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Ukulele 101

OK, so you've decided to look into this ukulele thing a bit further. How do you know where to start? Well, the good news is that you can't really go wrong with any ukulele you get at Lamorinda Music - they are all good instruments that carry a tune and will give you years of enjoyment. That being said, we do carry a big selection and it can be a bit overwhelming for someone just starting out. We are more than happy to help you sort it all out in the store, but here is a bit of a primer on what to look for...

Size

The first thing you might notice is that all ukes don't look the same - they come in different sizes. (They also can have different number of strings, but all the ukes at Lamorinda Music have 4 strings each, so we can leave that alone for now). While the soprano size is the most popular, each size has its pros and cons. We carry five different sizes of ukuleles:

  • Soprano – (also known as "standard" in Hawaii) This is the the most popular size of ukulele. The soprano is the ukulele that is most easily recognized because the size is very compact (20-21" long with a 13" fretboard) and the tone is bright and sweet. It is extremely light and portable and is the official “go anywhere” instrument. And all things considered it is usually priced the cheapest (so if you ding it up you can simply get another!)The soprano ukulele is the one often given to beginners who are interested in learning the ukulele.
  • Concert – This one is also referred to as the alto ukulele. It is slightly larger than the soprano model (24" long) and it has 15" fretboard instead of the 13" on the soprano. It has a fuller, more rounded tone than a soprano ukulele. The frets (where you put your fingers to make different chords or notes) are spaced slightly further apart on a Concert Uke and can be easier for some people to play, especially on chords where you need to put a lot of fingers close together.
  • Tenor – Slightly larger than the concert size (27" long with a 17" fretboard), the tenor typically has greater volume than smaller ukulele sizes, making it a very good instrument size for most performing soloists. Tenor ukuleles usually have 15 or more frets and their larger size allows for instrument makers to incorporate cutaway designs to make it easer for players to reach the higher frets. It also has an fuller tone than the concert ukulele. It comes in 4 or 6-string types. You can even get an 8-string type of ukulele as a tenor.
  • Baritone – This is the typically the largest of the ukuleles and closely resembles a mini-guitar (30" long with a 19" fretboard.) And unlike the other smaller size ukes which are tuned G-C-E-A ("my dog has fleas" - with the "C" as the lowest note,) the Baritone is typically tuned like a guitar with the four strings matching the bottom four strings on a guitar (D-G-B-E) It has a very rich tone and is an excellent choice for guitar players looking to cross-over.
  • Bass - We also carry a "bass" ukulele made by Kala Ukuleles. It is called a "U-Bass". It is basically the same size as a baritone uke and it produces the same pitches as a standard bass instrument and is tuned in traditional bass tuning, EADG. Available in fretted and fretless models, the U-BASS is strung with proprietary polyurethane strings that incorporate a great bass feel, with balanced tension; they are a true pleasure to play. This is generally not for new ukulele players, but it really is great for bass players wanting a true "travel" instrument.

Shape

Ukueles can come in a variety of shapes (just wait until we get some Flea and Fluke ukuleles in the store - you will then see some very innovative shapes) but there are just a couple of standard shapes you need to care about. The most common is the traditional standard guitar shape (sometimes called the figure 8), which can be found in all ukuele sizes. There is a variation called a cutaway (on Tenor size and above, generally) where the body is “cut-away” near the fingerboard to allow better access to the frets. Also popular, especially in the soprano size, is the pineapple shape, which bows out at the middle instead of curving in on the standard shape. There is no right or wrong shape - it is strictly up to the player what is more comfortable.

Strings

All our ukueles come with nylon strings that sound true and are easy to play (you will especially appreciate it if you have suffered through the callouses you get when playing a steel string guitar) All our ukueles, except the least expensive models, come with white Aquilla-brand strings. These are high quality well-known strings that will have you playing in comfort for a long time. Unlike guitar strings, you likely won't have to change your ukulele strings frequently at all if you are just a recreational player. The strings don't rust and after a short break-in period stay pretty much in tune.

Wood

Not surprisingly, the main material in most ukuleles is the wood on the body, fretboard, and head. Different kinds of wood can affect the sound quality of the ukulele and the appearance and (not surprisingly) has the most direct effect on the price of the uke. There is no "right" or "wrong" wood for a ukulele - they create different sounds and appeal to different players. Generally speaking, however, Mohagany and Spruce tend to be less expensive while Hawaiian Koa, Spalted Maple, and Acacia tend to be more expensive. Koa is a hardwood native to Hawaii and is held in high esteem there. It is beautiful and produces a sweet sound. Mahogany produces a nice warm sound and is probably the best "value" for a ukulele, but the appearance and sounds of some of the more exotic woods are truly amazing.

