Ukuleles are one of the most unique and fun stringed instruments you can play. These mini-guitars of sorts offer a rich, lively sound that often reminds one of the shores and beaches of Hawaii, where the uke rose to prominence. They are also great for those who are just learning how to play a stringed instrument.
There’s certainly no shortage of ukuleles out there, whether it’s the cheap souvenir models found in gift shops all around Hawaii, or the higher-quality, more professional ukes that musicians use for performances and recording. So what are the best beginner ukuleles?
The truth is, the entry-level ukulele market is a bit oversaturated, so it can be hard when trying to shop for your first one. Fortunately, we’re here to make things a little easier on you.
Below are our picks for the best beginner ukuleles available in 2018. We were sure to keep things around $100 or under, appealing to a wide range of budgets within. After reading this guide, you should be in a much better position to make the best purchase for your needs.
But first, let’s go over the history of the ukulele, and also some key characteristics you should be aware of before buying. (Or, you can just skip ahead to our top picks.)
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Best Ukulele On The Market
At its most simplest definition, a ukulele is a small, stringed instrument that is usually associated with different forms of Hawaiian music. It is a member of the guitar or lute family of instruments, and has several similarities with standard guitars, such as its shape, construction, and overall concept.
A conventional ukulele has four strings, although it is fairly common to see some use six or even eight strings with two-string courses. Its overt simplicity and small size makes it relatively easy to pick up and learn, regardless of age and skillset.
The ukulele’s origins can actually be traced back to the Portuguese. It got its start in the late 19th century as a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument, which was first introduced to Hawaiian people by Portuguese immigrants that had arrived after leaving from Madeira and the Azores.
Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are widely credited as the first actual ukulele makers.
In fact, two weeks after they arrived on the island via the SS Ravenscrag in late August 1879, the a local newspaper stated that the "Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts."
One of the biggest early fans and supporters of the instrument was King Kalākaua, who is seen as the major factor behind the spreading of its popularity. King Kalākaua loved music and the arts, which he showed by frequently incorporating it into performances at his royal gatherings.
As for the actual name, the origins are not as well-documented. Many attribute the name to a small court jester named Edward Purvis, who often jumped around during his performance that usually involved playing the instrument.
As the story goes, a delighted King Kalākaua gave him the nickname "uku-lele," which roughly translates to "jumping flea." But there is another story some swear by: Queen Lili'uokalani gave the instrument the name by using "uku" as "the gift" and "lele" as "to come."
Regardless of the ukulele’s name origin, the queen herself was a fan, and would eventually write the song Aloha Oe, which became the island's unofficial anthem.
So how did the ukulele get popular in the U.S? Well, it didn’t take long for it to make its way to the states after a few decades in Hawaii.
In 1915, the city of San Francisco held the Panama–Pacific International Exposition from the spring until the fall, helping introduce these cultures to American audiences.
Within the festival, the Hawaiian Pavilion featured a popular guitar and ukulele ensemble from Hawaii called George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet. Noted ukulele maker and player Jonah Kumalae was featured as well.
The sound instantly caught on, and the popularity of the ensemble ended up starting a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs from a loose group in the area known as the Tin Pan Alley songwriters.
The ensemble was also later responsible for introducing both the lap steel guitar and the ukulele into the mainland part of the U.S., where it was lauded by popular performers such as Roy Smeck and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards.
Smeck appeared at the Rivoli Theater in New York City on April 15, 1923, playing the ukulele in a short film called Stringed Harmony, a short film made in the DeForest Phonofilmsound-on-film process. Later, on August 6, 1926, Smeck appeared playing the ukulele in a short film His Pastimes.
These two events were widely credited with spreading the instrument’s popularity from the west to the east coast, and everywhere in between.
During this time, the Jazz Age was in full swing, and the ukulele soon became a favorite among many artists that found ways to incorporate it.
As with a guitar, beginning ukulele skills were easy to pick up, making the portable, often inexpensive instrument popular with amateur players all throughout the 1920s. This was evidenced by the widespread introduction of uke chord tablature into the published sheet music for a lot of the most popular songs during that era.
A number of U.S.-based instrument manufacturers such as Regal, Harmony, and Martin added the ukulele to their production lines to benefit from the burgeoning demand.
Around this time, the ukulele was also making it’s way into some forms of folk and early country music as a parallel to the mandolin, which was very popular at this time. It was frequently played by Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest V. Stoneman, and even some string bands at the time.
Ukuleles remained popular from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. Mario Maccaferri, a plastics manufacturer, ended up producing about 9 million inexpensive ukuleles, and the instrument continued appearing on many jazz songs throughout the next few decades.
