You already play guitar, but one instrument that has always piqued your interest is the ukulele. You love the sound of it, and you feel like the learning curve might be easier for you given your experience.
You know these are not the same instrument, but what kinds of differences exist between the guitar and ukulele?
The differences between the ukulele and guitar are as follows:
- Guitars are much larger than ukuleles
- Ukuleles have a mellower quality to their sound while guitars are louder and more sonic
- It may be easier to learn the ukulele than the guitar
- The two instruments don’t tune the same
- Ukuleles have less string tension than guitars as well as fewer strings
- Guitars are often more expensive, but not exclusively
In this extensive guide, we will clearly lay out all the differences (and some similarities) between the guitar and the ukulele. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have a genuine appreciation for both instruments.
What Is a Guitar?
To explain the differences between a guitar and a ukulele, we have to make sure you have a clear understanding of both instruments. Given that you’re reading this blog, we assume you know a lot about guitars already. We’ll keep this section purposefully brief then.
Guitars can be electric or acoustic. If it’s the former, then you need an amplifier to project the sounds coming from your instrument. When talking about the latter, there are several families of acoustic guitar. These include the jazz guitar or archtop guitar, the steel-string acoustic guitar, or the classical guitar, aka a Spanish guitar.
Technically, a guitar is a chordophone, which is just another way of saying that string vibrations produce its sound. A guitar may have steel or nylon strings, and most have wooden bases. The average amount of strings on a guitar is six, but it’s possible for the instrument to contain more.
What Is a Ukulele?
Next, we’ve got the ukulele. Inspired by an instrument known as the Portuguese machete, the first ukulele was made in Hawaii during the 19th century. It stayed in that part of the world until the 20th century, when the instrument migrated to the United States and became hugely popular.
The ukulele comes with four strings, but it can be more. Depending on the way the ukulele is built, it may have variations in volume and tone, which makes this one interesting instrument.
Ukes are not one size fits all. Instead, you have these size options: baritone, tenor, concert, and soprano. A soprano is your typical ukulele, although it has sub-types, such as the sopranino. You’ll also see this uke referred to as a bambino, piccolo, or a pocket uke.
The soprano ukulele came first and has great depth in its tone. Following that was the concert ukulele in the 1920s, which had an even deeper tone. If you play a tenor ukulele, then your instrument will have a tone almost reminiscent of a bass guitar. The volume is also amplified. Last but certainly not least is the baritone ukulele, which came last. Made in the 1940s, baritone ukes are a lot like a tenor guitar.
Ukuleles aren’t exclusively acoustic instruments. You can find electric ones that operate in much the same way an electric guitar would. Yes, that means the electric uke plugs into an amplifier and everything.
Ukulele Vs. Guitar: Differences in Sound
When you pick up two guitars, they don’t sound identical, right? The differences between a guitar and a ukulele become even more pronounced if you swap from acoustic to electric guitar or vice-versa. As we just described in the last paragraphs, depending on the type of ukulele you choose, the sound differs as well.
Knowing all that, the sound expectations we’re about to describe for you are generalized on purpose. We don’t want you thinking you’ll get one type of sound out of a guitar vs. a ukulele and then being disappointed. The best thing to do is explore the respective worlds of guitars and ukes until you find an instrument that suits your tone and sound best.
That said, let’s get into what types of tone you can expect when playing guitar compared to a ukulele.
By size alone, guitars can produce a louder sound than ukuleles ever can. Using a pick can enhance your volume even more, which is something you don’t get with ukes. When you play with a pick, you may also notice a brighter sound from your guitar, another quality that many people use when describing what a guitar sounds like.
You can switch between sounds effortlessly with a guitar depending on which guitar type you choose, the amp you use, and the tone you’re aiming for. As an example, you can go just as soft and dreamy with a guitar as you can with a ukulele, but you’d need an acoustic guitar to do it.
If you want to rock out, the ukulele is not the instrument you would pick to do so. Well, unless you use an electric ukulele, but even then, the raw sound and power is not comparable to playing an electric guitar.
Ukuleles, pretty much no matter the type, have a distinct sound that’s very tropical and Hawaiian. Once you hear someone playing the uke (or you do so yourself), it’s got that one-of-a-kind sound that you just don’t get from other instruments.
Given where it comes from, the tone of a ukulele is often quite mellow. Some people liken the sound of a uke to that of a harp, others saying it’s very sweet and quiet (electric ukes excluded). You can also get some lower bass tones from such types of ukuleles as the soprano and baritone.
Ukulele Vs. Guitar: Differences in Size
The most obvious difference between a guitar and a ukulele is a visual one. If you hold up these two instruments against one another, it’s very clear that the guitar is bigger than the ukulele. Just how big, exactly? We’re glad you asked.
While it can vary depending on the instrument you choose, you can expect a size decrease of 35 to 50 percent from a guitar to a ukulele. Yes, that’s right. In some cases, the ukulele is literally half the size of a guitar.
