Updated: Dec 5, 2018
Here's the secret: Let the ukulele choose you.
There is no "right" ukulele except for the one that feels right to you. You can make the process as in-depth or spontaneous as you like. Either way, have fun with the process and know that, in the end, you'll have a ukulele! There are dozens of online ukulele sites that provide exquisite rabbit holes on every detail. What follows is a simple guide to picking out a ukulele.
Tips for finding the right uke for you
- Go to a local music store (find some in the Burlington, VT, area here) and play with the entire herd. Even the really, really expensive ones. Even the really, really cheap ones. The big tenors. The wee sopranos. The mid-sized concerts. The banjoleles. The Sopraninos. Try the ones that draw you to them for the color, the bling, the tone, the pattern in the wood ... for anything! Shopping in person beats online hands-down because there's a lot of valuable information you get when you hold a uke and play it. If you do shop online, I highly recommend Mim's Ukes as a trustworthy source. She sets up each uke, you can see a picture of the actual uke that you're buying, and you can see a video review of just about every uke that she sells.
- Take a tuner with you. Or get one while you're at the store, because you'll need it anyway. Or ask to borrow one at the sales desk. When you're trying out a uke, you want to create the best conditions possible for evaluating the sound. It's not complicated to decide if you like the sound or not; just use your ears -- but an out-of-tune ukulele will probably sound worse than an in-tune uke, no matter what the quality of the uke itself. From the top string to the bottom string, the notes are G-C-E-A (remember it with this useful mnemonic: "Give Clare Everything Always." Can I help it if my name is Clare??). If you don't know how to use a tuner, ask the sales person. That's what they're there for, to help you. Take the time you need and listen to your own voice.
- HOT TIP: Some ukes can't be tuned properly no matter how hard you try because they were built poorly. One way to test this is to tune the open strings (no fingers on any frets) to G-C-E-A, then check the tuning for each string again at the space just above the 12th fret. You should still get G-C-E-A with your tuner. I have had to go through entire herds of el-cheapos to get one that came close enough to be ok for my purpose - which was to find a knock-around uke to goof around with while hiking, biking or other rough travel.
- Your uke will likely not stay in tune at first. Nylon strings can take a week or more to stretch out, so they will go out of tune, often right in the middle of a song. This is normal. The more you play your uke when you get it home, the sooner those strings will stretch out.
- You don't need to know anything about playing to choose a uke -- just strum the thing. Or pluck it. Make whatever sound you're inspired to make. It's all fodder for playing music. Look in the sound hole. Look at the wood grain on the front, sides, and back (if it's wood). Strum it some more. Remember: It's called "playing" music for a reason: It's fun!
- Friction tuners vs geared tuners. I have never had a uke with friction tuners (when I do, I'll update this post), but in a Ukulele Underground forum, here's the gist of what they said on that topic: "Cheap geared tuners generally do function better than cheap friction tuners." So, if you're getting a cheap uke, go with geared tuners.
- Deciding what size ukulele you should get comes down to what feels best in your arms. Guitar players tend to like the larger tenors because they feel more familiar. Others may like the tiny sopranos because they feel nice in their arms. Any reason is completely valid! - Let your subconscious have a say. Here's how I let my mind make itself up when I'm unable to:
1) Narrow your choice down to two or three ukes and play with them each some more, noting why you enjoy playing it: The sound, the feel under your fingertips, the look, how it feels in your arms -- whatever you're experiencing. Close your eyes and don't think of anything while you're noodling around on it to give your subconscious self time to absorb the uke. Have someone else play it so you can hear what it sounds like to others. You'll be surprised at how different it sounds! 2) Still can't decide? Flip a coin. Seriously! It's a way to get your subconscious to chime in. Now: How do you feel about how the coin landed? If you're happy with the side it landed on, go for that one. If you find yourself wishing it had landed on the other side, go with the other one. It's weird, but it works.
- Are you smiling? That's key.
- If you're buying a uke for someone else, be sure to understand the shop's return policy. There are zillions of successful ukulele-gifting experiences. But if the receiver had something else in mind, it can be fun to go with them to choose a different one, with your gift as a springboard to their heart's desire. You have provided them with the first step towards getting a uke that they will love.
Don't be afraid of choosing the "wrong" ukulele. First of all, there is no such thing. You chose the best ukulele you could find under whatever circumstances prevailed at the time. Money, time, availability, and pressure from others all factor in to how you make your choice. If, or over time, you find it's not giving you joy, you can always go through this process again and choose another one, either selling your original one or keeping it around as a spare to get someone else hooked (my favorite method). Once you've been playing for a little while, you'll know more about what you like, what sound you're looking for, the feel, the look, the ukulele wah.
Go find your local music stores and play with whatever they have in stock. Have fun! And don't stress about it. You're at the beginning of a fanciful journey. Find a sweet, four-stringed companion to meet you where you are, right now, and you will have found exactly the right uke.