Best Ukulele of 2020
Right out of the box, the Lohanu LU-C is impressive. It's no wonder this model received our favor for the best overall kit; it is reasonably priced, includes an abundance of accessories, and has a high-quality build and sound. The concert size ukulele is 24 inches and composed of a sapele and mahogany combination on the top, back, and sides. The neck is especially comfortable. It's crafted using a Rosewood fingerboard with easily visible dot inlays. One thing that makes this model stand out and gives it its undeniably pleasant tone is the arched back. As well as providing structural support, the arch allows for this relatively inexpensive ukulele to produce a wonderfully sweet and robust tone. This model is fully equipped with Aquila Strings, pre-installed strap buttons, and fully enclosed tuners that feel smooth and precise.
The positives far outway the negatives in this model. One of the only discrepancies we came across was the included gig bag. Although well made, it's very thin and lacks padding compared to some of the other bags included in the kits we tested. All Lohanu ukuleles have a lifetime warranty against issues related to craftsmanship and materials, making this a strong investment for years to come. If you are looking for a reliable, well-priced, and well-rounded kit, this would be our choice for you.
For more experienced players, the Ibanez UEW5S will be sure to impress. Its body is constructed of an all-Mahogany top, back, and sides, and it comes equipped with stylish Aquila NYLBLACK strings. Ibanez's soprano ukulele mimics the original Ibanez EW Series acoustic guitar's distinctive single cutaway shape. The cutaway C shaped neck makes it easy to access the frets higher up on the neck for funky solos when you feel spicy. The instrument offers a balanced and lively tone finishing with a sweet sound on the top end. When playing in groups, we are impressed with the vibrant sound it produces — this uke stands out. Other features include open chrome tuners, a rosewood fretboard and bridge, and a beautiful abalone rosette. Anyone familiar with a guitar will appreciate the low action and the ease of playability that this model has to offer.
If you are in the market for a beginner kit or instrument, this probably isn't the best suited for those needs. It comes as a solo instrument and does not include the extras that most of the kits we tested included. This model is geared towards intermediate players looking to expand their collection with a higher quality instrument. It is a favorite among the solo performance models in our line-up for its exceptional build, tone, and playability.
The Donner DUC-1 is a quality, well-rounded instrument, especially at its price point. It is a winning combination of price, quality build, splendid sound, and excellent included accessories that ranked it our favorite price-to-performance model. It's constructed of a combination of mahogany and rosewood, which harmonize to provide a rich and resonating sound. Of the kits we tested, some of the "bundles" are a combination of a few cheap items along with the main extra to catch the buyer's attention. Not the case here; the tuner worked almost as well as the industry standard that we tested against for quality control. The strap offers a bohemian-inspired pattern and works really well; it can even be adjusted to fit a smaller child, making a great first kit for beginners. The carrying case is also well-constructed and has a large front pocket for all the included extras.
Our one issue is that it took longer than most for the strings to settle and hold a tune. This is super common for new strings of any kind, but we felt that higher quality strings (like the Aquila nylon of some of the other high-scorers in our test fleet) might not have taken as long to settle. Replacing the strings on this instrument with better ones would be a great idea. The sound this uke produces is pretty great, but not the best in class. It's more than satisfactory for more beginners, though. If you are looking for a starting instrument at an affordable price with both a quality build and sound, look no further.
The Enya Nova U Carbon scored top marks for build quality and playability. We love this model for travel due to its durability without losing out too much on tone. Composed of polycarbonate with an entanglement of carbon fiber mixed throughout, the simple yet highly effective design of this model impresses with an attractive, vibrant sound and a durable body and neck able to withstand the elements. Its unique soundhole design made for a chime-y tone with a pleasant and vibrant sound when strummed. The sound clarity and resonance are awesome; even while playing high up the neck, it maintains its crisp high notes and doesn't lose volume. Its soft satin finish lent to its comfort and made it easy to clean. Although not completely waterproof (due to the metal tuners), the polycarbonate construction provides extra durability. It was able to withstand temperature fluctuations while holding its tune far better than any other model we tested, and its non-wood construction makes it much more likely to handle getting knocked around during travel.