A baritone version of the ukulele was popularized thanks to The Arthur Godfrey Show on television. Singer-musician Tiny Tim eventually became associated with the instrument after playing it on his well-known 1968 hit "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."
Following the 1960s, the ukulele suffered a decline in overall popularity, which lasted until the late 1990s. Manufacturers began putting out ukuleles en masse again, and an entirely new generation started to play it,
Part of this can be attributed to all-time best selling Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, thanks to his 1993 reggae-rhythmed medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World," which found its way into many different films, television programs, and commercials. The song had a resurgence in 2004, reaching no. 12 on Billboard's Hot Digital Tracks.
The rise of YouTube had a large influence on the resurgent popularity of the ukulele as well. In fact, one of the first videos to go viral was Jake Shimabukuro's ukulele rendition of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on YouTube, eventually garnering over 15 million views by 2016.
The ukulele made its way to Japan in 1929 after Hawaiian-born Yukihiko Haida returned to the country, bringing his ukulele with him. Haida and his brother Katsuhiko formed the Moana Glee Club, and rose to popularity thanks to the growing enthusiasm towards Western music, mainly Hawaiian and jazz.
Western music was banned during World War II due to it being Western, but fans and players kept it alive, and it regained its popularity after the war had ended. In 1959, Haida founded the Nihon Ukulele Association in 1959, and now Japan is considered a second home for Hawaiian musicians and professional ukulele players.
As we mentioned earlier, ukuleles are not inherently complicated. Actually,they are even less complicated than a basic acoustic guitar, if only for the smaller size and less strings.
Still, it’s best to know about all the various characteristics and aspects that go into a ukulele, so that you end up with one that is right for you after completing the shopping process.
So, these factors below show be address be you prior to purchasing. This can also help expedite the shopping process by limiting how many you even consider in the first place.
Ukuleles can come in a variety of materials, but the most common you’ll find is mahogany and Koa. You’ll find mahogany used with a wide range of ukes, from beginner's models to some of the more expensive ones.
Koa is a beloved material choice among professional players, but it can be expensive. It produces a very balanced tone that is deal for ukuleles, but mahogany is quite capable of the same when used correctly.
Composite materials are generally reserved for cheaper ukuleles, and often exists as a combination of plastic and laminate wood.
The material choice isn’t always the full story, however. You can have a good wood choice, but it’s also relevant in regards to how it was shaped for the instrument.
Solid wood tops are crafted from one piece of wood, while laminate woods are made from several different layers fused together. Laminate woods are more resistant to damage such as warping, but the layers result in a diminished amount of tone and projection.
Your actual playing ability is very relevant to the ukulele you should choose. If you’re just starting out, you’ll want to stick with traditional four-string models that are light and easier to play.
Sopranos are the smallest (more on that in a moment,) and may actually be hard for those with bigger hands when just starting out. The “action” of the strings are different for each ukulele as well.
The action refers to how high the strings sit off the fretboard. When they are highers, they need to be pressed down harder to make contact with the fretboard when playing a note or chord. Low action strings are lower, and don’t require as much force.
If you are a beginner, low action is the way to go, as most entry-level players don’t have the hand strength or muscle memory to handle high actions strings yet, which can make the player frustrated and less prone to continuing the learning process.
Fortunately, most beginner’s ukuleles are low action, and still offer enough quality that you can continue using them long after you’ve learned how to play. You’ll find some of those listed below.
With ukuleles, the size and type are one in the same, as the size determines the type. Ukuleles can be grouped into four main types: soprano, concert, baritone, and tenor.
Sopranos are common with beginner’s ukuleles, as they are smaller and have less frets to play. Concert ukes are a step up, and you can find many of these among beginner’s ukes as well. Tenor and baritone ukuleles are more common with professional players who need the expanded range for performances and/or recording.
An aspiring player can learn on any size, but soprano and concert are recommended.
There are a number of other accessories one can use with their ukuleles to both improve its performance, or make it more convenient.
Tuners are an essential item that will help you get your strings back in tune quicker. We’ve gone over that here. (link to tuning blog post)
Carrying cases will let you better protect your ukulele when traveling with it, and also keep it free of dust when not in use. Both hard and soft cases are available, it’s really just up to you.
Electric pickups can be used with acoustic ukuleles, but it’s better to just get a model that already has the pickups pre-installed.
