The modern ukulele dates back to the 1880s, and is a descendant of several different instruments of Portuguese origin. Its precursors were introduced to the native Hawaiians by Portuguese settlers, and the ukulele came as a result of the two cultures melding. The ukulele eventually became synonymous with Hawaiian culture, and then spread beyond its homeland to become a cultural phenomenon loved the world over. Though once seen as a novelty instrument, the ukulele has grown to boast a collection of music as diverse and technical as any other instrument.
When you’re a beginning musician, or an aspiring musician trying to hunt down the right instrument, you just don’t have the experience to figure out how best to spend your money because there’s such a wealth of choice available. This is true with any instrument, and ukuleles are no exception. As you get more experience, and a better ear, you’ll start to know what you’re looking for. But in the beginning, finding the right ukulele for your needs can be really overwhelming.
To help musicians find the right uke for them, this article exists to collect an objective list of the five best ukulele brands according to user opinion (for a more detailed look at how Gearank looks, check out the “Methodology” section at the end of this article). The process used removes our subjectivity from the list, leaving you with a collection of instruments that are the best around as decided by musicians as a whole.
With that out of the way, here are our results…
There isn’t a lot of history on Caramel ukuleles. The brand is owned by the Rubin Commerce and Trade Co,. Ltd (a company based out of China), and they formerly sold their ukes as “Rubin ukuleles”. Currently, the brand is sold under the Caramel name. It’s the same story that describes tons of different random import brands, but Caramel seems to be a bit different.
Judging by user reviews, Caramel ukes seem to be extraordinarily well built for the price you pay for them. Their instruments are well finished, have a great tone quality for laminate instruments, and some of them even sport electronics in case you feel like plugging in.
A perfect example of Caramel’s price to quality ratio is the Caramel CC102A Concert Ukulele. It doesn’t come with electronics, but it does sport a genuine bone nut and saddle. Bone transfers resonance more efficiently than plastic, giving the tone of your instruments a huge boost. In fact, a bone nut and saddle is the best upgrade you can possibly do to an instrument. Bone nuts and saddles are very affordable, and once they’re properly installed they can make an instrument sound better than you could ever imagine.
Founded in 1997 Tim Micklaucic, Cordoba has become renowned as both an innovator and leader in the nylon instrument sphere. The brand makes phenomenal ukes, classical, and flamenco guitars. Pepe Romero Jr., a famed classical guitar manufacturer who later adapted his design to ukuleles, is the primary designer for the ukulele arm of the company. Though not a household name, his instruments are incredibly well received.
And while the company is generally associated with their guitars, they also manufacture ukuleles with the same dedication to quality musicians have come to expect from the brand. A perfect example of this is the Cordoba 15CM-E.
The 15CM-E is an all-mahogany concert sized uke, sporting passive electronics. The cool thing about this uke is that it comes out of the box with a great, stage ready tone that’s perfect for any musician. The mahogany body and concert size gives the uke a very warm tone overall. The concert sized body also gives the uke plenty of volume to play along with other musicians.
Cordoba’s electronics also have an excellent reputation as far as passive, non-third party pickup systems are concerned. They’re regarded to do a very competent job of transferring the tone of your instrument to whatever you’re using to amplify it. The only downside of this uke’s electronics is that they don’t have a dedicated EQ, so any adjustments in tone will have to be done at the P.A. or amplifier.
Founded in 2005, Kala is one of the most popular ukulele manufacturers currently in operation. And when you see their instruments, it isn’t hard to see why. The Petaluma, CA based brand has a variety of different models available, ranging from standard ukes to more innovative designs; ensuring that every player can find the uke of their dreams. Even better, the brand caters to musicians of every income level, ranging from entry to high-end. They also have some really unique designs, including a ukulele-esque bass and an archtop uke.
