead of wasting $40-50 on a cheaper instrument up front, why not use that money towards a ukulele in a slightly higher price bracket and keep it for longer. That first uke will be dispensed with rather quickly once you are hooked and discover the wide world of ukuleles!
5. Cheap Ukuleles Are Bad for The Environment
What do you think happens to a cheap instrument that doesn't stay in tune, sounds terrible, and isn't fun to play? Yup, you guessed it. It's thrown out! Also, if we keep purchasing crappy instruments, we are incentivizing manufacturers to continue making them. Keep ukuleles out of the landfill by decreasing the demand for shoddy instruments. Reputable ukulele manufacturers will also care about making sure that they are sourcing wood from managed forests so they can continue to run their businesses by valuing sustainability over mass manufacturing.
Where to buy good quality first ukuleles? Here's a list:
Mim's Ukes: https://mimsukes.com/ I am recommending her first because she includes a free full set up in her pricing and she doesn't even carry cheaper ukuleles. Everything on her website will sound good and be fun to play.
Outdoor Ukulele: https://www.outdoorukulele.com/ A lot of the appeal of a ukulele is their portability, and it's great to have one you can keep in your car for long car rides or traffic filled commutes. I highly recommend this brand of plastic/carbon fiber ukuleles as they are easy to play, sound good, have high quality control (unlike a certain other manufacturer of plastic ukuleles who are a 1/3 of the price and whose bridge will collapse within months - mine is now a decoration in my Christmas wreath!). These are also great for kids as parents do not have to worry about dropping them but they still stay in tune and sound decent.
Magic Fluke Company: https://www.magicfluke.com/Fluke-s/1477.htm
Possibly a little more expensive than what most would want to spend on a starter uke, but you might be able to find some used on Reverb or Ebay. They have a carbon fiber back and a tone wood top, so they have great projection but also the flexibility of being more portable and less precious. My very first ukulele was a Flea from the Magic Fluke Company, and is also the reason I invented the Hug Strap. They have an ingenious design so the ukulele can stand on its end and I didn't want to interrupt the design by putting in a strap button which is how my strap was born. They are highly playable straight from the manufacturer, are made in the USA, and are a small family business.
Reputable Brands that carry Starter - Mid Level Ukuleles:
Magic Fluke Company
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a place to start. Another thing to consider is buying secondhand. You can often get a higher quality instrument for a cheaper price on sites like Reverb and Ebay. You can also check out B-stock/blemish sections to see if you can get a discount for a minor, sometimes completely unnoticeable blemish on a ukulele.
You will note that with one exception, I have not listed any guitar manufacturers as purveyors of good ukuleles. A lot of the well-known guitar manufacturers also carry a line of ukuleles which are manufactured in the exact same factory, using similar build techniques, as their guitars. Why, you ask, is that a bad thing? Ukuleles, are much, much smaller than guitars, and as such, demand different bracing techniques in their builds. Guitar manufacturers were looking to expand their offerings years ago when ukuleles grew in popularity, so they were less concerned with great quality than they were with offering a cheap product that would increase their bottom line. Ukuleles made by these big name guitar brands are often made from cheap wood, are heavy and unbalanced, and are heavily lacquered, and so basically sound like boxes with strings. Steer clear. Stick to reputable brands like those mentioned above and feel free to comment on this post and ask! I have owned at least 30 ukuleles over the last 10 years, and have tried out many brands.