What is the Difference between a Guitar and a Ukulele?

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Guitars and ukuleles are both stringed instruments that can be played in similar ways. By no means however are they the same. Although someone who plays the guitar can adapt easily to the ukulele and vice-versa, there are some very distinct differences between the two instruments. In this article we are going to answer the question “what is the difference between a guitar and ukulele?” looking at the history of both instruments as well as touching on some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding the two instruments.

What is the Difference Between a Guitar and a Ukulele:

History Of The Ukulele

The ukulele dates back to the 19th century, and was originally a Hawaiian adaptation of the Cavaquinho (Portuguese machete). The ukulele is a guitar-like instrument which was first introduced in Hawaii by Portuguese immigrant, these immigrants comes mainly from the Azores and Madeira.

The popularity of the ukulele spread quickly to the US in the early 20th century. And has since become popular all over the world. The Ukulele is commonly found in four different sizes, the volume and tone of the instrument varying with its construction. The four common types of ukulele are the soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.

History of the Guitar

The guitar was thought to originate from Spain as early as in the 16th century, the guitar being a stringed musical instrument that is very similar to the ukulele. The guitar derived from a late-medieval instrument known as the guitarra latina. It is an instrument with four strings and a waisted body.

The original guitar had 4 different courses of strings, the top course being single and the other three double. These strings ran to a tension bridge from a pegbox and were glued to a soundboard. This primitive, 16th century guitar was tuned C-F-A-D.

Differences between Guitars and Ukuleles: Types of Guitar

There are around 8 different common types of guitar, the three main types of these being the acoustic, the electric, and the bass. Variations within these groups, such as the semi-acoustic, make up the other variants. Let’s take a look at the 3 most common types of guitar, starting with the acoustic.

Acoustic Guitars

The acoustic guitar is the most common type of guitar, the instrument having a hollow body that allows the sound made to be amplified. Acoustic guitars have 6 strings, and are usually made of wood. Variants on the acoustic guitar are the electro-acoustic and the semi-acoustic.

Electric Guitars

Electric guitars differ from their acoustic counterparts. They are solid, and don’t have the characteristic hollow body that acoustic guitars have. This means that, unless they are plugged in, they make very little noise at all. Electric guitars come in a large variety of shapes and sizes, some of the most popular electric guitars being the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Telecaster. Electric guitars have 6 strings are usually manufactured from wood; you can however find some 12-stringed versions.

Bass Guitars

The bass guitar, also known as the electric bass or the bass is the lowest-pitched guitar. It is is very similar in construction to the acoustic or electric, but has a longer neck and scale length. The bass guitar has typically 4 or 6 strings.

Guitars versus Ukuleles: Types of Ukuleles

The four most common types of ukulele are the soprano, concert, tenor, and the baritone. There are some more types of ukulele that are less common such as the bass, the contrabass, and the sopranino (pocket uke). The standard ukulele is the soprano, and this uke is the second-smallest in size. The concert ukulele is slightly larger, and was developed in the 1920s. The baritone uke is larger again, and resembles a small tenor guitar, the baritone being created in the 1940’s.

Size Differences between the Guitar and the Ukulele

When answering the question “what is the difference between a guitar and a ukulele” the most obvious difference comes with the size. Ukuleles are on average around 35% to 50& smaller than the majority of guitars. This difference in size affects the tone, playability, and the volume of the instruments.

As the ukulele is generally a lot smaller than the guitar, the volume of the instrument is less. In regards to playability, it might be though that a uke is better for a child and a guitar for an adult. This is however not necessarily the case and large adults with wide fingers can still play a small ukulele successfully.

Guitars and Ukuleles:

Difference between a Guitar and a Ukulele

The Number Of Strings

Another obvious difference between a standard guitar and a standard uke is the number of strings. It is also one of the most important differences. In general, although there are exceptions to the rule, most ukuleles have 4 strings and most guitars have 6. As the ukulele has fewer strings, it is considered by many as an easier instrument to learn. With only 4 strings, there are plenty of simple one and two finger chords to choose from as a beginner. What this means is that with the ukulele, you can quickly start playing some basic music. However, not all guitars have 6 strings and not all ukuleles have 4. You can find ukes with 6 strings and guitars with 8.

Types of Strings

Difference between a Guitar and a Ukulele
Guitar VS Ukulele: Types of Strings

The strings used on guitars and ukuleles are another difference between the two instruments. Guitar strings are usually made from metal, are of high tension, and produce a loud and bright tone. Ukulele strings on the other hand are low tension. It is made from either nylon or a similar synthetic and flexible material, and produce a softer and warmer tone.

Uke strings don’t have the same tight feeling that guitar strings do, the strings of the ukulele being stretcher and softer. For this reason, the uke is often referred to as an instrument that is comfortable to play. A low-G toned ukulele will generally have one string that is made synthetic threads that are wound in metal, this string being similar to a guitar string.

Tuning Ukuleles and Guitars

There are both similarities and differences when it comes to tuning a ukulele or a guitar. A guitar is tuned E-A-D-G-B-E and a ukulele is tuned G-C-E-A. The way that a guitar is tuned is different to the way a ukulele is related, but the two processes are related.

