There was a time, not so very long ago, when getting hold of a decent ukulele was very hard. Unless you spent ages searching and sifting through small ads, or relying on word of mouth, you were unlikely to find anything other than vintage models by respected manufacturers (sometimes expensive), or attic-stored junk.
The internet changed all that; and the so-called ‘Third Wave’ of popularity for the uke that has grown over the past fifteen years or so means that newcomers to the instrument have never had it so good. Following on from the fine examples set by Stagg, Bushman, Mainland and others in the early days, many current manufacturers and importers feature perfectly serviceable beginners’ instruments in their rosters.
At the budget end are the brightly coloured instruments to be found in many high street music shops. There are two major brands: Mahalo and Makala (most manufacturers choose a Hawaiian name, despite nearly all of these instruments being made in Far East factories).
Mahalo (around £15) was the first, and has always had issues with quality control:some of the early ones were excellent value for money, while others were absolute dogs with terrible intonation that no amount of fettling would correct.
Makala, on the other hand, has achieved excellent consistency, particularly with the dolphin bridge models (MK-S). While more expensive than their Mahalo counterparts at around £30, these Makala Dolphins have fine intonation, come with good strings as standard and are perfectly respectable starter instruments. For those people whose fashion sense tells them that bright colours are SOOOOOOO last year, Makala also offer the MK-SN uke with a natural finish and without the dolphin bridge for the same price.
Makala’s parent company is Kala, an excellent USA company with a hands-on chief in Mike Upton who really cares about music (his Kala U-Bass was something of a personal crusade, and has already become the one to beat). It’s hardly surprising that Kala are my recommendation for players who want to move up in the instrument stakes, and they offer excellent ukes at very good prices. I am a big fan of their slimline models, with a very shallow body, but mysteriously big sound. The slimline models come in soprano (around £100, though I have seen them as low as £85…), concert (£110) and tenor (£120) scale models, all with solid spruce tops (not laminate), fitted with Aquila Nylgut strings, and they all come with very well padded protective gigbags too. A lot of uke for not TOO much outlay.
I hasten to add that I am in no way involved with Kala Ukuleles – I just like their approach, their models, their pricing and, most importantly, their consistency. Other brands such as Lanikai and Ohana offer an equally large range, and have their adherents (or devotees). I’m just a Kala type at heart.
Having found an instrument you love, you can immerse yourself in the arcane and obsessive world of strings. Or you can avoid all that nonsense and consider the simple choices open to you.
Monofilament strings (wound strings are a whole extra subject…) come in a few recipes: gut (notoriously temperamental and fiendishly expensive, but hey – it’s authentic!), nylon (which replaced gut as the most common string for decades), fluorocarbon (generally better ‘trued’ than nylon; keeping a constant diameter) or Nylgut (a replacement for gut, but in a modern material to give all the advantages and none of the drawbacks). The variables are: string diameter, mass, texture, tension. And that’s it, really.
The uke is really strung at very low tension (far lower than a guitar), and some players like higher tension – so fluorocarbon string manufacturers, such as Worth, offer higher tension strings, which some guitarists like. Nylon often sounds twangy, stretches unevenly, is prone to fret wear and is thus the shortest-lived of the options.
Nylgut is, for my money, the ideal compromise: reasonably chunky strings that feel good, offer loudness and sweetness combined, and if you fit Aquila Nylgut Concert strings to a soprano uke, they drive the soundboard a little more without compromising the structure in any way. Of my soprano and concert ukes, all are strung with Concert Nylguts apart from one 1920s Gibson Style 2 that is strung with gut.
Try them – strings aren’t cheap as chips (Nylguts come in at around £7.50 a pop, Worth fluorocarbons at double that, but you get enough for two sets of strings), but they’re a cheapish way to customise and experiment until you find the sound YOU want. (Bet you end up with concert Nylguts, though…)
So there you go – my two penn’orth on current top choices in the uke world. The internet has made comparison an absolute breeze, if you have a short while to browse online. And if you ARE buying from a shop in person, bear in mind that a little reasonable haggling can work wonders (they want to sell as much as you want to buy), even if it’s only a spare set of strings to go with your new toy. Look around before purchase – given the current popularity of the instrument, there will be unwanted gifts or regretted purchases around, and these may be bargains.
The golden rule is to try before you buy, if at all possible – or use a shop like Southern Ukulele Stores, run by musicians, enthusiasts and players themselves; they have legendary levels of service and aftercare and only send their instruments out with good strings and properly set up. Other online resources and shops may not be quite so scrupulous; Central London shops tend to have higher expenses and hence higher prices. Caveat emptor.