I am often asked about choosing a new ukulele and what brand I recommend.
That’s a tough question. My advice always is to go to a store with a huge selection of instruments and try out every one they have. The brand doesn’t so much matter as one brand might have a great ukulele in one model and a hunk of wood with strings on in another. The only way to know is to try them out. Here is a list of things I would check for:
- Intonation: When you pluck an open string and then fret at the 12th fret does it sound like the same note?
- Action: Is the action good near the nut? Are the strings significantly higher off the fret board at the 12th fret? This can be adjusted, but is nice to have it right to start off with. Is the neck straight as an arrow? This can’t be adjusted.
- Tone: Do you like how the instrument sounds all the length of the neck on single notes? Does it sound crisp, balanced or muddy when you play chords? Pluck each string individually all the way up the fretboard and listen for consistency of tone and sustain. Do you note anything buzzing (buzzes may or may not be fixable)?
- Finish: As you feel along the side of the frets do they snag at your fingers or do they feel smooth and allow your fingers to run smoothly down the fret board? Again, this can be sanded down if it is ‘snaggy’ but it shows there isn’t an attention by the maker to details that are important. Check for cracks and stress marks. Do the tuners operate smoothly? Try taking it down a tone and back up again.
- Pick up / on-board electronics (if desired): Have you tested it plugged in and fiddled with any on board EQ to adjust the sound of the instrument? Do you like what your hearing? Do each of the strings pick up equally well? Do you hear ‘bassy thunks’ (this is a bad thing) every time you play an individual string? Have you tried it on a couple of different amps? Also, if you’re investing in an amp, try a few out (the amp can have a big impact on your sound).
Good looks are nice, but the above criteria are what I would look for first.
Thanks to Ian Porter and Todd Fiegel for a couple of additional thoughts that were added to the list above on finish and tone.