Types of Ukuleles
The various types of ukulele that are present on the market today have mainly been developed as a result of the increase in popularity of the ukulele. Types of ukulele can be roughly categorized into three groups: standard ukulele types, hybrid ukulele types and variations of standard ukuleles. Standard ukulele types include the four main types of ukulele - the soprano, the concert, the tenor and the baritone. Hybrid ukulele types include any instrument that has been 'crossed' with a ukulele; such as the banjolele, the harp ukulele and the bass ukulele. Variations of standard ukuleles include any type of ukulele that has some kind of other variation, but is still classified under the four main types of ukulele. Variations of standard ukuleles mainly include ukuleles that vary in body shape such as the pineapple ukulele or the cutaway ukulele.
A reason why the ukulele varies so much in size and shape is because low-end standard/soprano ukuleles are very inexpensive to manufacture, making it more cost-effective to produce different models. Often you can find ukuleles in different colors and shapes in music stores. This is because it is easy to make and sell cheap instrument variations. Some comical ukulele shapes include the electric-guitar styled ukulele, and the more traditional pineapple shaped uke, which you can occasionally find painted to look like an actual pineapple!
Many of the various types of ukulele are quite different from each other, and they produce radically different tones. The ukulele has always been quite a social instrument which is perhaps part of the reason why the tenor, baritone and bass ukuleles were developed - in order to fill out the sound (by adding in lower-ranged notes) when ukes are played together. The ukulele has undergone some significant changes during its lifetime, and like most stringed instruments is quite individualistic in quality. Different makes of the same basic type of ukulele will have different tones, depending on the quality of the woods used and the specifications of the instrument. As such, it is important to shop around for a ukulele when you decide to buy one, so that you find the right ukulele to suit you.
- Standard Ukulele Types
- Hybrid Ukulele Types
- Variations of Standard Ukulele Types
Standard Ukulele Types
Soprano, Concert, Tenor, Baritone
(from smallest to largest)
The soprano ukulele is also known as the standard ukulele because it is the closest in size to the original ukuleles made in Hawaii in the late 1800's. The soprano ukulele is the most well-known ukulele, and the vast majority of music stores will stock them. The soprano uke is usually around 21 inches long, and has only 12-15 frets depending on model. This gives it the smallest playing range of all of the ukulele types, with a twelve-fret model having a range of only twenty-two half-tones (C4-A5). The soprano ukulele is favored as a learner instrument for children because of its small size and thus the small distance between frets. This makes chord positions much easier for small hands to reach than compared with a child-sized guitar. The size of the soprano ukulele also makes it the perfect travelling companion for musicians who like to take to the road. However, the small soprano can also be harder to play for people with larger hands, who may struggle to navigate around such a condensed fretboard.
The soprano ukulele is standard-tuned to the re-entrant tuning of G4-C4-E4-A4. Most commonly, the soprano ukulele is outfitted with nylon polymer strings, which help to give the soprano uke the classic up-beat and harshly thin timbre that it is known for. The soprano ukulele is a common ukulele to start with because there are plenty of relatively low-cost and beginner-friendly models on the market at the moment. There is also an abundance of free online learning resources that cover material specifically for beginner soprano ukulele players, as well as great tools for beginner players like our own Ukulele Tuner and Ukulele Tuning App. Intermediate and advanced players are well-catered for too, so it is possible to upskill on the soprano ukulele without spending much money on lessons, music or other materials.
The Soprano is sometimes tuned a step higher in order to maintain a more traditional sound. To learn more about the tuning of the ukulele, check out our How to Tune the Ukulele article.
The concert ukulele is the very similarly constructed big sister of the soprano ukulele. The concert uke therefore maintains many of the same stylistic features as the soprano ukulele, and sounds much more similar to the soprano than to the tenor or the baritone ukulele. The concert ukulele is usually around 23 inches long; with a slightly bigger body than the soprano, which produces a somewhat richer, warmer tone. The concert uke usually has somewhere between 15 and 20 frets, depending on model. This gives the concert an extended playing range over the soprano ukulele, making it a preferable choice for ukulele soloists. The longer body of the concert means that the frets (especially those near the nut, which are more commonly played), are spaced further apart - and so the concert ukulele is considered to be easier to navigate for people with slightly larger hands. The extra room on the concert ukulele, along with its extended range, allows players to perform more technical skills on the uke while still maintaining the classic 'soprano-like' sound of the original Hawaiian ukulele.
The concert ukulele is standard-tuned to the same re-entrant tuning in the same octave as the soprano (G4, C4, E3, and A4). Like the soprano, the concert uke is also most commonly outfitted with nylon polymer strings, which maintains the continuity of sound between these two types of ukulele. The concert comes in as the second least-expensive model to pick up from a music store, with most low to mid-range models of concert ukulele being similarly priced as low to mid-range sopranos. As the tuning of the soprano and the concert are the same, the two tend to share learning resources; however there is also music especially for the concert which takes advantage of the extended range of this type of ukulele. Tools such as our Ukulele Tuner and Ukulele Tuning App work just as well with concert ukuleles as they do with sopranos!
