After deciding that I would learn to play the ʻUkulele, I realized it would probably be a good idea to actually own one. 😉
So, the first task at hand would be to find my first ʻUkulele. A challenge, since Iʻve never had one before, never played one before, and didnʻt even know what types of ʻUkulele exist in the world.
Today Iʻm going to share with you what I learned in my search for this instrument. And how I ended up finding and deciding upon my first ʻUkulele. If youʻre looking to get a ʻUkulele for yourself then this information should be useful.
What kind of ʻUkulele does a beginner need?
To start my search I first had to ask myself a few questions about what my actual needs were. I clearly am not a pro and didnʻt need something high-end. A beginner ʻUkulele was fine for me. But, beyond that, what were the specific situations in which I was going to use the ʻUkulele? What was my ideal “use case”?
Here are a few of the considerations I came up with:
As I said, Iʻm a beginner. I only need something that is good enough to learn on, but not necessarily a professional quality instrument.
Along with that I need to pick up a ʻUkulele that doesnʻt break the bank. If I improve significantly or want to level-up, I can always upgrade later. But as a beginner I canʻt even tell the difference between a good starter model and a pro-level ʻUkulele.
I donʻt need a ʻUkulele with the strap holder pegs or a pickup for an amplifier. (I donʻt even have an amplifier!) I just need a basic ʻUkulele that will help me develop fundamental skills.
I need a ʻUkulele that is easy to travel with and Iʻm not afraid to scratch or nick by accident. I plan to take it with me as I go on trips or excursions. Sturdiness is key.
I wanted one that wasnʻt hard to play. You know those super crappy guitars they make for kids that are made entirely of plastic and have strings about 3 inches away from the fretboard? I didnʻt want one of those. It didnʻt have to be high end, but I didnʻt want it to make my fingers bleed either.
Speaking of fingers, mine are a little thick. I needed a ʻUkulele that would accommodate my appendages.
Alright! So, with all that in mind, it was time for me to do some online research.
Researching ʻUkulele options online
The only thing I knew about ʻUkulele were that they had four strings, were tuned differently than a guitar, were made of wood, and came in at least two or three sizes. Besides that, I was clueless.
A brief history of the ʻUkulele
One of the first things I learned (but feel like I probably already knew, but forgot) was the history of the ʻUkulele. (Thanks Wikipedia!).
Portuguese settlers from the Azores and Madeira brought a small stringed instrument called the machete to Hawaii in the 1800ʻs. While the ʻUkulele is derived from this instrument, it isnʻt exactly the same one, so to say the ʻUkulele is Portuguese (which it seems a lot of people do) isnʻt totally accurate. It is something adopted from the machete, but it changed when it arrived.
I guess it is sort of like calling General Tsoʻs Chicken a Chinese dish. It was actually invented in New York, based on a variation of Hunan-style cuisine. If you took it to China, no one would be familiar with the dish. So is it Chinese or not? Not to a lot of Chinese people. (Things that make you go “hmmmm … “)
Sizes and types of the ʻUkulele
The next thing I discovered is that there are four common sizes of ʻUkulele. Based on my “finger-friendly” consideration from earlier, I figured I would need the largest one. But then I learned that while the three smaller ʻUkulele were usually all tuned the same, the largest (baritone) was tuned differently.
Just to back up a bit, here are the four common sizes of ʻUkulele:
- Soprano (smallest)
- Baritone (largest)
Believe it or not, there are actually 7 different sizes of ʻUkulele. Pocket (“sopranissimo”) is the smallest and it goes up to Contrabass as the largest. But weʻll just talk about the four main ones since those are the most common.
The Best Accoustic Guitar Guide website has a really great breakdown of the different sizes of ‘Ukulele. Be sure to check out their post here. Below is an image from their post. Their post also has a bunch of videos showing how each ‘Ukulele handles and sounds different, so definitely take a look!
Originally I thought the baritone would be ideal for my needs, but I decided against it. It turns out the turning of the baritone is the same as the bottom four strings of a guitar.
The thing is, I already know (basically) how to play the guitar (sort of). If I really want to embrace the ʻUkulele then playing it with a traditional tuning would more of a benefit for my long-term growth.
I also learned that the original ʻUkulele size was the soprano. (The other sizes came about later.) And, some people tune their tenor ʻUkulele like the baritone. But again, that wasnʻt really for me so I was going to opt for a tenor or maybe a concert size that had the traditional tuning.
Which, in case youʻre curious is (from top to bottom): G-C-E-A, which is called either “C Tuning” or “C6 Tuning”, since those notes make up a C6 chord.
Probably the biggest challenge for me will be getting over the fact that the top string is higher than the next string. Iʻm used to them being in the order of pitch. But one thing at a time — I havenʻt even started learning yet!
So, I had the general direction I wanted to go in. I wanted a tenor (or maybe concert) ʻUkulele with standard G-C-E-A tuning. Awesome! I wonder how much that is going to cost …
Pricing research for a ʻUkulele
Before heading to a store, I thought it would be a good idea to figure out the standard costs of ʻUkulele.
First, I looked at online classifieds like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist to see what people were selling their instruments for. From what I could tell the typical asking price ran around $75 to $200. Of course, many went up from there. But that was the “beginner-friendly” price range.
I also looked at websites for some ʻUkulele shops and saw that the price for new ʻUkulele in their “good for beginners” sections usually ran over $100 to start.
Okay, so that gave me a good benchmark. I assumed that I would have to spend about $100 for my first ʻUkulele. But the next step was to actually find a shop.
