Ukulele vs. Guitar: Difficulty, Difference, and How to Choose
Should You Learn Ukulele or Guitar?
If you have always wanted to learn to play an instrument, the guitar and the ukulele are two excellent choices. They are both stringed instruments that present a simple path to playing popular songs and a lifetime of challenges for those who wish to take them seriously.
But how do you decide between them if you’re a newbie who doesn’t know much about either, much less music in general? This article can help. Here we will break down the pros and cons of the guitar and the ukulele so you can make the best choice.
First, a little background: I’ve been a guitarist for over 35 years and a bassist for nearly as long. I can also play a little piano, if I put my mind to it. A few months ago, I added one more instrument to my collection and purchased a ukulele. I’ve learned all the important chords (and a bunch of songs) and have had a lot of fun on this pint-sized instrument.
Before I picked up a ukulele, I never would have considered it a genuine alternative to playing guitar, but it is. The more I learn about the ukulele, the more I am amazed by the creativity that accomplished uke players express. I think this is an important thing for anyone trying to choose between these instruments to understand. The ukulele is a serious instrument just like the guitar, and you can devote a lifetime to mastering it.
Differences Between Ukulele and Guitar
Here is a quick list of some of the differences between guitar and ukulele. While they are probably obvious to many people, they are worth mentioning just to make sure everyone is on the same page
- Ukuleles are four-stringed instruments, where guitars have six strings.
- Ukuleles have nylon strings. Some guitars have nylon strings as well, such as classical-style instruments, but many of the most popular models have steel strings.
- Guitars and ukuleles are tuned differently. (More on that soon.)
- Ukuleles are much smaller than guitars. In fact, even a 3/4-sized acoustic guitar is quite a bit larger than a tenor ukulele.
- Guitars are generally more expensive. I usually recommend around $200 for a good beginner acoustic guitar. You can start out on a quality ukulele for $50-$100.
Ukulele or Guitar: Which Is Easier?
If you are just interested in the quickest path to competently playing an instrument, the ukulele is certainly easier. You can learn three or four chords and play a wide range of songs. Learn a few dozen chords and you can play most pieces of music you come across.
That is true of the guitar as well. But a guitar is bigger, bulkier, and has more strings. If you choose a steel-stringed acoustic guitar, it is also harder on the fingers, though this is something most new players become used to rather quickly.
Remember: just because the ukulele presents an easier way to be a musician does not mean it is an easy instrument. There are uke virtuosos just as there are guitar virtuosos and if you want to make mastering the ukulele your life’s goal you will have a lot of work ahead of you.
Are the Ukulele and the Guitar Tuned the Same Way?
Yes, no, and sort of. In a nutshell: While we tune ukulele strings differently than guitar strings, the relationships between those strings are similar enough that much of what you learn on one instrument can transfer over to the other.
We tune the four strings of the ukulele the same way as the highest (thinnest) four strings of the guitar with a few important differences. In standard tuning, the highest four strings on the guitar are tuned D-G-B-E, where on ukulele they are G-C-E-A. In both cases, the relationship between the strings is perfect fourth, major third, perfect fourth.
But there is one big difference: On guitar, we tune guitar strings in a linear relationship to each other, meaning that each string, from sixth to first, is increasing higher in pitch. But the fourth string on a ukulele is tuned a full octave higher in relation to the other three strings. In other words, the fourth string on the uke is actually higher in pitch than the third string. This is known as re-entrant tuning, but for the ukulele, it is often just referred to as standard tuning.
The close relationship between the two instruments is most easily illustrated by comparing an open D Major chord on the guitar and a G Major chord on the ukulele. These chords will sound different, but we fret them the same way. Likewise, the patterns for playing any type of scale on the highest three strings of the guitar are the same on the highest three strings of the uke, even though the notes are different.
This might all sound a bit confusing, but the important takeaway is that the two instruments are closely related, at least when it comes to tuning. The bass guitar is related as well, and the music theory you learn on one can transfer to the other.
Common Types of Ukuleles
Here are the four most commonly ukulele sizes you will encounter.
- Soprano: The small ukuleles most people are familiar with are called soprano ukuleles. That’s the one I started out on, and it is the sound most people associate with the uke.
- Concert: This is a larger instrument, though it is tuned the same way as the soprano uke. Because of its longer scale length, it has a somewhat fuller sound.
- Tenor: This ukulele is longer still, and the G string is tuned in the same octave as the rest of the strings in a linear fashion similar to the way a guitar is tuned. For this reason, it may be a little easier for guitar players to pick up on the tenor uke.
- Baritone: This is the largest of the common ukulele sizes. It is tuned D-G-B-E, which is identical to the fourth through first strings on a guitar.
Guitar Types and Sizes
Full-sized acoustic guitars are larger than even a baritone ukulele. Not only is the body and fretboard wider, but they have longer scale lengths. If this seems problematic for you, there are smaller 3/4-size guitars that are better for new players with small hands.
Classical guitars are also a smart choice for a new player. These instruments have smaller bodies than most steel-stringed acoustic guitars. Most importantly, they have nylons strings that are much easier on the fingers when first starting out.
If you are considering a steel-stringed guitar, you will have a few body sizes to choose from:
- Dreadnought: This is the most common acoustic guitar shape and the one I recommend most beginners start with. It offers a pleasant blend of projection and articulation and works well for strumming or playing fingerstyle.
