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Models and Tunings and Sizes, Oh My! How to Choose the Right Ukulele for You
By Sam Marchuk - West Music Education Consultant
2/2/2015 12:01:00 AM
There are so many different size models and sizes of ukuleles available in the market today. Whether you are looking to play the ukulele for personal enjoyment or looking to pick out a set for your classroom, it can be quite overwhelming in determining what model and size you should use.

In this article, I will go over the features and advantages for each of the different sizes - and take the mystery out of how to choose the right one for you. But first, a video:

As you saw, there are 4 sizes of ukuleles available. The different sizes exist not to match the size of the player - as in the fractional sizes available for violin or guitar - but to match the tone and application the player is looking for. Although the name implies different tuning, the 3 smallest sizes (Soprano, Concert and Tenor) are tuned exactly the same to g’-c’-e’-a’.
Baritone Ukulele and Its Tuning in Relation to Guitar

The Baritone is the largest size in the ukulele family and the only size that uses a different tuning. I will start with this size because of its close relation in tuning to guitar. If we take a 6 string guitar, tuned (from low to high) to E-A-d’g’b’e’, and remove the 2 lowest strings (the E and A), we are left with only highest 4 strings d-g-b-e. That is exactly how the Baritone ukulele is tuned. If we play a G chord on the guitar, we can apply the same fingering on the Baritone ukulele to make the same G chord, without having to use the lowest 2 strings on the ukulele.

Now that we know the relation of the Baritone ukulele tuning to guitar, we can see how the other ukuleles compare.

The smaller Soprano, Concert and Tenor ukuleles are tuned 5 half steps higher than the Baritone ukulele. So, if we place a capo at the 5th fret - that gives us our basic tuning (g’-c’-e’-a’), or a C6 chord. This is referred to as “linear tuning” because all of the strings are in sequence from low to high pitch.

However, the more common tuning system is to take the lowest string, the G, and tune it up one octave higher, resulting in the open strings matching the melody of “My Dog Has Fleas.” The 3rd string, the C, is now the lowest open-tuned string. This is referred to as “re-entrant” tuning because the strings are not tuned in a linear fashion, or in sequence from low to high. It is this tuning that gives the ukulele its unique, characteristic sound!

Some ukulele methods may suggest using the “linear” tuning as it extends the lower range and may be easier to comprehend when learning to read music and playing scales. As most stock ukuleles are pre-strung with the high G “re-entrant” tuning, you may need to purchase and install the low G strings separately if you plan on using these methods.

Because of the similar tuning structure, you can use the same fingerings to play guitar as many of the techniques will carry over. Therefore, if you can play guitar, you can play the ukulele (and vice versa)! Keep in mind you will need to transpose between guitar and ukulele because the 2 are in a different key. For example, a G chord on the guitar will be a C chord when played in the same fret position on the ukulele.

Soprano, Concert and Tenor Size Comparisons

The soprano ukulele is also known as the “standard” size as it is based on the traditional size and design. (The ukulele was derived from the machete and cavaquinho, similar instruments brought to Hawaii by Portugese immigrants in 1879.) Soprano is the most common size due to its less expensive pricing, portability, and application as an accompaniment instrument, requiring most use in the 1st position. It usually has 12 frets and just under a 2 octave range.

In the 1920’s, Big Band was in full swing. In order to compete with the volume and sound of these instruments, the larger-bodied Concert and Tenor ukulele models were introduced. (Banjo ukuleles were also introduced at this time, which are even louder but sound more like a banjo due to their similar construction.) The larger resonator chamber produces more volume and a fuller sound in the middle and lower tonal ranges. In addition to increased volume, the Concert and Tenor models have more frets (usually 15-20) and space on the fretboard, allowing more room for fingers when making advanced chords. As a result, the more common Soprano may appear to sound higher pitched or “plinky” than the larger sizes, whereas the Tenor may sound more like a guitar – even with the same tuning. The Concert size produces a tone somewhere in-between.

The Tenor size is preferred among many stage performers and instrumentalists as it typically has the most space between frets, the highest number of playable notes and the fullest dynamic range.

The Concert size is a good compromise between the two as it blends the physical and tonal characteristics of the Soprano and Tenor models. It has more frets like the Tenor but still retainsthe signature sound of the Soprano – albeit with a touch more volume and tone. Some players will like this size for its good mix of the other two sizes’ traits and if their fingers feel most comfortable on this in-between sized fretboard.

Choosing the Right Size Ukulele

Although you could use any size ukulele, Soprano is a great choice due to its lower cost and smaller size, making it easier to store. Plus, most students will not play beyond the Soprano’s 12th fret.

Selecting the right size ukulele for yourself is mostly a personal preference – there really is not a “wrong” choice. You will want to choose one not really based size, but on the following criteria:

Looks: You will want to pick one that appeals to your senses. Most players go for a model that reflects their personality. You are going to be the one seeing this ukulele; will it inspire you to play? Will you be dabbling in ukulele as a novelty or as a serious instrument? Are you looking for a ukulele that will be on display? Ukuleles make great conversation pieces so make it fun!

Tone: Instruments can vary quite a bit in sound and volume. You may want to play, listen to sound samples, and/or read reviews on models. Aquila Nylgut strings are the standard in the industry on most production models and can really bring out the best tone in your ukulele.

Budget: Some ukuleles can be considerably more expensive if they are crafted of solid woods versus laminate woods. However, each model may sound different and not necessarily better with solid wood.

You can have a great tone with a laminate body that will feature the aesthetics of a solid body without the price. With a laminate body, manufacturers can get a thinner top than a solid wood, which can vibrate more and increase sound, have a veneer finish to feature the beauty of wood grain, and have better durability as they are less sensitive to humidity and temperature.

Solid wood models are more expensive because of the materials used but will improve in sound over time. They also require more care and should be humidified. Larger ukuleles cost incrementally more as they require more material.

For beginners, the most common choice will be the soprano size because of its price. You may consider a larger or more expensive model for more versatility and to be able to “grow into it.” With this knowledge, you can consider these factors just like Goldilocks did in the classic fairy tale “Goldilocks & the Three Bears.” You should choose the one you like based on how it appeals to you and your budget!

This article can be downloaded here.

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Tags: Sam Marchuk, Ukulele, Ukulele Size, Ukulele Comparison, Ukulele Tuning, Choose Size, Re-Entrant Tuning, Linear Tuning, Low G vs. High G, Ukulele vs. Guitar Tuning, How to Choose a Ukulele.
Categories: Guitars & Folk, Music Education
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