If you're after a cost-effective, easy-to-learn instrument, a cool new toy to add to your busking or live performance setup, or a compact stringed instrument that's portable enough to travel with, then this guide to the best ukuleles will see you right. Some may see the humble uke as a novelty, but recently, we've been seeing and hearing the ukulele more than ever.
Whilst it might be a simple instrument, the uke has been growing massively in popularity among musicians, and particularly guitarists - young and old - and is a common first port of call for people wanting to get to grips with their first stringed instrument.
What’s more, there’s no denying that the sound of a ukulele is enough to transport you to the Hawaiian beaches from where the instrument originated – something that will no doubt appeal to those of us who reside in colder corners of the globe for most of the year.
In the UK, the uke has made its way into schools for use by school bands – a welcome progression from the excruciating recorder lessons of old. And in Canada we're told that the ukulele has been a staple of music classes for decades.
Other than getting your head around the high 'G' on the lowest string, ukuleles are relatively straightforward for guitar players to learn, and they're tuned in fifths as well. In this guide you'll even find a 'guitalele', which is a 6-string uke that's strung A-A like a baritone guitar!
Hit the ‘buying advice’ button above to learn more, or keep scrolling to get straight to our top choices.
Best ukulele: Our top picks
If you're in the market for a high-end ukulele, we can't think of a better uke to splash your cash on than the Martin T1K Tenor uke. There are definitely more expensive models out there, but the T1K represents the best sounding ukulele we've tried that's not rare, vintage, or a custom order. If the ukulele is your main instrument, you should consider spending a little more to get the perfect instrument, however for most players the benefits above this price bracket will be marginal and you probably won't hear or feel them.
If a budget-friendly ukulele is more your thing, then the Mahalo Soprano ukulele is the option on this list that represents the ideal mix of value for money and fun. We love the 'flying V' variant, but they do so many styles in a range of colours that you won't struggle for choice. So long as you don't take yourself too seriously, this is a wonderfully inexpensive way to get started with the ukulele.
Best ukuleles: Product guide
Whether it's stuffed on a friend's bookshelf or above the bar at a Hawaiian-themed club, if you've seen a uke somewhere, chances are it's a Mahalo. The basic models won't set the world on fire, but they're durable, hold their tuning okay, and sound fairly decent.
If you have the additional cash, then you'll notice a big difference stepping up to the Fender and Kala models on this list, but if not, this is an excellent ukulele if you're just starting out.
With a range of designs, from printed patterns on a traditional-shaped body, to 'flying V' ukes, and everything in between, there's probably a version of this uke to suit your personality.
If the pickup on the Grace VanderWaal isn't of interest, but the regular Zuma is well within your price bracket, then the Kala Mahogany could be worth the additional outlay.
The Kala doesn't go in for bells and whistles; rather it's a solid instrument from a company with decent form. A very noticeable step up from the rung above entry-level ukuleles, the Kala is more than enough for most uke players to play at home, or go out and play with others and never feel short-changed.
The mahogany construction offers a darker tone, which complements its concert voicing, and a subtle body binding adds to the good looks.
Read the full Kala KA-C Satin Mahogany Concert Ukulele review
Though we've selected the tenor variant here due to its rich, full range, Martin also makes a concert variation of this excellent ukulele design. There's no soprano version, but Martin does produce the S1, which has an all-mahogany construction perhaps better suited to the higher range of that instrument.
Well-known for their fantastic range of high-end acoustic guitars, it's no surprise that a Martin should be the top of the pile. While there are more expensive ukes from both Martin and other manufacturers around, for most people the T1K will be more than good enough, and should last a lifetime.
Read the full Martin T1K Ukulele review
With a stylish finish like the Grace VanderWaal signature, the Fender Venice is a smashing option if you're looking for the plunk of a soprano uke, but don't mind paying a little more than the entry-level price bracket.
The surf green option brings to mind iconic Fender solid-body electric guitars and is likely to be a talking point even if it's just hanging on the wall. As for how it plays, it benefits from a slim 'C' neck to aid comfort, even if it's not quite in the same league as the Taylors and Martins of this world.
If you've always wanted a guitar but are unsure about the size of a three-quarters, or even half-sized axe, then a guitalele could be for you. Alternatively, if you're already a guitar player and you can't say goodbye to those two extra strings, then this could be a gateway to the uke.
Released by Yamaha a decade before the current uke boom, they're only just now becoming more widely available. Tuned to A, and without the re-entrant 'G', it really does sit perfectly half-way between guitar and uke, hence the name.
In terms of voicing, it's in the ballpark of a baritone, resulting in thick tones, with a better bass end than most ukes.
Read the full Yamaha Guitalele GL-1 review
Concert ukuleles are a great middle ground between the smaller sopranos and (relatively) hefty tenors. The Ukutune UKE1 is a great example, and is ideal for adult players looking for something with a touch more quality than you get at the lower end of the price scale.
