• Instrument Department

    June 3, 2016

    The weird and wonderful world of ukuleles - an introduction to the different shapes and sizes

    If you have been wondering what are all the different types and sizes of ukulele? and which ukelele to choose for you?  Then this guide will help you. The weird and wonderful world that is the ukulele family can be a confusing place for the uninitiated. In this blog we thought it would be nice to take you on a tour of the various types of ukulele currently available.

    The regulars

    The soprano is the original ukulele, descended from the Portuguese Machete and still the most popular of the ukulele family. It has a string length of about 35cm which makes it a bit of a squeeze for people with larger hands, but they’re ideal as a first instrument for youngsters and for serious players looking for an authentic traditional Hawaiian tone. Their small size makes them a great travel companion as well.

    The concert is the next up in size with a longer body and a 38cm string length giving a richer, more sonorous tone from the larger resonating chamber and extra string tension and a little extra room for the fingers. Concerts are very popular for players with previous guitar experience as the chord spacing is a little less cramped, and for anyone with larger hands they feel very comfortable compared to a soprano.

    The tenor is the biggest of the three more common ukuleles with a string length of about 43cm. Most of the commercially made tenors are also considerably deeper so combined with a larger outline and more string tension they’re fuller and louder than either the soprano or the concert. The tenor is very popular as a solo instrument particularly for finger picking and playing styles with less attack where a smaller ukulele will often sound a little too quiet and underpowered.

    Although historically ukuleles were often tuned quite high in pitch, often ADF#B, nowadays the three main sizes usually use a standardised tuning of GCEA (low to high) and they use what is referred to as a re-entrant tuning so that the G on the bottom is higher in pitch to the C. This is probably historically due to the fact that the smaller ukuleles are fairly thin in the bass registers so a low G would not sound very good: tuning it an octave above means all four strings are nicely resonant and it’s a big part of the signature sound of a ukulele.

    Soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles made by Kala

    Soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles made by Kala

    Baritone and Bass

    The baritone is a larger instrument with a string length is about 50cm tuned to the same notes as the four higher pitched strings of a guitar, so DGBE (low to high). This means if you can already play a soprano, concert or tenor ukulele all the chord shapes will work but they will sound a fifth lower, so a chord shape that would make a C on a soprano ukulele is a G on a Baritone. They’re often used in ukulele groups to fill out the low registers and, being very easy to get to grips with, they’re also a good instrument for people who have tried and failed to learn the guitar.

    The bass is a similar size to a baritone but the strings are made from thick rubber and tuned to the same notes as a bass guitar (EADG low to high). They typically have enough acoustic volume for practicing at home but benefit from being plugged into an amp or PA for ensemble work – a bass guitar practice amp such as the Fender Rumble series works nicely if you’re playing with an otherwise unamplified ukulele ensemble. The unusual strings give them a real double bass like thump that sounds very different to a bass guitar. They’re very useful for ukulele groups and as travel instruments for bass guitar players.

    Bass and baritone ukuleles by Lani

    Bass and baritone ukuleles by Lani

    Banjo and resonator ukuleles

    Banjo ukuleles or banjoleles are, as the name implies, an instrument tuned and played like a regular ukulele but with the body of a banjo. The banjolele was the instrument of choice for George Fornby, and they have a penetrating, powerful sound. They are traditionally based on a soprano string length but concert and tenor scale banjoleles are available for those that prefer a longer string length.

    The resonator ululele takes the same concept but with a miniature resonator guitar body instead of the banjo body. A resonator instrument works by having the strings pass over a bridge mounted onto a speaker, so that when the string vibrate the energy is transferred to the speaker and it produces sound. The sound is somewhere between that of a banjolele and a traditional wood ukulele. The bodies can be made of wood or metal and are available in soprano, concert and tenor scale length.

    A selection of different banjo ukuleles

    A selection of different banjo ukuleles

    More unusual ukuleles

    Electric ukuleles are available in a couple of different forms. The standard format is to have a normal looking ukulele with a pickup element built into the bridge, and usually a volume control and some form of tone shaping control. They can be played as normal without amplification but it gives you the option of plugging it into an amplifier or PA for performances where you need to be louder.

    There are also solid body electric ukuleles. These will either have a pickup built into the bridge, or they will have a magnetic pickup as you would find in an electric guitar. If the latter, the ukulele will have metal strings, which will give a very dieeferent sound to a traditional ukulele.

    The sopranino ukulele is a smaller instrument than a soprano and is usually tuned higher, often an octave higher. The sopranino is fairly uncommon member of the ukulele family and there isn’t really a standard size but there are a few companies producing an instrument along these lines.

    The taropatch was a concert sized ukulele popular for a short while in the 1920s with eight strings instead of four. They were tuned in unison like a mandolin and gave the ukulele a pleasing, chorusy sound. The modern equivalent is generally referred to as an 8 string tenor and is a tenor sized ukulele where at least two of the pairs are tuned with one of them an octave higher – like the bass strings on a 12 string guitar. It gives a big, jangly sound compared to a regular tenor and is a great instrument for accompanying a singer.

    Rounding out the family of instruments with more strings than standard is the 6 string and 5 string tenor. These are both tuned to the same intervals as a tenor but add extra strings an octave higher to some of the strings. The six string typically pairs the first and third strings, and the five string just the lowest. Both sound a little janglier than a tenor but less so than an 8 string. All three multi-string instruments are played exactly as you would a normal tenor ukulele.

    Top to bottom: six string tenor, five string tenor, guitarlele, eight string tenor, all made by Baton Rouge

    Top to bottom: six string tenor, five string tenor, guitarlele, eight string tenor, all made by Baton Rouge

    The tenor guitar is not really a ukulele but offers a certain amount of crossover between guitar and ukulele. It has four steel strings and are traditionally tuned CGDA or GDAE, although ukulele players often tune to the baritone ukulele tuning of DGBE to save learning a new set of chord shapes. They have a chimey, sweet sound compared to a six string acoustic guitar and they’re usually smaller, ranging from baritone uke to parlour guitar in size.

    Lastly, we should probably mention Seagull’s Merlin dulcimer which is a recent addition to the folk family that takes its inspiration from the Appalachian mountain dulcimer and the strum stick. It has diatonic frets so it’s easy to learn for complete beginners and it can be strummed or fingerpicked.


    For more information on choosing a first ukulele read our beginner’s guide.