Ukulele FAQ

So you want to take up the uke, do you? Good choice! I can think of few things I’ve done in the last decade, longer, that have given me more continuous joy than the ukulele.

First things first: Congratulations. You are doing the lord’s work. Controversial punk rocker Amanda Palmer wrote the Ukulele Anthem, an homage to the power of this amazing instrument that includes the following words:

It takes about an hour to teach someone to play the ukulele
About the same to teach someone to build a standard pipe bomb
YOU DO THE MATH!

[Go ahead, I’ll wait while you watch the video…]

I get email from aspiring uke players frequently.  This page is long overdue in response to those emails.

Oh, hey! These are Amazon Affiliate links which means I get a little kickback if you buy. Doesn’t cost YOU any extra, so I’d love it if you’d click. But also, you should totally support your local music store, and it’s FUN to go uke shopping.

Q: I want to get a cheap uke, I think I’d like to play and/or I want to get my kid started. What should I buy? 

A: Don’t totally cheap out. A cheap instrument is a cheap instrument and if you’re really in it to play, remember this: A ukulele is not a toy. That said, you don’t need to drop a lot of bank on a starter uke. At about 50 USD, you start to get some quite playable little axes.

  • For the small child sized budding musician, take a peek at the Kala Makala Shark. They’re fun, they come in cute colors, and they’re great for kids. There’s a dolphin model too.
  • They’re tempting, because they’re so cute, but stay away from the candy colored Mahalos. They’re patchy in quality and have a reputation for not staying in tune.
  • Check out the Kala Mahogany Soprano Ukulele. Not bad for so little dough and not just for kids.
  • Totally acceptable, the ukes made by Lanikai. (I played one for a good while and I’m still sorry I sold it.)
  • Kamoa‘s lower priced models sound pretty amazing at their price point but you’re inching into 200 dollars and up territory.
  • Occasionally, you can score something amazing in a pawn shop or music store that has trade-ins. Don’t be a snob, it’s cool to go used.

Q: Anything else I should get? What about for the ukester that has everything?

A: The uke is an uncomplicated little thing, but there are a few goodies that are nice to have.

  • Get a tuner. We tune because we care. I also have a tuning app on my phone but the clip on tuner works even when there’s ambient noise and the app, not so much so.
  • I like these tweedy hard shell ukulele cases.
  • There are loads of fun books out there, but I especially like this pictorial history of the ukulele.

Q: I’m going to Hawaii and I want to get a uke. Where should I shop?

Souvenir Ukuleles
Cute? Right? Admire them — but keep moving.

A: You can’t swing a cat without hitting a souvenir shop or ABC store that sells ukes when you’re in the islands. Do not be fooled. With some exceptions, you’re looking at souvenir toys, not real instruments. Go to a music store. Do not, I repeat, do not get your uke at Hilo Hatties or Whaler’s General Store or any of the Hawaiian kitsch places that dot the islands. Don’t get me wrong, I actually love those places, I mean, where else can you get bento to go and sunscreen and a pint of milk to replace the awful powdered creamer in your hotel? But you wouldn’t buy a uke at 7-11 on the mainland, why are you doing that in Hawaii? I’d make a recommendation, but one of my favorite things to do in Hawaii is trawl music stores, and I enjoy them all. Just one tip: If they treat you like a tourist shopping for a souvenir, leave the store and go to the next one. Ditto if they’re pushy about sales. A musical instrument is personal and you want one that fits you.

Okay, there are a few places I love. Ko’Aloha on Oahu. Kamoa and Scotty’s on Kauai. Sam’s Ukulele Gallery on the Big Island — though this really is more of a gallery than a music store, Sam sells one of a kind instruments made by Big Island luthiers. This isn’t a “my first ukulele” kind of place. The gist, however? Go to a music store, not a souvenir shop.

Q: How do I know what to buy?

A: Even if you’ve decided to shop online, go to a real music store first. Play a bunch of different brands. Talk to the staffer that knows ukuleles. (What? They don’t know ukuleles? You’re in the wrong store.) I bought my first uke before I knew how to play because it felt right. It’s like buying jeans. You know when they fit. Trust me on this. If you find yourself feeling weirdly affectionate and proprietary towards the uke you’ve got in your hands, that’s probably the right one. And you know what? That’s not a price thing. I fell absolutely in love with my first uke and I hardly knew how to play at all. It was a 30 dollar pawn shop uke.

Q: How will I know when I’m ready to upgrade to a more professional ukulele?

A: Oh, honey. You’ll KNOW.

Q: I want to buy a ukulele as a gift for my [fill in the blank]. What should I get?

A: Hmmm. Depends. Do they play already? Are you upgrading their starter uke? What’s your budget? You might want to take them shopping with you instead as it’s so personal. Again, I want to warn you off ukes that are for kids or seem like toys. A bad uke just collects dust.

Here are two good choices:

It looks a little weird and it’s not the typical little uke everyone imagines, but I love my Flea. LOVE it. They’re not the cheapest ukes on the block, but they’re tough, they sound great, they come in super cute colors and some wacky patterns. They’re terrific.

Also good? Kala makes a respectable mid-priced Spruce topped uke — one of my band mates plays their instruments and really likes them. For just a bit more money, consider going with koa wood— it’s got a bigger acoustic sound.

If you want to spend real money — spendy ukes run up into the 2000 dollar range — email me, I’ve got some advice for you.

Q: OMG. I got a ukulele. Now what?

A: You’ll need to bookmark Ukulele Hunt, it’s indispensable. And this one, Live Ukulele. I’ve used this ukulele chord finder for years. Feeling social? Seek out your local ukulele club. You could do what I did and join a rock band because the ukulele will never tell you you are too old to throw down. Please come see us play, it’s a riot. I promise. The band calendar is on our Facebook page, but if you don’t do Facebook, you can subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll email you our monthly show dates.

And hey, do what Amanda Palmer said you should do: PLAY YOUR UKULELE!

Q: Have you seen that video with Jake Shima… Shimu…Shama…. what’s his name?

A: Stop making me send you this picture of the time I met Jake. Stop it. And yes, I’ve seen the Metallica ukulele book and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain video archive and the ukulele shaped like some other object that’s not a ukulele and… But I genuinely love that you see a ukulele thing and you think of me. Honest. I love that. And those pictures you send me of uke players and uke shops around the world? I love those, too.

Q: What do you play?

A: I have a full arsenal, but the uke I play most is a Ko’Aloha long necked soprano, a gift from my pals at Ko’Aloha that I still can’t quite believe they gave me. It’s a spectacular instrument and it sounds amazing, but it’s also very expensive and it’s not a beginner uke, not by a long shot. When you’re ready to go pro, let’s talk again.

Q: Wait, you didn’t answer my question!

A: Leave it in the comments. I’m on it.

[Updated 11/24/2014]

 

 

2 thoughts on “Ukulele FAQ

  1. Thank you for this fine post. One day, I would like to grow up and be just like you but I am only 47 and just a beginner on the uke. However, I can play 10 songs and take my uke with me wherever I go as I am a perpetual houseguest. People LOVE it.

    I am so happy to see you playing with a strap! I did not know it was allowed. Switching from the guitar, that was the biggest challenge. Also, I am busty, which doesn’t help. I feel like I could play much better without the uke sliding down my front. Yay!

    Still practicing on the cheapie my ma got me for Xmas. (I hope to upgrade someday soon.) Been learning songs from Ukulele Mike on YouTube and I would like to learn how to pick – that’s next.

    I will explore all your fab links and, most likely, return with questions. THANKS!

Leave a Comment