Anatomy Of A Ukulele

The Different Parts of the Instrument And What They Do

Knowing the parts of your ukulele and what they are made of enriches your playing experience. With this knowledge you are better informed to shop for an instrument.  You will be able to better distinguish differences between brands to find something that suits your needs.  You’ll also be able to hear the difference between the instruments knowing that one ukulele is made out of koa while another is made of mahogany.  Lastly, you’ll be able to work within your budget more effectively understanding the quality of each part and how that relates to it’s price.

In this article, you’ll understand the basic parts of your ukulele.  We’ll take a brief overview for each part, some potential options and how it could impact your choice for a ukulele.  Let’s get started!

Ukulele Sizes

Different sized ukuleles
A soprano, concert and tenor sized ukulele.

Ukuleles come in four different sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The soprano and concert are by far the most popular. The soprano ukulele typically measures 20 inches in length while the concert is roughly 23 inches in length. Being a bigger instrument, the concert size is louder and produces a richer sound. Similarly, they are slightly more expensive than the soprano since they use more material.  

Not as popular is the tenor ukulele which generally measures about 26 inches. All three of the soprano, concert and tenor are tuned the same way, so there is no difference in how each of these instruments is played.  On the other hand, the baritone ukulele is tuned differently, so a player will need to be familiar with the chord shapes used for this particular instrument. It’s size is about 30 inches in length, so it’s much bigger than the soprano and concert size.

Due to their size, the soprano and concert ukulele’s are much more practical for children of all ages. They are light weight, portable, generally affordable and can sound fantastic when made of good material. Adults tend to lean on the concert and tenor sizes as the soprano may bee too cramped for comfort. If purchasing for a son or daughter, soprano or concert sizes are the way to go while mom or dad can play on tenor! Wait-you’ve never considered playing ukulele?! Then check out our other post to learn exactly why you should!

The Body

The top and back of a Sunlite ukulele
Top and back for our Sunlite ukulele US-300

The body of the instrument is made up of the top, the back and the sides. The top is generally known as the soundboard and it is very common for this part to be made of one type of wood while the back and sides use another. Wood used for the top can be koa, mahogany, cedar and spruce. These woods are commonly referred to as “tonewoods” that affect an instrument’s sound quality, volume and sustain. Koa and mahogany are regarded as producing warm, well-rounded tones. Cedar and spruce tend to produce sounds where the trebles have a hard “punch” that can cut through other sounds.

Typical wood used for the back/sides include koa, mahogany, rosewood and sapele.  Less involved in sound quality, these woods work to amplify and strengthen the construction of the instrument. The top, back and sides are all glued together.  Sometimes the edges are bound by perfling, which is a wood lining that helps strengthen the edges. Ukuleles with perfling tend to use a wood grain that stands out from that of the top, back and sides. This adds an appealing yet functional aesthetic that can make the instrument really stand out.

The Sound Hole

Eddy Finn ES-9 ukulele with fin shaped sound hole.
Eddy Finn ES-9 ukulele with fin shaped sound hole.

The sound hole is exactly that-the hole on the top of the soundboard that allows sound to come out! Typically, the sound hole lies 1/3 of the way down from the top of the soundboard. They can come in various shapes, mainly circular but also oval, square, star, crescent or even fin-shaped. The outer edge of the sound hole is generally decorated and is referred to as the rosette.  On beginner ukulele’s, this is typically a graphic that is printed on the wood.  For higher end ukulele’s, they can be extravagant inlays of other woods and materials to create a beautiful mosaic distinct to one instrument or brand.

The Bridge

Bridge for SMMC's Sunlite US-500 ukulele.
Bridge for SMMC’s Sunlite US-500 ukulele

The bridge sits about 1/3 above the base of the instrument.  It is generally glued to the soundboard and is where the strings of the instrument are attached.  There are different bridge design types, but the two most common are the tie-bar bridge and the pin bridge.  In the tie-bar bridge, the ukulele string is fed through a small hole and tied back around the string.  In the pin bridge, the string is fed into a hole and a pin is jammed into the hole to keep the string in place.

Hardwoods are generally used for the bridge, the most common being rosewood, ebony and mahogany.  Some bridges can have aesthetic inlays such as mother or pearl or shaped into unique designs, but this it typically found on higher quality ukuleles.

The bridge is also where you will find the saddle. Traditionally made of bone and now available in plastic, this piece is slotted with spaces for the strings to sit.  They aid in suspending the strings over the neck so they are free to vibrate. Having a good quality saddle is key in transmitting the sound from string to air, so ask a dealer what saddle comes on the instruments they sell.

The Neck & Fretboard

Side view of a ukulele neck and fretboard.

The neck of the instrument is generally made from a solid piece of wood capable of withstanding the tension brought on by the strings.  It is often glued to the top of the body. Necks are often made with a slight curvature to enhance playability and comfort, so these are features to look for when out shopping. To sight the curvature, you’ll need to hold the base of the instrument at eye level and look towards the edge of the neck. Is it flat or curved? Flat necks are not “bad”, but curved necks enhance playability of the ukulele.

The fretboard sits on the flat side of the neck and is typically made of ebony or rosewood. The fretboard is where the ukulele frets will be slotted and where a players left hand fingers make contact with the string. Other woods that can be used for the fingerboard include maple, but be aware that lighter colored woods like these can stain overtime and make the neck appear “dirty”. Sticking with a darker colored wood for the fretboard helps eliminate that aspect.

The Nut & Headstock

Teton soprano ukulele headstock.
SMMC’s Teton TS003 soprano ukulele headstock

Like the saddle, the nut is a piece involved in suspending the strings over the ukulele so they are free to vibrate.  Traditionally made of bone and now available in plastic, the piece is slotted with spaces for the strings to sit in. The nut is glued to the very top of the neck where the fretboard begins and can be viewed as the gateway to the headstock.

The headstock is a flat piece of wood that sits tilted back at a slight angle.  This is where the instruments tuning pegs are fixed.  Generally speaking, you will have two pegs on one side of the headstock and two pegs on the opposite side.  Gear pegs are by far the most popular type of tuning pegs outfitted on a ukulele with the pegs themselves jutting out at 90 degree angles from the headstock. The headstocks can be elaborately ornamented with scrolls, unique shapes and inlays or can be quite plain with simply the brand name and/or logo prominently displayed.

Ukulele Strings

The strings on the ukulele correspond to it’s size: soprano, concert, tenor or baritone.  The first 3 types employ a G-C-E-A tuning scheme from string 4 to string 1 while the baritone is tuned D-G-B-E.  Years ago, ukulele strings were made of catgut, but these days several string makers have their own version of ukulele strings.  SMMC’s ukulele are outfitted with Aquila strings and we also carry D’Addario and Martin & Co. ukulele strings.  Any one of these 3 brands is more than suitable to produce a good sounding tone that will bring out an instruments inherent quality.

We Hope You Learned Quite A Bit!

So that’s it-the nuts and bolts of a ukulele. Now when you pick up your instrument, you’ll know a little more about it. Shopping for a ukulele you say? Now you can ask the right questions to players and merchants alike about the instruments they play or sell. Doing so will help you evaluate the different kind of ukulele’s out there. This way when you do find the right one for you, you’ll know right away.

When looking for your first or next ukulele, don’t forget to check with San Marino Music Center. We have options for beginners and intermediate players available online at at our Mission location. Check out what is currently available in our online store by clicking HERE! Cheers and enjoy playing your current or hunting for your next instrument!