The story of the 'ukulele begins in 1897 aboard the Ravenscrag, a ship that carried 427 passengers to Honolulu, Hawai'i. Three men aboard this ship were cabinetmakers from Madeira, an island in Portugal. They brought with them a 4-stringed instrument, which was "a kind of cross between a guitar and banjo, but which produced very sweet music in the hands of the Portuguese minstrels" (Hawaiian Gazette, September 3, 1879). Originally called the machete (mah-SHET), this instrument eventually developed into the modern-day 'ukulele.
Many options abound when purchasing an 'ukulele. If you purchase an 'ukulele for less than $50, chances are the instrument will go out of tune easily, not sound very good and generally have a short lifespan. In general, a decent 'ukulele for a beginner costs $60-$100. This is a steal, considering how much a piano costs!
Going to a local music store with a good reputation and nice 'ukulele selection can be a fun experience. You will be able to try out several 'ukuleles and find the best one.
Because of the 'ukulele boom, some good quality 'ukes are available online for great prices. I particularly like the Lanikai LU-21 and the Ohana SK-10S because they both have a good tone and are affordable to many families.
Amazon has 2 package deals worth checking out:
1) Lanikai's 'Ukulele Bundle features their LU-21 soprano 'ukulele with a hard case, 'ukulele tuner, and polishing cloth. My students have purchased this package and have been happy with the products.
2) Daniel Ho's Complete Starter Pack includes a concert 'ukulele, shoulder strap, padded case, full instructional DVD, audio CD, professional grade strings with low G string, sheet music, and chord chart. I particularly like the fact that this package includes a shoulder strap because it makes playing the 'ukulele more ergonomic. Also, the low G string allows for more harmonic variety and a fuller sound.
'Ukuleles come in 4 sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. Soprano is the smallest and most common. It is an ideal size for beginners and kids. A concert 'ukulele is slightly bigger than a soprano and can be easier to navigate if you have big fingers or want to do finger-picking. The next size up is tenor, which is what many professional 'ukulele players use because it has a bigger range and more space for finger-picking. The soprano, concert, and tenor 'ukuleles are tuned to the same notes (GCEA). The baritone 'ukulele is the largest and akin to a small guitar. It is tuned differently, so it is often not a common choice for a beginning 'ukulele student. Most instructional videos and 'ukulele tablature are not geared toward baritone 'ukulele players, but instead intended to teach soprano, concert, and tenor 'ukuleles players.
One of the most important things about playing an instrument is to make sure it is properly tuned before you play it. A well-tuned instrument is like a healthy body: it will function optimally when well-maintained. Make sure to tune your 'ukulele every time before you play because the strings have a tendency to go out of tune. A clip-on tuner is the best kind for an 'ukulele because it clips right on to the 'ukulele for easy tuning. Watch this video to learn how to tune an 'ukulele.
Low on funds? If the answer is yes and you have a smartphone or tablet, here are some free apps that will assist you in tuning your 'ukulele: Pano Tuner, aNueNue Ukulele, Ukulele Tuner. Remember that you still need to know how to tune the 'ukulele and to which pitch each string must be tuned. These apps only help you with the last step of the tuning process, which is fine-tuning its pitch.
LIKE A BABY...
Just as you hug the 'ukulele like a baby when playing it, treat your 'ukulele like a prized possession. Keep your 'ukulele away from heat or cold, since that can damage your 'ukulele. Plan ahead on hot days so that your 'ukulele does not sit in a hot trunk. When you are done playing your 'ukulele, place it back in its case and secure the case close. I have seen too many 'ukuleles left on floors just waiting for an unsuspecting person to step or trip on it. I have also seen students close up their 'ukulele cases but forget to secure them close. As soon as the case is lifted, the 'ukulele goes tumbling out. WIth great care and respect, you will enjoy many years with your 'ukulele.