The concert ukulele is more suited to performing advanced ukulele playing techniques, like the ones mentioned in our How to Play the Ukulele article.
The tenor ukulele is like the big brother of the soprano, being slightly deeper in tone and bigger than both the soprano and the concert ukuleles. The tenor ukulele is stocked in some music stores; however others may have to order the tenor in for you as it is not as popular as either the soprano or the concert. The tenor ukulele is usually around 26 inches long, has between 15-25 frets, and has a significantly larger body than the soprano and the concert. While the playing range of the tenor is very similar (if not the same, in some cases) as that of a concert ukulele, the tone that the larger body of the tenor produces makes it very different in sound quality to the concert and the soprano. The tenor is sometimes snubbed for not having the same 'ukuleleish' sound or feel as a soprano; however it has been embraced by many ukulele performers because of its increased projection and warm tone, which make the tenor perfect for solo acoustic performances. The frets on the tenor are spaced further apart than on the soprano and concert, making it slightly harder to play (or easier to play - depending on the size of your hands). If you are a beginner player, you will usually be advised to start on the concert or the soprano ukulele, however the tenor does suit some players much better, so it is best to pick up a tenor and try it yourself before you decide - regardless of the advice of others.
The tenor ukulele has two types of standard tuning, however in order to switch from one type to the other you will need to change the strings (or at least the G-string) on your ukulele. The two types of standard tuning for the tenor ukulele include the 'normal' re-entrant G4-C4-E4-A4 tuning, and the octave-lower G-string linear tuning of G3-C4-E4-A4. The linear tuning of the tenor ukulele increases the range of the instrument and creates a more full-bodied sound, whereas the normal re-entrant tuning keeps more of the characteristic ukulele flavor. Both high and low-G tunings have their advantages, so it is a good idea to identify what kind of tuning would suit your playing goals and style best before you decide on one. Tenor ukuleles are most commonly strung with nylon polymer strings, or with a mix of nylon polymer and metal wound strings. The usages of the two basically boil down to personal preference, with some preferring the more traditional sound made by the nylons to the warmer, metal-wound strings. Tenors are more expensive than their soprano and concert counterparts, due to their larger design. Learning resources can be found for the tenor freely online, however not in quite the same abundance if using linear tuning.
Check out our How to Tune the Ukulele article to learn more about how the Tenor is tuned.
The baritone ukulele is often viewed as being more like a guitar than a ukulele as not only is it tuned using linear tuning, but its strings are tuned the same as the top four strings of the guitar. The baritone ukulele is usually around 30 inches in length and has upwards of 18 frets, depending on model. The linear tuning gives the baritone the greatest range of any of the ukulele types. It is a much bigger instrument than the soprano, tenor or concert, and is often used by guitarists who wish to learn the ukulele, or by ukulele players who would eventually like to progress on to playing the guitar.
The baritone ukulele is standard-tuned to D3-G3-B3-E4, and therefore requires completely different music and chord charts from the tenor, concert and soprano ukuleles (although the chord shapes will be the same on the baritone ukulele, the chord names will be different). The baritone ukulele can be strung with either nylon polymer strings or a combination of nylon polymers and metal wound strings, depending on personal preference. A metal wound string will give a warmer tone to the baritone uke, whereas nylon polymer strings will make the baritone sound more 'ukuleleish'. The baritone ukulele is the most expensive ukulele to buy, because of its larger body. Also, there aren't as many free learning resources covering how to play the baritone ukulele as opposed to what is available for the tenor, concert and soprano, making it a less-desirable starter instrument for many who look at playing the ukulele - despite its bridging ability between the ukulele and the guitar. Baritone ukuleles are often used by blues players, and they tend to suit male singers better than the high soprano or concert in most cases.
Hybrid Ukulele Types
Recently, another style of ukulele has been developed which has further diversified the ukulele market. Ukulele hybrids - a mixture of the ukulele, and another instrument (like the bass guitar or banjo) have been developed. Previously, these instruments would not have been possible to construct, but due to advancements in technology and the development of different synthetic materials, instruments like the bass guitar ukulele (or the bass ukulele) and even the violin-ukulele have been developed. Hybrids are harder to come across in music stores, although the Bass ukulele is particularly popular as it covers exactly the same range as the bass guitar (but is usually acoustic or semi-acoustic) Therefore it can be used as a 'practice bass' which means the bass player does not need to take a full sized, heavy electric bass and amp traveling. Also, the Bass ukulele is useful in ukulele orchestras, which are becoming increasingly popular too.
Hybrid ukuleles are types of ukulele that have been engineered to include a number of features typically associated with a different instrument. Hybrid instruments are usually made in order to create a different style, sound or feel to music with an instrument that previously didn't exist. Some ukulele hybrids, like the bass ukulele, are beginning to grow in popularity due to social factors (in the case of the bass ukulele, the popularity of ukulele orchestras has seen an increase in the numbers of bass ukulele manufactured and sold). Other hybrid instruments are made for pleasure, and very small numbers of the instrument are manufactured or sold.
