You’ve fallen in love with the ukulele and want rush over to the closest music store to buy the first uke you see—but what happens? You are immediately asked, “What size ukulele are you interested in?” You probably had no idea that ukuleles even came in different sizes! This quick guide will give you an introduction to the four basic types of ukuleles and how they differ from one another in terms of size and sound.
Ukuleles come in four basic sizes. From smallest to largest, they are soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. Here is a handy photo to show you how they compare to each other in terms of size and length:
To give you some hard numbers:
Since you play the ukulele by fingering notes on the various frets along the neck, you might find comparing the spacing of the frets of each instrument important. The spacing between the frets of all ukuleles gets smaller as you go up the neck (away from the headstock and toward the body of the uke) but most beginners do their playing within the first five frets of the instrument (the five frets closest to the headstock), so let’s take a look at their respective spacing in this area:
As small as it is, the soprano ukulele is thought of as the “standard” size ukulele, measuring very closely to the original ukes built in the 1880s by the first ukulele manufacturers. If you see a picture of a man holding a ukulele and the body of the instrument barely seems to reach to halfway across his chest, it’s probably a soprano. Most of the female dancers backing up Bette Midler in the YouTube video of her show performance of “Ukulele Lady” are playing (or at least holding and pretending to play) soprano ukuleles. The size of the soprano also affects the range of notes it can play. Typically, a soprano ukulele has only twelve frets, giving it a range of twenty-two notes (from middle C to the A an octave above middle C).
Despite its size, the soprano’s sound has a distinct jangling bite to it that, like a mandolin, can cut through the typical strumming of an acoustic guitar.
Both the concert and tenor ukuleles were created in the 1920s owing to the demand for ukuleles with larger fretboards and a louder, deeper sound. While the concert ukulele is only two inches longer than the soprano, its body is wider, giving its sound more depth and sustain.
Aside from having a slightly warmer and deeper tone, the slightly larger fretboard of the concert ukulele makes it a little easier for some people to play. Plus, concert ukuleles typically have between fifteen and twenty frets, giving them a broader range of notes than the soprano.
The tenor ukulele is less than six inches longer than the soprano ukulele but it looks twice the size. Like a concert ukulele, the tenor typically sports between fifteen and twenty frets and has a wider body, bigger frets, and fuller sound.
Because the tenor has an even deeper bass range than both the soprano and concert ukuleles, many players fit it with a low G string that is an octave lower than the typical ukulele G string, which gives the player more lower notes to work with. You’ll find “low G tenor” ukuleles being played by many Hawaiian players who emulate the style of the melodic fingerpicking slack-key guitarists—“slack-key” being a traditional Hawaiian style where the instrument is tuned in one of many alternate tunings.
Baritone ukuleles are large enough that they are tuned to the same notes as full sized guitars, which are (from low to high) D, G, B, and E. You can think of them as guitars that only have the four highest strings.
Despite its size and its guitar tuning, the baritone still gets more of an overall ukulele tone than a guitar sound. But that deeper sound loses some of its plinky “uke-ness” when strummed.
Because the baritone’s strings are tuned to different notes than those of the soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles, the basic chord shapes (which frets on the neck you place your fingers to form a chord) will make different chords. Using the same shape of a C chord on a soprano ukulele, for example, will give you a G chord on the baritone. This may seem like a big deal but it’s not all that hard to deal with as there are books and chord charts specifically written for the baritone ukulele.
All this discussion about the various sizes and sounds of the four basic ukuleles doesn’t take into account the biggest factor when it comes to choosing an instrument—you. Remember that the ukulele is a musical instrument and making music is a highly personal experience.
If at all possible, shop for your ukulele at a music store that offers you a choice of each size so that you can try each one out. Hold your potential ukulele carefully and feel what it would be like to strum it, to fret the notes along the neck. If you can’t get your fingers to feel comfortable on the fretboard of the soprano, test out a concert or a tenor. If the tenor feels awkward to strum, go down a size or two.
While you can play any type of music on any type of ukulele, each ukulele is going to give that music its own sound. For instance:
You obviously are going to try out the ukuleles yourself, but be sure to have someone else—a friend or even one of the store’s employees—play the ukuleles for you, too. Have them play simple chords so that you can hear what the ukulele is going to sound like. If you’re having a tough time choosing, getting the chance to hear what you’ll be doing can help you decide.
More beginning ukulele players start out with a soprano, mostly because these are the ukes most stores carry, not to mention they are usually less expensive than the concerts, tenors and baritones. Take the time to check out each size of ukulele and to listen to the differences between them, and you should find yourself going home with the ideal uke for you.
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to go out and get that ukulele you’ve always wanted! Have fun, and happy strumming!
by David Hodge, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Ukulele