Ukuleles may seem like relatively simple instruments to play, but in reality, they’re rather diverse in terms of build and sound. With such a broad range of these things out there, we’ve put together this guide to help you get to grips with the various models available.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
The Effect of Ukulele Sizes on Sound
If you listened to a musician playing the same arpeggio on a soprano, concert, tenor and baritone ukulele, you’d hear a huge difference in tone, even if they all had the same setup.
Believe it or not, this is mostly down to the variation in body size. For example, smaller soprano ukes produce music in a much higher pitch than say, a tenor or a baritone. Same four strings (nylon strings). Same, in many cases, wood (usually mahogany). But why the big difference in ukulele sound?
Well, ukuleles work this way because the amount of resonating space inside each instrument is different. Larger bodied models have a bigger resonation chamber, which means they produce lower sound frequencies. This works in the same way that instruments like a drum kit or panpipes do.
If you were to hit a set of drums right now, the small snare would kick out a higher pitch than the more robust kick drum. Whereas, if you blew the down the smallest chamber of a panpipe, it would produce a higher note than the longest.
The important thing to remember is ukes of a larger size = lower octave and sound, and those that are smaller size = higher octave sound.
In music theory, the term ‘scale’ has two meanings. The first relates to the pattern of notes that make up either a minor or major sequence, whereas the second describes the length of ringing string, that runs between the instrument’s nut and saddle. We’re talking about the second meaning here.
But why is scale length so important in ukuleles? Well, there are two main reasons.
Firstly, because different scale sizes alter the layout of the frets across the fingerboard, by making them wider or smaller. This means that chords and finger placement become slightly different between each model, therefore altering the instrument’s playability.
Secondly, because scale length affects the instrument’s string tension. If you imagine putting a set of soprano 13-14” strings on a 17” tenor uke… Before getting them into GCEA, chances are they’ll either snap or become too tight to use. In regards to tone, this means that longer scale lengths favor bright, natural overtones and harmonics, as the string has more material to let the sound ring out through. Shorter ones, on the other hand, hold less space for overtones, so produce a plucky, fuzzy sound. So, the general rule here is that ukes with larger scale lengths can support more tension than shorter ones.
You can get a rough idea of how each uke stacks up to the next in this size chart:
Before we discuss the various sizes of ukulele available, we should probably point out that there are two distinct shapes that every size is based around. Most come in a standard shape, however, some smaller builds are available as pineapple bodied too. Take a look below to find out more…
Standard bodied ukuleles are actually slightly altered versions of the Portuguese Machete, which was introduced to Hawaii late in the 19th century. These ukes have a figure of eight or hourglass body shape, more similar to a classical guitar, but quite a bit smaller. The design here is more about comfort than projection, although standard bodied ukuleles still amplify their sound really well. The bottom curve is designed to give your thigh a nook to rest in, whilst the top nook gives the musician’s arm more maneuverability. Standard shaped ukuleles are the most widely available type out there, so you’re likely to see these in most music stores or websites.
The pineapple shape was designed by Samuel Kamaka in the 1920s, as a variation on the original soprano. You’ve probably already gathered that this instrument resembles a pineapple in terms of shape, with a slightly tapered end near the neck and a wider base. But as well as looking cool, Kamaka went through all this effort, so that he could play a soprano-sized uke, with a louder, more mellow sound. This works because the resonation chamber in a pineapple uke’s body is larger, so they sound a little fuller than the standard soprano.
Just bear in mind, that vintage pineapple models are quite hard to find, or are sought after collector’s items, whereas modern takes on them are still made for a lower price by a handful of manufacturers. Just remember that pineapple ukes don’t have the waist groove that standard sopranos have, so may take a little getting used to in terms of playability.
Now we’re going to explain the different sizes of ukulele out there, starting from the smallest and finishing with the largest. Note: you can learn to play the uke on any of them, but choosing the right size to match your hand size is the most important thing. Each one differs in sound slightly too.