Using averages here, a guitar has a scale length of 23 to 26 inches while it’s only 13 to 17 inches for most ukes. The body of a guitar is also far larger, anywhere from 19 to 21 inches. The tiny ukulele is only 10 to 13 inches. That brings us to the total lengths, of which a guitar is anywhere from 38 to 41 inches long. A ukulele may be as little as 21 inches and as much as 26 inches long.
There are some benefits to being smaller. We already talked about how size can affect tone and sound, but one perk of a ukulele is how portable it is. You can easily bring it with you just about anywhere, from a bonfire at sunset to a beach or pool party. Acoustic guitars are equally as portable, but they’re more inconvenient to carry because they’re bigger.
Ukulele Vs. Guitar: Which is Easier to Learn for Beginners?
Let’s say that you don’t know how to play either a guitar or a ukulele. You’re reading this article to get a feel for which one you should learn. Well, there’s no need to choose, as both the guitar and the ukulele are great instruments that you can derive a lot of enjoyment from.
If you’re wondering whether to begin with a guitar or a uke, many say the ukulele is easier to pick up and play. This might surprise you given that the ukulele is such a tiny instrument. It might seem like it requires great mastery to play, but there are several factors working for it that make the uke a great beginner instrument.
Let’s talk about the differences between a guitar and a ukulele that could affect how easy it to learn the instrument for a beginner.
If you have a hard time reaching all the frets on a guitar, then try a ukulele instead. With less space between frets and a shorter, smaller scale, you should have no problem hitting all the notes. You don’t even have to stretch as much to do so.
If you recall from the beginning of this article, we mentioned how the average amount of strings on a uke is four. Guitars have at least six strings. The fewer strings you have, the easier it is to learn chords and feel like a pro faster.
Strings Are Softer
With their low tension (more on this later) and soft feel, touching the strings of a ukulele feels more pleasing than the steel ones of a guitar. That makes you want to keep up with your lessons.
For children especially, their small finger size makes picking up and playing the uke so easy. However, the opposite can also be true. If you’re an adult learning the ukulele and you have particularly large fingers, you may struggle with the instrument. It’s not that you lack skill, but that your fingers keep getting in the way of what you’re doing.
Also, we did want to note that which instrument is easier to learn comes down to personal preference. Some people might think learning how to play guitar is a breeze compared to practicing on the uke. That may be your experience or that of someone you know. Others will agree that the ukulele gave them fewer challenges.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you learn guitar or ukulele first. Having experience with one will make it easier to learn the other since the tunings are not all that different.
Ukulele Vs. Guitar: Differences in Tuning
Speaking of tuning your guitar or ukulele, it’s time to learn how to do so. While tuning a guitar isn’t radical compared to a uke, the two instruments are not tuned the same.
For a guitar, you want to use the E-A-G-D-B-E tuning. With ukuleles, it’s G-C-E-A. Why do so many music lovers say the two instruments have similar tunings then? Here’s why.
Take your guitar now and place your finger on any of the four strings with the highest pitch, or those at the guitar’s fifth fret. Doesn’t it sort of sound like you’re playing a ukulele? Almost, right?
Therefore, if you took those four strings and increased their tuning to a fourth, that’s a ukulele’s tuning. That’s where the similarities come from.
Further, there are a lot of overlaps on the frets from a ukulele to a guitar. Here’s an illustration showing what we mean.
Given that the frets have some similarities, it makes sense that the shapes of your chords between a guitar and a ukulele would also have a lot in common. If you wanted to play a low A or E on your guitar, you wouldn’t have to change the shape of the chord much on a ukulele. Instead, you just wouldn’t use those lower guitar strings.
Here’s what that would look like.
If you were to take a D chord on your guitar but play it on your ukulele instead, it should sound pretty good. It’s no longer a D chord at this point, though, but a G chord. This chord is a little higher in pitch than the D chord on the guitar, but it has a similar sound. It’s like so:
Now, removing some guitar chord strings can influence the sound of your chord, as we’re sure you can imagine. You might end up playing some wonky-sounding uke chords by taking the chords you know on guitar and applying them to this smaller instrument.
It happens, and there’s really no way around it. If you’d like a more pleasant ukulele sound, then perhaps focus more on learning uke chords.
What Are the Strings Like on Guitar vs. Ukulele?
We’ve touched on the fact that ukuleles have fewer strings than guitars, but we want to provide more in-depth information on these strings now.
To get that brightness and vibrancy in tone, guitars don’t come with just any ol’ type of string. Instead, as we’d said before, it’s metal, typically steel. These strings have more tension, which refers to the amount of force the strings undergo as they’re stretched horizontally. String tension comes from the string mass, its tuning, and the length of the scales. On average, you can expect a string tension of 24 to 35 pounds for guitar strings. That’s for each string, by the way.