We compiled a list of the best ukuleles on the market:
The Kala KA-15S is well known and beloved for a reason. This beautiful mahogany soprano ukulele is the best value on the market in regards to beginner ukes, but that doesn’t mean it looks or plays like a beginner’s model.
The Kala KA-15S is very much intended for those who are starting out, but don’t want something on the bottom level. A beginner can grow with it, and experienced players can appreciate the tone and playing action of the Kala KA-15S, making it an all-around great buy for any skill level.
This 21” uke is fashioned from mahogany, and has a natural look that includes the texture from the wood grain. A thin matte finish helps to emphasize the more bare appearance, and also gives the Kala KA-15S a little more volume and clarity as well.
A rosewood fretboard is combined with Nubone nuts that help the strings resonate better, while keeping the low as well. The action on the strings is one of the lowest you’ll find, which is actually great for those who are first learning how to play, as high action strings can be a bit discouraging at times.
Geared tuning knobs make the tuning process easier, while helping to hold the tuning better as well. The gearing prevents slipping, while offering precision with the tuning. A stark contrast from the more flimsy-feeling tuning knobs on lesser models.
As for the strings, the Kala KA-15S comes equipped with Aquila Nylguts, which are well revered among ukulele players, and give the uke a high-end feel.
To sum up the Kala KA-15S, it’s clearly designed to be very accessible and affordable for new players, while offering enough quality that one can play it for years without feeling like they are dealing with some low, entry-level uke that feels more like a novelty.
For under $60, there is simply no other ukulele that rivals the Kala KA-15S’s quality and playability, both for beginners and advanced players.
Cordoba Guitars’ 15CM concert ukulele was the result of the company’s commitment to creating an authentic ukulele that channeled the design and inspiration of the braguinha, which is what the ukulele came from. The uke itself was designed by Pepe Romero Jr, a noted guitar designer.
The 15CM aims to be an entry-level concert ukulele, but also offers enough quality and playability to appeal to seasoned players who want a cheaper option when adding a concert uke to their lineup. Its crossover appeal is not to be understated: this is one serious ukulele.
As you probably guessed, Córdoba focused on the quality of the materials and the action on the neck and strings above all else. Using strategic design and implementation of ideal materials, the 15CM has a very clear tone that projects without much effort.
The body is crafted from quartersawn mahogany top, back and sides for maximum tonality, with an Ivoroid binding for a very classic and elegant look that looks great on stage. The 15CM’s hand-inlayed abalone rosette is normally only found on more expensive ukes, making it a welcome addition as well.
The uke’s satin matte finish gives it a very natural appearance, while not hindering the tone and resonance from the body. The action on the strings is about in the middle, not too high or low. As for the strings themselves, the 15CM comes with Aquila Nylgut 7U’s, which have extended durability and a superior sound.
Overall, this is about as good as it gets for an entry into concert-sized ukuleles. The design and craftsmanship is what truly sets this uke apart, giving it a professional appearance, astounding projection, and a noticeably lush, clear tone that is ideal for live settings -- all for around $100.
Oscar Schmidt is a division of Washburn Guitars, and their OU2 concert ukulele is yet another great example of a beginner’s product that has an appeal for both new learners and experienced uke players who want an affordable concert ukulele that is viable for performance use.
The OU2 doesn’t offer anything revolutionary or groundbreaking, but it does offer a great sound and smooth, effortless playability that anyone can appreciate. Oh, and it looks good too.
The OU2’s natural mahogany body stands out from the moment you see it. The wood grain and texture has been brought to life with a thin satin finish that only emphasizes the beautiful tone and quality of the wood. An ivory body binding gives it a classic look that all players will find appealing.
An ebony headstock and bridge helps to round out the uke’s look, which rests on top of a bound mahogany neck behind it. Smooth fret ends make the OU2 easy to play, accommodating fast sliding and gripping up and down the neck.
Precision low-action string placement makes it easy to press down without needing a ton of hand strength. This is crucial for new players who may otherwise get discouraged with the difficulty found on high-action strings with other models.
Chrome, geared tuners offer the same precision and stability you’d find on higher-end guitars and ukes, allowing you to hone in on the perfect pitch, while trusting the tuners to keep the strings in tune.
As we said, the Oscar Schmidt isn’t flashy, but for under $60, it’s a fantastic choice or your first foray into concert-sized ukes. No, it’s not going to be equal to the products out there that are twice it’s price, but the resonant tone and ease of playability are as good as you’ll find in this price range. We highly recommend it.
The Kala KA-C is another uke in their long line of mahogany models, and this one is concert-sized, giving it more projection and a fuller sound, while still being great for beginners. If you have bigger hands, or are just looking for a step up in terms of performance, this concert ukulele is an ideal choice.
