So you wanna buy a uke… Maybe you’ve got a hankering to try it yourself, or maybe you’re thinking a little ukulele would be a fantastic gift for someone. So what are the best ukuleles for beginners?
There’s a lot of choice out there and the number of reviews on Amazon are overwhelming. Some of the expert sites have so much detail and jargon it’s easy to get put off as a beginner who just wants a uke that sounds good enough to be encouraging to keep learning.
Luckily for you, I’ve combed through the reviews and the recommendations from some of the top ukulele sites to compile your five best bets, whether you’re after a soprano, concert, or tenor ukulele for yourself or as a gift. I’ve ignored those pesky reviews that give 1 star because of delivery problems and 5 stars because “My grandson loved his Christmas gift!”
And the best thing is that 4 out of 5 are under $100!
If you want to cut to the chase, I have summarized my research into a table here.
Otherwise, let’s plunge into what you need to know about my top five ukuleles for beginners.
The Kala MK-SD/PW Makala Dolphin Bridge Soprano is a popular choice for beginners given the relatively low cost and overall good reviews. You can also get it as a bundle with a case, instructional DVD, tuner, and polishing cloth here, which would make a great gift.
Potential purchasers may be confused by reviewers’ descriptions of the Dolphin as plastic, compared to the manufacturer’s description of “agathis wood” – both of these are true, with the face of the Dolphin made of laminated wood, and the back and sides made of plastic. It comes in a range of fun bright colors (sunburst red is pictured) as well as black and white.
The majority of reviewers have commented that the Dolphin pretty sturdy and can survive some abuse, making it a great gift for kids or for use in schools. Most buyers are pleased with the tone and ability to stay in tune, though some comment that they’ve preferred to change the strings – this seems to be related to whether the ukulele has arrived with Aquila strings already on or not. Amongst less-pleased reviewers, the main complaint seems to be that the quality of the instrument received can be variable, with some arriving cracked or breaking very quickly.
Summary: The Makala Dolphin would be my #1 pick for children. If you’re keen enough to consider spending time and money changing the strings, you might be better off with a higher quality ukulele.
The Lanikai LU-21S was my first ukulele! A slight step up in price from the Dolphin, the Lanikau LU-21 Soprano ukulele is also a step up in quality, made from all laminated wood. As for the Makala Dolphin, you can get a bundle deal that includes a case, tuner, instructional DVD, and polishing cloth for $90 here.
Like the Makala Dolphin, reviewers’ satisfaction often appears to hinge on whether it has arrived with Aquila strings. Most are pleased with the intonation. Amongst the reviews, there are a number of complaints about the inability to stay in tune – however, this is always an issue with new strings and improves over time, and should not put you off the LU-21. Very few complaints about the quality of the instrument received were noted.
Summary: The LU-21 Soprano ukulele is a great pick for a beginner ukulele (or a next step after the Makala Dolphin for a child), if you are sure you want the soprano size. It may feel small for adults (particularly larger individuals), and you may also be more satisfied with the tone of a concert or tenor ukulele if you think you’d prefer a slightly richer sound (this is what I eventually moved on to).
With the step up in size (an extra 3 inches/7cm), the Cordoba 15CM is my recommendation for a beginner’s concert-sized ukulele. There are many reviews commenting on the attractive appearance and warm, rich sound. Reviewers also like that it seems to stay in tune well. As for the other ukes, you can get the Cordoba bundled with a case, tuner, instructional DVD, and polishing cloth for $120 here.
A warning if you read the reviews on Amazon – there are reviews for the soprano Cordoba mixed in with those for the concert size. Unlike some listings on Amazon, there is (at the time of writing) no way to filter those out. However, the majority of the reviews are for the concert size, so you can feel confident that the average 4.7/5 stars is accurate.
Most reviews of the Cordoba 15CM are glowing (hence the large proportion of 5 star ratings), however interestingly, there are quite a few significant complaints about quality issues – poor finishing on the wood, buzzing, rattling, etc. One reviewer ordered two Cordoba 15CMs and received two very different instruments, down to weight and color. If you order the Cordoba 15CM, perhaps be prepared to return and exchange it on the small chance you receive one with quality issues.
Summary: Overall, the Cordoba 15CM Concert Ukulele is a great choice for a concert-sized beginner’s ukulele for those who are prepared to spend slightly more.
The Hola! Music HM-127ZW+ Tenor Ukulele is an affordable tenor ukulele available in zebrawood or acacia colors (though it appears there may be other colors available at times).
The majority of reviewers comment very positively on the tone, quality, and appearance of these ukuleles. The sense is that this is a value-for-money purchase that tends to exceed purchasers’ expectations.
Negative reviews seem to relate to a few defective instruments received, though there are relatively fewer of these than for some of the other ukuleles reviewed.
Summary: The Hola! Music HM-127ZW+ is your best beginner tenor ukulele under $100.
The bundle deal for the Kala KA-T tenor ukulele with a case, tuner, instructional DVD, and polishing cloth is the best deal at only $10 more than buying the individual instrument. If you’re not keen on the added extras though, you can buy the Kala KA-T individually for $120 here.
Kala is a world renowned manufacturer of ukuleles of all sizes. Reviewers comment on the quality of the ukulele for the price, and the lovely sound. Tenor ukuleles are a great choice for guitar players crossing over, larger adults, or anyone who appreciates a fuller tone.
Important: If you go looking, do NOT be fooled by the seeming 220+ reviews on Amazon in the first search result for the Kala KA-T. This listing actually includes reviews for the concert, soprano, and tenor sizes. If you filter for only the tenor size, there are less than 20 reviews (at this time of writing). However, the Kala KA-T is also frequently recommended by other ukulele reviewers and ukulele sites as a good choice for a beginner tenor ukulele.
Summary: If you’ve had a play around on a ukulele and feel confident that you’d like to continue learning (or price is not an issue), the Kala KA-T is a good option.
I hope this summary has been useful to you, saved you some time, and given you the confidence to pick our your new ukulele. Enjoy!