This wouldn't be as highly recommended as a beginner kit, mainly because the frets and neck are all black, and there are no dot markers on the side. This makes it hard to see your finger placement while changing chords and is better for those with a more experienced skill set. Furthermore, if you are seeking top-notch tonality, there are better options. However, if you're looking for a tough, durable uke that includes some great accessories, all at an affordable price, this is our pick for you.
The Kala Satin Mahogany Concert Ukulele owns its well-rounded tonality with delicate lows and sweet highs that come together for a full, rich sound. We also found the subtle accents on the body to be a nice touch. The white binding on the top and back pair well with the satin mahogany finish. This model comes equipped with enclosed chrome die-cast tuners, which might be a part of why it holds its tune so well.
Our only issue was one that we encountered with a couple of other models as well; it has sharp ends on the frets that made it somewhat uncomfortable when moving our hands up and down the fretboard. Aside from its one minor inconvenience, this is a quality, beautifully crafted, budget-friendly uke that is compact and simple to use right out of the box, so long as you are already kitted with a tuner.
The Oscar Schmidt OU5 is elegantly crafted with a high gloss finish and is very easy on the eyes. It also features an abalone binding and rosette, adding to its unique design. It's constructed of Hawaiian Koa, bringing life to its sweet tone and melody. The 17-fret neck is constructed from nyatoh wood, offering support and comfort while playing. Our biggest fanfare is the instructional materials this kit includes. If you are one of the few folks that still have a way to play the included instructional DVD, it is specific to this model and very informative. The real gem is the Fender Play online lessons that this kit includes — the lessons are very easy to set up online and even easier to use. We found them both highly educational and really beneficial if you are just starting.
Our biggest qualm is one that keeps this model out of the winner's circle. It seemed to be set up with very low action on a couple of the strings, which caused a buzzing on the C and E strings while strumming and fingerpicking. While this is most likely a quality control issue, it is still rather discouraging for the quality and price that this brand usually encompasses. That said, this is still a beautifully crafted instrument that emanates a sweet tone and includes some great instructional material for beginners and intermediate players alike.
The Cordoba 15SM soprano ukulele has a decent sound and quality build for its entry-level price point as a solo instrument. Its mahogany construction makes for a balanced tone, and our testers are generally delighted with its volume and projection. It's equipped with a 17-Fret Composite Fingerboard with Pearloid Dot inlays that make this smaller uke a touch harder to play if you are just starting out or have large hands.
The only downside to this stellar little uke is that the edges of the frets are somewhat sharp, which can be caused by a rapid change in humidity or just simply poor craftsmanship and lack of quality control. This was rather uncomfortable while moving along the fretboard, even with our calloused fingers. That said, this model's sound, appearance, and affordability make it a great option for not only beginner players but the more advanced as well.
The Ranch Guitar Concert Kit earns itself a solid middle of the pack ranking for a beginner kit. It seems well built and looks very attractive with its Sapele body and solid mahogany neck and headstock, but underwhelmed us with its fairly flat overall tone. The frets seem pretty accurately seated, although a few have sharp corners towards the head, commonly found in dry or cheaply constructed instruments. It is easy to play at each end of the neck, and it seems to keep good intonation once the strings have settled in. This bundle includes all the accouterments to get started right out of the box, including a gig bag, a digital tuner, a strap, and some spare Aquila strings. One shining star for this kit was the carrying case, which definitely stood out from the rest, especially for this price point. It's perfectly sized, lightweight, and highly padded. It's nice to see that the case is not an afterthought for this company's beginner uke kit.
This is a very affordable beginner kit with a few flaws that can easily be overlooked if you just want a solid kit to play right out of the box. It is a bit heavy in the neck, making it less balanced than most of the other concert ukes. Using the included strap helps it keep upright and more balanced. If you are a dedicated player, though, you aren't likely to be satisfied with the sound of this instrument. It would be an especially good pick if you were looking for a quality carrying case to go along with your kit.
The Everjoys Soprano Beginner Pack didn't impress with its sound or craftsmanship, but for the price, you really do get a decent beginner kit with some very handy accessories. One of the key features of this bundle is that the brand offers you various complementary customization features. You pick which color, as well as the type of strings, strap, and accessories that you would like in your kit. All the kits include a beginner handbook that's easy to navigate and a great resource for kids to reference when starting out. The colorful strap we got in our kit made a nice addition, especially when kids were playing.
