Did you know that the word ‘ukulele’ was initially given to a former British army officer named Edward Purvis as his nickname? In Hawaiian, ‘ukulele’ translates to “jumping flea.” Being a small and lively fellow, Purvis soon earned his nickname!
But he was also a massive fan of the musical instrument brought there by Portuguese immigrants who called it a ‘machete.’ In fact, Purvis was so closely attached to this little instrument that his nickname eventually became the name by which the instrument is now known, the ‘ukulele.’
Like his nickname, the small, four-stringed instruments produce a delicate and focused sound, which leaves everyone feeling alive and excited.
The ukulele’s popularity has grown massively over the last few years. Their affordability, portability, and minimal need for amplification has made the instrument perfect for those taking up new musical hobbies.
Well, are you in this category or the high-end music professional seeking the ukulele brand that suits you best?
Either way, I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the best ukulele brands on the market today. With so many manufacturers “jumping” on the ukulele craze, it’s important to make sure you’re buying from a reputable brand that produces ukuleles that last a lifetime.
This list is composed of some of the best ukulele brands that originate and are still made in Hawaii, the birthplace of the ukulele, however, to give more options and an overall idea of the current market, I’ve included some other key players.
Also, please note there are other Hawaiian ukulele brands that don’t actually produce their instruments in Hawaii.
The Best Ukulele Brands From Hawaii
Just to let you know, this post contains affiliate links for which I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. I’m passionate about music and my recommendations are genuine.
The following are the best ukulele brands for professionals. It turns out the Hawaiians really do know their beloved little instrument and make some of the highest quality ukuleles on the market today.
Kamaka is one of the oldest ukulele brands, having been established in 1916 when Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka started to make ukuleles and guitars in the basement workshop of his Honolulu home.
This is one of the best ukulele brands for professionals that want a world-renown and handcrafted instrument. Or someone who is extremely passionate about the ukulele and its history.
Having had the privilege of playing their most popular ukulele model, the Standard HF-1, aka Soprano, the rich tone it produced has yet to be replicated. The Hawaiian koa lumber they are meticulously hand-built from just outperforms all other woods soundwise.
On top of this, my favorite Beatle, George Harrison, was a big fan of the Kamaka ukulele. Apparently he played the concert, the tenor 6-string, and tenor 8-string. According to one music store on Maui, Hawaii, when Harrison would visit the islands, he would purchase all the Kamaka ukuleles in stock to give to his friends as gifts!
The founder, Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka, paved the way for most of the techniques and practices used today by other ukulele brands.
But no one else quite matches craftsmanship that has been passed down among generations through the Kamaka family. Their underlying philosophy which was handed down from their father to the songs that currently run the company really resonates with me, he said;
“If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.”
Kanile’a is another family-based company and one of the best ukulele brands on the islands.
One key feature that sets this company apart from the others is that they mill their own wood, Joe Souza, the founder, describes the process; “We start with felled koa trees, waxing and letting them start the drying process right there in the forest before being air-dried in our shop.”
All of their ukuleles feature their signature TRU (total resonating ukulele) bracing system, which essentially takes into account all directions of movement of the vibrating soundboard. Unlike traditional bracing, this method creates an enhanced sound and stability.
To top it all off, each ukulele undergoes an ultraviolet finish, Joe describes what this does better than I.
“Our finish is hardened under ultraviolet light or sunlight. Unlike [nitrocellulose lacquer], it stretches when the instrument is exposed to temperature changes, and so it tends not to check. And with the finish, we’ve eliminated VOCs [volatile organic compounds]. From the way we source our wood to this finishing method, we care deeply about the environment.”
This list wouldn’t be complete without another family-run Honolulu based ukulele manufacturer, KoAloha. Compared to some of the other Hawaiian ukulele brands, KoAloha is relatively new having been established in the mid-1990s.
Their name is a portmanteau, meaning it blends the sound and meaning of the two words, koa and aloha. Koa wood being the main material in the build of their instruments. This creates the classic lively sound with an excellent projection that you find with the other best ukulele brands from Hawaii.
Most of their instruments remain fairly traditional; soprano, concert, and tenor models in both standard or pineapple shapes. Although they do occasionally depart from the traditional, mainly in terms of aesthetics. This can be seen in their Sceptre tenor model.
Other signature features of KoAloha ukuleles are their five-point crown headstock and their musubi soundhole, the shape inspired by a local food snack!