The soprano size is the smallest form of the ukulele with a total length between 20”-21”, and a scale length of around 13-14”. The body, therefore, produces the highest pitch tone, with fewer bass frequencies. That said, there are pineapple shaped soprano designs available if you prefer a little more low-end. Just remember, these can be a little more pricey and harder to find. Most standard ones have 12 frets that are spaced ¾ inch apart, helping those that don’t have a large finger width.
Thanks to its tone, soprano ukuleles are the most popular size among musicians, as they produce an authentic, plinky sound, that everyone associates with traditional Hawaiian ukulele music. Thanks to their small size, they are usually the most comfortable for smaller builds to hold and play, so make the perfect choice for kids.
Just remember that people with large handspans will often find the soprano ukulele pretty fiddly to play accurately, so should opt for one of the larger ukes we mention below. With that in mind, the soprano has still been used widely in pop music around the world. For example, artists like Ohta-San of A&M Records, the singer-comedian George Formby and ‘Hawaii’s greatest ukulele player’, Ernest Ka’ai are all pioneers of this type of uke.
Concert ukuleles are the median instrument between soprano and tenor models, and usually, have a total length of 23” and a scale length between 15/16”. Typically, the concert ukulele will also have between 15-20 frets and a longer neck than a soprano, making them a great option if your hands feel squashed playing a soprano, but stretched playing a tenor. Because the body is a little larger than a soprano too, medium-sized players often find concert ukes more comfortable to hold than petite ones.
The instruments usually come as standard shaped, rather than the pineapple design, so resemble a small guitar in terms of aesthetic. Just remember, that even though concert ukes are tuned to GCEA, in the same way a soprano is, they kick out music with more bass and depth, so sound slightly less authentic. But, saying that, these things still produce a fairly bright sound, so make a good compromise if you need the larger size for extra playability.
Tenors are larger than concert size, with a total length of 26” and a scale length of between 17/18”. The best thing about this tenor size is that this is the longest scale length that can be used to play in a GCEA tuning. So, if you want to learn traditional, fingerpicking techniques, on a uke with wider frets, a tenor is a great option for you.
Just remember that, because the body is larger than soprano and concert models, the sound these things produce is a little more complex and richer than the traditional tone. But, saying that, tenors can kick out more volume and resonance than smaller ukes, so they are becoming popular among more experienced solo musicians who need a boost whilst performing live.
With that in mind, they aren’t the best option for complete novices, as the body and neck can be a little beefy to get your hands around initially. If you’d like to check out the sound that tenor ukes make, have a listen to music by the diverse composer, Jake Shimabukuro or the classically trained musician, James Hill. These guys are a couple of really tenor players!
Now we move on to discuss the largest of all the ukuleles out there, baritone ukuleles. These instruments usually have a scale length ranging between 19/20”, with a total length of 30”. Additionally, the body and fret size is the biggest of all the ukes we mentioned above.
In regards to tone, this means that baritones produce the lowest frequency sound of all, and have the most resonance. Just be aware that due to the longer scale length, these things are tuned in DGBE, like a guitar without its two lowest strings. This is the opposite case in soprano, concert and tenor ukes, which are strung from high to low. So, for this reason, baritone ukes are the perfect option for guitarists, looking to play something with more of an ukulele-esk feel.
Just remember, their tuning makes it a little harder for traditional style ukulele players to pick up. You’ll end up having to either learn some extra theory or transpose standard ukulele riffs from GCEA, into the baritone tuning. If you’re a complete novice, however, the larger size body and frets make the baritone a more comfortable choice for larger builds, but perhaps a bit of a stretch for folks that are more petite. Many jazz musicians prefer this size best of all, as the wider frets mean they can squeeze chords and riff faster.