The bass ukulele is a hybrid uke which is essentially a small, acoustic version of a bass guitar. Tuned to the same octave as a bass guitar, (E3 A3 D4 G4), this ukulele can have either thick polyurethane strings, or wound ones - although the polyurethane strings are the most common. The polyurethane strings of the bass ukulele have made quite an impression on bass musicians as these strings produce a unique sound which is of a similar depth to that produced by an upright bass. The bass uke is becoming more popular as it is an easier-traveling instrument than the bass guitar (and doesn't compromise on sound), and because it fills out the low-range sound in a ukulele orchestra or treble-based performance group. Bass ukuleles are currently sold with or without frets.
The banjo ukulele has the string set-up of a soprano ukulele, but with the body of a banjo. Otherwise known as the 'banjolele', the instrument became reasonably popular in the 1920's, and more models of the hybrid instrument are currently being manufactured. The banjo ukulele retains some of its classic banjo sound, with a definite ukulele undertone.
The harp ukulele combines elements of harp and ukulele. Sometimes a harp ukulele will have unfretted strings (like those of a harp) attached to the ukulele with a bridge extension. There are, however, quite a number of different ways in which the harp ukulele has been engineered in order to include aspects of both harp and ukulele. The harp ukulele was first developed in the 1910's, with inspiration drawn from the harp guitar hybrid. The harp ukulele is still quite an uncommon instrument to come across; however a number of different luthiers have experimented with the harp ukulele, mainly during periods when the popularity of the ukulele has peaked.
The guitar ukulele combines elements of the classical guitar and the tenor ukulele in an instrument known as a 'guitalele'. With six-strings and a small body, the guitar ukulele is a relatively common instrument for a hybrid which is both portable and easier to play for children than a normal-sized guitar. Yamaha is known to be a current manufacturer of the guitar ukulele.
Lap Steel Ukulele
There are various ways to put a lap steel ukulele together, which combine characteristics of lap steel with the ukulele. However, lap steel ukuleles are relatively uncommon. It is possible to play in the style of lap steel (holding the ukulele on your lap and using a metal slide called a steel) with a standard type of ukulele that has high string tension (otherwise known as high 'action').
Variations of Standard Ukulele Types
There are lots of other kinds of ukulele that you may like to investigate. There are many body variations on the traditional soprano uke, and preference on each type of body mainly boils down to personal opinion. Here we have highlighted some of the variations of ukulele you are likely to come across, however this is not a complete list - it pays to note that different types of ukulele are developed all the time, and the popularity of each type can come and go, depending mainly on who is picking them up and playing them!
The sopranino ukulele (also known as the piccolo ukulele) is a tiny ukulele, with only around 10 frets. The sopranino ukulele is usually tuned an octave above the baritone ukulele (D5-G5-E5-A6) and is manufactured by some large instrument companies, so is quite widely available. While the sopranino could probably be described as a main type of ukulele (due to its significant difference from the other main types), it is not commonly used and is mostly viewed as a novelty instrument.
8 String Ukulele
The 8-string ukulele is set up rather like a mandolin or a 12-string guitar in that it has 4 sets of 2 pairs of strings, which can be tuned in several different ways, depending on the individual ukulele set-up. An 8-string ukulele can be tuned with the string pairs in the same octave as each other, with each string pairs all an octave apart, or (most commonly) with a mix between the two types of tuning. The most usual 8-string mixed-tuning for a soprano, concert or tenor 8-string is: G4-G3, C3-C4, E3-E3, A4-A4. Tuning this way helps maintain a characteristic ukulele sound while still fleshing out the range. 8-string ukuleles are mainly used for strumming rather than picking.
The pineapple ukulele has a half-pineapple shaped body in place of a regular-shaped body. While the pineapple body feature is sometimes thought of as a novelty addition to the ukulele, it actually produces a louder sound (and stronger resonance) than the traditionally-shaped ukulele. The pineapple ukulele body-shape is widely available on soprano and concert ukuleles, though not as popular on the larger types of ukulele.
The term 'cutaway' is used to describe a string instrument where the right-hand shoulder has been 'cut back' in order to make playing on the top frets of the instrument easier. Cutaway ukuleles can usually be found in music stores, as this stylistic feature is commonly added to all four main types of ukulele - though it is more commonly found on the concert, tenor and baritone than on the soprano.
Ukuleles can produce sound electronically either through using a pick-up or a plug-in, or by being designed as a fully-electric instrument without a resonant body. Pick-ups or plug-ins on ukuleles are quite common, whereas fully electric instrument are a little rarer, possibly due to their lack of flexibility (and price) as compared to a semi-acoustic. You may wish to use an electric ukulele, or a pick-up with your usual acoustic uke if you perform in front of a large audience, or if you perform in an area with low acoustics where sound can easily be 'lost' (for example, outside).
What odd kinds of ukulele have you come across? What is your favourite type of ukulele? Let us know in the comments below!