By Jenny Selig
Ask a group of ukulele players, “What’s your favorite brand of ukulele?” and you might get more answers than there are people in the group!
Many players have more than one brand in their collection, and there’s simply no one “best” uke. It’s much easier to talk about popular choices, though it, too, can be a long list.
Sometimes it seems like the field is expanding ever more rapidly, as new companies and independent luthiers throw their ukes into the ring or become more visible online.
If you’ve ever been to an Ukulele Festival, you’ve seen what a large space the tables of ukulele vendors can fill, and as international shipping gets less complicated, folks can get ukuleles sent to them from farther away lands.
The Personal Nature of Uke Choice
Each player is looking for something a little different. What tonewood is currently tugging at your heartstrings? How do you like a ukulele to look? What are the best brands available in your country?
There’s likely more than one model from more than one brand that could make you a very happy ukuleleist. There’s a reason so many of us talk about “Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome” (UAS) — that common desire to have “just one more.” Each uke is its own beautiful beast.
There’s also no one “right” way for an ukulele to sound, and the answer to “What should I buy?” depends on what you, personally, want to hear, see, or have under your fingers. My own “perfect” ukulele might make another player hide a yawn behind their music stand.
The Danger of Popularity
Since the question of “best” ukulele is not one we will definitively answer, let’s explore some of the most popular brands widely available today, with high visibility on social media platforms and in the ukulele community.
Popularity isn’t necessarily enough reason to buy an instrument, of course, because what matters is how YOU feel about your uke, not how someone else does, but it can be one way you approach the many options you have when you’re in the market.
Play More to Choose Better
Of course, your best bet is to get to a ukulele music store or friendly ukulele jam group, try out as many different brands/models as you can, and make your choice based on how they feel in your hands and sound in your ear.
My caution for any player would be that quality control varies widely, so if you cannot “try before you buy,” check out photos (note whether a dealer uses a stock photo or a picture of the actual instrument being listed), read/watch reviews from various sources online, listen to sound samples on YouTube and from dealers, and know that there’s risk involved in buying an uke you haven’t held in your hands.
Read return policies very carefully and check out the reputation of the vendor before purchasing.
The Beauty of a “Set Up” and Other Variables
Whether you are buying online or in a store, see if you can find a seller who offers ukulele “set up” services, in which string height and fretwire smoothness are quality-checked, among other details.
A fresh set of strings (especially if the uke was a floor model) and more practice on your instrument can also make huge differences in sound quality and playability. A professional player is going to make any one of my instruments sound better than I can. 🙂
Here are my picks for The Most Popular Ukulele Brands (2020)
This phrase refers to the four most popular ukulele brands made in Hawaii, not to be confused with other brands whose names might also start with “K.” Many ukulele brands have headquarters in one location but production in another country.
K-Brand ukuleles build their primary lines of instruments right in Hawaii. Several of them also have lower-priced lines that may be made elsewhere or of less expensive materials, but which are overseen by the Hawaii-based companies.
The K-Brands are:
- Kamaka, making Hawaiian ukuleles since 1916
- Kanile’a,who also sell the Islander line
- KoAloha, whose midrange line is called Opio
- Ko’olau, who also sell Pono ukuleles
*For more information on the “K Brands,” see Barry Maz’s excellent article, “Ukulele beginners tips – what is a K Brand Ukulele?“ While you’re there, check out his thorough reviews and longer list of ukulele brands, as well, especially (but not only) if you’re shopping in the UK!
Something For Everyone
There are two large, popular, long-lived ukulele companies with so many different models and such a wide price range that I feel there’s something for almost any ukulele player in their stock, if they’re available in your area.
- Ohana – (headquartered in Long Beach, CA) sells beautiful ukuleles at various pricepoints, withmodels you’ll see in many collections.
- Kala – (Petaluma, CA) is similarly expansive, and also makes the extremely popular
- Makala line -Their colorful Dolphin and Shark models are a popular choice for lower budgets and beginners of all ages.
Newer Names with Buzz
There are ukulele players around the world, and many popular ukulele companies in locales other than the UK and USA. Even the major “Western”-headquartered brands often outsource manufacturing to countries like China and Korea, which means it may be hard to tell exactly where your ukulele is coming from.
The ukulele-makers in this category may be newcomers or not, and they may or may not be making their own instruments, but most have a strong social media presence and/or models that are easy to purchase online, and they inspire vocal fans who especially appreciate their lower priced models.
Often-seen names include:
- Donner – (China)
- Enya – (Huizhou, China)
- Flight – (Slovenia)
- Lanikai – (Mt. Juliet, Tennessee)
- Luna – (Tampa, FL), which sells a very popular “tattoo” design
- Snail – (Huizhou, China)
There are other popular ukulele companies which may have smaller lines than Kala and Ohana and different name recognition than the K-Brands, but who attract die-hard fans because of the way they combine aesthetic style and sound. Not all have models at the lowest pricepoints.
Some of the most-mentioned names in this category are:
- Bruce Wei – (Vietnam), whose ukes are known for beautiful inlay and design;
- Cocobolo – (Nicaragua), featuring a vibrantly colored wood and so sought-after they are sold by lottery;
- Magic Fluke USA -(San Jose, CA), makers of the Flea and Fluke models with their distinctive shapes;
- Mainland – (Nashville, IN), a popular indie shop especially known for their models with a rope-look binding;
- Moore Bettah Ukuleles – well-loved by their owners and handcrafted in Hawaii;
- Mya Moe -(Glenview, IL), striking custom ukuleles;
- Romero Creations – whose line includes the buzzworthy “Tiny Tenor” model; and
- Tyde Music – (North Lake Tahoe, USA), who are especially known for their work with local, reclaimed, salvaged, and sustainable wood.
The Guitar Makers
Many companies known for their guitars sell ukuleles as well. Some of those seen frequently in ukulele circles are:
- Blackbird – (San Francisco, CA)
- Cordoba – (California)
- Fender – (Scottsdale, AZ)
- Martin – (Nazareth, PA), whose vintage models are especially sought after
- Mitchell – (Thousand Oaks, CA)
- Oscar Schmidt – (Buffalo Grove, IL)
A number of the brands listed above also sell banjo-style ukuleles (sometimes called banjoleles), but a few brands not mentioned previously, who seem to make especially popular models, are:
- Deering Goodtime – (Spring Valley, CA)
- Duke Banjo Ukulele – (New Zealand)
- Gold Tone – (Titusville, Florida)
- Outdoor Ukulele -(Bend, Oregon)
- Kmise – (Hong Kong).
Another “specialty item” some professional ukulele players are looking to add to their collection is an ukulele specifically designed for outdoor use (i.e. survival of the elements!). Three popular choices out now are:
- Kala Waterman – (Petaluma, California)
- KLOS – carbon fiber ukulele (Provo, Utah);
- Outdoor Ukulele – (Bend, Oregon).
What’s your favorite brand you’ve played? What brand would you love to try?