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Ukulele sizes and shapes

Ukuleles come in four basic sizes, plus the sopranino. All of them are smaller than a standard guitar. Which one you prefer is a matter of both personal preference and ergonomics. Many guitar players find tenor a suitable size because it offers a reasonable amount of space for fingering, or even the baritone because its fretboard is so roomy compared with the others. Traditionalists prefer the original soprano size, and some even like the tiny sopranino.

In general terms, the larger the ukulele, the more expensive it is from the same manufacturer, simply because larger instruments require more materials. Conversely, the larger the body, the richer, more complex the sound the instrument makes. That, however, is also affected by the shape and size of the body and the kind of woods used in construction.

Typical sizes and scale lengths.

Size, the first number in the list below, is the length from the top of the head to the furthest part of the body. Scale, the second number after the slash, is the playable part of the strings from nut to bridge. Scale, not body size, determines the type of ukulele.

These are typical body sizes, and will vary with manufacturer, especially the size which can change considerably with headstock design. However, the variations in scale length are usually minimal (unlike guitar scales which can vary by three inches, from 22 to 25 inches, depending on manufacturer).

  • Soprano - length: 21" scale: 13" (33.02cm)
  • Concert - length: 23" scale:15" (38.1cm)
  • Tenor - length: 26" scale: 17" (43.18cm)
  • Baritone - length: 30" scale: 19" (48.26cm)

Long bodies and tall heads can add several more inches to the total length with affecting the scale. While scales shown here are "standards," they are open to interpretation. One company, for example - South Coast Ukes - is building longer-scaled ukes (i.e. a tenor with a 20" scale). A few companies use slightly longer scales, too - like 17.5 inches for a tenor. These are still usually tuned to the popular GCEA tuning, but longer scales means more tension on the strings and could make it difficult to tune these longer-scaled ukes to the alternate ADF#B tuning using standard string sets.

The sopranino (not shown above) is smaller than the soprano, but not a widely recognized scale length, so may vary with manufacturer (see below). It is also usually tuned GCEA (high-G). These, by the way are not new - baby ukes were made as early as 1924, according to the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum

The soprano is the original size of ukulele. There has been made an argument that only the soprano should properly be called a ukulele, because in the tradition of European instruments, different sizes had different names. Concert and tenor should therefore have another name (con-ulele and ten-ulele?). However, that semantic argument would be hard pressed to find many supporters today - but beware of claims by some manufacturers that their tenor guitars or short-scale parlour guitars are ukuleles!  

The concert uke was developed in the 1920s, followed soon by the tenor (both apparently pioneered by Martin). Today, tenor seems the most popular size, although other aficionados might argue differently. The tenor was the first uke to offer guitar-like tuning with a low-G string.

The largest ukulele, the baritone, was created in the 1940s, and is often considered a miniature 4-string guitar because of both its size and its DGBE tuning (although string sets for GCEA are available today). The baritone was popularized in its day by Arthur Godfrey, and still has a modest but growing following. Despite its guitar-like tuning, most baritone ukes are still shorter than a tenor guitar, which has a 22-23" scale. A standard guitar scale is 25". I have a Pono baritone that is almost 22" from saddle to nut.

While my personal preference was originally for the tenor scale, of late I have been playing a lot more baritone and really enjoy the sound and roominess of the fretboard for many songs. The baritone is also lower in pitch, so it often suits my limited singing range better.

There is also a smaller sopranino ukulele made by a few companies, and Kala offers a similarly tiny 'Pocket Uke' with an 11" scale. Scales can vary on these instruments but they are usually shorter than a soprano by one-two inches. While fully playable instruments, at least on the lower frets, these miniscule ukes strike me more as novelty items. That might change as more owners start using them for music videos. However, the small bodies will never be able to produce the same richness of tone as a tenor.

The depth or thickness of the ukulele varies from the ultra-thin "travel ukes" produced by Kala and other companies - 1-2 inches thick, to the deeper bodies of the baritone and some custom ukes like the Boat Paddle. Body thickness may also vary with any model - less at the upper bout and more at the lower (as in some Pono designs). A typical tenor is about 3" deep at the lower bout. A deeper or thicker body gives more space within the cavity for sound, and tends to produce a richer, louder sound (look at the dreadnought guitar style for similar comparisons).

You can sometimes see bass ukuleles listed, although many of these are custom built instruments. Kala started production of an acoustic bass uke (U-bass) in spring, 2010. It is tuned to the usual bass and guitar E-A-D-G notes (the last four strings of a guitar, rather than the first). In the fall of 2010, they will release a solid-body model. Both are baritone-scale instruments. Beaver Creek's "travel bass" while not called a uke-bass, is awfully close in size to the U-bass.

Companies have also been making hybrids, including soprano bodies with concert and tenor necks, and concert bodies with tenor necks (sometimes called 'super concert'). A very few companies have experimented with different scale lengths, as well. Kanilea has a super tenor: a baritone body with tenor neck.

There are six-string ukuleles, which have doubled C and E strings (but an octave apart) and eight-string ukuleles (all strings doubled, G and C an octave apart). Kanile'a makes a five-string uke with the A doubled. The number of strings does not affect the scale, but as far as I know, all of the six- and eight-string ukes are longer than soprano scale.

