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If you are looking to buy your very first ukulele or fancy buying one as a gift for someone, you will have a huge amount of makes and types to choose from. An online search will often come up with information on the best brand to buy or indeed the ones that are the best value for money. But, what about ukulele brands to avoid?
In this article, I will cover everything you need to know to make sure you make the right choice the first time, including some of the most frequently asked questions from people new to the uke.
Ukulele Brands to Avoid: Top Five points
A quick look online and you will find big brands like Kala, Cordoba, Luna, and Lanikai. All these brands have plenty of reviews online and it’s easy to work out if they could be for you. But, let’s say you take a look at Amazon. You will see lots of ukuleles that look really similar to the big names.
But, which are reasonable quality and which should avoid. You may find they sell the instrument together with a case and strings, all for a lower price than the branded ones. It’s a bit like buying a cheap car. You can save lots of money when you choose a car that looks like a big brand one but is actually marketed under a practically unknown name.
Of course, the amount you spend on a ukulele can’t be compared to purchasing a car. But the principle is the same. Sometimes you can get an excellent deal; other times you will quickly regret the purchase you made.
1. Cheap Ukulele Brands
When you are looking online for cheap ukes, some of the following names will crop up time and time again:
Not all of the above are bad, and some are quite good and relatively good value for money too. But, you will find that most of the above brands are often listed as ones you should avoid. You can judge this by looking at the negative reviews.
So, is it always better to pay for a name that is well-known? Will it always mean you receive a better quality instrument? The answer is probably yes to both of these questions.
But, depending on your budget, you may not be able to afford the model you really want. It’s a bit like the car you really want to drive but know you will never be able to afford.
So, let’s take a look at why some of these brands should be avoided and how to ensure you make a purchase that is good value for money.
2. Made in China
Like the majority of cheaper items, cheap ukuleles are most often made in China. This does not however mean you should not buy a ukulele purely because it was made in China. Even the big brand names like Kala that make high-end ukes in the US make some of their cheaper models in China.
What this means is that across China there are plenty of factories that are making ukuleles that are worth buying. So, you can’t simply cross off a brand because it is made in China. Across China, you will also find generic instruments made that are then branded afterward.
This is like many foods that you buy in supermarkets. You will often find that the supermarket’s own brand and the branded equivalent item are exactly the same, just in different packages, and of course with two very different prices.
3. Inconsistency of Quality
One point that should be noted is that the quality of cheaper brands can be very inconsistent across the range. Both Donner and Kmise make some great models that are popular and well-made. But both these names are also renowned for making some pretty bad quality ukes.
When buying online from such companies, another problem you will find a lot of times is that it is hard to differentiate between the listings, the pictures looking the same even though one model may be great and the next an awful instrument.
As a beginner, it’s important not to get lured in by the lower prices. Minor issues can be fixed by someone with experience, but at the end of the day, your instrument should not be defective in the first place. How many times have you bought a child’s toy that was made in China, and as soon as you take it out of the box you have to fix it before it works?
You also need to be very careful with the way things are labeled. The wood used for the uke is extremely important and has a big effect on the tone. Solid woods are preferable to laminate, but you will often find false advertising amongst cheap and replica brands.
They may be advertised as solid mahogany or koa when it is quite clear that they are actually laminates. Even if they sound good, you are paying for something that you are not actually getting, as solid ukes are of course more expensive than laminates.
4. Don’t be lured in By Low Prices
One of the tricks to lure people into buying a cheap brand is the accessories that are solid together with the instrument. With a strap, tuner, strings, and a case included for a lower price tag than a brand ukulele with no accessories, it is easy to fall into the trap.
You can find non-branded packages priced far lower than a Kala or Cordoba uke. But, remember the age-old saying. You get what you pay for! When you buy a Kala, you are paying for a brand name that you can rely on. It might be convenient to buy everything together in a kit, but a pretty case or strap won’t make your instrument play any better! Ukulele Brands that you can trust include:
- Oscar Schmidt
Common mistakes people make when shopping for a ukulele include spending too little money, not learning about the different sizes available, and buying based on looks. Don’t buy a uke just because it looks great, and before you buy, research the different types available and decide which one suits you best.
5. Laminate Versus Solid Wood Ukuleles: Ukulele Assembly
One way to spot a cheap ukulele is when it is made of laminate. Instead of solid wood, it is made from several layers of wood, or even other laminate materials. You will find that a lot of entry-level ukes are indeed made of laminate, and it doesn’t necessarily make them a bad choice.