Getting Started

OK, so you've picked out the Uke of your dreams (or maybe just a bargain one to learn on for now.) What else do you need? Not much really. The Ukulele, besides being a fun and remarkably portable instrument, is very easy on the wallet. To have a complete package you generally need just a few things:

  1. A ukulele (well, that is obvious)
  2. A case for your uke. Most of the ukes we sell come with a gig bag. That may be all you need, but you want to be sure it has enough padding to handle normal wear and tear. We carry a full line of ukulele bags in all sizes - most for less than $25.
  3. A tuner - this is pretty critical, actually. The charm of the ukulele can fade pretty quickly if it is out of tune. This can be as simple as a pitch pipe (if you feel comfortable tuning by ear) or a chromatic tuner you may already have for another instrument. If you don't already have one, we suggest getting a dedicated ukulele tuner, like the Kala KC02 Black clip-on tuner. It is super simple and makes tuning your uke even a little fun.
  4. A lesson book - pretty important if you are starting out. We have a couple of learning to play books (with CD's) that can get you going right away
  5. Ukulele music - this is optional, strictly speaking, if you have a lesson book since it will have some beginning songs. But you want to play more than just a few songs, right? We carry songbooks featuring ukulele music for the Beatles, Elvis, Beach Boys, etc. We also have a whole line of "Jumpin' Jim" ukulele books that are loaded with songs that fit all experience levels.

That is it - enjoy!

Ukulele Popularity - a brief history

The ukulele has had varying degrees of popularity over the last 100 years or so and is currently experiencing an amazing renaissance.

Pre-World War II

The ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience during the Panama Pacific International Exposition, held for most of 1915 in San Francisco. The ukulele soon became an icon of the Jazz Age. Highly portable and relatively inexpensive, it also proved popular with amateur players throughout the 1920s.

Post-World War II

From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, plastics manufacturer Mario Maccaferri turned out about 9 million inexpensive ukuleles. Much of the instrument's popularity was cultivated via The Arthur Godfrey Show on television. Singer-musician Tiny Tim became closely associated with the instrument after playing it on his 1968 hit "Tiptoe Through the Tulips". Between Tiny Tim's antics and the advent of the electic guitar-driven rock & roll, the ukulele became less relevant to mainstream music and the public at large.

Post-1990 Revival

After the 1960s, the ukulele declined in popularity until the late 1990s, when interest in the instrument reappeared. During the 1990s, new manufacturers began producing ukuleles and a new generation of musicians took up the instrument. Some more recent ukulele highlights in popular culture include:

  • Former Beatle, George Harrison, and former keyboardist of The Cars, Greg Hawkes, became enthusiastic players.
  • Israel Kamakawiwo'ole also helped popularise the instrument, in particular due to his 1993 ukulele medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World", used in several films, television programs, and commercials. The song reached #12 on Billboard's Hot Digital Tracks chart the week of January 31, 2004.
  • The ukulele is prominent in Train's "Hey Soul Sister" and Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours"
  • Hawai'i-born Jake Shimabukuro ('Hendrix of ukulele') has also become a very popular ukulele performer in recent years, having played the instrument since the age of 4. Check out the following YouTube video of Jake playing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Over 7 million views and going strong. The Contra Costa Times did an article about him here. (If you like this one, you can see him doing Michael Jackson's "Thriller".)


Yet More Info

Interested in taking lessons? We have a great ukulele teacher, Gary Peare in residence. Come by and let us show you how fun the ukulele can be! He will have you going from novice to playing real songs in just an hour or two. Can any other musical instrument make that claim? No! Click here for more details.

For further fun reading, check out Gary's Ukulele blog, Ukulelia here.



Gary Peare teaching one of his very popular ukulele classes

 

 

 


For the latest on all things Ukulele in the store, check out our main Ukulele Page.

For some examples of the ukuele's we carry (though more are arriving each day), check out our Ukulele Inventory page.

 


Listen to Jake Shimabukuro discuss his latest album "Peace, Love, Ukulele" recently on NPR's Weekend Edition

 

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