A perfect example of Kala’s ukulele’s is the Kala KA-15S Satin Mahogany Soprano, a soprano uke that packs a surprisingly musical voicing into its relatively small footprint. The KA-15S is an all-mahogany instrument which, when combined with its soprano body size, gives it a perfect traditional uke voicing. The soprano body size has a very delicate and focused voice, and the mahogany body gives the instrument the depth you’d find in instrument costing many times more. It’s a great instrument for solo play, because as a general rule warmer instruments (those with a higher representation of bass frequencies) sound better unaccompanied than brighter instruments. When you couple Kala’s dedication to quality control to the uke’s tone, it’s hard to find a better beginner’s ukulele.
Donner is one of the younger companies on this list, founded just five years ago (the company was founded in 2012, time of writing is 2017). The company’s self-described goal is to “…create new experiences in music and performance. Donner is resolved to continue to create innovative and excellent instruments which maintain the high quality that inspires professional and creators, and yet are approachable enough for anyone to play”
When looking at the company’s products, and their reputation, they’ve definitely reached their goal. Their most well-known line of products, their guitar effects mini-pedals, are consistently well reviewed and incredibly affordable. Likewise, their ukuleles have enjoyed a similar response, being prized for their affordability, quality control, and tone.
A great example of Donner’s products is the Donner DUS-3. The DUS-3 is a spruce topped soprano ukulele with mahogany back and sides, a combination which gives it a bright focused tone. As a tonewood, spruce is significantly brighter than mahogany. The cool thing about a spruce topped soprano ukulele is that it’s going to be heard more easily when you’re playing with other musicians, which is a huge plus if you’re looking to play along with your friends. Spruce instruments don’t have the warmth of mahogany alternatives, but there is a unique appeal in their bright and jangly voicing.
Another plus with buying the Donner DUS-3 is that it comes as a fully featured package. The package includes: a gig bag, a ukulele strap, and a digital clip-on tuner. With the included extras, you have everything you need to get started on the road to becoming a fabulous ukulele player.
Lohanu is a Canadian-based company, deriving their name from a combination of three words: Love (the first two letters of Lohanu), Ohana (Hawaiian for Family), and Unity (the last two letters of Loahnu backwards). There isn’t a lot of background history on the brand, however the reception their instruments have gotten is incredibly impressive.
The key selling point about the brand is that they stand by their instruments and do everything they can to help you on your way. Their instruments and their accessories all come with an unconditional lifetime warranty, meaning that you can purchase with confidence. They also offer free beginner videos, so if you’ve never played before you’ll have all of the information that you need to start playing. Even though there are a ton of beginner videos floating around on YouTube, beginners tend to benefit from a more focused education when they’re just starting. This makes the Lohanu beginner series more helpful to those who have never played before than simply hunting down videos on YouTube.
An instrument that defines the values of Lohanu is the Lohanu LU-C. The instrument has a build quality and features that go above and beyond what you’d normally associate with this price point. The uke is made from laminated Sapele, which is a very similar wood to mahogany (the main difference is that Sapele has a stronger high-end response). The LU-C also comes with a fully bound body and neck. Binding is the white lines you see across the edge of the body and the neck, and originated as a design element to increase an instruments stability.
An interesting feature of the Lohanu LU-C is that it has an arched back. When you arch the top or back of an instrument you get a strong increase in projection, which will make this uke sound very focused and make it seem louder than what it really is.
Lastly, the LU-C also comes with pre-installed strap buttons, a gig bag, an extra set of ukulele strings, picks, as well as a digital tuner.
Firstly, just a brief background on what we generally do...
We produce ratings of music gear by doing detailed statistical analysis of the reviews, ratings and comments that people make about individual musical instruments and equipment. We use the Gearank Algorithm to summarize this analysis and distill it down to a score out of 100 for each item we analyze. You can learn more about that process in our article: How Gearank Works.
How we calculated the top Ukulele brands...
We took the ratings we had produced for individual soprano and concert ukuleles from our database and grouped their scores by brand. We then calculated a weighted average of the ratings for each brand to arrive at a score that allowed us to rank the brands from highest to lowest. Lastly, we selected the top 5 brands to present above. In all there were 26 brands on our short-list and we processed over 18,500 reviews and rating sources to arrive at our results.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below.