There's just something wonderful about a ukulele. This tiny instrument has a way of brining outsized amounts of joy to both the player and the listener alike. It's no surprise that it's popularity has boomed in the past decade. It looks like a tiny guitar, but it's really so much more. It's easy to learn, and anyone can play simple songs with it, and yet it can be used to make incredible, complex music as well.
A Ukulele is a great holiday gift for musicians of any age or experience level - including none! The ukulele is one of the most forgiving instruments out there, and it's easy for even small children to play in a short time. Another reason they make great gifts is that entry-level ukuleles (real ones, not toys) can be found for as little as $30-$40, which is incredibly inexpensive for an instrument!
Just like with the guitar there are numerous different brands, types, and sizes of Ukuleles out there. There are four popular sizes of Ukulele, the Soprano, Concert, Tenor, and Baritone.
The Soprano Ukulele
The Soprano is the smallest and most traditional ukulele size. While the exact size varies between brands and models, a soprano is typically around 21" and features 12 or so frets. Being the smallest, it has the brightest, punchiest sound that most matches what many people think a ukulele sounds like. It's tiny package makes it very portable and easy to hold, and a great option for a young child's - or anyone's - first instrument. Soprano is the most common and most inexpensive ukulele size as well.
The Concert Ukulele
Concert ukuleles are slightly larger than sopranos, usually measuring around 23" inches and featuring a few more frets. A concert is tuned the same as a soprano, so they can be played exactly the same. Concert ukuleles are still punchy and bright but with a little more depth due to a bigger body. Those who feel the soprano size is too small to play comfortably may find a better choice in the concert size.
The Tenor Ukulele
Image credit: UkeLikethePros
The tenor size is, yet again, a little bit bigger than the concert size, both in length (around 26") and body size. A tenor is tuned the same as a soprano or concert, making all three sizes totally interchangeable. The tenor size ukulele has a warmer tone, as the bigger body size allows for lower notes to resonate more strongly. The tenor size is the most popular for professional ukulele players, and also very popular among guitarists as the larger size feels closer to a guitar than a soprano or concert while retaining the standard ukulele tuning and sound.
Image credit: UkelikethePros.com
While the soprano, concert, and tenor all all tuned the same - meaning they can all be played the same - the baritone ukulele is a different breed.
Significantly larger than the tenor, the baritone ukulele is tuned to different notes in a lower octave. The tuning of the baritone overlaps with that of a guitar, so a baritone ukulele is very much like a guitar that is missing the two lowest-sounding strings. The Baritone is the least traditional and least popular size, but is still played and enjoyed by many. Popular ukulele books will often make a separate edition for the baritone ukulele, so be sure you're buying the right one when shopping!
The traditional way to hold a ukulele is tucked in the crook of the arm, gently pressed against your body. This is pretty easy with a soprano size, but can be a little trickier with larger ukuleles. Children may also struggle to hold the ukulele while trying to learn how to play. For this reason, some people, myself included, choose to add a strap to their ukulele.
Because most ukuleles aren't designed to have a strap, there usually are no strap buttons (little pegs to hook a strap onto) like you might find on a guitar. A good luthier at your local music shop will probably be willing to install one for you. Plastic ukuleles, however, may be likely to crack or split upon drilling than a wood ukulele. If you get a button installed, one end of the strap can go on the button and the other can be tied to the headstock by running a shoelace under the strings. This approach allows you to use a traditional guitar-style strap.
There are also a number of non-invasive options out there, most of which involve using a clip to attach the strap to the sound hole. This has the benefit of functioning on any ukulele, but may not provide as secure a hold on the instrument as a strap attached at both ends.
Whether someone is just getting their first ukulele, or has been playing for a while, an accessory is a wonderful gift. There is no shortage useful gizmos and gadgets to help someone better enjoy, display, or take care of their instrument.
Gig Bag or Hard Case
Some ukuleles come with a bag or case, but most don't. A bag will protect the ukulele from dings and scrapes as well as insulating it from extreme temperature changes, as well as making it easy to carry. Look for a bag with a pocket and carrying straps - and make sure to get one of the appropriate size! For a higher-end instrument, consider an ultralight polyfoam case or a nifty looking faux-alligator or tweed hard case to protect their investment.
A Music Stand
A Music Stand is an extremely important piece of hardware for any musician, except maybe a pianist since they typically have one built in! Trying to read music off a table or desk can cause neck strain. A Music stand makes it easy to see the music as you play. Fold-up wire stands are inexpensive, portable and convenient on the go. However, these wire stands are prone to falling over when holding anything more substantial than a few sheets of paper, so I personally recommend getting something with a solid back and for home use.
An Electronic Tuner
An electronic tuner is a must-have. Ukuleles are finicky, and even well-crafted ones need to be tuned quite often. An electronic tuner ensures everything you play sounds as best as it can. I strongly recommend a clip on variety for convenience. See the previous blog entry for my thoughts on those.
Pictured: A Set of Ukulele Strings, some picks, a string winder and a capo.
Though ukulele strings can last a long time, they should be changed periodically to keep the instrument sounding bright and fresh. A string winder is a cheap and very useful accessory that makes changing strings much quicker!
A floor stand or wall hanger: While the image of a ukulele on the bed or couch is charming, it's not the most safe or sensible option. Keeping an instrument in it's case is safe, but an instrument that is available is more likely to be picked up and played on a whim. There are stands, similar to guitar stands, for holding the ukulele in a stable manner on the floor or desktop, ranging from utilitarian black to beautifully decorative wood designs. A hanger is also a great choice, which has the added benefit of keeping the instrument off the ground, clearing floor space and keeping it safe from low-lying pets and toddlers. There are wall mounted hangers and hangers that can be mounted onto things like microphone stands, and straps that attach to the tuners, allowing the instrument to hang from just about anything.
What About Picks?
Though you will see picks for sale, the ukulele is not traditionally played with a pick, and picks aren't particularly popular among ukulele players. However, I have found that small children sometime prefer to use a pick rather than strum with their fingers. If you do want to try picks, make sure to get a ukulele pick. Look for a felt pick, or my personal favorite, a velvet pick. A regular guitar pick is not a good choice, as it makes clicky-clacky noises against the nylon strings.
Ukulele lessons make a fantastic gift for someone receiving their first ukulele, or a longtime player looking to take their playing to the next level. A good instructor not only shows you how to hold the uke, how to strum and where to put your fingers, but also inspires and motivates. Just like with the vast array of ukuleles and accessories on the market, the realm of ukulele styles, techniques, and songs is seemingly never-ending. A teacher can help sort through that giant haystack and help a student find the relevant to achieve their goals while having fun along the way.
If your gifting a ukulele this holiday season, consider a gift certificate for ukulele lessons! Few gifts can be as meaningful and fruitful as the opportunity to learn from an expert. Having lessons from the start ensures they can hit the ground running and enjoy their new instrument sooner and to the fullest potential.