Cheap vs Expensive Ukuleles: What’s The Difference?

July 09, 2020

Cheap vs Expensive Ukuleles: What’s The Difference?

Finding a ukulele at the best value for beginners

If you’re ‘kicking the tires’ of playing the ukulele, I'm willing to bet that you’ve made a few online searches. Maybe you’ve gone to physical music stores and looked at online retailers.

Did you notice a big range in price? And a huge selection of ukuleles in general? You can easily find a ukulele for as low as $50, and as high as several thousand. With a lot of options in between at every price point.

Are you wondering what the differences are between a cheap ukulele and a moderately priced ukulele (we’ll skip the uber-expensive ones for now)? Is it worth the increase in price, or should you start with something cheap?

That’s exactly what I want to talk about today. How to find the best ukulele for you at the best value.

Emphasis on value. More on that in a bit. But first, let’s clear one thing up.

Cheap vs. Inexpensive Ukuleles

(To skip to my personal recommendations, go to the section titled “What Ukuleles Are The Best Value?”. I have to warn you though, you’ll miss out on some good zingers.)

Anyone who’s been in sales knows to avoid using the word “cheap” to describe something inexpensive. Not many people are looking for a cheap car. They want an inexpensive or affordable car. What most people really want is quality at a reasonable price. That’s how we define value (mostly).

But alas, for every quality item out there, there’s a cheap copy hoping to take its place. These ukuleles in the $50 and under range or more in the toy realm. Maybe a good idea for your 4-year-old niece or nephew. But not for someone actively trying to learn to play. And believe me when I say that the cheap version will end up costing you more in the long run.

Naturally, the lower you go in price the cheaper the ukulele will be. And on the converse, the higher in price you go, the more well done the ukulele should be. Now, I’m not saying that I personally would find a $2,000 uke to be the best value or the most worth it at its price point. But if someone’s offering me one as a birthday gift I will not say no to it....

I get it though. If you’re only thinking about playing the ukulele, you might not know how committed you’ll be to it. So you might not want to jump all the way in and spend a ton of money on something that may just collect dust.

(For one, we have awesome [and FREE!] online resources and lessons to make ukulele approachable and fun. We also have an online community where players of all skill levels and ages can talk, share stories, and learn from each other.)

So you consider that $50 ukulele. But is that really going to be worth it?

Believe it or not, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to find a good quality ukulele. There’s a sweet spot where you’ll find a good balance of quality, durability and build quality, playability, and of course, affordability.

And it’s surprisingly reasonable.

What’s In A Price?

It might be helpful to know why ukuleles are priced differently. There are a lot of contributing factors. The biggest factor is going to be materials, as it is in any physical goods item.

With the cheaper ukuleles, you might not actually get a real wood body (or wood anything). You might find them made of a composite, plastic, or scrap-wood. Sure, these are all inexpensive to produce. But on an instrument, it’s not a good option.

These materials will sound harsh to the ear. They lack warmth and vibrance, and sound a bit dull. You’re much better off with real wood (which will include laminate). I don’t mean scrap wood. I mean genuine wood grown specifically for quality instruments.

Why does wood matter? For one, it’s objectively way better looking.

A koa ukulele from our store.

An average "cheap" ukulele

But there’s also a very good reason instruments are still made of wood: it simply sounds the best. Tonewoods are woods that are used (and often grown) specifically for instruments. They have to be a perfect balance of sound quality while being durable enough to last for decades (or longer).

Ukuleles typically are made from very specific woods. Most commonly Mahogany, Koa, Cedar, Maple, and Spruce. There are other woods and other sub-species of these woods. But these are the most typical woods you’ll find in a ukulele.

In the higher-end instruments, the wood will be dry-aged to remove moisture. Sometimes this takes place over a very long period of time. This ensures the wood is done moving and doesn’t lose its shape. A more modern technique is to use a professional wood kiln. A kiln is essentially a low heat oven that removes the moisture in a much shorter amount of time.

On quality ukuleles, wood is used for the body, neck, fingerboard, bridge, and bracing. This is important for the overall resonance of the instrument. The sound vibrations should carry unimpeded throughout the uke, from the bottom of the body to top of the headstock.

The remaining bits are typically just the bridge saddle, nut, tuners, and binding (when used). The bridge saddle and nut are made of a special plastic most of the time. The plastic is made specifically for instruments and lasts a very long time. Sometimes these will be made of sustainable bone.

On quality ukuleles you’ll find upgraded tuners. These are what hold the string tension and keep the strings in tune. On cheap ukuleles you’ll find cheap tuners that are less accurate to tune, won’t stay in place, and won’t hold their tuning once you get it there.

