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Ukulele for professionals
If you live in a coastal region that's prone to impromptu beach parties, or you simply believe that any old campfire is a luau waiting to happen, owning a quality ukulele could be quite a worthy investment for you. Take it from this writer's own personal experience -- having one of these diminutive party-starters ready to deploy can be the factor that turns an ordinary get-together into an utterly memorable one.
Classic cliches aside, newcomers to this instrument may be surprised to hear that serious players have more important things to consider beyond "which ukulele will make me sound amazing as I'm plinking out Kumbaya My Lord." Don't be fooled -- there are some big decisions to be made about your next small instrument purchase.
For starters, not all Ukuleles are created equal. Your very first decision will be: soprano, concert or tenor ukulele? Soprano ukuleles are the smallest of the family, typically have 12-15 frets and generally have a twangier, brighter sound. Length-wise, concert ukuleles mill around the longer 23 inches mark, have an extended neck to support the more sausage-fingered among us and have a rounder, more melodic tone. Lastly, the tenor variant goes larger still with 26 inch lengths and are a better "transition" option for uke-curious guitarists due to their larger overall bodies giving them a fuller, deeper sound.
Last but not least, we have the baritone ukulele which, unlike its smaller brethren, is a DGBE tuned affair (i.e. it's essentially a smaller acoustic guitar that's missing the top two strings.)
Now that we've given you a rough, basic understanding of the ukulele ecosystem (or "ukuosystem") let's get you up to speed with what's out there to buy. Collected here is a list of what we believe to be the best built, best sounding and most cost-friendly mini-instruments available right now. Grab a plectrum and take your pick.
Our editorial team selected the products on this list based on extensive research, real customer reviews and personal experience. For each category, we carefully selected parameters based on our research and identified the products with the highest review score within those parameters.
If money isn't much of an object to you, Martin's T1K Tenor ukulele has 4.2/5 star rating after 26 Amazon reviews. Why are there so few user reviews attached to this product, you may be asking yourself? Honestly, you'll find the same phenomenon for high-end Rolex watches or anything else that's this premium -- ukuleles at this deeper end of the pool are bought in far fewer numbers, and typically from a specialised retailer.
As you'd expect from a well-respected brand like Martin, to buy the T1K Tenor is to say mahalo to a truly exceptional ukulele. This is a 17" scale length, 1.88 kg instrument that offers 20 frets along a select hardwood neck with solid morado fingerboard. Discerning critics have called said fretboard spacious and playable, though the neck isn't quite wide enough to be considered chunky. The action on offer here is in the moderate range -- this is by many accounts a fun ukulele to play.
While we're on the topic of materials and design, the reason you'll be paying a premium price here is mostly due to the solid koa wood used in the body. Hawaiian Koa doesn't come cheap, but the benefits of this type of using it can be instantly heard in terms of brightness and loudness. It can also be felt; this is a comparatively light uke.
Other benefits include the open-back Grover tuners that are often thrown in with T1Ks. These are smooth and accurate tuning solutions that are widely considered to be high quality. T1Ks are also factory strung with Martin-brand fluorocarbon strings -- decent wires that help this ukulele deliver such a resonant, warm, open tone.
If you've taken a shine to concert ukuleles, Fender's Grace VanderWaal Signature comes with a 4.4/5 star rating after 460 Amazon reviews. It's also worth noting that Fender also offers this particular signature series in the soprano format, for those of you who want a slightly more travel-sized or beginner friendly option. It also swaps out the Walnut colouring for a striking "Moonlight" cobalt blue, too.
Body-wise, the ukulele on offer here is a laminated sapele body with front-and-back cream binding and a modest yet alluring gloss polyurethane dark walnut finish. Poking out from that impressive base is a 15″ concert-scale nato neck that's decked out with a generous, 16-fret walnut fingerboard. Sitting atop the lot is classic, gloss finish Fender Telecaster-style headstock that's adorned with gold closed-geared tuners.
Better yet, the electronic heart beating within is the always reliable Fishman Kula preamp with an undersaddle pickup by Sonicore. End result of all of the above: in unplugged mode, this is a uke that delivers a sweet tone that never strays into the cheap tininess one can hear in lesser concert offerings.
All that being said, this Signature amplified is where the Fender difference comes into play in the aural department. Expect a responsive, classic three-band EQ and an onboard tuner located directly on the ukulele's preamp. Basically, Fender has been quite successful in delivering the "gig ready" design ethos that was insisted upon by this product's titular songstress. No matter what your ukulele skill set, the Signature is always ready to perform and be nothing less than a reliable on-stage partner.
Other benefits include the standard Fender warranty thrown in. The manufacturer also offers a 3 month subscription to Fender Play, for beginners looking to find their feet or veterans out to brush up on their finger-pickin' fundamentals.
The current best cheap and cheerful option out there is the Kmise Soprano Ukulele with Starter Kit, a product that enjoys a 4.7/5 star rating after 4.2K Amazon reviews. At this point we should warn you that securing an inexpensive uke on the Internet isn't too difficult a task -- there is an overabundance of wonderfully priced, awful sounding ukuleles. All that being said, what we have here is a beautifully built instrument that performs well beyond the low price point expectation.