Other Uke Sizes
So, we’ve covered the most common sizes of the uke on the market, but there are a few other rare or unusual types we’ve yet to talk about. So, take a look below if you’re feeling adventurous…
Turns out, we lied a little bit about the soprano being the smallest uke out there! The pocket ukulele is truly the tiniest, and pretty cute too. These things have a scale length of around 11″ and a very petite body. Of course, this means you don’t get the diversity of notes that ukuleles with longer scale lengths have to offer, but saying that, sopranissimo ukes sure are easy to carry about with you. In regards to tone, as expected, this is the twangiest of all the ukes we’ve talked about, with the least sustain and volume. Just remember, playing chords and scales on these instruments requires some pretty decent finger dexterity or a least the player to have small fingers. For this reason, we feel that pocket ukes make the best choice for children.
Sopranino ukes are simply smaller versions of soprano models, with a scale length of about 13”. So, of course, they have a tiny body and frets, making them best suited to folks that travel a lot, or for smaller children to learn on. Tone-wise, sopraninos sound nice and bright, as you’d expect from an instrument sized in between the pocket uke and soprano build. These are available in both pineapple and standard shapes.
Bass ukes are pretty much an extra-large baritone, but with thicker nylon strings, tuned to EADG like an electric or acoustic bass guitar. The great thing about this design, however, is the instrument’s portability. Lugging a double bass around certainly isn’t fun, whereas carrying a bass uke is a breeze! Unsurprisingly, the tone these things kick out is low, thick and muddy, as you’d expect, but with a decent amount of resonance and volume. Due to their character, bass ukes make a great addition to an acoustic band or an ensemble, but remember, the extra-wide strings will probably feel uncomfortable to play if you have petite fingers, or are a complete beginner.
If you’re feeling disappointed that your hands are too large to play an authentic soprano, concert, or even tenor ukulele, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised to hear about longnecked/super ukes. These instruments basically have a different neck to match the body size, so you can play something with a more authentic tone, whilst retaining the comfort of a larger neck and scale length. The three types are explained below:
- Longneck Soprano/Super Soprano – This uke has a soprano body, with a concert-sized neck attached.
- Longneck Concert/Super Concert – This uke has a concert body, with a tenor sized neck attached.
- Longneck Tenor/Super Tenor – This uke has a tenor body, with a baritone sized neck attached.
The last model of uke we’re going to talk about is the Guitalele. This thing is pretty cool, seeing as it’s the same size as an acoustic guitar, but tuned slightly differently, to ADGCEA. This means you can play traditional-sounding uke songs, with the comfort of the wider frets and larger neck that a guitar-sized build can offer.
Because the body of a guitalele is pretty large, this instrument produces a beefier tone than concert and tenor ukes, with tons of volume. Overall, we’d recommend this uke to any guitarists, wanting to experiment with different tones, or to folks with larger handspans, that feel uncomfortable on smaller models of the ukulele.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this read and feel like you understand the different types of sizes a little better.
If you’re still struggling to decide, remember there’s no real right or wrong choice, more importantly, just go with what feels most comfortable and is pleasing to listen to.
If you’re after a traditional Hawaiian tone, then go for a soprano in either a pineapple or standard shape for their authentic sound.
On the other hand, if you’ve got to travel a lot, or want to take your uke to the beach, go for one of the pocket-sized or sopranino models. These are the smallest designs out there, so won’t weigh you down.
If you’ve got a larger handspan or feel uncomfortable using sopranos, then try out either a concert, tenor or baritone uke. These designs offer extra comfort and playability through the wider frets and larger body. Just remember baritones are tuned more like a guitar, so may take some extra learning if that’s new to you too.
If you have experience playing the guitar, then check out the guitaele. These ukes are pretty much the same size and tuned the same as a guitar, so will be easier to pick up and play. If you’re feeling really adventurous, or want to make an acoustic band, why not try out a bass ukulele? Just be careful, as the strings here are so thick, they can be tough on your fingers!
If none of the models feel right when you pick them up and strum, perhaps you should look into a longneck/super uke. These instruments are specially designed to maximize comfort, whilst keeping specific tones.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.