The UKE1 has some nice features that elevate it above a ‘beginner’ instrument, like the use of ebony and walnut for the back, sides and neck. This, when combined with the spruce top, makes for a sweet tone that projects well. We loved some of the visual flourishes too, including the pearlescent binding around the body, and the included carry-bag makes it the perfect travel companion. All told, a nice package for anyone looking to upgrade from their first uke.
For an electro-acoustic uke that doesn't compromise on quality but is still relatively affordable, it's hard to do better than this signature beast. With a Fender headstock modeled on the Telecaster and a Fishman pickup, this uke not only sounds good unplugged, but can be run through a PA or amp for gigs.
It's voiced as a concert, so fingering will be a little easier than a Soprano - at least with our big fingers - and the sound is a little fuller in the bass, too.
Fender also make a variant without the pickup, but the addition of the Fishman elevates this from a decent ukulele to a perfect all-rounder. There's a good chance even a serious player would never need another uke.
Originally designed as a way of increasing the volume of an acoustic guitar to compete with the cacophony of a dance band, the resonator enjoyed a relatively short spell in the sun before being made obsolete by the arrival of the electric guitar.
Resonators have a very distinctive, sharp sound, and one that records well - so although a soprano resonator would perhaps be too harsh, a concert resonator uke makes a lot of sense, and the Ashbury sounds fantastic.
It's worth noting that although resonators are less common, other models do exist – Gretsch also makes one, as do Kala, although the Kala is voiced as a tenor rather than concert uke.
Best ukuleles: Buying advice
Best ukuleles: A brief history
What we'd give right now to spend an afternoon relaxing on a tropical Hawaiian beach. Soft, white sand beneath our toes, aquamarine waves lapping up against the dazzling shoreline, tall palms swaying in the cooling breeze, surfers riding that perfect break...
Now, what's that we can hear? It's a chilled hula band – the hypnotic beat of the Pahu drum, the otherworldly sound of a lap-steel in full song and the unmistakable strum of a ukulele. The fabulous little ukulele, what could be more Hawaiian than that?
Hold on a minute! It turns out the ukulele isn't really Hawaiian at all. Back in the 1870s, Portuguese sailors from Madeira introduced the very similar four-stringed cavaquinho to the islands, and within a few years immigrant Madeiran cabinet makers started crafting them for the local market.
Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii (aka the Merrie Monarch), was so taken with the diminutive instrument that he liked nothing better than to serenade his guests with his playing and singing. The story goes that his Vice-Chamberlain, an excitable little Englishman and fellow uke obsessive named Edward Purvis, became so dextrous at playing that he was nicknamed the flying flea, or 'ukulele' in native Hawaiian. His nickname became synonymous with an instrument that will forever be associated with Hawaii.
All very quaint 'n quirky, but what does this teach us? The Portuguese sailors probably favoured the cavaquinho because it was simple to play and easy to stow on a cramped sailing ship. Let's face it, they would have struggled to smuggle a piano on board. King Kalakaua, and his court, found it irresistible because it's fun to play and sounds great. So, if you're looking for an instrument that sounds unique, is easy to travel with and impossible to put down then go buy yourself one of the best ukuleles in this guide.
Are ukuleles easy to play?
If you can strum a guitar then you can strum a ukulele. Simples. But like all musical instruments, the more effort you invest, the bigger the reward. Fortunately, the guitar and soprano ukulele (the most popular model) share the same standard tuning map, so it's easy to get up and running.
The big differences are that ukuleles have four strings, not six and that the fret numbers don't correspond. The easiest way to get your head around this is to think of the ukulele as a guitar with the bottom two strings (the bass strings) removed. Now, although the remaining strings have exactly the same relationships to one another, you'll need to move up or down the fretboard a bit to find the same series of notes.
How are ukuleles tuned?
Now, we know this sounds a bit confusing - but bare with us and it will all make sense. Take the six open strings on a guitar in standard tuning: EADGBE. Discard the two bass strings (the thickest ones) and you're left with DGBE. These are the same notes as the seventh fret of a ukulele. The fretboard map is exactly the same, it's just been shifted, or transposed, up seven frets (or down five).
Look at it another way. The open strings on a ukulele in standard tuning are GCEA. Pick up your guitar, ignore the two bass strings and you'll find these notes at the fifth fret. Studying a fretboard diagram for just two minutes will make all this much clearer but essentially if you can play chords on the guitar then you can play them on the ukulele, you just have to move up seven frets or down five.
OK, there is one other important difference but it's really not a biggie. The fourth string, which is the one closest to a cloudless sky if you really are lucky enough to be playing on a tropical beach, doesn't produce the lowest note. In fact, it produces the second highest. So, looking at open strings again the third string C is actually the lowest, followed by the second string E, then the fourth string G and finally the first string A. This is called re-entrant tuning and it’s an idiosyncrasy inherited from the cavaquinho before it, and the lute before that.
But why would you do that, we hear you ask? Some say that centuries ago it was impossible to reliably manufacture accurate bass strings so a higher string was always used. Others believe that a high fourth string makes certain chord voicings easier to play. Whatever the truth, most of us would agree that it's re-entrant tuning that gives the ukulele its unique, characteristic sound.
