Updated: September 1, 2023
When it comes to embracing Hawaiian culture, two things often come to mind: hula dancing and ukuleles. Ukuleles are stunning instruments that create beautiful sounds and can turn any lūʻau into a memorable event. However, many people are unaware of the different ukulele sizes.
Ukuleles today come in five main types or sizes. Initially, all ukuleles were sopranos. However, as society and music evolved over the years, people started creating different sizes of ukuleles to produce varying sounds and improve the instrument’s sound projection.
Now, we have five primary ukulele sizes, each offering distinctive benefits. However, new ukulele players may have trouble knowing which one to choose! Below, we review the basics of each ukulele type and when to use them.
Your Ukulele Size Guide
Each of the five types of ukuleles has a similar body style. The main differences are the sizes and sounds.
The soprano ukulele is the one most people think of since it was the first ukulele.
Soprano-size ukuleles are 21 inches long and the smallest of all ukulele types. As such, people with larger fingers may struggle to play with a shorter scale length.
As the first ukulele, the soprano produces the melody most people recognize. The smaller instrument is the best beginner ukulele.
The concert ukulele is only two inches longer than the soprano. Due to its slightly larger body, it produces a fuller sound while still creating those traditional light notes.
With a longer neck and scale length, it also has more string tension and space between the frets. So, if you struggle to play a soprano ukulele due to its small size but still want a classic tone and a cheaper instrument, the concert ukulele is a solid alternative.
When it comes to tenor ukulele sound, think classical guitar meets traditional ukulele.
Tenor ukuleles are significantly larger than sopranos, measuring 26 inches long. Due to this larger scale length, they produce a fuller sound than the other two ukuleles. In addition, tenor ukuleles have more space and frets, allowing players to achieve higher notes.
This mid-sized ukulele is popular among famous ukulele players, including Jake Shimabukuro and the late Jesse Kaleihia Andre Kalima, because it makes it easier to use complex fingerpicking and produces baroque sounds.
Baritone models are the largest of traditional ukulele sizes, measuring 30 inches long. Due to its size, a baritone ukulele also produces a significantly deeper tone with better projection than the other four main sizes.
Often called a “bari,” the baritone uke may be difficult for people with smaller hands to play. In addition, its large size and deeper sound mean it can’t produce the same bright tones as a smaller ukulele.
The bass ukulele is significantly different from the soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone instruments, primarily because of its size and sound.
Guitar players can use a traditional or bass guitar, depending on the desired pitch range. Similarly, ukulele players have the bass ukulele.
Although many consider the baritone ukulele the largest of traditional ukes, the bass instrument measures 30 to 32 inches long, making it the largest ukulele.
Why Do Different Ukuleles Use Different Tuning?
As with any other string instrument, ukuleles require tuning.
Ukuleles with shorter scales, like sopranos, concerts, and tenors, generally use G-C-E-A or standard tuning. Meanwhile, a longer scale often requires lower tuning.
For example, baritones use D-G-B-E tuning, which is lower than the other tuning techniques by five half steps. This ukulele tuning is similar to how you tune a guitar’s bottom four strings.
As a result, a baritone ukulele often produces notes similar to an acoustic guitar. However, if you want your instrument to have a more classic uke sound, you can use standard G-C-E-A ukulele tuning.
While you can use standard tuning on bigger ukuleles, like a bass uke, they will produce deeper tones. You can also tune a bass ukulele using E-A-D-G.
How to Compare Ukulele Types
Now that you know the basics of each uke size, it’s time to determine which one to play. Every ukulele produces beautiful sounds that anyone can learn; however, some sizes are better than others for specific situations.
Tenor Ukulele vs. Soprano: Best Ukuleles for Beginners
Soprano models are significantly smaller than tenor models and produce a lighter, more classic sound. They are also the cheapest option, costing as little as $20 to $30.
Due to its small size and low cost, the soprano ukulele is ideal for those needing a beginner ukulele.