Tension can be low, medium, or high. The higher the tension, the harder it is to move the strings. They won’t bend much when you strum them with your fingers or a pick. The opposite is low tension, where your guitar strings will practically dangle. You can move them this way and that, as they’re quite malleable.
You won’t really have to worry about low-tension strings with a guitar. Their steel bodies mean you get more tension when you play. This is sort of like a trade-off. The high tension makes the strings hard to move, but the sound you get from the strings is amazing.
Let’s compare that to ukulele strings. These are never made of metal, but rather a type of synthetic material such as nylon. This gives the strings more malleability, which always results in lower tension than what you’d have with a guitar. In fact, each string has a tension of seven to 13 pounds.
With a uke, this is the perfect amount of tension. The strings feel awesome under your fingers, which is one aspect of the popularity of this instrument. Due to the lower string tension, a ukulele has a sound that’s warmer than that of a guitar. It’s also not nearly as loud, which is again because of the tension.
Ukulele Vs. Guitar Cost (With Examples)
To wrap up, let’s talk about a factor that may be weighing on your mind: the cost of a guitar vs. a ukulele. It’s not as easy to say which instrument costs more, because a few factors can play a role in that final price tag. These are:
- The type of guitar or ukulele, such as an acoustic compared to an electric guitar or a baritone vs. a soprano ukulele
- The materials used for the instrument, as higher quality materials tend to cost more
- Whether it’s a beginner instrument or one for more seasoned professionals
- Whether the instrument is endorsed by a pro musician
- The brand of the instrument
In this section, we’ll compare a beginner’s guitar against a beginner’s uke. Then, we’ll share a guitar and a ukulele for seasoned players and see how the prices stack up.
Beginner Guitar: Fender FA-115 Acoustic Guitar Bundle
If you’re looking to get into the world of guitars, few brands are better to start with than Fender. Their FA-115 acoustic guitar bundle includes everything you need to begin. With your purchase, you get an instructional DVD, picks, a guitar strap, strings, a tuner, and a gig bag. The entire package costs more than $100.
The guitar itself is made of durable spruce. Fender ensures the beginner’s guitar holds up with a laminated finish. The bridge, made of rosewood, features a synthetic bone saddle. The fingerboard is also rosewood. It has dot inlays so beginners can learn frets and chords. There are 20 frets included in all. The dreadnought body is bigger so the guitar has wonderful fullness that even beginners will love.
Beginner Ukulele: Official Kala Learn to Play Ukulele Soprano Starter Kit
A similar product to the Fender FA-115 acoustic guitar bundle is the Kala Learn to Play ukulele soprano starter kit. The prices aren’t comparable, as this kit is available for under $100. In it, you get a teaching booklet with 20 pages, a tuner app, and access to online lessons to harness your uke-playing power.
Kala mentions that their soprano ukulele has G-C-E-A tuning, close spacing between frets, and a short scale. The uke in this kit is made of mahogany. It also includes a nut and saddle from GraphTech (the NuBone), open gear tuners, strings from Aquila (imported from Italy), and a rosette etched via Polynesian Shark Teeth.
Guitar for Seasoned Players: Yamaha Revstar RS820CR Electric Guitar
More experienced guitar players might gravitate towards an electric model like the Yamaha Revstar. This guitar, which is available for over $1,000, comes in four colors. These are Steel Rust, Rusty Rat, Brushed Teal Blue, and Brushed Black.
The guitar includes must-have features like a dry switch with push-pull tone that improves frequency response thanks to the passive filter circuit within. The pickups from YGD come custom-wound, and the hardware is customized as well. The contouring of the Revstar includes a neck joint so it’s easier than ever to reach those upper frets. You also get a forearm contour (that’s hidden) and a cut in the belly, all for your comfort.
The durable mahogany body has a maple top. You’ll also enjoy a humbucker with a VH5+ vintage output and a satin nickel cover, a German baseplate with an Alnico V magnet, and a formvar wire to boost the dynamic tone and clarity.
Ukulele for Seasoned Players: Martin Smith UK-312-A Soprano Ukulele
As an Amazon’s Choice product, the Martin Smith UK-312-A soprano ukulele is a comparable choice to the Yamaha Revstar. Well, not comparable in price, as this one is available for under $50, proving that guitars are generally more expensive than ukuleles.
This intermediate uke includes handy accessories you’ll love, among them a tuner, plecs, a gig bag, and extra strings. The gear heads are made of metal while the bindings are precise and set up with love. With looser tension on the strings and good action, the UK-312-A is designed to pick up and play.
Guitars and ukuleles are two very different instruments regarding size, sound, strings, and price, but they share more common threads than you’d think. They’re tuned similarly, have some of the same chord shapes and frets, and both instruments sound phenomenal in their own way.
There’s no need to debate over whether the guitar or ukulele is better. Both instruments have their place, and hopefully, that’s in your music collection. Happy playing!