Kala doesn't do anything fancy with the KA-C, but instead relies on getting all the small details right to ensure smooth playability and response, along with a rich, lush, warm tone that is a result of the materials and design.
As the name suggests, the body is made of mahogany, and uses a traditional white binding or a classic look. The top of the body is minimal, and does not have any marking or details, keeping things simple and classy.
Rosewood is used for the fingerboard and bridge that offers a 14.875" scale length, and is reinforced with 18 silver nickel frets and chrome die-cast sealed geared tuners. The tuners really help lock the string in, and prevent detuning from stretching and vibrations.
Like most quality beginner ukuleles, the KA-C comes with Aquila Nylgut strings, so you won’t have to worry about upgrading as soon as you get it. After a week or so of playing, the strings should be suitably stretched and warmed up enough to where they easily retain their tuning.
Overall, the KA-C is an upgrade from lower-tier ukes. It doesn’t offer anything flashy, but its design and workmanship help to set it apart, and offer a rich, full sound. This is a great intro into concert ukuleles, or for someone who simply wants something a little bigger.
For those looking for a very affordable entry-level ukulele that also offers a fun look, Makala’s Dolphin series is a great place to start looking. This isn’t on the level of the Kala KA-15S, but it still offers an incredible value, great playability, and a unique look.
The MK-SD is not ashamed of being a lower-level uke, and still offers plenty of attention to detail throughout, taking only a few shortcuts to keep the price down.
The top part of the body is made from mahogany, with “composite” material making up the sides and back. The composite seems awfully similar to plastic, which does affect the tone and projection of the uke a bit.
The neck is made from mahogany as well, and the fretboard features the standard rosewood common with most ukes on this level. Newer versions of the Dolphin series are switching to walnut, however.
The action on the Dolphin MK-SD is a little higher than some may like, but this can be viewed as a blessing in disguise if you’re a beginning player, as this will help build up your finger strength a little more. Brass frets help to separate things, which is common for this level, and totally fine considering how soft uke strings are as opposed to metal.
The tuning knobs on this ukulele are nothing special, but they work just fine. Overall, the strings keep their tuning once the strings get warmed up, and the action is smooth enough. Plastic nuts aren’t ideal, but again, this is an entry-level uke for a very cheap price.
Makala’s Dolphin series is a very suitable choice for those who need an easy way into ukulele playing. The various color choices and dolphin-shaped bridge just add to the fun. For under $50, this is a great value, and even comes with a carry bag.
Lanikai’s LUTU-21S is a soprano ukulele that kind of borders on a beginner and intermediate level. It features high-quality craftsmanship and attention to details, and also boasts a very innovative tuning setup that allows it to drastically improve intonation.
This combination of quality and features makes the LUTU-21S an excellent value for anyone who is in need of a higher-end beginner’s uke, and hopes to remain using it for years after. It’s pricier than some other entry-level models, but offers noticeably better playability over other ukuleles in its class.
The LUTU-21S’ body is crafted from mahogany all the way through, and has an alluring white binding on the sides. The top of the body is very minimal, with zero detailing. This helps give it a versatile appearance, while lacking any distracting designs that risk making it look cheap or gimmicky.
The neck is made from rosewood, and the fretboard feels smooth and easy. While the LUTU-21S is indeed very well put together, its main strength resides in its tuning system.
The included die cast tuners provide improved tuning stability. The uke’s wide-spaced TunaUke nut improves intonation while mimicking the tonal response of natural bone.
The TunaUke saddle housing mounts directly to the top of the instrument, boosting overall projection. Two sets of saddles let you adjust its string height to your ideal level. Meanwhile, an 8 hole bridge allows for quicker string changes, but you do have the option for traditional classical string ties.
The combination of the LUTU-21S’s materials and craftsmanship, together with the TunaUke features is hard to beat when spending under $100. Not only is the intonation improved, but having the option to select your own string height and make compensation adjustments puts this uke on another level.
We hope you have a much better understanding of the history of the ukulele, its various types, and all the critical information you need to know before buying one. These are simple instruments, but there is plenty of variance among all the different choices out there.
While our overall favorite is the Kala KA-15S, any of the above ukuleles are a phenomenal purchase, whether you’re looking for a cheaper, smaller model, or want to try out concert-sized ukes. It’s all up to you. Regardless of what you choose, stick with it, and before long, you’ll be making beautiful music on your own ukulele for years to come.
Do you have your own personal favorite? Let us know in the comments below!