Learning to play the guitar might not be that simple as it takes a lot of time and effort, especially if you’re an adult. Nonetheless, a great alternative comes with the ukuleles, which are sometimes referred to as the “mini Hawaiian guitars“. The best thing about ukuleles is that both experienced and inexperienced musicians can put them to good use and have a lot of fun.
Here, we will be taking a closer look at this fine instrument by exploring its features and history in hope of encouraging you to get into ukuleles.
- 1 History
- 2 How Is It Different Compared to Regular Guitars
- 3 Basic Ukulele Info
- 4 Top 10 Mini Hawaiian Guitars on the Market
- 5 Conclusion
Ukuleles are traditional Hawaiian instruments. Their name can be roughly translated to English as “jumping flea” with some legends claiming that this was the nickname of one of King Kalākaua’s military officers, Edward William Purvis. It’s believed that they were developed during the 1880s and that they’re inspired by some Portuguese guitar-like mini instruments. King Kalākaua is often credited for increasing ukulele’s popularity during that part of the 19th century, eventually becoming an important part of Hawaiian culture.
The instrument saw a steady rise in popularity, spreading into the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Japan. However, ukuleles became widely popular during the 1990s and the 2000s. This was mostly due to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and his interpretations of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”.
These days, ukulele is quite popular among absolute beginners, mostly because it’s really easy to play and makes a great way to start if you want to become a guitarist. There have been some examples when it was referred to as “mini Hawaiian guitar“, although Ukulele is the proper term.
How Is It Different Compared to Regular Guitars
Although ukulele resembles the guitar, there are some important traits that different these two instruments. The most obvious one is the size, and even the largest versions of ukulele are substantially smaller, with pretty short scale lengths. Next up, ukuleles have four strings. There are also versions with more strings, although these are organized in choruses.
The range that they cover is also different. The most common type of ukulele (which is explained in more details below), is the soprano, which is usually tuned to G-C-E-A, with the bottom string being a high G one. This particular kind of tuning is very useful for playing simple major and minor chords.
Basic Ukulele Info
Three Main Types of Ukulele
While we can easily say that ukuleles are pretty simple, there are three main types of this fine instrument. Depending on the size, tone, and tuning, we have soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles.
The soprano is considered to be a “standard” one, featuring a scale length of 13 inches and a tuning that goes G4, C4, E4, and A4. As you can see, the bottom 4th string is higher than the 2nd and 3rd strings, making the tuning method similar to the Nashville tuning on a regular guitar. Other than that, soprano ukuleles sound very bright and come with 12 to 15 frets.
Next up, we have concert ukuleles that come with a 15-inch scale length, a bit larger body, and thus a louder output and a slightly “darker” sound. The tuning can be the same as with the soprano ukulele, although you can also tune it a bit lower, or can even use a bottom G3 string instead of a G4 one. These also come with 15 to 20 frets.
Tenor ukuleles are noticeably less bright compared to soprano and concert ones. Aside from a larger body, the scale length is 17 inches, making the fret spacing wider. Although they can have the same tuning as soprano ukuleles, tenors often implement a bottom G3 string, or can even be tuned to D4, G3, B3, and E4.
The fourth type is the baritone ukulele, which is not as common compared to the three basic ones. These are significantly larger than standard ones, bearing a scale length of 19 inches and a total of 19 frets. Baritones not only sound louder and fuller, but also bear a lower tuning that goes D3, G3, B3, and E4.
Other Variations and Special Features
Other than body type and size, there are other features that can be added to ukuleles. For instance, today we even have acoustic-electric versions with piezo pickups and internal active preamps. This means that you can plug them into a PA system or an acoustic guitar amp.
What’s more, there are 6-string and even 8-string ukuleles, although these are far less common. They usually feature some main build traits of either tenor or baritone ukes. However, these aren’t tuned like the guitar, but rather come with string choruses, with either some or all of the strings doubled.
Materials and Different Build Methods
Just like with guitars, ukuleles come with bodies, necks, and fretboards made out of different tonewoods. Standard materials for ukuleles include koa, spruce, mahogany, redwood, cedar, maple, and rosewood. Being a traditionally Hawaiian instrument, in the old days, ukulele bodies were made entirely out of koa wood. While using the same material for the whole body lasted even well into the commercial production, later practices involved combining two types of wood, one for the top and the other for the instrument’s back and sides (just like with acoustic guitars). The usual configuration involves softer tops and harder back and sides. For instance, spruce is a common top, while mahogany, maple, or rosewood are used for the back and sides.
