JP’s Starter Ukulele Buying Guide

My ukulele

Congratulations!  You’ve decided to become a ukulele player! I hope your experience is as easy and fun as mine is.

Stage One:  The True Beginner’s Starter Instrument

The first thing you have to do is beg, borrow, or steal a ukulele.  Make sure it’s a real one; a soprano, concert, tenor, or baritone ukulele; not a toy one.  That’s important.

If you can’t get a free ukulele, buy yourself a beginner ukulele. Don’t spend a lot of money; this is not your forever ukulele. You might be one of the people that buys one and doesn’t practice, never finds joy, and leaves their instrument buried in the closet.  Don’t spend more than USD $60.

I recently recommended this one to my cousin for her daughter (my lovely niece); it’s nice looking, inexpensive (USD $50), and comes as a kit with case and a tuner, among other things.  It’s also a respectable brand; if and when my lovely niece reaches stage two below, she will be able to sell or regift it.

I also recommended this one to my friend C; she was so happy with it that she went and learned a song right away.  It’s also nice looking, a cheerful color; equally inexpensive, sold as a kit with case and tuner.  It’s the same respectable brand.  Also, it is hard plastic, which makes it water resistant and a good choice for situations where you might want a more durable instrument, such as school or travel.  I’ve played this instrument before; I was very pleasantly surprised at how nice it felt and how great it sounded.  It comes in other colors as well. When C goes on to stage two below, she can sell or regift this instrument as well; alternatively, she could keep it as her travel instrument.

It would be great to start your ukulele career with a tuner and case.  You will also need a phelps screwdriver, to tighten the screws on the tuning pegs, so that they don’t slip.  You’ll also need a teacher, a ukulele mentor, or beginner book.  You might be able to find some great beginner resources online as well.

Here’s some things you should learn in stage one:  how to tune with a tuner, how to strum, how to hold your instrument so that your left wrist is straight, how to do some basic chords.  How to find some chords you like online.

Practice every day, or as much as you can.  It will be a little awkward at first; the more you practice and the more you talk to mentors, the better and more comfortable you’ll become.

Stage Two: A Serious Instrument for a Serious Musician

By this point, you have a handful of songs memorized.  You’ve practiced so much that your hands and ears have grown accustomed to your starter ukulele.  Plan to spend USD $200-$500.  If you spend more than that, it’s your business.  The instrument you pick out might be your forever ukulele, but… I’m just warning you… it probably won’t be your last; so don’t spend too too much.

I’m not going to give a lot of guidance at this point, you’ll have your own ideas, and your teacher and/or mentors will help shape your decisions.  The important thing is that now that you know you’re a real ukulele player (and not one of those people that buys an instrument and buries it in the closet) and you know a bunch of basic chords, your ears and your hands will have opinions about what your stage two ukulele will be.  Go to a store with a bunch of ukuleles on the wall, like Dusty Strings in Seattle or Boulevard Music in Culver City; Hale Ukulele in San Diego. Take a ukulele peer or mentor with you, and play every ukulele in the store; or at least every ukulele that calls to you.  Pick out something nice; this is the ukulele that you’ll play at concerts or too impress other people. It’s probably too nice to take camping with you but it’s the one you’ll want to take on stage with you; the one that will make you happy every day.

Stage Three is a desperate stage of ukulele addiction, where you keep finding more and more beautiful ukuleles that you have to buy.  I’m trying to stay out of stage three; I can’t afford it. You’re on your own. Hope you have a lot of money.

Here are the ukuleles that I’ve bought:

  • My stage one starter was a Kala Makala tenor. I started on this one, learned about chords and strumming. Once I got to stage two, I found myself never playing the starter anymore, so I sold it for $35 to my friend K. I hope it’s a blessing for her. Once I had my first stage two ukulele, my fingers never wanted to play the starter again.
  • My stage two ukulele… my FIRST one, that is… is a mango Magic Fluke, a tenor. I wanted something durable that would sound good and be durable enough to keep in the classroom. I’ve been getting a lot of practice on this one lately because I have to supervise the courtyard at school most mornings.
  • My second stage two ukulele is the chestnut Magic Fluke Flea, a concert.  This is my travel ukulele, I take it with me when I travel so that I never have to skip a day of practice.
  • My third and final ukulele is a classic tenor Lehua. This is the instrument I practice with at home, and it’s the one I’ll use giving a concert.

I don’t need to buy any more ukuleles.  When I hit the Powerball or MegaMillions I might go to U-Space in LA’s Little Tokyo and buy one of those USD $3000 handmade ukuleles that weighs as much as a taco and rings forever.  To be honest I’m coveting that USD $40 sea foam green Waterman that I recommended to C above, but I really have everything I need at the moment.

This post is dedicated to my dear friend Okada sensei, who asked for some guidance on starting a joy-filled, life-long ukulele habit.  頑張って!

Me and Okada Sensei

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