If the complexities of ukulele tuning fill you with horror (they really shouldn't) then consider a Yamaha Guitalele, which is essentially a uke-sized guitar. Buy some high-tension strings and you can even tune it exactly the same as your guitar, and get the fretboard map to match.
What different types of ukulele are there?
So far, we've been looking at the soprano uke, which is the most popular and widespread model available. But it's not alone in ukedom. The concert ukulele is slightly larger by a couple of inches and usually boasts 14 – 17 frets to the soprano's 12 – 15. Tuning is the same, but it can be easier for larger-fingered players to get their digits around its slightly bigger frame and fretboard. A concert uke should have better bass response too, but the downside is that it's not quite so portable.
A tenor ukulele is considerably bigger than a soprano. If a soprano is typically about 21 inches long, then the tenor will be 26 inches or more. Again the tuning is the same but the fretboard can have room for 19 or more frets. A fantastic choice for performers who value more bass response and a higher treble range, despite the increase in size.
The baritone ukulele is an interesting choice. With a body length of 30 inches plus, and a less elongated shape, it looks more like a regular guitar. The similarities don't end there. With 21 or more frets it feels more guitar-like and, what's more, the tuning is the same as your favourite acoustic too. It still only has four strings but these are tuned to DGBE. The only downside is its comparatively vast size.
Does the wood make a difference to the sound?
In terms of construction, the woods used to make a ukulele can drastically alter the sound of the instrument. What appeals to your ear will differ from person to person, but as a rule of thumb, 'darker' woods work better on the higher soprano ukulele, while 'brighter' woods work better on tenor and baritone ukuleles.
How do you play the ukulele?
We've established that the ukulele shares so many similarities with the guitar that any half-decent guitarist, once they've overcome a few quirks, will quickly become a uke wielding ninja.
The playing technique required is very similar, requiring very few adjustments. The obvious difference is size. Not only does the ukulele feel much smaller to hold but the fretboard is much smaller too, so allow some time for your fingers to get used to the tighter spacing.
It's rare to find steel strings on an acoustic ukulele but there's nothing to stop you using a pick on nylon strings. Ukulele-specific picks, made from felt or leather, yield a more mellow sound are definitely worth experimenting with.
Alternatively, there's no better time to learn to pick with your fingers, which will give you the most control over dynamics. The sound of flesh and nail striking nylon will give you the most authentic tone possible, and will help you to eke out the very best from your uke.
How much should you spend on a ukulele?
Most musicians want an inexpensive ukulele that they can have fun with as a second instrument. Highly portable and relatively robust, in that they can be tucked out of harm's way, they're fantastic for busking and for travel. You could even take one on a camping trip.
Their fun-loving vibe, and toyish good looks, mean that they're not always regarded as serious instruments, and unfortunately the world is flooded with cheap, poorly made examples.
Just like the nylon guitar market, it pays to spend enough to buy one that plays well and sounds phenomenal. Intonation should be spot on, the neck should be straight, frets should be well-finished and the tone should offer more than a gutless plinky-plonky cacophony that can jeopardise even the most enduring relationships.
Investing upwards of $/£/€50 will arm you with an instrument that sounds good and is easy to play. Spend a bit more and you'll be buying improved build-quality, tone and playability. Spend a lot more, say $/£/€250, and you'll begin to discover better tone woods, decorative inlays and an even richer tone.
Custom ukuleles can easily cost $/£/€4,000 or more, which may appear crazy but it's worth remembering that these are essentially mini-guitars that take just as much skill to build as any other high-end instrument. You'll be investing in an heirloom quality ukulele that's visually, and sonically, a work of art.
Do you need a ukulele?
So, can you live without a uke in your life? For better or worse, ukulele music has certainly been a feature of our lives for the past 140 years but are you ready to make some? And are we ready to listen to it?
Ukulele-tinged music may be most dominantly established in Hawaiian culture but during the early 20th Century the instrument found huge popularity in folk, jazz and vaudeville.
Its popularity waned after the 1960s but more recently the uke has benefitted from a resurgence in interest. This has been fuelled by the skills of traditional Hawaiian virtuosos, such as Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, as well as the somewhat tongue-in-cheek efforts of ensembles such as the The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Since it was posted in 2006, composer and YouTube sensation Jake Shimabukuro has racked up more than 17 million views for his rendition of George Harrison's My Guitar Gently Weeps.
The sound of the ukulele is so unique, and so readily identifiable, that mindless one-dimensional strumming can easily become the world's most irritating noise. Even the banjo or, god-forbid, the bag-pipes can be less agonising to endure. But pop performers, such as Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift, are now using the uke sparingly and judiciously to infuse their performances with interesting new flavours and textures (Eilish even has her own Fender signature model).
We love the uke for its ability to bring a dash of eternal sunshine to impromptu, alfresco singalongs with your mates. In a world dominated by cookie-cutter, homogeneous commercial pop we also welcome its ability to bring something fresh and exciting to the mix. So, yes, we heartily recommend you go straight out and buy one, but only on the condition you learn more than three chords…
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