Should I buy ukulele online
Buying a ukulele: 11 secrets nobody will tell you
Do you want to buy a ukulele? Nothing more difficult than that. The market is more confusing than almost any other and unfortunately there are manufacturers who prefer to leave you in the dark about the exact specifications. Especially with a larger music retailer, you can't always count on getting to an expert in ukuleles. Some of the salespeople have to be familiar with dozens of instruments.
Therefore it is better to be well prepared for the search. With in-depth knowledge that is necessary to make a good decision when buying a ukulele that you won't regret after days or weeks. This little buying guide lets you in on the secrets that hardly anyone else will reveal to you.
1. Solid means "massive", nothing means laminate
This beautiful koa ukulele for only € 75 ... Why do some people spend thousands of euros on it when it is available for so little money?
Caution: It is common practice among retailers and manufacturers to highlight the positives of a ukulele rather than mention the negatives. Negative aspects that you can't really know about when you first buy. And then you run straight into the trap.
Whenever a type of wood is mentioned, you should see if either the word “massive” or “solid” is included. If not, it is almost invariably a cheap laminate. And that's no more than a few euros.
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2. Simply rearrange the ukulele to buy
In my opinion, the biggest problem with buying a ukulele is that as a newbie you first come into contact with cheap and mostly colorful instruments. Unfortunately, they are often the bestsellers, they are what catches the eye in the store. But they are also what tarnishes our judgment the most. And leads to the purchase of inferior instruments that will soon be standing in the corner.
Ukuleles for 30, 50, 70 € suggest that ukuleles are very cheap instruments. That is not in itself wrong, but they are just not so cheap, at least if you are looking for a real instrument and not a toy. And these disposable products hide that.
Because you believe that you can get something really, really high quality for just over 100 €. This is indicated by numerous forum posts from people who speak with puffy chests of their top shelf ukulele for 129 € and assure that it is an instrument of the very highest quality. The entry-level instruments don't even begin there, but rather those that are still made of laminate instead of real wood and are brought in from the Far East on large container ships.
To get a better overview, a trick helps that I use almost everywhere: I sort the results in the shop in descending order, with the most expensive products first. Because only when I know where the upper limit is will I at least roughly know how the other models are to be assessed qualitatively. That doesn't mean that you have to go straight to the most expensive model. It's just about getting a realistic impression and being able to make a wiser decision. When I see that even Thomann ukuleles sell up to around € 3,000, that says a lot about ukuleles that cost € 50, € 100 or € 150.
However, if you go to Amazon or Ebay, which are not exactly considered to be instrument strongholds, you also get the wrong picture in this way. It should at least be a look at Thomann, but I would definitely also visit shops like Gute Ukulele. Because even Thomann is only very cautious about including the higher quality models in its range. Specialist dealers are usually better positioned here and have already made a preselection.
3. Not always high G
The ukulele is famous for its bright, friendly sound. But there are also ukuleles that sound more like a guitar. The main difference lies in the stringing: High G or Low G. This means: If a high G string or a low G string is used.
The tuning remains G, C, E, A - but the pitch of the top string changes and it actually changes the whole sound of the instrument. Hawaiian sounds suddenly become something much more sedate, more serious, maybe even more melancholy. Neither variant is better or worse than the other - in fact, a ukulele player should always have at least one high G and one low G ukulele. But depending on which sound you are looking for, you can go wrong when buying a ukulele.
There are manufacturers, such as KoAloha, who generally equip their ukuleles with Low G. Because they are designed in such a way that they sound particularly good with Low G. Just like KoAloha, Kanile'a mainly makes ukuleles from Koa, but generally uses High G. The same wood, but due to a different construction and fine-tuning, the Kanile'a sounds outstanding with High G and the KoAloha outstanding with Low G - both sound the other way around good, but not outstanding.
So not every wood in every construction is suitable for every mood. By far the majority of ukuleles are strung with high G, but as I said there are exceptions. Basically, you can simply swap the strings for the other counterpart - just remember that factors such as wood and construction are added and that, for example, Low G does not sound optimal on every ukulele. Just like High G. It is therefore better to choose the ukulele according to which mood you prefer.
4. You don't need most of it at all
When choosing a new instrument, people tend to order the entire inventory of accessories. I know that because I belong to these people myself.