Kmise is offering a modestly constructed, traditional design body that has fairly minimal bells and whistles. As is the case with many other ukuleles in the starter tier, you're looking at a laminated mahogany top, back, and sides. Likewise, you'll be getting a classic style rectangular bridge and a pointed fingerboard overhang.
It's worth noting the latter has been designed to be as scratch resistant as possible. The fret wires have also been manicured.
All in all, Kmise has achieved surprisingly decent build quality on a budget. The end result of all this careful design is a rich, full and warm tone with impressive projection for such a small and unassuming instrument. Couple that with the fact that it offers nice action and intonation with little tweaking required, and what's here is a more than capable beginner's ukulele.
Obviously, with this being a starter kit you're getting a bunch of additional extras that sweeten the deal further. Newbies can hit the ground running with everything they need, including a starters guide, extra strings, tuner, strap and a surprisingly well-made gig bag to house it all in. You'll need the latter item especially -- travel-sized instruments like these tend to take a beating after only a few road trips.
If you're a bit more serious about your ukulele game, the mid-tier Kala KA-15S Mahogany Soprano comes with a decent 4.7/5 star rating after 245 Amazon reviews. Built in the tried-and-true Solid Mahogany style, the KA-15S is a simple, elegant looking instrument that's been built to last and meet the needs of a seasoned ukulele enthusiast.
The extra money you're paying for a Kala branded uke is immediately felt here -- though this is by no means flawless craftsmanship, the KA-15S has a solid feel that other ukes in this price tier lack. Like the body, the neck is also mahogany, features 12 silver nickel frets on a classic rosewood fretboard that isn't marred by any pesky rough edges that need to be smoothed down. The action has been widely praised by the overwhelming majority of reviews we've seen.
Overall, this is quite a handsome looking instrument, thanks to a light matte finish and a subtle, laser engraved sun motif rosette. More importantly, the understated light matte finish pays extra dividends in the sound department as well; it effectively allows this instrument to naturally resonate more freely. Obviously, this being a soprano ukulele means the KA-15S will always be lacking in terms of bass, sustain, and volume, nevertheless it produces quite a warm, rich tone.
Some other things worth noting: the Kala KA-15S comes strung with a thoroughly durable and decent sounding set of Aquila Super Nylgut strings. Lastly, this all solid wood design allows the resonance and sound of this ukulele to improve as the instrument is broken in. So there's every chance the intonation could improve even more (or at least grow on you better) over time.
Consummate, no nonsense ukulele professionals can rely upon the Kala KA-ATP-CTG Tenor Acacia Cedar, a product that has 4.4/5 star rating after 34 Amazon reviews. Widely respected as one of the top tier manufacturers of this style of instrument, Kala has brought its considerable experience to bear on the careful design of this uke. Whether it's design, reliability or superior tone, the higher price you're paying for premium tonewoods here feels justified across the (fret)board.
Light and tightly constructed, the Solid Cedar Top line features Acacia back and sides with a handsome Padauk rosette and binding. That's complemented with a distinctive slotted headstock that's adorned with a multi-layered headstock cap with a carved Kala logo for that extra bit of brand name bragging. You're also getting a walnut fingerboard and bridge which, by many online accounts, feel lovely and don't inhibit the easy action of this instrument one iota.
Also worth mentioning are the Grover chrome vintage tuners that provide this uke with exceptional tuning stability (a must for anybody keen to do a marathon campfire sing-a-long). It also comes fitted with some quality Aquila strings -- the type that tend to emphasise individual notes / finger-picking over strumming techniques. Obviously that can be switched out to better suit anybody with a more chord heavy repertoire.
The benefits of a cedar construction are immediately heard, as the KA-ATP-CTG produces a sweet, bright tone. Many ukulele aficionados have noted that the Acacia back/sides and that solid cedar top work together to deliver a pleasing sound mix that balances complex overtones with solid fundamentals. A great number of online reviewers have remarked upon the surprisingly loud volume output of this as well.
Any Aussie looking to support locally based business would do well to look into the Bondi Concert Ukulele Mahogany Starter Kit, a product that enjoys an impressive 4.8/5 star rating after 250 Amazon reviews. Founded in 2006, the self-described "Bondi Ukulele Tribe" has been a passionate purveyor of some of the finest ukes produced in Oz. This quality, cost-effective starter kit is testament to their company stated desire to promote uke culture to as wide an audience as possible.
The uke on offer is a matte finish, African mahogany build that is remarkably well-made for the asking price. The frets are not sharp on the side like some beginner ukuleles, thereby maximising player comfort and removing a painful hurdle to stop newcomers from practicing as much as possible. Speaking of, reviewers widely reported that this Bondi concert uke stays in tune longer than other instruments in this price range.
In terms of aural output, the general consensus is that this is a mid-range priced instrument that delivers easy action and high-end sound. The tone produced is perfect for beginners and intermediates who are still developing an ear for quality. Granted, you're not going to get the same complexities found on more expensive ukes, but the body here delivers noticeably better projection than a lot of other starter-minded ukuleles out there on the market.
Obviously, this being a starter kit means you'll be getting everything a budding enthusiast would need. Along with the ukulele you'll be getting, a handcrafted deluxe saddle, a compression sponge case to keep your uke safe, Aquila strings for quality sounds, felt picks, tuner that works in the dark, a chord stamp, a chord chart, a rainbow design leather strap and Bondi even adds a personal touch by throwing in an online ukulele course over Skype.
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