This instrument struggled to stay in tune even with weeks of playing. They eventually did adjust, and it ended up being a minimal inconvenience for the price of the kit. We observed that it made for good practice for kids just starting out to make sure their instrument is in tune. If you have a youngster that wants to learn to play the uke but wants something better than the plastic toys you find in the same price range, this makes a great beginner kit to add to your family. It's a noticeable and positive step above the toy ukuleles widely available online and in toy stores, but its price isn't a huge jump.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our lead reviewer, Kat Elliott, has always harbored great admiration toward music. She has been playing music for over a decade, spending the last three and a half years with a focus on the ukulele. She makes frequent on-stage appearances in her city's open mic nights, where she plays a variety of instruments and also loves to sing. She also gigs at local bars and breweries. She flat-out loves to play music. Her profound love of the small four-string instrument was discovered when she was undergoing extensive recovery from a knee injury. The portability and ease of use that the uke has to offer were what drew her in, but it didn't take long to realize the blissful sounds that emanated from the happy little instrument would make it a lifelong companion. Kat owns multiple soprano and concert size ukuleles, an acoustic-electric model for amplified, on-stage performances, and a banjo uke.
Our testing process involves callused fingers for weeks of picking and strumming. As we test each model extensively, our focus is on the quality of construction and playability, all while assessing tone and included extras. We looked for discrepancies with each build, such as cracks, dents, or scratches that would hinder play. We also assessed the quality of the craft when it comes to the bridge, tuning pegs, and fret inlays. We then tested each uke's tuning and intonation against an industry-standard electronic tuner, assessing how long each model can hold its tune before adjustments are necessary. We spent hours with each model separately and made sure to use each of the included accessories and compare similar sizes and kits to decipher any differences they might have. Lastly, we had several beginner players (adults and kids) try out each instrument to get their fresh perspective on what it's like to play each model with no previous experience.
Analysis and Test Results
Throughout our journey to find the best ukulele, we focused on four fundamental metrics: Build quality, playability, tone, and accessories and extras. After our initial visual inspection of each individual make and model, we tuned and spent countless hours playing and using their included accessories (if they came as a kit). We compared them side by side and ran them all through a gauntlet of testing to determine which one was the very best.
Straight out of the box, we thoroughly inspect all models for construction and build quality. We look for dents, dings, or scratches that might have happened during shipping or construction. Before we put finger to fret, we made sure there were no defects or cracks in each instrument's neck or body that might hinder its sound. If the neck of the instrument is made from solid wood, it can easily dry out from exposure to the elements and can cause the frets to protrude from the neck and become sharp. An easy way to check for this defect was to run our fingers along the neck next to the fretboard and see if we could feel any sharp edges coming from the frets. We made sure to look for this before and during use.
The Lohanu LU-C is thoughtfully constructed and earns top marks in build quality for its arched back. This is something you typically see on higher-priced instruments. The arch gives it a resonating and pleasant tone when strummed. We also loved the easy to see dot inlays on the Rosewood fingerboard, a great addition for those just learning to play.
One major variable in quality is what the instrument is constructed from, which can range from solid wood, laminate, plastic, or a mixture of all three. For the Enya model, this even meant a carbon fiber composite polycarbonate build. More often than not, the type of wood determines the instrument's look and sound (and can largely influence the price tag, too). There are many pros and cons to each, but most manufacturers producing beginner ukuleles look to combine the more expensive solid woods with a laminate for a marriage of pricepoint and reasonable quality.
For playability, we chose to focus on how fun and easy the instruments are to play. Comfort and how well it holds its tune over time are also a focal point in this metric. Ukuleles come in four general sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. Most of our testers find the concert size easier to play than the smaller soprano ukuleles. If you have large hands, we recommend avoiding the smaller soprano ukuleles because the frets are closer together, making for a tighter squeeze when playing chords. Concert and larger sizes have more space between frets on the fretboard, making them easier to play for larger hands. The body shape can also affect how the uke feels in hand. All the models we tested are a classic figure 8 shape, some with a few variations on this design.