Overall, these instruments offer a sweet and pure sound that is hard to find elsewhere. On top of this, they offer a polished look and amazing feel you’ll probably never want to put it down.
Oh, and if you’re ever in Honolulu, they offer a free factory tour no reservation necessary, something that’s on my bucket list!
The last of the 4 K’s among Hawaii’s most acclaimed ukulele builders, they probably offer the boldest designs when compared to their traditional friends.
Although they do build the traditional and pineapple-shaped models, they also have some daring designs up their sleeve, such as a semi-hollow tenor, baritone electric models, and even a hand-carved tenor archtop tenor. Yes, the latter is beautiful, but will set you back close to $7,000!
Also slightly different from the other Hawaiian ukulele brands, Ko’olau use a farther-reaching range of tonewoods. These include native tropical ash and Brazilian rosewood, and Adirondack spruce and redwood for their soundboards, along with a good deal of Koa.
Like many of the family-run manufacturers, they offer custom instruments, prices ranging between $1,600 and $13,000. One of the nice aspects of going through the custom instrument process is the collaborative conversation back and forth between the customer and the builder.
It really makes you feel a part of the overall process, and plus you end up with a special and unique instrument that you can say no else has in the entire world!
Lanikai is among the most popular ukulele brands out there. Not all of their models are made in Hawaii, the models with LK are, whereas the other’s are either made in Pono’s old factory in Indonesia or Kala’s factory in China.
They’re actually part of Hohner, the musical instrument company that was founded in 1857. Their instruments, mainly harmonicas, have been played by some of the most well-known artists of all time; Bob Dylan, Steven Tyler, and Stevie Wonder just to name a few!
Although they have some great beginner-friendly models, Lanikai is one of the best ukulele brands for professionals and experienced players.
The Lanikai Quilted Ash Series and the Lanikai Exotic Series both offer premium tonewoods which sound amazing and also look great due to the natural patterns of the trees they are constructed from.
Lanikai have become quite popular with the indie crowd as Zach Condon of the American band Beirut uses the LU-21TE model!
My Favorite Pick – Lanikai ACST Models
Lanikai has two models which I think in particular are really great for more intermediate and advanced players who aren’t looking to break the bank with the more expensive Hawaiian ukulele brands above.
The Lanikai ACST-T Acacia tenor ukulele and the Lanikai ACST-B Acacia baritone ukulele. Both feature a solid acacia top that delivers a full and warm tone you would expect from one of the best ukulele brands out there.
Both of these models are a lot of fun, the notes are accurate and clear, a very pleasing melodic instrument. Both have very good volume, and you can definitely notice the richness in tone due to the acacia, something which is hard to replicate in other tonewoods.
My only criticism would be the sustain was slightly disappointing, it seems a tiny bit ‘strangled,’ however, I haven’t tried different strings which is often the case. Either way, I wouldn’t say that’s a dealbreaker.
These are beautiful looking instruments and an absolute pleasure to own and play.
Here Are The Other Best Ukulele Brands to Look Out For
Based in California, Kala is a bountiful manufacturer of the ukulele. Kala’s profuse and inventive works have flooded the markets with vast ranges of models. They have proved themselves amongst the best ukulele brands by continually releasing new and better quality models of ukuleles each and every year.
In 2018, Kala released four new models. Amazing, huh?
Amidst all this greatness, their instruments cover everyone, and no-one’s requirements are left out, ranging from their beginner models to the high-end professional models.
An example of Kala’s motivating designs is the Kala KA-15T Satin Mahogany Tenor Ukulele. This beauty, made of pure mahogany, is great for all skill levels and budgets, setting an industry standard.
It has a beautiful full-bodied tone, with plenty of “Sweet Highs” and “Mellow Lows,” combining to create a full and rich sound.
My Favorite Pick – Learn To Play Ukulele Starter Kit (KALA-LTP-C)
For a complete beginner, Kala has a great Learn To Play Ukulele Starter Kit (KALA-LTP-C). The kit comes with the Kala concert model and is made from mahogany with a lovely satin finish.
The tuning machines are quite basic, however, they do the job fine and keep the ukulele in tune. It comes strung with Aquila strings from Italy, which is a very nice addition at this price level.
The sound is actually really surprising. Although it doesn’t quite match the natural sustain of other Kala models, it offers everything you’d want from a concert ukulele; a bright, rich, and projecting sound.
