Updated: Oct 2, 2020
So you want to play ukulele but don’t know how much to spend on one? How much is a decent ukulele?
That is the question! It all depends on how much money you have to spend of course.
As with most instruments, ukulele (or ukuleles, ‘ukulele’ can be both plural and singular) can vary in cost from less than $25 up to thousands of dollars. The latter being ornate pieces of art. Check out those beauties from Eric Devine up top, they can cost $10,000!
If you are just starting out and learning some ukulele basics you'll want to budget for a quality instrument that offers a nice, warm sound. But without over or under spending! This can be a head splitting conundrum.
I get it... I was there before. I once overpaid for a Martin guitar from a local shop here in Hawaii. It wasn’t until a few years later that when I searched online I found that I had over spent $500! You know who you are! They are located on ‘Island’, and sell ‘Guitars’...wink, wink. Haha! So here are some things to keep in mind and consider as you shop around.
Ukulele can be made from a variety of different materials. Cheap ukulele are often made with plastic and cheap plywood. These inferior materials can change the sound you get from the instrument. This can sour your ukulele experience as you hear that your playing sounds off. In this case what’s off isn’t the playing but the ukulele.
Now I need to interject something very important here. For many decades the word ’laminate’ has struck fear in the hearts of guitar and ukulele enthusiasts.
Since the beginning of lutherie, wood instruments were constructed out of solid woods. To cut costs companies in the 1940’s began to construct their instruments with cheap laminated woods. If you don’t know what laminated tone woods are they are thin pieces of wood that are fused together with glue, heat, and pressure. These laminated boards are then able to be cut and formed into instruments. This technique was used on cheaper model guitars and ukulele, creating a negative association with the material.
But recently in the last 20 years the lamination process has gone through many changes. Manufacturers were able to make advances on this material in order to get it close to the sound of solid body instruments. If this was a race between solid body instruments and laminated ones, laminated ukulele are catching up, narrowing the gap. In fact, laminated ukulele out sell solid bodied ukulele by 50 to 1. This is due to the rise in quality and affordable prices.
As you explore the world world of ukulele it may be a good idea to invest a little extra money and get a solid wood ukulele. This will give you a better sound and manufacturers spend more time on the construction process. This detail ensures that the ukulele will live a long and healthy life. Solid bodied ukulele do need more maintenance due to the nature of solid woods and the never-ending battle against humidity! This can be intimidating as your ukulele can warp or crack due to environmental conditions.
In general you should expect to spend between $500 and $1200 on your first solid bodied ukulele. Take the time to look for a trusted brand. I recommend those that are ”Made in Hawaii” since they are backed by tradition and almost exclusively use Hawaiian Koa wood. The traditional tone-wood of the ukulele.
Now if this sticker price shocks you, don’t worry you’re not alone! There are many wonderful laminated ukulele, some with solid wood tops that come at affordable prices. A good laminate ukulele would range from $100-$300. For a first ukulele, I recommend you look at ukulele in this price range. Ukulele priced under $100 are likely to be souvenir/child level.
There are even ukulele made from Hawaiian Koa laminate! If you want to check out some Hawaiian Koa laminate ukulele you can find them here.
Ukulele come in many shapes and sizes. The best instrument will not only be one that sounds great and is built with quality in mind, it will also be the one that fits the player. Different body designs can change the way the instrument feels against the body and the way you play. Some "toy" ukulele have odd shapes to make them stand out, I’ve even seen ones shaped like a bean.
Though serious brands rely on body shapes similar to a traditional guitar. So avoid ukulele that don’t have this traditional shape.
Now when you pay for a ukulele, the bulk of that price is in the craftsmanship and labor. Shhh... don’t tell anyone but the parts of ukulele aren’t really that costly. Even the speciality woods. It all comes down to the attention of detail and quality control. Ukulele that costs $25-$50 will lack in construction tolerances. This will have a direct affect on the longevity of the ukulele. Like most cheap things, they don’t last. So be ready to pay at least $100+ to get the proper attention to detail in the construction of any ukulele. The higher the price, the higher the standards. If you want an ukulele that is an heirloom piece be prepared to pay more. If this is not an issue for you, I think you can still find those bean shaped ukulele on EBay! Haha!
Now maybe you are thrifty and want to get a deal. Be sure to keep quality and construction in mind. If you are able to see and hold the ukulele in person be sure to inspect the instrument for signs of damage. Who knows, this could snag you a sweeter deal! The next thing you need to do an online search of ukulele. This will give you information on the brand, description, specs, and most importantly the original retail price. Use this retail price to give you a better indication to sound quality and level of construction. Depending on the condition you may save up to 50%! A decent second hand ukulele can be found at around $60-$200.
In general, beginners can get a great ukulele for $100-$300! You can find these ukulele everywhere. Like here. Just make sure to do your research, understand the different types of ukulele materials, and inspect your instrument for signs of damage if you are buying it second hand.