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Whether you know it or not, chances are, you’ve heard a ukulele on one of your favorite tracks. From Jack Johnson’s “Brushfire Fairytales” to the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who’s ukulele-backed version of “Over the Rainbow” has soundtracked everything from 50 First Dates to an episode of Scrubs, the simple acoustic music-maker has transcended generations — and geography — to become a popular instrument in pop culture. When Meghan Trainor performed an acoustic version of “All About That Bass” on the Howard Stern show in 2016 backed only by a bedazzled ukulele, it left the shock jock nearly speechless. “That was beautiful” he said. “It’s no wonder LA Reid signed you.”
Similar to a guitar but with four strings instead of six, and between roughly 16 to 30 inches in length (a typical full-size guitar is around 38 inches long), the ukulele’s history dates back to 18th century Portugal, with a tiny, pear-shaped wooden instrument known as the “machete.” As Portuguese immigrants made their way to Hawaii, they brought their instruments with them and eventually, Hawaiian communities began making their own versions of this instrument to tell their stories through song as well.
Though it’s now known as a Hawaiian instrument, the ukulele has found popularity outside the islands too, used in everything from big band soundtracks to jazz bars to mainstream rap. Musicians like the versatility of the instrument, and the emotions the four strings can convey, from lighthearted improvisation to rich, nuanced textures that really create a mood.
As one of the easiest instruments to pick up (both literally and figuratively), ukuleles are a great way to add some music to your life. As equally at home in a dorm room as it is in your den or family room, ukuleles are becoming increasingly popular for their grab-and-go convenience and crowd-pleasing abilities. Hosting a party and want to show off your chops? Forming a band and want something unique to command attention on stage? Need something to play as you duet with your partner or kids? A ukulele checks all the boxes.
There are dozens of ukuleles that you can buy online but the important thing is to find a size that’s comfortable for you. You’ll also want strings that are soft, not stiff, and a durable material that can sustain any accidental dings and drops. Note: most ukuleles are made of wood so you’ll want to make sure you keep your new instrument away from moisture or direct sunlight too (as the wood could mold or crack).
Ready to start plucking? We’ve rounded up some of the best ukuleles for beginners and pros alike.
1. Ranch 23-Inch Concert Ukulele
This popular ukulele kit gets you everything you need to get started with the instrument. The set comes with a 23-inch genuine wooden ukulele, shoulder strap, carrying case, digital tuner, polishing cloth and a set of four extra strings.
The ukulele comes pre-strung and ready to go, with industry-standard Aquila strings (note: strings need to “stretch out” for a few days before they can be properly tuned). For first-time players, the strings are smooth and flexible, to minimize any blisters on your fingers.
The Ranch Ukulele is made from Sapele wood, which is sturdy and durable. The wood, originating from Africa, is similar to mahogany, only with a warmer finish and more lightweight.
As for the sound? Expect warm, resonant tones, and consistent sound quality no matter where you’re playing up and down the fret. Users say the wood amplifies the sound without ringing hollow, and it never sounds too tight or “tinny.”
PROS: Clear, focused sound; 30-day money back guarantee with no questions asked.
CONS: This is a concert ukulele so will be slightly larger than a pocket or soprano ukulele; some users found the tuning heads to be stiff.
2. Donner Concert Ukulele
This traditional concert ukulele features a comfortable handle, smooth strings and chrome-plated, guitar-style knobs for easy tuning. Users say the sound is rich and bright, with solid resonance, while the even weight distribution makes the instrument easy to hold and play.
This ukulele features a rosewood fingerboard, with a mahogany body, carbon and nylon strings, and 18 brass frets. This all-in-one set comes with a ukulele bag, strap, and a digital clip-on tuner.
Note: We like the concert ukulele but other sizes are available as well.
PROS: Well-balanced sound and comfortable fingering with soft and flexible strings.
CONS: Some users say the strings aren’t that loud, so they opted to switch them out for a different set.
3. Hola! Music HM-21BU Soprano Ukulele
Whimsical and colorful, this soprano ukulele measures just 21 inches (just a few inches more than a large laptop), making it a great pick if you’re looking for something portable to play.
The ukulele is constructed from a mix of maple, walnut and rosewood, then painted in your choice of ten different colors.
What we like: the white nylon strings give it a little more “pop” than traditional strings, especially when placed against the colorful wood. Silver gear tuners and 12 silver nickel frets add to the contemporary look and design.
Sound-wise, users say the ukulele delivers fluid, consistent sound. If you want something a little more room-filling, you’ll want to consider one of the larger models on our list.
This set comes with Aquila strings, a canvas ukulele bag, shoulder strap and three picks.
PROS: This set includes two free months of ukulele lessons.
CONS: The smallest option on our list, sound won’t be as loud or vibrant as a concert ukulele; some users say the strings were stiff and took a while before they were in tune.