You can do without most of the accessories when buying a ukulele. Actually, you don't even need a tuner, because it's available online or as an app. You don't need books at all costs (even if there are good ones), you can get a lot of information here on Ukulele Insider or on YouTube. All you really need is the ukulele.
Nevertheless, I would recommend you to buy at least one belt. As small as the ukulele is, it is not that easy to hold it and play it relaxed at the same time. Damage to posture can also result from this. There are straps even for ukuleles that don't have strap buttons.
A set of strings can be useful - you never know when one will break - and possibly a capo. But both are really optional. You don't need any of that in the first few weeks. The money is better invested in a higher quality ukulele. You can always buy a capo in between, but you can't add anything to the ukulele later.
5. It's not just the sound
Somehow it happened that I found myself on a campaign against cheap instruments. Not because the well-being of the dealers is so important to me, but because music is so important to me. And that people don't just play instruments for a few days, but for the rest of their lives, because there is hardly anything more enriching.
It is obvious that a cheap ukulele almost never has an impressive sound. Inferior laminate, poor construction, inadequate and sloppy workmanship do not exactly lead to a sound that will delight your ears and listener. Also, the intonation is usually not very good - so the notes you play are not necessarily the notes you hear.
But it's still legitimate to say: It doesn't have to sound so good to start with, it is much more important that I learn to play. I agree with that in principle. If it weren't for a much more serious problem that hardly anyone tells you about when buying a ukulele:
The cheaper the instrument, the more difficult it is to play. That's not always true, but almost always. Because: The higher the strings are stretched over the frets, the more force you need to push them down. But you shouldn't have to use almost any force to hit the right spot. It is hardly possible to play fluently - and pain is also inevitable. An experienced player can compensate for this, but for many beginners these are quickly insurmountable obstacles. I find it particularly bad when children are turned on such products, in the self-fulfilling prophecy that they may not stick with them anyway.
For manufacturers, however, it would not be a solution to construct the ukuleles in such a way that the strings barely float over the frets, because that would lead to buzzing. To avoid that, you play it safe and prefer to tend in the other direction. There is a relatively small sweet spot that a manufacturer has to hit first (especially since it is also due to the climate of the venue, which is seldom identical to that of the production site).
In order to achieve a reasonable string position, the instrument cannot come off the assembly line completely. Manual work is required to set the string position correctly and thus to make it playable at least for a large part of the players. So when people buy instruments like a guitar or ukulele and then complain of pain or think they couldn't do it all, then it is very often the instrument's fault - not the player. The player can only blame himself for possibly looking too closely at the price.
6. Size matters
A big myth surrounds the size of the ukulele. In fact, there are actually two myths.
One is to start with a soprano size ukulele. The other says that in Hawaii you traditionally play with a soprano, so only that is the "right" ukulele.
Both are utter nonsense. For most people, the soprano size is not at all suitable as a beginner's instrument, on the contrary, it is the most difficult to play. Because of its small size, it also has a small fingerboard, which makes it incredibly difficult, at least for adult fingers, to play cleanly. In addition, it is often very uncomfortable for adults to hold, which can even lead to posture problems and pain. With children, however, it can be the other way around, depending on their height and age.
It is also not true that the soprano is usually played in Hawaii. It is the tenor that most Hawaiians resort to. Because it is the most professional of the three sizes, because it is the most instrument. And since the Hawaiians take their ukulele very seriously and, unlike some Europeans, do not see them as toys, they tend to choose the tenor variant. (Incidentally, the concert ukulele is a compromise that lies exactly between soprano and tenor.)
The right ukulele size doesn't depend on myth, it depends on you. For every height there is a ukulele that fits better or worse. The only thing that helps here is to try it out and find out about the correct position beforehand. Anyone who is serious about the ukulele and is fully grown is best served in most cases with the tenor size.
7. Laminate doesn't sound, it looks
Unfortunately, I keep coming across forum posts and sometimes even test reports of ukuleles that report, for example, the great sound of a particular ukulele because it is made of koa - but they forget that it is laminate and not real wood.
There is a glaring difference between koa laminate and koa. One is plastic, the other is wood.
When you buy a laminate ukulele, it really doesn't matter which “wood” the laminate represents. It is solely an optical factor, because plastic film always sounds like plastic film. Even the most beautiful Koa grain cannot change that.