Beyond being annoying, the real problem is ear fatigue. After just a couple minutes of your instrument being out of tune, your ears get fatigued. This makes you want to stop playing, and that’s no good at all!

More Than Just Materials

Outside of the quality of materials, you have the quality of construction. The most underrated part of any acoustic stringed instrument is the bracing. The bracing is inside the uke on the top and back. It serves two purposes:

  • Strengthening the top and back of the ukulele
  • Enhancing the natural acoustics of the ukulele

This is a skill that takes a lot of experience to do well. The goal is to support the guitar so the top and back don’t bow or warp over time while enhancing the tone and projection of the ukulele.

The construction also has to do with how the neck is set to the body, how the top, back, and sides of the body are connected, and how the bridge is glued to the top. And of course the precision of all of this. As you might expect, cheaper ukuleles tend to use quicker methods for higher turnover. The quicker methods aren’t always the best.

Over time the bridge can come unglued, the sides can come away from the top and back of the body, and the neck can shift its slot. These are often repairable but at a great cost.

The last thing to cover is how the ukulele is set up. With better ukuleles (you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive this is) you’re getting something that is already easy to play from the factory. That means the string height isn’t too low or high, the neck has the perfect amount of bow, the frets are level and flush with the neck, and overall it plays like a dream.

(One additional step we take at UkuleleMate is to do an outbound inspection and/or set up on every ukulele that goes out the door. This ensures that your ukulele is 100% ready to play when you first pick it up. You can see all of the quality steps we take here to ensure total satisfaction on every ukulele we sell.)

I actually didn’t mean to go that far into detail. Hopefully, my point is clear though; there is a lot that goes into making a ukulele. There are a lot of places it can go wrong. That's why skilled craftsmanship with quality wood and components is so important.

Here’s the short version of all of that:

Quality ukuleles last longer, sound better, look better, play better, and inspire you to learn and play.

Cheap ukuleles don’t.

#harsh

(but also #truth)

You’ll find that while the cheap ones are the easiest foot-in-the-door, you’ll outgrow it in just a few months. If that. This is why I always caution people against the cheap stuff.

My advice: If you’re saving your money for a ukulele, you should get one that you’ll be able to play for a long time. One that you won’t outgrow so soon.

What Ukuleles Are The Best Value?

OK, so now onto the really good stuff.

I’m not a big fan of the term “beginner ukulele”. Too often we run into the ‘cheap’ issue we talked about early. A beginner shouldn’t equate to cheap. I prefer to think about them as ukuleles perfect for beginners. An affordable (low financial commitment) ukulele that looks and sounds good. A great place to start!

You can get a well-made ukulele for as little as $100, with the midrange capping off around $250-300. This is the sweet spot where you get the most value. A good compromise between quality and cost.

If you are looking for your first ukulele, or are upgrading from a cheap ukulele, you have a lot of great options here.

You may have noticed a few different types of ukuleles. Here’s the ultra-fast rundown:

  • Soprano Ukulele - The smallest ukulele great for children or people with small hands. Very portable.
  • Concert Ukulele - 2" bigger than a soprano ukulele, while still maintaining its twang. Another great beginner option.  
  • Tenor Ukulele - Another 2” bigger than the concert ukulele. The sound starts to get a little deeper and more full. Perfect if you have bigger hands, are currently a guitar player, and a nice ukulele for performing.
  • Baritone Ukulele - Baritone instruments in general typically carry a different tuning. This is a great addition to your collection, but not a great beginner uke.

The size of the ukulele contributes to its tone, as does the wood type. Check out the full descriptions of each body type here. You’ll also be able to hear the differences.

Once you decide on a size, check out a couple of different wood types. Most of the ukes on our website include a sound clip so you can hear what they sound like. Here are my recommendations for the lowest cost of ukuleles:

A step up from here would be something in the $200-300 range. You’ll get a lot better overall quality, but the biggest difference will be the sound quality.

Just like I talked about earlier, the wood tends to be higher quality. It’s a premium cut, even if it’s the same species. That makes the ukuleles warmer and richer in tone. You might also find that the grain looks a little more interesting. Many species of wood are actually graded on the intensity of the grain.

This has less of an impact on our ears, and more of an impact on our eyes. So it’s more of a luxury. But a really nice one.

Here are my recommendations for the mid-range level:

Deals, Deals, Deals

One of the best things in the world. I love a good deal. We usually offer discounts on selected items in our store. Whether you want to save on a higher-end ukulele, or just want a blowout deal on the one you’re looking at now. If you're still confused and haven't purchased anything yet from our store, take a short quiz here.

I hope this has given you a little more clarity on cheap, inexpensive, and moderately priced ukuleles. We try to give you as much detail as possible on all of our ukuleles. But if we missed something or you have any questions or comments at all, drop us a line.





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