The parent’s guide to purchasing your child’s first instrument: the ukulele

The ukulele now rivals the recorder as the school classroom’s musical instrument of choice. With its small size, perfect for little hands, kids can strum along to their favourite songs, tunes and melodies, taking their first steps along the path to understanding and playing music.

As exciting as it is to hear that your child wants to learn to play an instrument, finding the right ukulele, just as with buying any other first instrument for your child, can be an intimidating and confusing experience for parents.

It needn’t be. Below are the key problems and questions raised by parents when confronted with buying a ukulele, and the jargon-busting answers and suggestions to aid them in making the right choice for their child.

“A ukulele? What exactly should I be looking for?”

As with many other families of instruments, ukuleles come in a variety of sizes. If you find yourself presented with a variety of types and terms, worry not. The soprano ukulele is what you’re looking for.

The soprano is the smallest of the ukuleles and is the instrument people generally refer to when they talk about ‘ukuleles’. At the lower end of the market, it is usually safe to assume the instruments you’re browsing are sopranos unless otherwise stated.

The ukulele comes in a variety of body shapes, the most common being the standard ‘figure-eight’ design and the rounded traditional ‘pineapple’ body type. More exotic ukulele designs can increasingly be found to imitate classic guitar shapes such as the ‘flying V’. These can be fun for aspiring little rockstars and guitarists who care about how their uke looks.

For beginners, the body shape of the ukulele is largely down to the tastes, preference and comfort of you and your child. Many companies also produce themed ukes featuring famous cartoon characters in a variety of colours, styles and body shapes.

“How much should I pay?”

Thanks to its resurgent popularity and low-cost imports, good quality budget ukuleles are now widely available. In fact, one of the positives of taking up the ukulele is that you needn’t break the bank for a good model.

Between £20 and £30 is a good ballpark figure for a basic beginner uke, with brands such as Pure Tone, Mahalo, Ashton and Lazy offering excellent starter instruments at affordable prices.

Beginner packages are also available, matching quality starter ukuleles with useful accessories such as a carry bag and pitchpipe tuner. These can usually be found priced between £25 and £35.

For more confident young musicians who have perhaps already grasped the basics of music through playing other instruments, it may be worth considering expanding your search above the £30 mark. A good starter uke will see beginners through their first couple of years but higher quality instruments can prove to be a good investment for youngsters who tend to progress quickly.

“How can I check the quality of the instrument?”

Try to find a ukulele with good tuning pegs (the four little screws that stick out of the ukulele at the top of the neck). ‘Geared tuners’ are preferable in cheaper models as they tend to stay more intune for longer compared to rear-mounted friction tuning pegs. Geared tuners can be identified due to their side-mounting on the ukulele’s head, two-a-side.

Where possible, try before you buy in a dedicated music shop. You needn’t be able to play a piece or know a song, just strum the ukulele and listen to how it sounds. Compare it to other ukes of different shapes, brands and price, especially if you’re fortunate to live locally to a specialist ukulele stockist.

If when you strum the uke you hear buzzing, find it difficult to make a consistent sound or it can’t be kept to stay in tune, either ask the shopkeeper to adjust the instrument or move on and try another. Also make sure to check the ‘action’, the distance between the string and the fret board, which may need to be adjusted. A bad action can make a ukulele difficult to play, but should be easily adjustable by a music shop staff member.

Don’t forget to check for any scrapes, dents, repair marks or wear and tear. Damage or weaknesses can affect the tone and build strength of any instrument.

Last but not least, never be afraid to ask questions or seek advice. A good shop will always be prepared to offer good, honest information and guidance on your purchase.

“Can a ukulele be too cheap? Do brand names matter?”

In recent years, with the ukulele enjoying an upsurge in popularity, cheap versions have begun to appear as toys and novelty presents, advertised for far less than you’d see in a music store.

Whilst their availability and prices can be enticing, these ukes rarely make for good musical instruments and could hinder your child’s enjoyment and progress. After all, it can be a frustrating experience learning to play on an instrument that won’t stay in tune or produce the notes you expect.

As always, respected music brands trade on reputations they’ve earned through years of good products, service and quality. That isn’t to say that less well known manufacturers should be avoided however! Always do your research and try to read reviews from other customers and experts to inform your browsing.

“Is it worth buying a professional or vintage instrument for my child to grow into?”

A child’s impulsive desire to take up new hobbies and experiment with novel pursuits can fade as quickly as their initial interest flared. Buying an expensive, high-end instrument to learn on is a common and costly mistake made by eager parents, and not just due to the risk of that early enthusiasm disappearing.

Kids are kids, and like any object placed in their possession, their new uke will likely suffer all sorts of training knocks and mishaps through their trial-and-error discoveries. You don’t want to ward your child off such knock-a-bout fun and progress when getting familiar with an instrument. Watching them get to grips with their playing shouldn’t feel as though you’ve caught them building a den out of priceless antique furniture and glassware.

Similarly, a long abandoned, top-of-the-range ukulele can be a deterrent against trying other potentially more successful activities in the future should their initial excitement for the uke wane.

“What accessories do I need to buy?”

The quickest and easiest way to improve the sound and playability of a new ukulele is to fit a new, good quality set of strings. Many new ukuleles, entry-level or otherwise, come with very basic strings that can hamper the instrument’s performance. A tuner is also a must buy accessory to help new starters stay in tune.

A bag, soft case or hard case is also a useful early purchase. Not only will the instrument be easier to transport and harder to damage, bags and cases often make storage easier in the home, on a shelf, under a bed or other nicely tidy and out of the way places. Stands can also be a wise investment for parents keen to keep things neat but with easy access to the instrument for their child.

As mentioned above, starter packs containing a selection of accessories in one discounted package are also available for parents looking for a one stop purchase that sets their child up for a successful start with their new ukulele.

Check out the musicroom site for a range of ukulele starter tutors, books and guides to help you and your child get the most of this great little instrument!

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