In fact, laminates are not just more affordable; they are also warp-resistant and more durable than solid wood. However, for the traditional sound and a vibrant tone, solid ukuleles win hands down.
As a beginner, a laminate uke can be more than you need to get you started; it is more important to check the brand of the instrument than rule out all laminate ukes. Some of the best brands offer very affordable laminate ukuleles that are perfect for traveling and for casual playing.
Ukulele Brands to Avoid: FAQS
Q: Which Ukulele Should I Buy as a Beginner?
As a beginner, you won’t want to spend too much money on your instrument, unless you have an unlimited budget. What is more important is to choose the scale of your uke. The four scales are as follows:
The smallest, and just 53cm from head to tail, sopranos are very portable and create a classic sound that is perfect for beginners
A concert ukulele is 10% larger than a soprano and has a warmer tone that is also louder. A concert uke is a good beginners’ choice for someone with big hands
The tenor is the most versatile uke there is, sporting up to 19 frets. They are the instrument of choice for solo players
The baritone is the largest of the ukulele family, and the most similar to the guitar. They are 74 cm from head to tail and have a very warm sound, very similar to a classical guitar.
Q: What is the quickest way to learn the Ukulele?
If you want to learn quickly, then it’s best to start out with a soprano or if you have big hands, with a concert ukulele. Make sure you don’t spend too much on your instrument but look for a quality brand that is made of solid wood.
Our above guide will show you which models to avoid. You should tune your uke to GCEA, learning first to play some basic chords. Sit pack, strum, sing, and enjoy your new instrument. You may like to learn alone, or you may like to pay for classes.
You could also opt for casual classes from a friend or someone you know locally that plays. If you want to try learning to play alone, they are literally thousands of tutorials you will find online that will help you.
Q: Which wood is best for the best sound?
Ukuleles are made from a variety of woods. What perhaps is most important rather than choosing the wood is avoiding cheap laminate models. When buying online it is very important to read the description very carefully and enlarge the pictures so that you can really see what you are buying. Some great woods for ukes are:
- Amara: The Amara is an evergreen tree that is found in South America. The wood gives a warm tone that is unique and clear. You can select Amara wood ukuleles in different colors, but you will never find to the same.
- Koa: The koa tree only grows in Hawaii, and is an acacia tree. As Hawaii is the native home of the ukulele, it is easy to see why koa is a popular choice. It is traditional and simply stunning, the koa ukulele has yet another distinctive sound.
- Mahogany: Mahogany has been used in the manufacture of musical instruments for centuries. Instruments such as the piano are often also found made from this wood that can vary from light pink to dark, reddish-brown. Mahogany tends to darken with age, so it is easy to see which instruments that are advertised as made from matured mahogany are the real deal.
- Sapele: Sapele is a tropical, African hardwood that is Golden to dark reddish-brown. It is similar to mahogany, being a close relative, and once again is a great choice for a quality instrument.
- Zebrawood: This wood comes from West Africa and can vary in color from cream to light or dark brown. Its name comes from the streaks it boasts that resemble the stripes of a zebra.
Q: Is it Safe to Buy Cheap Ukuleles Online?
When buying a ukulele, it doesn’t matter how much you want to spend. It is always better to buy in-store where you can see what you are getting for your money. Most replica brands and cheap brands aren’t found in your local store for a variety of reasons.
False advertising is common with cheap brands, and advertising a solid wood instrument that is actually a laminate is something that people can only get away with online. If you are going to buy online, try to avoid anything other than official pages.
If you think you have found a bargain that comes with lots of accessories such as a case and a strap, prepare for disappointment. When you finally receive your shipment, which will most commonly arrive from China, you will most likely be very disappointed in what you see.
Final verdict :
Like with any item you are thinking of buying, there are brands that you should definitely avoid when buying a ukulele. As I said above, some of the leading brands do use factories in China and other countries for their cheaper models.
So, don’t write off a purchase purely on one fact. Look at the online reviews and think about your purchase. As a rule of thumb, if you can afford a known brand, buy it. Even if it’s only as a beginner’s instrument; cheap brands are exactly as they appear.
They are cheap, they are often badly made, and they won’t last the test of time. By spending a bit more, you will have an instrument that looks better, sounds better, and will provide you with much-improved quality and playing time.