When you travel to Hawaii–Oahu in particular–you run the risk of being bitten by a rather contagious bug.
No, not a bed bug. The bug I refer to is more of a “jumping flea.” You may know it better as a ukulele.
Whether grabbing cocktails in Waikiki or catching a luau in Honolulu, your trip to Hawaii is practically guaranteed to include an opportunity to listen to the small four-string instrument that has become synonymous with Hawaiian music.
Whether you pronounce it “oo-koo-lay-lay” (the Hawaiian way) or you-ke-le-lee (the more common way) you may find you simply can’t return home from your Hawaiian vacation without buying a ukulele as a souvenir of your trip. As an avid ukulele player and uke collector–I have 10 ukuleles in my collection, much to the amusement and chagrin of Sheila–I wanted to share with you some ukulele buying tips–as well as my recommendations for stores that sell ukuleles in Waikiki, Honolulu, and Oahu-wide.
First up, let’s start with a few ukulele buying tips.
Ukulele Buying Tips
To make it easier to take your ukulele home with you, I’d recommend buying a soprano ukulele (sometimes referred to as a “standard” ukulele). This is generally the smallest size instrument and the one that has that bright, “plinky” sound you think of, when you think of the sound a ukulele makes. The soprano ukulele also tends to be a lot cheaper than its larger siblings–the concert size, tenor size, and baritone ukulele. (The downside is that those with larger hands may find the soprano ukulele harder to play, so test out the larger sizes and buy what suits you best.)
The soprano ukulele comes in many different colors, designs, and wood-types. In most cases, the brightly colored ukuleles you see in the ubiquitous ABC Stores tend to be not much more than a toy or souvenir. Great for handing to a child, or for hanging on a wall. Sadly, few ukuleles less than $20 are even remotely playable. Meanwhile, most ukuleles in the $40 to $150 price range are fabulous instruments and make great ukuleles to learn on and grow your playing abilities. They generally come in nice looking wood variations, though most are not solid wood–they’re laminate composites. Still, these are great entry-level instruments and require less care and attention than a solid Koa wood ukulele costing $500 and up.
As a side note, you may see pineapple-shaped ukuleles. These are generally the same sound quality as the standard shaped ukulele, but some players claim the shape adds a little more volume and a slightly fuller tone.
When buying your first ukulele, be sure to also grab a protective bag and a digital tuner. Your ukulele strings will lose their tuning often–at least at the beginning or after changing strings–so a tuner is essential and shouldn’t cost more than $20 (you can pick them up online for closer to $10). A ukulele bag can be a soft “gig bag” or a hard-shell protective case. These range from $20 to around $60 and worth the investment.
You can also pick up a ukulele tutorial book, but you’ll find plenty of free YouTube tutorials and chord charts with a simple Google search.
OK, so with those ukulele buying tips in mind, let’s move on to my recommended places to buy an ukulele on Oahu.
Where to Buy an Ukulele on Oahu
ABC Stores (web site)
For less than $20 you can pick up a brightly painted ukulele that will keep any child happy or give you the chance to do your best (or worst) Don Ho or Tiny Tim impression. Unfortunately, they really are toys and you shouldn’t expect much out of any uke purchased from an ABC Store. That said, you could always pick up a set of new ukulele strings (I recommend Aquila strings for around $7-$8) and see if they improve the sound any.
The Aloha Stadium Swap Meet (or flea market, if you will) takes place on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at the Aloha Stadium, Honolulu–about a 20 minute drive (depending on traffic) from downtown Waikiki. For a $1 a person, you can walk around hundreds of stalls and pick up all the Hawaii souvenirs you could possibly want to take home. Alongside those souvenir stands, you’ll find around a half-dozen ukulele vendors set up. Some are smaller than others, so it’s worth making a complete loop of the stalls, before buying an ukulele. While most of the ukuleles here will be either non-branded, you will find some ukuleles that have a solid reputation for entry level ukes–Lanikai and Kala being two that I recommend. Expect to pay $40 to $120 for a good, playable instrument, though you can also find solid koa ukuleles upward of $1000. Keep in mind that buying from these vendors will likely include no warranties or refund policy–so double check before buying.
