The Incredible Accessible Uke

Tiptoe to the ukulele store.

There’s a uke craze in the Kelly home. The ukulele comes everywhere: in the car, to school, to the beach. Our oldest son begged for one for months. “It’s so convenient and portable,” he pleaded. “I can serenade you while you drive!”

“If you promise to learn some pieces, I’ll buy you a starter one,” I offered. “Serenading in the car sounds lovely — much better than bickering with your siblings.”

He kept his promise and learned a few tunes, but the ukulele we purchased is already falling apart. I’m going to buy a new one, but this time I’m going in armed with knowledge.

“The uke is accessible because you can play all the chords that a guitar can play but with only four strings,” explained Janet Beazley, manager of New Expression Music in University Heights (619-280-9035; newexpressionmusic.com). “It’s easier to grab those chords on the ukulele, and it sounds good playing almost any kind of music. And it toughens up your fingers a little bit so it’s not so hard to go to the guitar or another string instrument. It’s portable, so you can take it on a car trip or sit on your couch comfortably and play.

“The ukulele was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese sailors,” Beazley continued, “and it really caught on. A lot of people think of traditional Hawaiian songs played by the ukulele, but we have people that come in and play pop, rock, and country.”

“There are four sizes of ukulele,” she explained. “Soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The smallest is a soprano, the concert is a little bit bigger, and the tenor even bigger. The first three are tuned the same. The baritone uke is tuned like the top-four strings of a guitar. You can finger it the same, but it will sound a different chord.”

Which size uke do we need? “A lot of people just pick one up to see how the size fits in their hands. Usually a big guy will go for a concert or a tenor size because there’s a little bit more room between the frets. Kids tend to like the soprano.

“Student ukes are often made of mahogany, a good, affordable hardwood. The traditional Hawaiian ukes are often made of solid koa wood. It’s a Hawaiian hardwood: a warm honey color with beautiful figuration, and it’s kind of satiny looking, just gorgeous. But it is expensive.”

New Expression Music sells Makala, Flea, Aliani, Kala, and Lanikai ukuleles, and prices are $50 to $70 for a soprano, in the $90s for a concert, and tenors start at about $125. “We have some nicer ukes that go to $200. And of course an expensive uke, a handmade one, can be thousands of dollars. We don’t carry the high end here, but our other store in Carlsbad, Buffalo Brothers Guitars, does [760-434-4567; buffalobrosguitars.com].”

The music store also offers lessons and hosts “jams and meet-ups” for ukulele players. “They are in the evenings, and it’s a good addition to the lessons. You get a chance to play with other people and do workshops and concerts,” Beazley added.

“Uke playing tends to be more about chords and strumming, whereas guitar has more emphasis on note playing,” offered classical-guitarist and teacher William Wilson (866-800-7272; williamwilson.com) in Encinitas. “Watch out for the cheap ones you get at a toy store. I’ve seen some where you couldn’t even tune the thing. I like the Flea ukulele and the Mahalo brand.”

“We have about 30 ukes hanging on our wall,” offered the salesman at Mark’s Guitar Exchange in Chula Vista (619-421-2343; marksguitarexchange.com). “I have one by Sunlight — an all-laminated mahogany body, no binding or anything — so it doesn’t have the fancy bells and whistles to look at, but it sounds good and plays good and is only $59.”

“We have probably the largest selection of ukuleles on the West Coast,” touted DeForest Thornburgh, owner of the Blue Guitar on Mission Gorge Road in Grantville (619-283-2700; shop.theblueguitar.com). “I have 50 ukes in the store. We are really into them. We have Kalas, a soprano starts at $69.95 — those top out at $400. We also have the Islander, another entry-level uke, and they start at $99.”

The Blue Guitar also offers ukelele lessons, repairs, and customizations.

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