While ukuleles may all look similar, there are actually different sizes of ukuleles that produce distinct sounds and offer unique playing experiences. In this comprehensive guide we'll explore the various sizes of ukuleles, their characteristics, and how they differ from one another.
Tuning the ukulele
Most ukuleles are tuned to C (GCEA). The third-string C sounds the middle C on a piano. Smaller sized ukuleles have their G string tuned up one octave, sounding between the E and A strings. It’s optional to tune the G on a Tenor sized ukulele to the lower octave to increase its low range. Baritone ukuleles are tuned like top four strings of a guitar (DGBE). And Bass Ukuleles are tuned like the lowest four string of a guitar (EADG). Find out more about tuning a ukulele HERE.
A Note on “Scale Length”
"Scale length" is a measurement taken from a stringed musical instrument's "nut," located at the headstock end of the string, to its "bridge" on the instrument's body. In simpler terms, it represents the distance between these crucial parts where the strings are placed, signifying the maximum sounding length of the strings. Varied scales can significantly impact an instrument's sound and playability. Each ukulele size typically falls within its own specific scale length range.
What are the different sizes of ukuleles?
Ukuleles come in five main sizes: Soprano, Concert, Tenor, Baritone, and in modern times Bass. Each size has its own unique sound and playability, making it important to choose the right size based on your preferences and playing style.
The Soprano ukulele is the most traditional, smallest, and most popular size. It typically measures around 21 inches in length with around a 14" scale length. It has a bright, cheerful sound. Due to its compact size, it is perfect for players with smaller hands or those who prefer a more traditional ukulele sound.
The Concert ukulele is slightly larger than the Soprano, measuring around 23 inches in length. The Concert scale is usually close to 15". It offers a slightly deeper and fuller sound compared to the Soprano, while still maintaining a classic ukulele tone. The Concert ukulele is a popular choice for both beginners and experienced players. It can work well for more articulate playing.
The Tenor ukulele is larger than both the Soprano and Concert, measuring around 26 inches in length. The Tenor scale is typically in the 17" area. It produces a rich, warm sound with increased volume and resonance. It’s a excelent choice for playing finger style due to its extended scale. The Tenor ukulele is favored by professional musicians and players who want a more versatile instrument. It is also the most common to be seen at Hawaiian Luau performances in modern times. The Tenor ukulele often has a low octave G string giving it an extended lower range.
The Baritone ukulele is the largest of the four traditional sizes, measuring around 30 inches in length with a 20" scale. It's usually tuned down a fourth from the other ukulele sizes, just like the top four strings of a guitar (DGBE). It has a deep, mellow sound that is similar to a classical guitar. The Baritone ukulele is often preferred by guitarists looking to transition or double on the ukulele due to its familiar tuning and larger size.
Ukulele Bass or UBass
The ukulele bass is a more modern invention but is still welcomed in the ukulele family. It’s commonly known as the "UBass," and is a compact, four-stringed instrument resembling a smaller version of an acoustic bass guitar. It typically features a short scale length, usually around 20 inches. It is tuned to EADG, similar to a traditional string bass but an octave higher, up in the guitar range. Despite its small size, the UBass produces deep, rich tones due to the use of rubber or synthetic strings and often incorporates electronics for amplification. Its compact size and unique sound make it popular among musicians seeking a portable bass option with a distinctive tone.
Which size is right for you?
Choosing the right size of ukulele depends on your personal preferences, playing style, and hand size. If you are a beginner or have smaller hands, the Soprano or Concert ukulele may be the best choice for you. If you are an experienced player, have larger hands, or want a more versatile instrument the Tenor may be more suitable. Baritone is perfect for dedicated guitarists looking to expand their sound pallet. And Bass works wonderfully for those looking to fill out a band’s sound with a great sounding compact instrument choice.
It's also worth noting that there are variations within each size, such as wood choices (Mahogany, Koa, and many others), long or short necks, or pineapple-shaped ukuleles, which can further affect the sound and playability. It's always a good idea to try out different sizes and variations before making a final decision.
Woods used in the construction of ukuleles
Ukuleles can be manufactured using various types of tonewood. Each wood choice contributes to the instrument's sound characteristics. Early ukuleles were typically made with Koa, a native wood found only on the Hawaiian Islands. It remains a very popular choice for more traditional instruments due to its warm tone and lovely figuring. Once the ukulele arrived on the mainland, mahogany became a common and popular choice. While typically not as fancy as Koa, mahogany is also renowned for its warmth and projection. In more modern times, a wide variety of wood choices can be found on ukuleles, including spruce, maple, acacia, rosewood, cedar, and a host of other tone woods. Each of these wood choices for the top, backend sides, and neck can have an impact on how a ukulele will sound. It’s best to try a variety of ukuleles to see how they sound to you!
Understanding the different sizes of ukuleles is essential for choosing the right instrument that suits your needs and preferences. Whether you prefer the bright sound of a Soprano or the deep resonance of a Baritone or Bass, there is a ukulele size that will perfectly complement your playing style. So go ahead, explore the world of ukuleles and find the size that speaks to you!
Be sure to also check out our The Ukulele: A Brief History article to learn the origins of the ukulele!