Finding a ʻUkulele store in Honolulu
I knew that there was probably a ridiculous number of ʻUkulele stores and shops (and manufacturers) in Hawaiʻi, and especially across Oahu.
One of the things I was afraid of was a “tourist-trap” type of shops. You know the kind, right? Poor selection, poor quality instruments, overpriced, and hidden behind some aloha t-shirts and shaka stickers in the back of the store. Those are meant for tourists who donʻt know what theyʻre looking for. (Sure, I didnʻt know what I was looking for, but I wasnʻt a tourist either.) As a result, I decided to completely avoid any shops in (or near) Waikiki.
When I used to take the bus to work, I would always see a guitar and ʻukulele store on Kapiʻolani Avenue. From the instruments in their window, it seems they had a good selection. I decided that would be the first shop I would look at.
However, fate would have different plans for me. I never ended up going to that shop and still havenʻt set foot inside it.
The ʻUkulele Site in Kakaʻako
One day I was riding the bus towards Ward Avenue where I was going to do some work and maybe see a movie. As the bus was passing next to the SALT shopping complex in Kakaʻako I glanced over and saw the words “The ʻUkulele Site“. It was over a storefront between Lanikai Juice and the Highway Inn diner.
I go to SALT pretty often but I had never seen this before! I immediately got off the bus and ran over to check it out.
It turns out that this store was brand new. In fact, they hadnʻt had their official opening yet. It was open, but it was a part of their soft launch and a lot of their selection wasnʻt yet in the store.
I must have looked like a kid in a candy store when I walked in.
“I never knew this was here!” I exclaimed.
“It wasnʻt”, the salesperson replied.
It turned out that the Ukulele Site is a shop up in Haleiwa near Oahuʻs north shore and they have been selling Ukulele for a long time, including through their robust online shop. They were just opening up their first shop on the south side of the island. I just happened to wander in right as they were gearing up.
Their selection was pretty impressive, even though they werenʻt fully stocked yet. In fact, there were versions of ʻUkulele I had never seen before. Banjo ʻUkulele. Pineapple ʻUkulele. I realized I was a total noob!
I asked for their suggestion on a good ʻUkulele for a beginner. After asking my price range (I said “Around $100 or less”) he handed me some nice options. I tried out different sizes and realized that I actually preferred the concert size over the tenor. It felt more comfortable in my hands.
They had some really beautiful instruments and I enjoyed trying them out. But as I was sitting there a bright lime green ʻUkulele caught my eye.
“What is THAT?” I asked, thinking it was one of the silliest looking ʻUkulele Iʻve ever seen. I mean, cʻmon .. lime green?
“Oh, thatʻs a Waterman” he said. “Itʻs not made of wood, but of APS Plastic. Itʻs meant to be taken to the beach and is water-resistant.”
Suddenly he had my attention! A ʻUkulele you could actually take into the water and not worry about? My sturdiness alarm bells were ringing.
I found out the Waterman is made by Kala, a ʻUkulele company with a good track record. I liked the idea of a travel-friendly ʻUkulele but the color was a bit much.
“Too bad itʻs bright green,” I said.
“Oh, we have it in black too”, he replied. Faster than you could say “Mele Kalikimaka” I had a black concert-size Waterman ʻUkulele in my hand.
It played great. Not as amazing as some of the wood ones, of course. But for a “plastic” ʻUkulele it was really nice. The black matte finish made it much less plastic-looking as the bright colored ones.
“How much?” I asked, ready for some sticker shock.
“Fifty bucks” he replied.
Woosh went my wallet, as I got ready to buy my new ʻUkulele.
I also got a special promotion they were running. A really nice quality ʻUkulele case, an electronic tuner, and some strings for just $20. For under $75 I was able to walk home with a great find.
I was ecstatic.
Pros and Cons
When I was in the store they didnʻt have a very good selection of ʻUkulele instruction books. They only had ones to teach songs like “Tiny Bubbles” or “Aloha Oe”, but that was about it.
I would say that was probably the biggest “con” of the shop, but I have since returned after their grand opening. They have improved their selection and Iʻve picked up a few books on different ʻUkulele techniques to include in my ʻUkulele study plan.
The best thing about the store is that they really know their stuff. It is clear they love music and instruments. And, even better, they are super low pressure. I honestly felt like they were okay with me not buying a single thing. That, for me, actually makes me more likely to purchase something.
If you want to pick up a ʻUkulele in Honolulu, then I definitely recommend this little shop tucked away in the corner on the Ala Moana Blvd. side of SALT in Kakaʻako. If nothing else, it is worth a visit to see their amazing selection.
Here is their information:
The ʻUkulele Site
680 Ala Moana Blvd.
Honolulu, HI 96813
Here are some more pictures from their shop.
The Best Part? Free Online Lessons!
It turns out that the Ukulele Site has one of the biggest ʻUkulele YouTube channels around, with over 100,000 subscribers. They have tons of performances and videos sharing information for people interested in buying a ʻUkulele.
And the best part of their channel? They have a bunch of free ʻUkulele lessons too. Be sure to check them out here.
Of course, the ʻUkulele Site isnʻt the only game on the island. As I visit other shops and discover other resources Iʻm going to add them to my in-production ʻUkulele Resource page here on Walk the Planet.
In the meantime, if youʻd like to learn more about how my progress with the ʻUkulele is going, be sure to check out my YouTube channel and subscribe to my newsletter below to get the latest updates and links straight to your inbox.
I canʻt wait to get started! January canʻt get here fast enough. 🙂
Until next time, A hui ho!