But the most valuable aspect of this package is the dedicated online lessons. You may think it’s easy to just hop on YouTube and find some lessons, but it’s hard to find the structure and continuity you get with the easy to follow lessons.
Although lacking the long history that surrounds the other great ukulele brands, Donner, founded in 2012, has proved their worth in the market as one of the best ukulele brands for beginners and intermediate players. The Donner brand specializes in a wide range of brilliant musical instruments, not just ukuleles.
But, their ukuleles are approachable by all musicians and budgets. Combining this with the exceptional build quality, they definitely deserved to be included in the best ukulele brands list.
They certainly live up to their motto of “Creating new experiences in music and performance.”
A hint of their best work is in their Dub-1 Electric Bass Ukulele, which is near-perfect, emitting a beautiful and full tone. And priced nicely below $100. I wrote a more in-depth review of it in my best bass ukulele article!
Their also quite innovative with their designs, with electro-acoustic models and zebrawood body models.
I always respect a newcomer to the music industry that is willing to constantly innovate and provide budget-friendly options for everyone looking to pick up and learn a new instrument, it’s a win-win.
Looking at Lohanu’s ukuleles, the Hawaiian aura will hit you. They have incorporated every detail of the traditional Hawaiian ukulele in their brand, thus bring Hawaii to you. Interesting fact, they’re actually from Canada!
A country known for hockey, maple syrup, cold winters, and now… ukuleles!
Their numerous purchases online, positive reviews, and a flood of top-selling products describe the craftiness of Lohanu’s instrument. They make some very bold claims like, “Best Quality Ukulele Bundle” and “Best Selling Ukuleles on Amazon,” but do these Canadians know what they’re talking about?
The answer is yes!
Lohanu’s unwavering confidence over their products is so strong that they actually offer a lifetime warranty. Yes, you read that correctly. This shows how massively they believe in their products. This is the type of trust you want when buying an instrument online, and therefore makes them one of the best ukulele brands today.
The secret to their ukulele is their arched back, which gives it a long sustained and more fuller sound.
As if giving you a lifetime warranty of your ukulele, Lohanu then helps smoothen your journey with the instrument. They offer free beginner tutorial videos, and for a more focused learning process, they have the Lohanu beginner series.
All their packages include a digital tuner, an extra set of ukulele’s strings, picks, a strap, and a carry case. This truly is one of the best ukulele brands for beginners.
The Ukulele Concert Size Bundle From Lohanu has a solid five-star on Amazon with over 4,500 ratings, that’s certainly not something you see every day!
Founded in 1997, Cordoba Guitars produce some of the most high-quality nylon-stringed instruments you can find today. At the same time, their innovative designs still maintain the integrity of the classical guitar and Spanish tradition.
Over time, they began to apply their classical guitar building techniques and craftsmanship to the ukulele. They slightly redesigned the traditional ukulele by widening the neck, which allows for greater freedom and increased maneuverability for the player.
On top of this, it will be hard to find a ukulele with such a loud, clear, and uplifting tone that traditional and contemporary musicians will both enjoy.
The passion for their craft really reflects in all of Cordoba’s musical instruments, and I think they are a superb brand suited for all levels of musicians that appreciate the fusion of quality, beauty, and artistry into the instruments they play.
My Favorite Pick – Cordoba 20TM Tenor Ukulele
It features a solid mahogany top and laminated mahogany back and sides. This helps to create a rich and complex tone that holds really well, excellent for fingerpicking. The natural wood pattern rosette and satin finish make this sophisticated ukulele visually pleasing and elegant looking, nothing fancy, just right.
The quality is what you would expect from the world’s leading classical guitar brand, with the slim neck feeling exceptionally great in hand.
I really rate this as one of the best tenor ukuleles at a budget-friendly price. It’s one of those instruments that with proper care you really won’t be looking to replace anytime soon.
One side note, the Cordoba 20TM also comes in an acoustic-electric version, the Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Cutaway Acoustic-Electric. Although I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of plugging in a ukulele, I tend to prefer the natural sound, I do have friends that use this model.
Their only criticism is that when performing they have to sit down because it doesn’t have strap buttons!
Luna is one of the less-known ukulele brands. Born out of Florida, their full name is actually Luna Guitars, having started with guitars in 2005.
The founder, Yvonne de Villiers, had an aim to produce musical instruments at affordable prices as she felt musicians were being intimidated by the high prices of instruments in the early 2000s.