There are two Pua Pua ukulele stores in Waikiki. One is at the Sheraton Waikiki, while the other is at the Westin Moana Surfrider. I’ve personally bought from the Pua Pua location at the Sheraton–a mighty fine long-neck solid wood soprano by KoAloha–and the experience was a delight. At the time, Bruce Shimabukuro–the equally talented brother of the now famous Jake Shimbabukuro–worked at Pua Pua and he took the time to hand-pick the best ukulele for my needs and playing ability. Bruce has now opened his own store (see Ukebox below) but Pua Pua is still a great place to shop for everything from entry-level to hand-built, Hawaiian-made ukuleles. You’ll find most of the major ukulele builders represented, including KoAloha, Kamaka, and Kanilea.
While I’ve not personally bought an ukulele from Bruce Shimabukuro’s new Ukebox store, I have browsed their web site and emailed with their staff. The customer service is high and you’ll be in good hands, should you find yourself browsing the many ukuleles in their Pacific Beach Hotel located store.
What can I say about Hawaii Music Supply? It’s so famous among ukulele circles that my recent visit to their Haleiwa store felt more like a pilgrimage than a shopping experience. Music Guy Mike is the resident ukulele guru (along with Jennifer and Andrew Kitakis who started the store in 2005) and he’s a friendly guy–willing to help even the most discerning ukulele player find their perfect uke. The store is like Dr. Who’s Tardis. While small, I can honestly say I have never seen so many ukuleles on display in a single location. As you can see from the picture opposite there must be over 100 ukuleles to choose from! One of the things I like about Hawaii Music Supply is their attention to detail in making sure every ukulele leaves their store set-up to play as sweetly as possible. This may not mean much to you now, but trust me, buying an ukulele that has been custom set-up makes a difference in both sound and playability. Another thing I like about HMS is that they ship worldwide and I’ve personally purchased a high-end Pono ukulele from them. It was a great price and it arrived carefully packaged. So visit the store, or if you return home empty handed, buy your ukulele from them online.
Well, that’s a lot to take in, but there’s so much more to share. Rather than rambling on, I’ll answer any questions you may have in the comments section below. In the meantime, here are some final thoughts:
- Entry-level ukulele brands I recommend include: Makala, Kala, Lanikai, Islander, and aNueNue.
- Not all wood ukuleles are solid wood. Some may be completely laminate ($40-$100). Others are solid wood tops, but laminate backs and sides ($100 – $300). If you buy an ukulele over $300, there’s a good chance it’s solid wood of some kind, but do ask. Koa is the Hawaiian wood that sets the gold standard among solid ukuleles.
- Not all ukuleles sold in Hawaii are Hawaiian-made. That doesn’t mean that those made in China or elsewhere are bad–standards are very high–but if you want an ukulele that is made in Hawaii, expect to pay at least $500.
- If you reside in a place that suffers from low humidity, stick with a laminate ukulele. Solid wood ukes need consistent humidity levels of between 40% and 60% or they could shrink and crack. If you insist on a solid wood ukulele, be sure to buy an ukulele humidifier or at least get a whole room humidifier.
- When flying home with your ukulele, detune your strings by loosening them. I’ve heard horror stories of strings contracting on cold planes and pulling the (typically glued-on only) bridge from a ukulele.
- When buying your ukulele in Hawaii, tell them it’s going out of state. Generally they won’t charge you sales tax on your purchase. Also, consider having your new ukulele lovingly packed and shipped home–so you don’t have an extra bag to take on the plane.
- Lastly, play with your new ukulele often. With just four strings, the ukulele is not as intimidating, or as hard to learn, as a guitar, but you’re not going to magically be able to play Tiny Bubbles overnight, without some daily practice.
Now that you’ve got a new ukulele check out our Beginner’s Guide to Owning Your First Ukulele!