If you place your finger across the 4 highest pitched strings of a guitar, placing your finger on the 5th fret, you will get the same notes as you do on a ukulele. What his means is that a 4 string ukulele is like the 4 top strings of an acoustic guitar, but tuned up by a fourth. If you are using low-G tuning for a uke, these notes are exactly the same as the 4 guitar strings; if you are using a standard ukulele, the G string is tuned to be up one octave.

Chord Shapes of Guitars and Ukuleles

Due to the similarities in tuning the two instruments, many of the chord shapes are the same on the guitar and the ukulele. Some chords you use on a guitar such as the D chord work fine with a uke. When you play this shape on a uke, you will get a chord that is a fourth higher and is therefore a G chord.

When using guitar chords for an A or an E, you can often use the same shape of chord with a ukulele, simply omitting the bottom two strings. As the bottom two strings would be missing, the result however is often a chord that is not well-defined.

String Tensions

The string tensions of the guitar and the ukulele are noticeably different. The string tension being a measure of tightness of the string on acoustic instruments. On a ukulele, this tension should be somewhere between 7 and 13lbs per string. On a guitar, this tension should be between 24lbs and 35lbs.

What this means is that the tension of the strings on a guitar is about 3 times more than a ukulele, meaning that the sound produced is brighter and louder. It should be noted also that the higher tension of the strings also makes the guitar harder to play than the uke.

Differences in Tone between the Guitar and the Ukulele

One of the most pronounced differences between the two instruments is the tone. However, there are other factors that affect the tone of the instrument such as the way it is manufactured, the body size, and the wood used. Guitars generally produce a brighter and louder tone than the ukulele. This being due to the higher tension strings and the size of the body of the instrument. Ukuleles are known for being mellow and quieter than the guitar due to their softer strings and the smaller body size.

Scale Length

The scale length of an instrument is the distance between the saddle and the nut, the scale length being the section of strings that vibrates when you play. On average, the scale of a uke is between 25 and 50% less than that of a guitar, the frets therefore also being closer together. For this reason, the ukulele is perfect for people with smaller hands and for children.

Guitars VS Ukuleles: Price

In general, you can pick up a cheap ukulele easier than a cheap guitar, a beginners uke costing as little as $50. When choosing a guitar for a beginner, you will need to spend a bare minimum of $150. As you can buy a decent ukulele for $100 and only a mediocre guitar for the same price, it makes sense as a beginner to start out with the uke.

Things to Consider When Buying Guitar or a Ukulele

What is the Difference between a Guitar and a Ukulele

As the guitar and the ukulele are similar, string instrument, the things to consider when buying an instrument for the first time are very similar, and include:

  • Try your instrument before you buy and decide which size is best for you
  • Decide how much you have to spend and whether you wish to buy new or second hand
  • For guitars, decide between acoustic and electric
  • Don’t go for just a brand. Ensure your new instrument is comfortable for you
  • Make sure you buy all the necessary accessories and include these when working out your budget

Ukulele Guitars

If you are switching from a guitar to a uke, you may like to consider investing in a ukulele guitar. This instrument is a 6 string variant on the acoustic guitar. 6 string ukes are perfect for people who are already confident with playing the guitar and for those who have larger hands. A 6-stringed ukulele guitar is tuned GCCEAA, and although it belongs to the same family as a standard guitar. The differences between the two lie in the sound and the size. The ukulele being a mellower instrument to play due to its lower tension strings.

What is the Difference between a Guitar and a Ukulele: FAQs

Can a Uke and a Guitar Play a Duet?

Of course a guitar and a uke can perform a duet. Although the two instruments have individual tunings, the musical pitch is the same. A typical blue grass band will include not just these two instruments but often a banjo, a mandolin, a bass, and a fiddle too.

Which is Easier to Learn, the Guitar or the Ukulele?

The ukulele requires less initial effort in order to make music, the instrument being easier to learn as it has less, lower-tension strings. Some chords on the uke are ridiculously easy to learn and require just one or two fingers.

Which is Cheaper, the Guitar or the Ukulele?

If you are looking to purchase a new instrument, then you can pick up a brand new uke much cheaper than a guitar. A decent beginners’ uke costs around $100, whereas a mediocre guitar will cost at least $150.

Are Guitars and Ukuleles in the Same Key?

Guitars and ukuleles have a different key, this meaning that you can’t directly copy and paste a guitar chord into a ukulele and get the same key. With practice and understanding, you can however transfer chords, the most important part of this process being learning how to tune the two instruments correctly.

Do I need Professional Lesson for the Guitar or Ukulele?

As a complete beginner, you may like to take up some guitar or ukulele lessons where you can learn about the different strings, tones, tuning, and how to handle your new instrument. The good news however is you can also find everything you need to know about learning a string instrument online. From tuning your instruments, to learning your favorite tunes, there are currently thousands of online resources for learning the ukulele or guitar.

Final Thoughts

The question “what is the difference between a guitar and a ukulele” is one that comes up a lot. Whereas the two instruments are different, there also have many similarities. The main differences are the number of strings, the tension of the strings, and the size of the instrument. The ukulele is a smaller and mellower instrument, perfect for beginners of all ages.

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