Meanwhile, the average tenor ukulele costs around 20% more than a soprano size. However, tenors are less expensive than the larger sizes of ukuleles, making them a solid middle ground in terms of cost and playability.
Some consider tenor ukuleles an improvement over the traditional models since they produce a warmer tone and are a bit louder. Their slightly larger size also makes them easier to play for a wider range of players.
Essentially, if you have small fingers and a tight budget but want to learn the basics of uke fingerpicking, the soprano is the way to go. However, if you want a larger ukulele to hold on to for the long term, consider opting for the tenor.
Soprano vs. Concert Ukulele: Best Sizes for Playing in Front of Small Groups
A concert-sized ukulele is only a bit larger than the soprano, but it produces a fuller sound that makes it ideal for playing in front of a crowd.
Both sizes can use G-C-E-A, or re-entrant, tuning. However, concert ukuleles can also use linear tuning. Linear, or low G-string tuning, is when you tune the G string down an octave to create a deeper sound. This type of tuning gives the concert size a sound more fit for playing in front of a group.
Concert vs. Tenor Ukulele: Best for Performers
Concert and tenor ukuleles offer similar sounds in terms of volume and tone. However, the tenor is typically three inches longer than the concert size, giving it an even fuller sound.
Both ukuleles use G-C-E-A re-entrant or linear tuning. However, you can also tune the tenor like a baritone by using D-G-B-E.
While concert ukuleles are ideal for playing in front of small crowds, the tenor is best for playing in front of larger audiences. In addition, performers like Jake Shimabukuro prefer tenors because of the rich sound and greater number of frets, allowing them to reach the highest strings and achieve better sound projection.
A tenor will cost more than a concert or soprano ukulele. However, performers can consider this expense an investment because of the more intricate fingerpicking opportunity and richer overall sound. Listen to Jake Shimabukuro and his amazing fingerwork as a prime example!
Tenor vs. Baritone Ukulele: Best for Volume and Projection
Baritone ukuleles tend to be the most expensive due to their size and needed materials. However, they are also easier to play than any other ukulele size and have impressive projection.
While tenors can maintain traditional light sounds, baritones are tuned differently and deliver much deeper notes.
If you want something easy to play and are willing to invest in a bigger instrument, the baritone may be a good option. Meanwhile, tenors are ideal for those wanting a classic ukulele sound without spending a pretty penny.
Additional Ukulele Sizes You Should Know
While the five types mentioned above are the main options, ukuleles come in multiple other options that offer extra space, more frets, or lighter sounds.
The banjo ukulele is a unique combination of the two instruments. Also called the “banjolele,” it has a ukulele’s body and a banjo’s tone. Since it is about the same size as a traditional uke, it offers a shorter scale and lighter notes than a classic banjo.
If you want to maximize projection, consider getting an electric ukulele. Like an electric guitar, electric ukuleles have amplified sound thanks to connected electronics.
Pineapple ukuleles are among the most unique types of ukes. Rather than a traditional ukulele shape, it has a shape resembling a pineapple.
The unorthodox shape not only makes a pineapple ukulele fun to play but offers better acoustics and a pleasant tone.
Although many say the soprano has the shortest scale, the sopranino beats it. This tiny instrument is only 12 inches long and has ten frets.
Final Thoughts on Choosing the Best Ukulele Size
Ukulele size is integral to the instrument’s sound, feel, look, and cost. Deciding which is best for you ultimately depends on personal preference, but we are happy to make suggestions.
Generally speaking, the best beginner ukulele will be less expensive, small, and easy to play. Meanwhile, performers can benefit more from larger ukuleles with better projection and richer sounds. The best way to determine which type you prefer is by asking fellow uke players and holding different sizes in your hands.
If you still struggle to determine which model in the ukulele family to choose, head to Waikiki’s best local music store, Ukulele PUAPUA at the Sheraton Waikiki, and ask an expert or sign up for lessons!