I personally think Luna is one of the best ukulele brands for beginners, offering a solid build quality and nice sound. If you’re just getting started, this is an affordable way to begin, after a few years, you can always move on to a more high-end model/brand.
One other aspect that makes Luna stand out is their artistic designs on some of the models. The Luna Tattoo Mahogany Concert Ukulele model features a laser-engraved design, so if you want something a little different or to stand out, this is a good choice.
My favorite pick – Luna Tattoo Concert Mahogany Ukulele
The Luna Guitars Tattoo Concert Mahogany Ukulele is designed after traditional Hawaiian body ornamentation. The designs are what is known as monochromatic, and are tattooed in black against brown skin.
Ultimately, the design of this ukulele takes its inspiration from strong Hawaiian traditions and you will find some symbolism in the form of stones, fish, turtles, sharks, waves, rain the sun, and birds as well.
Basically, the whole focus of this design is based on the Hawaiian turtle which is a symbol of endurance and longevity. The design is rendered in Polynesian tattoo style and the fret markers that you see are stylized sharks teeth.
Apart from its good looks, for its low price, it offers a clear, open, and sweet tone due to its mahogany build. It produces a great volume with lots of sustain. Although like many budget-friendly ukuleles, the laminated wood construction lets it down slightly in regards to its treble register.
Overall, a great option for your first ukulele and if you’re looking for something with a little more style!
The ukulele is a tiny instrument that has found its way into the hearts of millions of people around the world.
If you’ve always wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument but felt too intimidated, then the ukulele is probably one of the simplest and easiest musical instruments to learn. It’s charming and has so much to offer.
Playing the ukulele has various benefits, aside from the fact that it is extremely fun.
I’m here to answer some of the common questions surrounding the ukulele!
Which is the best ukulele for beginners?
The Learn To Play Ukulele Starter Kit (KALA-LTP-C) by Kala is the ideal ukulele for a beginner. Not only does it come with really helpful online lessons that will get you playing fast, but the satin mahogany ukulele is also of very high quality, and is so good you won’t need to upgrade it as you become a more advanced player.
Is Kala ukulele a good brand?
Short answer, yes! Although they aren’t a Hawaiian ukulele brand, they have proved themselves year after year. They have a superb range of ukuleles for all levels but are especially good at providing high-quality ukuleles at an affordable price.
Is ukulele easy to learn?
The ukulele is undeniably charming. It’s made a comeback in recent years thanks to its happy tone and you’ve no doubt heard it featured in popular songs on the radio as well.
Irrespective of whether you are a guitar player looking for a little variety or if you’ve never played an instrument before in your life, the ukulele is one of the best musical instruments to pick up.
One of the reasons why I highly recommend the ukulele is because it is super easy to learn. In fact, it is easier to learn how to play the ukulele than it is to play the guitar.
The guitar is also quite harsh on your fingers when starting, whereas the ukulele has soft nylon strings that are much gentler on your fingertips.
The small size of the ukulele reduces tension because the notes are reachable without having to stretch as much, requiring less dexterity in your hands and fingers. Because it only has four strings, it makes cord shapes and scales easier to learn as well.
Which ukulele should I buy?
Ukuleles are incredibly fun to play but can be downright addictive. This is because playing one gives you the laid-back and airy feeling which they emit, both looks and soundwise.
However, you should not just purchase any cheap ukulele. You want to make sure that you’re getting a good quality ukulele. You really want to make sure you’re buying from some of the best ukulele brands as highlighted above.
Ultimately the best type of ukulele for you will depend on your skill level, the sound that you want to create, and the type of music you intend on playing.
Soprano and concert ukuleles are generally recommended for beginners as they’re small enough to make forming chords easier. They also have the traditional sound which is most common.
If ukuleles are not new to you and you are looking for a different type of sound than the more traditional ones, then you might want to try a tenor, baritone, or even bass ukulele.
Size is also something worth considering. Soprano and concert ukuleles are great if you have smaller hands as it’s going to be the most comfortable to work with. For those who have bigger hands, a tenor ukulele may be a better option.
Can you learn the ukulele by yourself?
If you’re considering purchasing a ukulele or you’ve just recently purchased one, you’re probably asking yourself if it’s possible to teach yourself how to play the ukulele?
Well, the short answer is yes you absolutely can teach yourself how to play the ukulele. And there are a variety of ways to do so.
