Wednesday, January 1, 2020

How to acquire a ukulele and make sure it works

The first step in playing the ukulele is to make sure you have a ukulele, and make sure it is sufficient for basic playing. The two most important factors are that it 1) is able to be tuned and 2) that the instrument is in tune with itself. This essentially means that the tuning screws are decent and the frets are installed correctly. 

If you have read that and have no idea what I just said, then what you probably want to do is go to Amazon or your favorite retailer and find an entry-level ukulele with a lot of ratings and a high average rating. This is generally an indication that the instruments are consistently made in such a way that they stay in tune and play in tune. This one is a nice deal for just under $40, and comes in fun colors if that's your thing. This one is a bit nicer for a bit more money. Both are brands I've played around with, and they're fine. Unless you have a background in stringed instruments and can assess the quality of an instrument, I would avoid anything cheaper. There are a few on Amazon in the $20-30 range that have mixed reviews from people who seem to know what they're doing, with some folks apparently receiving an acceptable instrument and others receiving a defective instrument. A local music store also is likely to have instruments in the $40-$60 range, and is not likely to be selling substandard instruments. I would not purchase one from a toy store or big-box store, unless you have found quality reviews of the exact same brand and model.

Despite the ukulele being an inexpensive and simple instrument, there also does exist a creature known as a "toy ukulele." If your instrument was less than about $30, is plastic, or low-quality particle board, you may have such a thing. Please make sure you attempt to tune your instrument (see here). If it can be tuned and stays in tune, you likely have a sufficient instrument for a class. If you have familiarity with music or a friend who does, also check the frets to make sure they are roughly in the correct place (each fret should be a half step, and playing up them should play a chromatic scale).

Because this has happened more than once: A ukulele has four strings. Something that doesn't have four strings and doesn't have frets is a different instrument, regardless of size, or what someone told you. Please bring a ukulele to ukulele class.

Ukuleles come in several sizes. The most common are (from smaller to larger): soprano, concert, tenor, baritone. Most beginner ukuleles are going to be soprano. A younger child will definitely want soprano. An older child, teen, or adult may be more comfortable with concert, which allows for the fingers to be a bit more spread out when forming chords. For beginner lessons, the baritone is the only one that will not work, as the standard tuning for it is different than for the other three. There are also some other less-common sizes and variations on the ukulele. If you are unsure what size you have, measure the string length from the nut to the bridge (the length of the string that vibrates). Soprano is around 13 inches, concert around 15, tenor around 17. A baritone is huge, like guitar size, is expensive, and is unlikely something you randomly acquired. 

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