Nice ukuleles on a wall. Not pictured: Cheap ukes.

That. I want one of those.

 

My first ukulele didn’t turn me into George Harrison. It was cheap, plastic and orange and looked more like a toy than a real instrument. But I kept at it despite never quite sounding like my inspiration. I lost track of that ukulele years ago due to a combination of res living and — no, res living is enough to explain disappearances. It’s probably broken and in a trash heap somewhere. It’s been ten years since I asked for a ukulele instead of a “real” instrument for Christmas and I still love to play.

When I finally purchased a nice Magic Fluke complete with a koa soundboard it was after years of slogging through with an impliable instrument which despite its every flaw made me fall in love.

Okay so technically this is why I bought a Fluke. You can play this song at my funeral:

 

(If you’ve ever heard me play ukulele, you’ve heard me play Postcards or Nantes by Beirut.)

So, there are two reasons to start your journey of a thousand four-chord campfire songs with a cheap plastic ukulele:

First, there is no such thing as a mid-price, mid-quality ukulele. It’s either junk or worthy of a studio.

Second, there are so many options in ukuleles these days that you should to test drive a cheapy before defining what you want if you choose to upgrade.

Every ukulele lover comes to these realizations on their own after a unique adjustment period. Read on to my QuickStart Guide to read everything you need to discover to turn your cheap new uke into your new best friend.

Six Lessons for the Littlest Instrument:

A Quickstart Guide for Cheap Plastic Ukuleles

1. You will retune twenty times before learning a single chord.

The first thing you need for your new ukulele is an online tuning program like Sheep Entertainment Ukulele Chordfinder. It gives four different tuning possibilities. If you don’t understand what’s happening, you probably have a Soprano in C. Soprano is the size, and C is the tuning. Tune your C Soprano strings to GCEA, where the C is the lowest pitched note out of the four. Holding the uke’s neck in your left hand with your right hand to strum, the G is the string closest to your face and the A is closest to the floor. GCEA is often audiated as My Dog Has Fleas.

 

2. Ukuleles are not mini guitars

The Soprano is the ukulele size, with its 12-15 frets set fairly closely together. You’ll notice the neck is delicate and probably slippery because it’s plastic. Don’t choke your ukulele or grip it too hard! Even cheap ukes need to be held properly. Ukuleles have a very small soundboard and you need to squeeze all the sound of the board and out of the sweet spot as possible, and that means no touchy the soundboard, and yes strummy over the sweet spot. The sweet spot is approximately where the neck stops on the soundboard. You should only be lighting touching the ukulele with your body, knee and as little as possible on the fleshy part of your palmaris longus muscle. If you see a massage therapist, let them know. Knots can develop very easily.

By freeing up the soundboard and indeed the entire instrument through limiting touch, you can get the fullest possible sound. An acoustic guitar can be held close because it has enough real estate that you can afford to dampen the resonance. Ukuleles need every square inch they can get.

3. You will hurt your fingers on the strings.

If you’re not used to stringed instruments, practice sessions will hurt for about a week or two. You won’t develop noticeable calluses but your fingers still need an adjustment period.

If you’re feeling fancy, you may want to purchase better and less painful strings. But then you’ve got a $40 instrument with $10 strings for a real rims on a Civic experience. I use Aquila Nylgut on my Fluke. That reminds me, I have to order more strings, and lemon oil for cleaning the wood.

Cheap ukes have cheap fretboards, so don’t invest in the wound strings that allow for a lower G because you’ll wear down the fretboard’s finish.

Warning: Do not use guitar picks on ukuleles! Ukes are made for soft human hands and will scratch easily. You can purchase a variety of felt picks if you would prefer, but never use guitar picks.

4. It’s the tuning pegs, not the strings.

The reason you won’t find a fully vintage ukulele is that its tuning pegs need to be replaced after several years. The constant retuning required for your cheap uke puts even more stress on the instrument. Your uke will eventually stop holding their tuning because the bored holes that hold the tuning pegs wear out, and new strings won’t help a tuning peg problem. If a ukulele is worth playing, it’ll be played and loved and eventually have its pegs replaced. It’s only worth replacing the pegs if the rest of the instrument is high quality, and not just a homemade cigar box ukulele.

Good quality vintage ukuleles, like these ones from Martin available on eBay, will set you back more cash than a modern uke of even higher quality. For this reason vintage ukuleles are a suspicious buy — quality ukes will be used, abused and replaced. Low quality but beautiful-looking ukes will stay in great condition for a long time because nobody wants to play it.

5. If you’re not retuning constantly you’re hurting your ear.

When you retune GCEA every five minutes, you’re going to internalize perfect pitch on those four notes so eventually you won’t even need a tuning program.

If you get the tuning and some chords down, it’s time to think about some strumming patterns.

6. You will either give up or start saving for a much better uke.

Even with the cheap sound and hokey look, you might just fall in love.

(How can I not love an instrument when one of its absolute classics is an ode to my height and eye colour?)

 

Over the months or years, you’ll have learned what to look for when you spring for a pricier version. Along with the above, you’ll know that:

Good ukes are often made with several types of wood, and wood is very finicky about humidity. Koa is the gold standard for sound quality, but most ukes diversify their materials for harder soundboards and lighter necks.

Ukuleles should be detuned for traveling or when it will be exposed to extreme temperature changes. Detuning keeps the strings from snapping if the wood expands due to the weather.

They aren’t meant to be played like mini guitars, but rather they have their own strumming patterns and aesthetics. A good guitar player and a good ukulele player are producing very different sounds with different skill sets to different ends. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole is best known for his Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World but I learned to Hula to ‘Opae E so I am choosing to end this ode and lament to the ukulele with this cheeky, sweet, etheral Hawaiian song.

[Editor: Still want more ukulele? Here’s a free PDF of 32 strumming patterns.]