Types of Strings
While the ukulele is mostly a nylon-stringed instrument, there are some steel-string versions. Of course, these are not as common and are somewhat specific in their use. Such a configuration is not a standard.
Top 10 Mini Hawaiian Guitars on the Market
Kala MK-TE Makala Tenor Ukulele
To start things off, we have one pretty simple, yet effective, tenor ukulele by Kala. Well-known for their awesome beginner and intermediate ukuleles, Makala Tenor, or MK-TE, is no exception to this rule. It’s an entry-level instrument, although it comes with some unexpectedly awesome features.
Firstly, we can notice its vintage-oriented looks. Additionally, the entire body is made out of mahogany, giving it a pretty warm and rich sound. Then we also have a mahogany neck fitted with a rosewood fingerboard, carrying 18 frets. Its scale length measures just below 17 inches, putting it into the classic tenor category.
But what really puts it to a whole new level is the inclusion of a piezo pickup and a preamp, the PS-900 system. This makes it a great choice for beginners or intermediate players who feel like learning about live performances and studio recording processes straight away. What’s more, the price is quite affordable considering its qualities.
Islander MT-4 EQ Ukulele
Up next, we’d like to take a closer look at a somewhat similar instrument. Made by Islander, the company grew its popularity thanks to the MT-4 EQ model. Once again, we have mahogany as the main material, used for the body top, the sides, the back, as well as the instrument’s neck. And yes, just like with the previous one, here we also have a rosewood fretboard. However, it offers 19 frets, expanding the range for one semitone on all strings. What’s more, it can even come in handy as a lead instrument in some cases. The tone is warm, but it’s just slightly brighter compared to the previously mentioned Makala Tenor.
And, as its designated model name suggests, we also have an active preamp with a piezo pickup, making it possible to go straight into a mixer without any need for microphones or other devices. It’s an expensive one, but it’s most certainly worth the price. Islander MT-4 EQ can be a great choice for advanced players who like warmer tones.
Oscar Schmidt OU500C Ukulele
Oscar Schmidt is one of the most underrated instruments manufacturing brands. Formed way back in the 19th century, it’s currently a part of U.S. Music Corporation, which is itself a subsidiary of Jam Industries. In their vast arsenal of instruments, we can also find some pretty great ukuleles. The one that stood out to us is the OU500C model, which is a concert-size ukulele.
The very first thing that we can notice is its enhanced ergonomic design. There’s a modest, but very useful, cutaway on the body, right where it meets the neck. Additionally, there’s also an indent on the bass side of the body, making it more accessible and comfortable for the picking hand.
The body is made of a spruce top, while the back and sides pay tribute to the old Hawaiian ukuleles as they are made out of koa. Its neck is a mahogany one and has a rosewood fingerboard with 19 frets and dot inlays, just like the ones you can find on a regular 6-string guitar.
Cordoba 20SM Ukulele
We have a special treat for those who love “standard” soprano ukuleles. Made by Cordoba, the 20SM model comes with an all-mahogany body, which brings quite a warm tone. Nonetheless, it still sounds pretty defined and you can make out each note. Although a popularly “dark”-sounding material, when combined with the instrument’s smaller size, things are balanced out throughout the audible spectrum. Of course, the neck is also made out of mahogany, while the fingerboard is out of composite materials.
It comes with 16 frets, which might be a downside to some. However, considering all of its qualities and a relatively low price level, you just can’t go wrong with this one. While mostly focused on beginners, this instrument actually feels pretty great for both picking and fretting hands. Therefore, pretty much any musician can take this instrument and just jam on it, all while not spending a ridiculous amount.
KLOS Deluxe Tenor Ukulele
KLOS is a relatively new company on the market. But what makes them really special is that they make their instruments out of composite materials. Yes, it’s a somewhat bold and, honestly, a controversial move to not make a wooden guitar or a ukulele. However, all of their stuff sounds pretty great. And not only that – their instruments are very durable and resistant to outside factors. As far as ukuleles go, their Deluxe Tenor model marks a revolution of stringed instruments.