If you are on the more intermediate level of play, the Ibanez UEW5S has a c-shaped cutaway on the neck, which makes it easier to access and play the frets higher on the neck when you are in the mood for some funky solos. If you're just beginning your musical uke endeavor, the Donner DUC-1 offers a wide fretboard and easy to see guides for chords and finger placement that make this an excellent choice for a beginner kit — especially for those with larger fingers.
When the body of a stringed acoustic instrument resonates, the wood it is made of will emphasize different tones, such as highs or lows. With this in mind, know that the wood used in the construction of your ukulele will affect its tone. One thing we chose to focus on for tone was whether the instrument was constructed of a solid-wood or laminate (plywood) top and body. Typically, those with a solid-wood top tend to have a richer, deeper sound. In the price range we tested, the decision to use more costly solid wood typically requires sacrifices in other aspects of construction. Instruments with laminated tops often sound fine for beginner players and tend to hold up to wear, tear, and the elements better than solid wood construction.
We were impressed with the resonating and vibrant tone of the Enya Nova U Carbon. Instead of the usual laminate or solid wood that the other models tested were made with, the Enya utilizes a polycarbonate/carbon fiber blend. It also features a unique soundhole design that added to its upbeat and chime-y sound. We expected this plastic model to be an abomination when it comes to sound, but we were immediately convinced otherwise. The tone is not best in class, a spot held by solid wood models, but it's very acceptable.
Another focus for testing tone is intonation. This refers to the ability for a stringed instrument to play in tune, not just when the strings are plucked "open," but also when fretted anywhere along the neck. Bad intonation will basically mean that your uke won't play in tune even if your strings are tuned perfectly. A low-quality instrument will often play in tune on the lower frets but will lose intonation as you move up the fretboard in the higher frets, inhibiting advancement into more complex chord fingerings and solos. We tested each side by side for tone comparison while playing a multitude of songs that incorporated fingerpicking and a variety of different strumming patterns. Through this process, we were able to determine different tones with each model. Among the models we tested, price and quality tone are directly correlated. The best models in terms of tone are the Ibanez UEW5S, Oscar Schmidt OU5, Kala Satin Mahogany Concert, and Cordoba 15SM, which also pull some of the highest price tags among ukes reviewed here.
Accessories & Extras
Taking on a new musical endeavor can seem overwhelming, but a few things can make it a much easier process — for instance, accessories & extras. All of the starter kits we tested include a plethora of useful accessories. This makes it very easy to start playing right when you receive your instrument. We made sure to spend time with each beginner kit using and adjusting the straps, gig bags, tuners, cleaning cloths, and various other tidbits they included. To keep everything equal across the board, we used an industry-standard tuner to compare the ones included with the kits to see if there were any discrepancies. Since it takes a while for your strings to adjust and hold their tune, having a good tuner is crucial. It is something you will most likely be using every time you play your ukulele. Although many of our testers didn't find the straps to be very useful since most are rather small and very light, having the option to use one is always a nice added benefit.
Our favorite kit for beginners is the Lohanu LU-C Concert Bundle because it contains all the accessories and extras you need to get going on your new instrument, such as the extremely useful clip-on tuner (it assesses pitch by sensing vibrations traveling through the instrument), the extra set of strings, two plastic and one leather pick, a strap, and even video lessons. If you opt for a different beginner kit without video lessons, it's helpful to know that you can find free video lessons readily online, too, so we wouldn't get too hung up there. The only bummer with the Lohanu is that the case isn't well padded to handle frequent travel. If you are looking for a decent all-around beginner kit that also includes a highly padded gig bag, the Ranch Guitar Concert Kit is a great choice. The Oscar Schmidt OU5 is a higher-end uke kit that also includes a decent carrying case and some highly useful instructional resources.
If you have been contemplating learning to play a musical instrument, a ukulele is an excellent place to start. Being highly portable and one of the easiest stringed instruments to play, you will be making a solid investment in your musical future. Whether you are looking to buy your first one or simply looking to upgrade, with so many options on the market, we understand that the decision can be difficult. We hope that our review gives you a better understanding of what different brands and kits have to offer to steer you in the right direction.
— Kat Elliott