5 Main Differences Between Guitars and Ukuleles
Guitar vs Ukulele! What Are The Main Differences Between them? Ukuleles look a lot like mini guitars, so you might be forgiven for thinking that if you know how to play one, you can play the other.
If you can play the guitar, you will have a very good headstart when it comes to learning the ukulele and vice versa. But the instruments are different enough that you won’t be able to just pick one up and start playing.
This is because there are a few important differences between the two instruments, and therefore a few important things to learn before you can become a master of both.
So let’s take a look at the main differences between guitars and ukuleles, which is easiest to play for most people, and the key things you will need to learn in order to be able to play both.
We’ll also look at some of the best transition instruments if you do want to start adapting your strumming skills to a new instrument.
5 Main Differences Between Guitars and Ukuleles
When you look at a guitar and a ukulele, you will notice that the main difference is the size.
A standard, full-size classical guitar measures around 38 inches (96.5cm) long, but other styles of guitar can be even larger, measuring up to 40 inches or even longer.
Ukuleles come in a variety of sizes, but they are all significantly smaller than guitars. The smallest style of ukulele, the soprano, can be almost half the length at just 21 inches. A concert ukulele usually measures around 23 inches, while the largest standard ukulele, the tenor, is around 26 inches. However, you can also get baritone ukuleles, which are a bit larger still at 30 inches.
While the shape of the body of the guitar and ukulele will differ depending on the make, most ukuleles tend to have a standard figure-of-eight shape, which is also the shape of a typical acoustic and classical guitar.
But many other guitars have a cutaway on the body near the neck at the bottom. This is to allow the player to more easily reach the higher notes on the fretboard. Several ukulele models also come with cutaways which like the guitar, look cool, but also help get to the higher frets.
The most obvious difference between the strings on the guitar and those on the ukulele is that the guitar has six strings and the ukulele has four. But that is not the only difference.
First, a majority of guitars, especially steel string acoustic and electric guitars have steel strings, which produce a strong and vibrant sound. Some guitars have nylon strings which you see mostly in Classical and Flamenco guitars. Most ukuleles have fluorocarbon strings, which is part of the reason they have a warm and pleasant sound. Some ukuleles, like the Risa or Flight solid body electric ukuleles come with steel strings.
But more than this, you don’t just remove two strings from the guitar to get a ukulele. The strings are tuned to different notes.
On your standard guitar, the strings are tuned (from low to high) to E-A-D-G-B-E, with each note ascending starting with low E at the top and arriving at high E on the bottom.
A standard ukulele is strung (from low to high) to G-C-E-A. And more than that, while the ukulele will have a high A on the bottom and descend through E and C, the G string on top is high on most ukuleles. This is one of the things that gives the ukulele its distinctive sound.
You can choose to string your ukulele with a low G on top, and many players do, but the traditional standard is a high G on top.
The different strings, the different tuning, and the different body sizes mean that, despite both being stringed instruments that are strummed or plucked, the guitar and the ukulele produce pretty different sounds.
The size is one of the most important factors, as it is the size of the sound cavity inside the body that largely dictates how low and resonant the sound will be.
The additional two strings on the guitar, and the steel strings if you have them, also mean that a guitar tends to have a richer, fuller, more dynamic sound.
To hear just how different the ukulele and the guitar sound when playing the same song, check out this video.
Scale Length & Nut Width
We’ve already talked about the different sizes of the guitar and the ukulele, but it is not just the size of the instrument itself that makes a difference.
The scale length and the nut width are also different, and these are two of the most important things when it comes to how easy the instrument is to play.
The scale length is the length of the fretboard where you are working the strings from the nut, where the neck connects to the headboard, and the saddle, where the strings are anchored on the body.
On a standard guitar, the scale length is usually 25.5 inches, while on a standard Tenor ukulele it will be just 17 inches.
The nut width is basically the width of the neck across the strings. The standard nut width on most guitars is 1.75 inches, while on the ukulele it ranges from 1 ⅜ inches to 1 ½ inches. But this makes sense because the ukulele has two fewer strings to accommodate.
The different scale lengths and nut widths mean that you need to work your fingers a little differently to get your chords. With the ukulele, it is often about squeezing your fingers into the small space and getting the strings you want without touching the strings above or below.
On the guitar, the space between the individual frets is much larger, and you need to stretch your fingers in order to be able to get to all the notes that you want. Having six strings also means that you need to use your pinky finger more often to form the chord shapes, which is not always easy.
