Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ukulele: Beginner's Guide

Back in March, I decided to try and teach myself ukulele. I know many youth services librarians use ukulele during their storytimes and it is one of the easier instruments to pick up and learn. The cost of a ukulele also makes it much more accessible than many other instruments. In June, three months after I started playing uke for the first time, I decided to bring it out for storytimes and it has been wonderful so far. I regularly use the uke for storytime now. I am not any sort of authority on ukuleles but I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences so far in case they would be helpful to anyone else hoping to start with the instrument.

Buying a Ukulele

Before purchasing a  ukulele, I did a lot of research. There are so many different options out there and it can be a little overwhelming!

Size Matters:

The first thing you'll want to figure out is what size ukulele you want. There are four different sizes of ukuleles. From smallest to largest they are:
  • Soprano
  • Concert
  • Tenor
  • Baritone

Soprano, Concert, and Tenor all have the same tuning so I recommend getting one of those three sizes since almost any ukulele tutorial you find online will apply to them. Many people start with a soprano uke. The soprano size has the sound that most people associate with ukuleles. They are the smallest, so they are easily transportable, and most of the cheaper student quality ukuleles you can find are soprano sized. These ones also often come in fun colors and patterns. The portability and cheaper price makes them appealing starter ukes for a lot of people. However, the smaller size can sometimes be difficult to deal with, especially for adults.

Concert ukes are still pretty small and portable, but the slightly larger size makes them a bit easier to handle than the tiny soprano ones. There are still some fairly inexpensive concert uke options, though not as many as with the soprano. They tend to be a little louder than soprano ukes, but still have that traditional ukulele sound.

Tenor is one step up in size and has a deeper tone, which starts to sound more like a guitar than a traditional uke. Many professional ukulele players go with this size.

Baritone ukes are the largest size. They have different tuning than the three smaller uke sizes and the different tuning combined with the deeper tone makes them sound quite a bit like guitars.

I decided to go with a concert size for myself. I liked the idea of having a slightly larger uke that was a little easier to handle, but was still pretty portable and had that traditional ukulele sound! I also bought a clip on tuner and a cute cloth bag with cats on it, though there are much cheaper bag options if you just go with something plain.


There are so many different brands of ukes out there that there is no way I could cover all of them! I will talk about the three that I looked into the most when I was doing my research. There are many ukes that are more toys than quality instruments. These are tempting to a lot of people because they are so cheap, but they will only leave you frustrated when you try to learn on them. It is definitely worthwhile to spend a little more money and get a uke that is well made and will sound good when you play! There are options in the $50 range that are good beginner ukes. The brands I looked at the most were:
These are not the only worthwhile brands though, so if you find a uke you like the look of that isn't one of these brands, try to find some reviews and see if it seems like a good option. If you have a local music store where you can try one out and see what works for you, do it!

I was first drawn to some of the fun bright colors and designs of the Tropical Series from Amahi. That series, along with their Penguin Series, are nice little soprano ukes that are made for beginners. They are fun colors and reasonable prices and would be good starter ukes for pretty much anyone. The Makala Dolphin and Makala Shark ukes from Kala are similar in quality and price. I know a lot of people start with Makala Dolphins or Sharks and love them. Oscar Schmidt doesn't have any bright colorful ukuleles available, but they do have some good beginner ukes at lower prices as well like the OU2 (concert sized) and OU2S (soprano sized). These beginner ukuleles usually run in the $50-$70 range.

In the end I decided to go with something a little higher end and got an Oscar Schmidt OU5, which runs around $120-$130. I found lots of good reviews for this brand and model. I was willing to pay a little more to make sure I got a uke that would sound really nice so I would be sure to enjoy playing it! I also really loved the way the uke looked with its glossy finish and abalone inlay around the edges.This ukulele is clearly a quality instrument and not a toy!


You will see a lot of people talking about Aquila Nylgut strings when you do research about ukuleles. My uke already came with nylgut strings, but if yours doesn't it is highly recommended that you get them. Good strings can make a huge difference in how your uke sounds! The link above is for soprano strings, but they have them for all sized ukuleles if you do a quick search.

Learning to Play

Fortunately, with the popularity of ukuleles there are a lot of great online resources for learning how to play. There are many youtube videos to teach you the basics. I have been using Cynthia Lin Music's beginner ukulele videos on youtube. She goes at a nice slow pace for absolute beginners and has provided PDF lesson sheets with the chord charts for all the songs she plays in her videos.

Youtube has a wealth of ukulele videos, so just search and find the ones that work for you!


  1. This is awesome, Heather! I'm an assistant librarian in a little town in Iowa, and I thought it would be great to be able to play the ukulele for storytimes. Nobody else here plays one, so I think it will be a great addition to the library. Your blog has some fantastic information for a novice like me, who doesn't know a single thing about ukuleles. Thanks so much - can't wait to use the information in your blog and buy one. I'll let you know what I end up with!

    1. I'm the only ukulele player at my library too, also a small town library. I haven't started playing for storytime yet, but I'm getting ready to do it starting next month. I've been practicing all six songs that I'm going to be putting on a song cube. I'll be debuting the song cube in June, so I'm hoping to also make my ukulele debut then.

      I absolutely *love* ukulele now. I probably practice for at least half an hour, but usually more like an hour, every day just because I have so much fun with it. At first I could only go 10 or 15 minutes before my fingers started to hurt, but you'll build up calluses quickly!

  2. Heather, what is a song cube?

    1. A song cube is a large six sided die (mine is made from foam, but I've seen people sue cardboard too) that has an icon on each side that represents a short song. You or the kids can roll the die and then you all sing the song that comes up on the top. It's a great way to add some variety to the storytime without necessarily needing to come up with new songs for every single theme. I'm pretty excited to try it out! I'm making mine with velcro on the back of the icons so I can swap them out from time to time and keep things fresh!