Things I Wish I'd Known When I Bought My First Ukulele

ZaBeth

Well-known member
Joined
May 31, 2023
Messages
185
Reaction score
477
I'll start:

A setup will make or break your first experiences trying to play your new instrument. Factor a setup into the cost of purchasing your first ukulele. Don't assume that, just because you've bought an instrument from a ukulele company, they've set it up before shipping it out to you. (I'm looking at you, Honolua!) Maybe ask, or at the very least, take your new instrument to a local shop for a quick look-see.

After struggling with Bb chord and a few beginner barre chords for several days, it occurred to me that my strings might be too high, so I took the uke to a local guitar shop. Guess what? The strings were set too high. I've just gotten the uke back, and I can now magically play a Bb chord.

Next!
 
This is one of the first considerations when starting. That is why many recommend Mim's Ukuleles or The Ukulele Site (and a few others) that do good setups for most or all of the ones they sell. You want a beginner to be successful from the start and fighting a poor setup can lead to dampening the enthusiasm and possibly giving it up.

Correlated with that is the choice of a "beginner's" ukulele. There are so many (including here) that recommend a cheap ukulele in the event that they do not like it. Well, first, who does not like it?! No one (unless they have a poor set up on a cheap ukulele...). These are musical instruments where sound, feel, and build can be directly related to a positive experience. I might spend $60 to try a steak at a restaurant but not on a beginning instrument if I earn an income that allows for discretionary spending (including fancy coffees at $8, multiple times a day?).

Kimo Hussey advocates buying the best ukulele that you can afford. I agree (and have done so... numerous times, lol).
 
What do the vast majority of ukulele owners have in common? They don't play their ukuleles. It's kind of a bad joke, but there is a lot of truth in there. I had a soprano in my closet for 12 years before I got a playable instrument and really started learning. @ZaBeth you got my number one item and I think it is the great killer of joy with new ukulele players.

Another thing I wish I had realized in the beginning is how well video lessons work (Zoom or Skype or FaceTime etc.). I just assumed that one-on-one in-person lessons would be far superior, but when we were forced to try a lesson via FaceTime, I was shocked by how well it went. First, it is more efficient, even beyond saving travel time. You can be tuned up with music ready to go and use the full time you are paying for productively. Second, I was surprised at how well the teacher was able to detect and correct issues via video compared to in person. Next, assuming the teacher concurs, you can record the lesson for later reference. But the very best thing about this is that plus or minus time zones and teacher availability, you can take a lesson with teachers anywhere in the world, whether it is private or a group lesson.
 
Another thing I wish I had realized in the beginning is how well video lessons work (Zoom or Skype or FaceTime etc.). I just assumed that one-on-one in-person lessons would be far superior, but when we were forced to try a lesson via FaceTime, I was shocked by how well it went. First, it is more efficient, even beyond saving travel time. You can be tuned up with music ready to go and use the full time you are paying for productively.
I completely agree. I started clarinet lessons via Zoom with an instructor toward the start of the pandemic, and they were amazingly good.
 
I would second buying the best ukulele you can afford. On top of that I would say go to a store/dealer and try them for yourself if possible.

Outside of that I would say put down some goals for yourself so you can track your progress. Do you want to just learn some basic chords and be a strummer? Do you want to learn finger style? Why are you buying/did buy? As much as people like to say “Ukulele is easy!” I would tend to disagree.
 
Great topic.

1. Invest in a good setup.
2. Try different sizes in store, if possible. Pick the most comfy to start but expect you preferences to change. Expect the setup in store to be crap, and just try it for the fret spacing, and how it feels generally.
3. Invest in, at minimum, a solid wood top instrument as your "starter" uke, or a high quality, instrument grade laminate like a Kiwaya/Famous.
4. It's not always easy to know the kind of music you want to learn when you are a beginner. So sample different online teachers to get an idea of what you might like to learn. Again, expect to change your mind the more you learn.
5. Find an opportunity for one-on-one instruction whether in person or online, do it. You will gain SO much. Again, expect to change your mind and try someone else to learn from as you develop skills.
6. Do not be afraid to use a strap. It doesn't make you less of a musician. If it eases your ability to make music, it's worth it.
7. Do not be afraid to change strings. It's amazing what a difference strings can make.
8. Do not be afraid to change your tuning. Sometimes a ukulele sounds better in a different voicing. If you aren't playing with anyone else, it (usually) doesn't matter what your tuning is.
9. Don't feel bad to try different ukuleles. It's ok to buy and sell ukuleles so you can find what works best for you.
 
1. Discover this community! This forum is a wealth of information and help.
2. Discover a local community! It's a great place to discover the joy a uke a bring.
 