How Hard To Play
The last of the main differences between the guitar and the ukulele is how hard each is to play. While this will come down to personal preference to a certain extent, the ukulele is generally easier to play.
When it comes to the size of the instrument, this is also personal preference. Some people prefer the heft of a full-size guitar and feel like the ukulele is lost in their hands. But for others, the smaller and lighter body of the ukulele is significantly more comfortable.
Steel strings are a lot harder on the fingertips than nylon strings, and this is one of the reasons the guitar is more difficult to play. Many new guitar players will actually start to learn with nylon strings while their fingers build up calluses and become accustomed to putting appropriate pressure on the strings. While nylon strings can be easier on the fingers, nylon string guitars have a wider nut than steel string acoustic and electric guitars.
And as we have already said, the six strings mean that you need more finger dexterity and flexibility to spread your fingers to make the chord shapes, and also use the pinky finger regularly as part of your shapes.
For this reason, while most people will probably be able to strum out a basic song after their first ukulele lesson, it can take a lot longer to get a guitar to make the kinds of sounds that you want.
If You Play The Guitar, Can You Play The Ukulele? And Vice Versa?
If you play the guitar and pick up a ukulele, or you play the ukulele and pick up a guitar, you won’t be able to start playing immediately, though your existing playing skills should mean that you pick it up pretty quickly.
It is not just getting used to the different size of the instruments and the different number of strings. These two stringed instruments have their strings tuned to different notes, so where you will find the individual notes and where you will need to place your fingers to make the chords will be different.
Check out just how different the chords are on the two different instruments with our ukulele chord chart and our guitar chord chart.
But if you understand the theory of notes and chords on these types of stringed instruments, it shouldn’t take long for you to adapt your skills to the new instrument.
Why Not Try A Baritone?
If you are looking for a transitional instrument between a guitar and a ukulele, why not try a baritone?
A baritone is the largest type of ukulele, usually measuring about 30 inches in total and with a 19-inch fretboard. But the size of the baritone is not the only thing that is different about this instrument.
While you can string your baritone differently if you want to, the standard baritone is not stringed like a ukulele to G-C-E-A, but rather it’s tuned like a guitar without the two top strings, so to D-G-B-E starting at the bottom.
This means that when you play the baritone, you are looking for notes in the same way as on a guitar, and you are making diminished versions of the guitar chords.
This makes the baritone the perfect transition instrument. If you are going from guitar to ukulele, you can get accustomed to the smaller scale and the reduced number of strings before worrying about learning the new chord shapes.
If you are moving from the guitar to the ukulele, you can become accustomed to the different note structure needed to play the guitar before dealing with the larger size and those challenging additional strings.
If you’re looking for an affordable, entry-level baritone to get you started, then consider this Kala Mahogany Baritone Ukulele, currently on sale in the Uke Like The Pros Store.
This is a high-quality instrument with a mahogany top, back and sides and a separate mahogany neck with a walnut fingerboard. It is a traditional design that is considered the industry standard, making it the perfect instrument for beginners or anyone looking for an affordable, transitional instrument.
If you are willing to pay a little bit more for a higher quality instrument, then check out this Kala SA-B Solid Acacia Baritone Ukulele or the Pono Baritones. Both brands are currently available in the store with 30% off.
What makes the difference with the Kala SA-B and the Pono Baritones is that they are all solid wood, which produces a fuller and richer sound. This is combined with a solid mahogany neck and quality craftsmanship, producing a fantastic sound with great clarity.
Guitar vs Ukulele – FAQs
Which is better, guitar or ukulele?
Whether a guitar or a ukulele is better depends completely on personal preference and whether you prefer the full sound of the guitar or the smaller island sound of the ukulele.
Is it better to learn guitar or ukulele first?
Most people agree that the ukulele is easier to learn and play, so sometimes players might want to learn this instrument first. But the reality is that they are two different instruments, so you should start with the one that you want to learn. If you want to learn to play the guitar, start with the guitar.
While a guitar and a ukulele might look pretty much the same, just with one of them on a smaller scale, there are actually quite a few significant differences between these two instruments.
They have different tones, different numbers of strings, different types of strings, and are tuned to different notes. You play them slightly differently, too, and they produce notably different sounds.
So, if you are a guitar player you won’t be able to just pick up a ukulele and start playing it in the same way, and vice versa, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to adapt your skills to the new instrument.
What is your favorite instrument, the guitar or the ukulele (or the baritone)? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.