Carry that weight

Ukuleles are very light compared to many other stringed instruments - many weigh less than a pound. This makes them easy to hold and play, even without a strap. Based on weights quoted on various forums like Flea Market Music and my own measurements, these are typical weights for acoustic ukuleles:

  • Soprano: 8-14 ounces (226-400 grams),
  • Concert: 15-22 ounces (425-624 grams),
  • Tenor: 23-27 ounces (653-710 grams).
  • Baritone: 24-28 ounces (666-780 grams)

My Kala cedar and Mainland cedar, both tenors, are somewhat lighter at around 620-635 grams. My Lyra baritone is lighter than most of my tenors at a mere 514 gms. My all-metal Republic resonator was hefty at more than 1 kg (2.4 lbs).

Weights will vary with materials used: woods, finish, tuners, electronic components, add-ons like strap buttons and whether the tuners are open or closed.

My heaviest tenor is the Applause at 36 ounces (1021 gms) which is the same weight as my all-metal concert Republic resonator. Often the case weighs more than the uke it protects! I haven't been able to weigh my Pono baritone uke, yet, but it feels a little heavier than an average tenor, but not a lot.

The weights for baritone, above, are from other players' measurements, reported on the Ukulele Underground forum.

Shapes

The traditional ukulele shape is the figure-eight design common to guitars and other instruments in that chordophone family. Today's style favours a larger lower bout than an upper bout, with a central sound hole, like we commonly see on guitars. However, many other shapes are available and you can find some custom ukes made with the more symmetrical figure-eight design favoured in the 19th and earlier centuries.

The figure-eight has taken other directions too. It is often seen with a cutaway section on the upper bout, to allow the player easier access to the upper frets. Again, that design is also popular with guitar players.

Perhaps the most common 'second' style is the oval 'pineapple' design, pioneered by the Kamaka company. Other companies have copied their pattern since.

There is also the rectangular cigar-box shape custom builders present.

George Formby popularized the banjo ukulele, or banjolele, a uke-scaled instrument (a mini-banjo) strung and tuned like a ukulele, but built like a banjo, with a round body and a skin or plastic resonating top. These are still available today, along with several species of resonator ukes, including all-metal-bodied ukes. Banjo ukes are most commonly available in soprano and concert scale, but a few tenors and even a baritone are available as well. Waverly Street made me one (see review) and I recently got a Gold Tone. All the banjo ukes I've seen follow the traditional banjo design: round resonator pot with neck attached, but may vary on details such as resonator plate, flange, number of bolt hooks, etc.

Because they are the largest size ukulele, with greater distance between frets, and are tuned the same as a guitar (DGBE), baritone ukes are less popular than other sizes. However, they have the deepest and richest tones, and sound more guitar-like than the other sizes. Most are the traditional guitar-shape (even the innovative Kala doesn't seem to have cutaway designs for its baritone models).

In the 1970s, Northern ukes offered a modernistic triangle shape, one replicated by some lower-end Chinese companies these days. There is a 'Flying V' shape similar to the Gibson guitar of that name. And of course, cigar box ukes are rectangular. The Flea looks like a teaspoon, or a modified pineapple. The Fluke and some Boat Paddle models like boat or canoe paddles. Oscar Schmidt has a bell-shaped uke and Ohana has a teardrop-shaped one.

Electric ukes like the Eleuke and Risa have also varied - often wildly - from traditional body designs, although both companies offer designs based on popular guitar shapes, as well. There are even 'stick' type electric ukes with almost no body at all; one was made by Canadian luthier Dan Stawski, and Risa currently offers its 'stick' design.

Other designs include jazz-guitar-style archtops, teardrops, ovals and others. Custom built ukes may be even more varied - my Boat Paddle looks like its name. There's no limit to the shape or design.

Perhaps the most intriguing commercially-made designs of late come from a company called Mid East (see photos from their Web site, at left). They offer Pakistani-made ukuleles designed to resemble Baroque instruments, including a guitar (Baroq-ulele), lute (Lute-kulele: six stringed, with tied-on, moveable frets), balalaika and even a sitar (Sitar-kulele: nylon and steel string, but unfortunately only soprano size, so far and the sympathetic strings are mere decoration)! There are some videos of the Baroq-ulele on YouTube, and threads about these instruments on the Ukulele Underground forum. These instruments are all tuned and played like ukuleles. These have solid-wood tops and some have bridge pins, not the usual tie-down design.

A related stringed instrument is the tiple (pronounced tee-play), from South America, and also made by Martin in the 1920s and a few manufacturers since. It is a 10- or 12-stringed instrument, tuned like a ukulele, in the traditional guitar shape, although often seen with the Renaissance-style narrow body. Less well known is the timple, a relative from the Canary Islands, it comes in four- and five-string versions. The Venezuelan cuatro is also related, and is tuned A-D-F#-B like many ukuleles, but usually with the second and third strings and octave higher.

There is also a charango, from South America, similar to the ukulele (10-stringed as well, tuned G-C-E-A-E), but with a bowl-style back (often a single piece of wood, or the touristy armadillo shell) and a figure-eight body. There are several other small, stringed Mexican and Latin American instruments, although most have more strings and usually have a traditional shape.

On modern factory-made ukes, backs are generally flat, and you seldom see bowl-style backs outside custom makers, although Kala's thinline 'travel uke' has a modestly curved "archback" design and the baroq-ulele, above, is quite bowled. Custom luthiers may use bowled designs, however.

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