- Concert: Concert-shaped bodies are a little smaller and narrower than dreadnoughts. They don’t quite have the same projection, and they work a little better for finger-style players.
- Jumbo: As the name suggests, these are big-bodied guitars great for strumming.
- Parlor: Parlor guitars are similar in size to a classical guitar and are best for fingerpicking
5 Reasons to Choose Ukulele Over Guitar
Here are five reasons it makes sense for a new musician to start out on the ukulele:
- Beginner chords are simpler on a ukulele. That doesn’t mean you’ll physically master all of them faster, but it does mean you might catch on mentally a bit quicker. There are a few uke chords that involve only one or two fingers, and once you get comfortable with them there are many songs you can play.
- Ukuleles cost less. Sure, you can drop a lot of cash on a gorgeous ukulele that is hand-made with exotic tonewoods, but mostly the cost of getting started on the uke is pretty minimal. There are many great choices under $100, and some under $50. If you just want to start playing music while spending as little as possible, the ukulele is a much cheaper option than the guitar.
- Ukes have much smaller necks that beginners may find more comfortable. Fretting notes and chords can present problems for new guitar players. Your fingers are expected to forms shapes that don’t seem possible at first. Six steel strings, a wide fingerboard, and a bigger neck make this more challenging than on the smaller nylon-stringed ukulele. Learning to put your fingers in the right place on a ukulele is still no walk in the park for new players, but it is a little easier when compared to the guitar.
- Ukuleles are smaller overall. This not only makes them more portable and easier to tote around, but it also makes them less intimidating for smaller players. A full-size dreadnought acoustic guitar can be unwieldy for people of smaller stature, but even folks who are larger may prefer the ease of managing a smaller instrument. Of course, there are different guitar sizes out there, including three-quarter size instruments, but none the size of a soprano uke.
- The ukulele is a lot of fun. The guitar is fun too, but the guitar takes a little more work to get to the fun. The little ukulele can go anywhere, it isn’t exceptionally loud, and you can play almost any kind of music with it. You can get together at meetups and play with other uke enthusiasts, or even form your own ukulele band. It is an instrument that almost anyone can learn to play competently within a reasonable amount of time. If you want to have music in your life without a lot of the hard stuff that comes with learning an instrument like guitar or piano, the ukulele is the way.
5 Reasons to Learn to Choose the Guitar Over the Ukulele
Here are a few reasons the guitar may be a better choice for you:
- Guitars are deeper instruments. While the extent that this is true varies depending on the type of ukulele we are comparing it to, in general, the guitar has a much wider range because it has more strings and a longer fingerboard. That means more sounds and musical textures, and a broader palette for expression.
- Guitar offers more variety. At the core of this article, we are comparing the acoustic guitar to the ukulele, but there are many other ways you can go as a guitarist. You can branch off into electric guitar and play blues, jazz, rock, country, or metal. You can switch to classical guitar and learn from the masters. You can do all of this of ukulele too, but you are limited by the range and sounds of the instrument.
- There are more opportunities for guitar players. You can certainly form or join a band as a ukulele player, but you will probably have to look around for a while before you find like-minded musicians. On the other hand, every rock, country, blues, and metal band needs at least one guitar player. And, if you still can’t find a gig, you can always learn bass guitar. Speaking of that . . .
- The guitar opens doors to other instruments. In my article comparing guitar and bass, I often get questions about which instrument new players should. The right answer is whichever gets you most excited, but looking at it from a practical perspective I think it is more useful to learn guitar first. Learning the basics on guitar, including chords, scales, and music theory, easily translates to the bass guitar and even the ukulele. I think it would be a little harder to switch from uke to guitar.
- The guitar is considered a more serious instrument. While this certainly isn’t true in a place like Hawaii, like it or not, throughout most of the world the ukulele isn’t taken as seriously as it should be. The guitar has an association with some of the greatest musicians who ever walked the planet. Unfortunately, it will be a long time before the public knows Jake Shimabukuro the way they know Jimi Hendrix. If that matters to you, the guitar may be a better choice.
The Amazing Jake Shimabukuro
Deciding on the Best Instrument for You
The guitar is one of the great loves of my life. I could never give it up or shift my focus to another instrument. Adding the ukulele to my repertoire has been a lot of fun and extremely enlightening. I admit I was among those who were ignorant of the possibilities of the instrument. Now, I see the uke as a viable choice for any beginner, and I would even say that serious guitar players should invest in a uke just to see what it is all about.
Knowing all of that now, if I could go back in time and choose between ukulele and guitar, I would choose the guitar without hesitation. Through the years, it has presented opportunities and challenges that have changed me for the better and I can’t imagine life without it.
That’s my personal choice, but there are many people who feel the same way about the ukulele. So, as I always say, the right instrument for you is the one that gets you the most excited. It is also important to remember that the instrument you choose today isn’t the last stop on your musical journey. There is always room for learning something new and knowing a little about either instrument will better prepare you for change to the other.
Whatever you decide, I hope you choose to learn to play an instrument and bring music into your life. Good luck with your decision in choosing between ukulele and guitar! As long as you get started in music, you are making the right decision.