Best Ukulele Brands Review in 2017
In recent years, the ukulele has been gaining a lot of popularity. If you are on the lookout to buy one and you're getting lost in a sea of ukulele brands, this article should help you on your way. Here, we will discuss the most important characteristics of ukuleles, so you know what to think about when considering purchasing one. Also, we will give an overview of some of the best ukulele brands around for beginners. For this, we tested a concert sized model of each brand.
How to find the best ukulele for your needs
Musical instruments come with so many different features, and ukuleles are no different, that it can be very confusing what to look for when choosing one. With this article, we aim to offer you some general guidance on what you should keep in mind. This youtube video might come in handy.
Popular ukulele brands are Kala, Luna, Oscar Schmidt, Hola! Music, Epiphone, Hamano, Diamond, Trendy, and Mahalo. For this article, we tested and reviewed 5 concert ukuleles of the first ukulele brands of this list.
One of the first and most important things to consider is which size you prefer. Most ukulele brands have models in 4 sizes. The smallest and most traditional model is the soprano (20 inches or 51 cm). They make great travel instruments. They have a low action, which means that little tension is needed to fret the strings, but has the downside that strings can easily be bent out of tuning. These characteristics make sopranos very suitable for beginners and young children, but less so for players with large hands. Noteworthy is an even smaller variant of the soprano, called the sopranissimo (16 inches or 40 cm).
Slightly larger than the soprano is the concert size (23 inches or 58 cm). Usually available in the same price range but with a wider and longer neck, these are better suited for beginning players with larger hands. Concert models are slightly louder than sopranos.
Gaining in popularity are tenor ukuleles (26 inches or 66 cm). These not only have a longer neck, but also a larger body, which gives these instruments a warmer tone. Unlike its smaller and often cheaper siblings, the tenor usually has its lowest string tuned to D.
The largest ukulele size is the baritone (30 inches or 76 cm). Its larger body and lower tuning, similar to the lowest 4 strings of a guitar, gives it a deeper and darker sound, not unlike a classical guitar. Blurring the line between ukulele and guitar, the baritone might be exactly what a smaller guitar student needs or a guitar player who does not want to spend much time learning a new instrument. A downside of these larger models is that they are more difficult to travel with.
Before looking at specific ukulele brands, it might be useful to already have a notion of how much you would like to spend. Unsurprisingly, more expensive ones are usually of a higher quality, but even in the lower price range, some nice instruments can be found. Here, we will only review models of ukulele brands between 60 and 110$. An affordable price can be particularly interesting for beginning players, who might give up playing quickly or, after gaining some playing experience, decide that they prefer a different instrument, for example, a larger baritone ukulele.
Ukuleles can be constructed from a number of different wood types and this plays a huge role in the price and how the instrument will sound. Firstly, we want to make the distinction between solid and laminated wood. In the construction of the latter, cheaper wood is used and covered with more beautiful wood on the outside. The difference in sound between the two categories is neglectable. Most lower end ukuleles are made from spruce. Higher end ones are often made from mahogany, which sounds quite soft. The most expensive ukulele brands often use koa. This wood type sounds warm and has a very beautiful grain.
Since a ukulele will be used to play music, the quality of the instrument should be at the top of your head when considering a purchase. Building quality will determine how the instrument sounds, how easily it plays, and its tuning stability. Ukulele brands that have factories overseas are often of a lower quality, whereas handmade ones, which are understandably more expensive, are usually better and more consist.
Ukuleles come in a variety of different looks and this is not unimportant. You might prefer a simple looking instrument or rather fancy those ukulele brands that use bright colors or elaborate ornamental markings. After all, a beautiful instrument will be picked up more often and thus allow you to develop your musical qualities faster.
Five Best Ukulele Brands
Kala is one of the better ukulele brands for beginners. This company has a factory in China and manages to offer instruments at a reasonable price. We tested the MK-C Makala, which is a concert sized model. It sounds great and loud and has a good tuning stability. Our biggest complaint about the instrument is that the grommets at the tuning pegs were sitting too loosely, even to the point of causing an annoying buzz when playing. However, this is not necessarily a dealbreaker, since these grommets can be replaced relatively easily.
Although the strings this ukulele comes with are decent, experienced players might want to replace them with higher quality ones. This small change can really help bring out the sound quality of the instrument and increases playability.
The instrument can be bought with a bundle for a reasonable price. It includes a tuner, a polishing cloth, an instructional DVD, and a soft gig bag. I found that the zipper of the gig bag often snags. Also, the gig bag seemed slightly too small. I decided to ask Kala whether they use the same gig bags for their soprano and their concert sized ukuleles. To my disappointment, I could not find any direct contact information for the company. I also found out that it is only possible to receive 30% of the purchasing price, rather than getting a full refund when you're unhappy with the product. These are big mistakes by the Kala customer service. The instructional DVD, on the other hand, is a nice feature for beginners.
Luna is a company that makes different types of string instruments, such as guitars and ukuleles. Luna products are known for their original designs. If you value the appearance of your instrument, it is very likely that you will find a ukulele in their line that you will fall in love with. For this review, we tested the absolutely stunning laser-etched Tattoo concert model, which sits at the upper limit of our price range.