But while the body is made entirely out of carbon fiber, it comes with a wooden neck and a wooden fretboard. But due to having a carbon body, the instrument is incredibly light. Not to mention that you can literally dip the body in water and it won’t be damaged. However, you shouldn’t ever do that because it comes with an active preamp and an accompanying piezo pickup.
Yeah, the instrument is significantly more expensive compared to other average ukuleles. But you should also bear in mind that this is not your average ukulele either. Carbon fiber body might cause some controversies, but KLOS Deluxe Tenor Ukulele just sounds, plays, and feels awesome.
Fender Billie Eilish Signature Acoustic-Electric Ukulele
The reaction that young and talented Billie Eilish caused among music fans of all genres is unprecedented. With her diverse music tastes and background, it was only a matter of time until we’d see a signature ukulele bearing her name. So she teamed up with Fender for her special concert-size ukulele.
And just like her music, this instrument’s aesthetics immediately catch your attention. Aside from a black satin finish, the body has Billie’s recognizable “Blosh” logos all over its front side, which is also accompanied by an eye-catching binding. Meanwhile, the headstock not only bears the classic Fender logo, but it bears the classic old school design that we can see on Telecasters.
The body is made out of sapele wood, while the neck is made out of nato wood. Meanwhile, we have a walnut fingerboard with white binding, which is a pretty unexpected addition to a ukulele. And as if all of this wasn’t enough, it’s even equipped with Fishman’s Kula preamp and pickup system.
MrMai MC-60 Ukulele
Now going to some relatively higher-priced ukuleles, MrMai really outdid themselves with the MC-60 model. This is another concert ukulele, bearing a total length of 23 inches. But what really makes it stand out is the fact that the body is made entirely out of koa wood, just like those old school classic ukuleles. Meanwhile, it has an okoume neck with an ebony fingerboard, as well as an ebony bridge.
While the build quality and tone are just incredible, we can’t help but be mesmerized by the model’s appearance. Its gloss natural finish goes perfectly with the abalone binding. The MC-60 model is also accompanied by a very useful deep cutaway that allows for very easy access to higher frets. Things are finalized by its amazing colorful leaf-shaped inlays on the fretboard.
If you’re an experienced player who’d also like to have some outstanding and unique aesthetic features on their instrument, this is what you’ll want to check out.
Fender Fullerton Telecaster Ukulele
Knowing how great Fender is at designing and making their instruments, we can’t help but include yet another one of their ukuleles. But this time around, we have a pretty-looking Telecaster uke, bearing all of the classic aesthetic features that you’d find on the company’s classic guitar. The body has the classic stylish single-cutaway shape, while the headstock also resembles the legendary electric guitar model. There’s even a classic pickguard that imitates the kind that you see on Telecasters.
Being a concert-sized ukulele, it features a scale length that’s slightly longer than 15 inches. Its body is made entirely out of mahogany. Typically of Fender guitars, the neck is made out of maple, although it bears a walnut fretboard. This is all accompanied by a walnut bridge, synthetic bone saddle, and sealed nickel tuning machines.
Gretsch G9100-L Ukulele
Gretsch never ceases to amaze us with their unusual design practices and innovative features. Knowing how well they make their electric guitars, we had no doubts that their G9100-L ukulele would be great. Now, although technically a soprano ukulele with a classic soprano tone and tuning, the instrument actually comes with a longer neck. Although it bears a scale length of a concert ukulele (15 inches), the instrument sounds just like any other soprano model out there.
Aside from a body made entirely out of mahogany, the same material is also used for its neck. The fretboard and the bridge are the only two wooden components that are made out of ovangkol wood. We can also find a total of 16 frets and a “U” neck profile that feels pretty great. But despite all of its qualities, the price level is still fairly reasonable, making it one of the best possible purchases for ukulele lovers of all skill levels and genre preferences.
Ukuleles or mini Hawaiian guitars are easily one of the most engaging and fun instruments to play. You have just four strings and tunings are usually conceived in such a way to allow you to play major and minor chords much easier. While this is most certainly a great thing for beginners, even professional guitar players, or other musicians, sometimes like to play around with ukuleles since they’re so accessible. Additionally, their relatively low prices make them even more attractive.
Therefore, ukuleles are always welcome additions to your constantly growing collection of instruments. Whether it’s just for fun, or perhaps a new way to invigorate your music (both in the studio and on stage), any of the examples presented above will come in handy for your needs. After that, all there’s left to do is make magic with your music!