If you’re thinking of learning how to play the ukulele by yourself, you’re going to need some help. Self-learning consists mainly of reading books and searching for free online lessons.
Most people who learn how to play the ukulele simply Google “learn how to play the ukulele” and get started. And by the way, isn’t it amazing that you can actually do this?
However, it may feel a bit overwhelming to learn even the most basic ukulele chords by yourself. You may find yourself asking a lot of questions such as what are you going to do next, what are the steps that you need to take in order to play a song, or you may even begin to question your very ability to learn how to play the ukulele on your own.
That’s why I recommended the Kala Learn To Play Ukulele Starter Kit (KALA-LTP-C) because it has structured lesson plans from day one!
Perhaps the biggest benefit of self-teaching is that you set the pace and decide how much you’re going to learn in what space of time. If you find that you are an organized person then learning how to play by yourself will be very achievable.
Apart from private lessons, another option is ukulele groups which you can find all over the world. They meet on a regular basis to experience the joy of making music together, and it’s a great feeling!
The best part about a ukulele group is that this method of learning will take the focus off you. Everyone there is learning together. They’re very easy going, with more experienced members eager to help and give tips/advice.
The only slight drawback of learning to play the ukulele in a group is that some groups are focused more on performing rather than teaching. And this can often make you feel like you are left in the dust if there’s a song that you can’t figure out how to play.
Is ukulele easier than the guitar?
Deciding on which instrument you’re going to learn is never an easy choice. Ultimately, it’s an investment of your time and your money so you want to make sure that you’re choosing the right instrument for you.
When it comes to deciding between a ukulele and a guitar, there are some factors that need to be considered.
You’ve probably heard that ukuleles are much easier to learn than guitars and there is some truth to this. Ukuleles are smaller than guitars and have fewer strings. It is, therefore, easier to learn the chords on a ukulele than it is to learn the guitar.
For this reason, lots of people who start with the ukulele find that they can put together and start playing songs in a matter of days. The tension of the strings is also low on the ukulele and easier on our fingers. So if you want to learn how to start making music quickly, then the ukulele comes highly recommended.
Why should you play the ukulele?
In case you needed any more convincing as to why you should learn to play the ukulele, here are some of the reasons I enjoy playing the ukulele.
Easily adapt to songs – Most popular songs in a variety of genres translate easily to the ukulele. Songs that have complex chords can be pared down to the ukulele and it makes them simpler to play because of the four strings on the instrument.
It sounds great – A major part of the ukulele’s charm is that it plays rich and warm sounds that put a smile on your face. Irrespective of whether you are alone in your bedroom playing or at a party with friends, it always lifts my mood!
It’s fun – The ukulele is more of a social instrument because it’s not as intimidating. No matter you’re age, you’ll always be able to find a fellow ukulele player to have a jam session with. Whether you’re a professional musician or simply a hobbyist, the ukulele is sure to provide you with hours of fun and entertainment.
It’s mobile – This is one of the main reasons I picked up a ukulele. If you’ve read my ‘Here’s My Story’ page, you’ll know that I grew up in a family that loved to travel and move every few years. Because of this, I was pretty much born with the travel bug, and still, travel ALOT to this day.
It’s great to be able to bring a musical instrument with you anywhere in the world. You’d be surprised at how many people you end up talking to and becoming friends with just because you have a ukulele in your hands. Music is truly universal.
Easy to learn – I’m starting to feel like a bit of a broken record here, but once again, they are much easier to learn than other stringed instruments.
Affordability – There truly is a good option for every budget. I do highly recommend sticking with the best ukulele brands I discussed above. With these, you’ll know you’re getting a good-quality ukulele that if looked after will serve you well for a long time.
Ukulele knowledge can be used on guitar – Guitar players can switch back and forth between the ukulele with absolute ease. All of the chord shapes you learn on the ukulele can be used on the guitar. If you eventually want to learn to play the guitar, why not start on the ukulele and then progress to the guitar?
There are many reasons to learn how to play the ukulele. But one thing I haven’t emphasized enough is the joy they will bring to your life. The reality is that life can be tough at times. Sometimes you simply have a bad day at work or you’re stressed about the bills and other stuff that you need to take care of.
And let me tell you, the ukulele is a huge stress reliever and has been integral in creating a more zen lifestlye for myself!
It helps you to relax, but at the same time have a bit of fun. So if you’re thinking of beginning your journey, stick to the best ukulele brands above, and start practicing!
Happy strumming! – Will