Luna's website lacks technical specifications, but eventually, we found out it is from laminated mahogany and build in China. It feels well balanced and sits comfortably in the hands. We found this ukulele to have a warm and deep sound, although relatively quiet, and to have a great playability! We did notice some very subtle fret buzz at the lowest string, but we could get around this by adjusting our playing technique. It disappeared completely by fretting with less tension. Fret buzz is unlikely to be present on all Luna ukuleles, but it might be something to keep in mind when trying them out. Also, it occurred to us that the distance between strings and fretboard was quite high. Personally, I prefer high string action but it might not be your cup of tea. In the worst case, you might even consider very carefully skimming off part of the bridge and/or nut. The Luna Tattoo was already strung with high-quality strings, so restringing was unnecessary.
Oscar Schmidt is one of those well-known ukulele brands we just had to cover in this review. We tested their OU-2 concert, made of mahogany laminate. Although this ukulele can still be considered cheap, it was almost at the upper limit of our price range.
It had a nice finish but looked rather plain. Also, we agreed that it did not look like the picture we saw when we ordered it. A first inspection revealed that some screws were sitting loose, which was fixed easily. It was strung with black GHS strings, which look nice but can be hard on the fingers of beginning players. The overall building quality was high. Despite a very low action, we could not detect any fret buzz. It also displayed a high tuning stability. One downside that should be mentioned is that the ends of the frets were not rounded off adequately, which can cause discomfort to your hands when playing. This is not uncommon on a cheaper fretted instrument and can be taken care of by carefully filing off the sharp edges. Overall, we found this ukulele sounding deep and lively.
An added bonus is that the gig bag this ukulele comes in has extra padding and some extra storage areas and that a strap is included. However, the promised DVD was nowhere to be found. Luckily, video tutorials are abundant on the internet nowadays. Additionally, when contacting the customer service of Oscar Schmidt about this issue, they agreed to a partial refund.
The next in our series of ukulele brands is Hola! Music. We tested the model HM-124ZW, also build in China. Taking this ukulele out of the box, we found it looking beautiful, although less so than in the pictures we had seen online. It's made from laminate zebrawood, which has alternating darker and lighter stripes, and has a light-colored binding. Rather than printing the brand on the headstock like most companies, Hola! Music carved it in, which looks very classy. Inspecting the instrument visually, we agreed that it was finished with great care. It is hard to believe that this instrument was the cheapest one of the 5 ukulele brands we tested.
For being a relatively cheap instrument, we found the intonation and tuning stability exceptionally good. It was strung with high-quality Aquila strings. It is telling for the dedication and passion of this company that they did not skimp out on this facet.
However, the way our HM-124ZW sounded was rather disappointing. It came across as flat, tiny, and not very lively. A musical instrument that sounds great will inspire you creatively, but we found this not to be the case when playing this ukulele. One might say that for inexperienced players sound quality is less important, but we would argue the opposite. This ukulele seems to us as the typical beginner instrument that gets only a few hours of playing before it is put down only to gather dust from then on. Unfortunate, because our initial expectations were rather high.
The fifth and last ukulele we'll review is the Epiphone Les Paul concert. Epiphone is mostly known as a guitar manufacturer, but the last couple of years they've managed to nestle themselves comfortably in between other ukulele brands. Unsurprisingly, they took their concert model into guitar territory. The Les Paul ukulele has a unique sunburst finish with a white pickguard painted on the body. Although ukulele players tend to stay around the lower frets, it is very refreshing to see a model that has a single cut, which allows you to reach the highest frets more easily. Visual inspection confirmed our presumption that Epiphone builds their instruments with a high quality.
Our initial playing impression when taking up the instrument was that it felt quite unbalanced, which means you would need a strap to play it comfortably. The hefty headstock and neck contrasted the rather light body. Luckily, strap holders were already present. String action was relatively high, which we personally don't mind but this could be considered a minus for some players. That said, it is always possible to lower the action by carefully filing part of the bridge and nut, whereas the opposite is not possible when an instrument already comes with low action. Soundwise, the Epiphone did not impress us. Lacking a better adjective, it sounded very "plinky" and uninspiring. The instrument showed a high tuning stability.
Choosing the "best" ukulele is a subjective thing, so you should make sure to think about your specific needs when deciding which one you will purchase. However, of the 5 ukulele brands we tested, the Luna Tattoo concert is our personal favorite. Despite some initial fret buzz issues which we could easily get around, it felt very comfortable and played great. It sounded warmer and deeper than the Hola! Music HM-124ZW and the Epiphone Les Paul. Despite the fact that the Kala MK-C was also a nice instrument, because of its disappointing customer service, this ukulele brand was taken out of the race. But what really made Luna stand out above, for example, the rather plain looking Oscar Schmidt OU-2, was its original design. Although you might like the very original and clever ukulele design of the Epiphone Les Paul Sunburst, which mixes in some elements of its bigger cousin, the guitar, we prefer our ukuleles to be ukuleles. In contrast, just looking at the breathtaking instrument, designed by Luna, will make you want to pick it up and never put down again. You'll master the ukulele in no time! Also, with these looks, it will help you steal the show when you're playing in front of your friends.