I wish I had known about:
• Baz' Gotaukulele.com site before I bought my first ukulele. (Or ChoirGuy's UkeStuff.info) For how to buy a uke information.
• Setups. Why I needed one on the uke I would buy.
• Strings. The difference between Nylon and Fluorocarbon. Wound vs. Plain. Tension. Warm vs Bright.
• Gig Bag vs Hard Case. Pros & cons.
• Ukulele Underground in all of its iterations.
• Mims, TUS, UkeRepublic, PennyLane, etc.
• That unless it says: "Solid" in the description of the wood in the uke body, assume it's a laminate. (IE: Solid Koa)
• "Solid Spruce Top, Mahogany Back and Sides" means: ONLY the top soundboard is made of a solid wood. The Mahogany back & sides are a laminate. I've seen this ploy way too many times in listing descriptions. Especially on Amazon.
• Snark electronic ukulele tuner. Ubiquitous. If you go to a jam or join a group, almost everyone will use a Snark. If you use a different, more accurate tuner or very cheap tuner, you will be out of tune with the other players.
• How much fun I'd have playing with others at my uke club. How many friends I'd make.
 
If I knew how much I loved playing sopranos, I wouldn't have bought a tenor to start on.
 
Music teachers are great and there is no experience level that cannot benefit from lessons, but not all teachers fit all students.

I had a harmonica teacher that asked me on day 1, "what do you want to learn?" I wanted to learn how to play the harmonica... He would also stop me every time I made a mistake and try to analyze why I made the mistake. This meant that I would often spend an hour on the first 4 notes of a piece. Not productive for me at all, but he was highly regarded around town. Next I took group lessons through Zoom. I progressed very quickly and learned a ton in those classes. Go figure.
 
Great topic.

1. Invest in a good setup.
2. Try different sizes in store, if possible. Pick the most comfy to start but expect you preferences to change. Expect the setup in store to be crap, and just try it for the fret spacing, and how it feels generally.
3. Invest in, at minimum, a solid wood top instrument as your "starter" uke, or a high quality, instrument grade laminate like a Kiwaya/Famous.
4. It's not always easy to know the kind of music you want to learn when you are a beginner. So sample different online teachers to get an idea of what you might like to learn. Again, expect to change your mind the more you learn.
5. Find an opportunity for one-on-one instruction whether in person or online, do it. You will gain SO much. Again, expect to change your mind and try someone else to learn from as you develop skills.
6. Do not be afraid to use a strap. It doesn't make you less of a musician. If it eases your ability to make music, it's worth it.
7. Do not be afraid to change strings. It's amazing what a difference strings can make.
8. Do not be afraid to change your tuning. Sometimes a ukulele sounds better in a different voicing. If you aren't playing with anyone else, it (usually) doesn't matter what your tuning is.
9. Don't feel bad to try different ukuleles. It's ok to buy and sell ukuleles so you can find what works best for you.
This is one of the best set of written recommendations I've ever seen! Every beginner should have access to these.
 
If I had known more, I wouldn't have learned as much.

Researching for months or even years about doing things accomplishes nothing as until I do something, I know nothing. I sacrificed many inexpensive "lab rats" while learning to accomplish my own setups* and feel they were a good investment.

(*ZaBeth nailed it: especially "action" at the 1st fret, which in my experience is generally all a good ukulele needs.)

Over time came: playing comfort, string-string balance, overall tone, sustain, and the concept of price vs. enjoyment and satisfaction.
 
…That regardless of what I get and how much I spend, it likely was not going to be the only ukulele I’d buy/try/play.
That is what you need to learn before you buy ukulele no xx, perhaps not before the first one 😆.
But yeah, I have so many nice ukuleles by now, that even though It still fantasize about the perfect uke - I have realized that I would still have a hard time letting much of my collection go if I found "it", and that there would still be songs/occasions where another uke would fit better.

I dont regret my folly on my first ukulele. First ukuleles are often bought at a whim. That makala MK-C was fun to start with.
I regret not reading reviews before buying my second ukulele. A horrible Luna tattoo pineapple.
I regret not putting into practice what I read about setups on this forum when I recieved my 4th and 6th ukulele. The nut on number 4 was completely wonky, and the nut slots not at proper height. The action on the 6th was a whopping 3.5 mm at the 12th fret. Both things Ibonoy realised years after receiving the ukuleles. Both all solid wood ukuleles from respected UK based ukulele shops. Both things you can do something about, if you notice.

Do this site have a ukulele glossary for dummies? "Everything ukulele". Something that lists everything you can look for in an ukulele, for a courious newbie.
Besides sizes, which are what most ukulele guides cover, we can have:
Tuner mechanism types
Action
Nut width
Fret board features (radius, markers, fret profile etc)
Materials ( wood, plastic, layered wood, formica, etc)
Wood types (you know the drill)
Finishes (satin, gloss, etc)
Pickups (types, what they are good for etc.)

One could write a book on this 😆
 
Top Bottom