8. Pickups make cheap too expensive
Unfortunately, ukulele buyers are often tricked into buying a more expensive ukulele. By integrating a pickup. You then pay for a ukulele, which actually costs around € 100, quickly times € 180, almost twice as much.
You always have to keep in mind that a pickup does not improve the quality of a ukulele, and sometimes even worsens it (due to rattling parts or poor weight distribution). The surcharge you pay applies only to the pickup. And unfortunately with ukuleles it is rarely worth as much as is required for it. Usually only a very inferior copy is integrated.
On the one hand, you should really consider whether you need a pickup at all. Are you really going to be on stage with the ukulele soon? For recordings at home, a good microphone is often the easier choice with sometimes much better results.
On the other hand, it may be worthwhile to do without the pickup first and have it retrofitted later by a qualified instrument maker if you really need it. Because then something could be installed that really deserves the name pickup and ensures a correspondingly good sound on stage.
9. Fret markings should not be missing
Have you noticed the dots on and next to the fretboard of ukuleles? These are so-called fret markers that show you where each fret is.
With some ukuleles this information is missing, but beginners in particular should not do without it. The dots are a valuable aid because you can't see the fingerboard while playing. And so you can orientate yourself better. Turning the fingerboard towards yourself is not an option, it leads to posture problems and looks amateurish too. Apart from the fact that you can't follow a sheet of music or something like that.
Later on, you will instinctively know which covenant you are in, even if those markings are not there. In this respect, it is not a tragedy if you have opted for a ukulele without fret markings. If the purchase is still pending, that could be a criterion, albeit a tiny one.
10. After buying your ukulele: CITES can be a problem
CITES stands for "Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora" - that is, a convention for the protection of species. What does that have to do with ukuleles, you wonder?
Some of the materials used to make ukuleles fall under CITES. This particularly applies to certain types of wood such as rosewood. Decorative inlays made from abalone - a type of sea snail - are also covered by the agreement.
Depending on which ukulele you have chosen, there may be a CITES problem. Buying such instruments (within the EU) is not a problem as they have already been imported or manufactured here, but traveling with them can be a hassle. The Federal Agency for Nature Conservation says:
"If you travel to countries outside the European Union (EU) with musical instruments in which parts of protected species have been used, CITES documents are required."
A permit must therefore be applied for in good time. This shouldn't usually be a problem, but of course it is an additional expense that can be avoided by buying instruments without such materials.
Most manufacturers of high quality ukuleles are actively committed to nature conservation and reforestation, but their products are still covered by the agreement. That does not make them “illegal” or “reprehensible” (in comparison, instrument makers use only a tiny fraction of the world's resources), but just involves some administrative effort.
11. Neither sounds like the other
If you penetrate the category of solid wood instruments in terms of price, then there is another factor that is difficult to control: Every ukulele sounds different.
I don't just mean that ukuleles with a koa top sound different than those with a spruce top. Rather, the same model in a series can sound very different, depending on which one you hold in your hand. Sometimes these are nuances, sometimes clearly audible differences.
You don't necessarily have to go to a store to buy a ukulele. I didn't do that at the time either and I'm very happy with my choice. Just be aware that the ukulele that you may have tried out and are now ordering from another shop may sound a little different.
The same goes for YouTube videos as well.Hardly anyone who records these videos has sound equipment that can really record the ukulele as accurately as it sounds when you are in the same room. Even if it were, it would still be unclear whether you have speakers or headphones that can reproduce the sound accurately. These are all just approximations and the more videos you watch, the better the overall acoustic picture you get of the ukulele. But in real life it will still sound a little different.
So be aware that with high-quality ukuleles you don't buy factory goods that are identical throughout the production process. This is possible with laminate, but no tree grows like another. And isn't that actually the reason why we prefer to pay money for a good instrument made from a real piece of wood? Because it has a character that it cannot develop in mass production.
Sources of the images used (in order of their placement):
- unsplash.com / Kristina Flour (@tinaflour)
- unsplash.com / Cody McLain (@neocody)
- unsplash.com / Icons8 team (@ icons8)
- unsplash.com / Dorelys Smits (@adoris)
- unsplash.com / David Vig (@davidvig)
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