Ukulele Buying Guide: Where to Buy a Ukulele on Oahu

Ukulele Buying Guide

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.)

Brightly Colored Ukuleles

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)

ABC Store Ukulele

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 (web site | map)

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.

Ukulele Pua Pua (web site | maps)

Pua Pua Ukulele Store

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.

The Ukebox (web site | map)

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.

Hawaii Music Supply (web site | map)

Hawaii Music Supply’s Ukuleles

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!


About Andy Beal

Andy Beal provides the photos, videos and technical support for Go Visit Hawaii–as well as the occasional post or two. He’s also a keen ukulele player. Connect on Google+

49 comments

  1. fantastic article and very informative. I have thought of getting an ukelele besides the “play” ones my kids already have but didn’t even know where to start! Great tips Andy! Now I know in my dry climate I will need to get a laminate.

  2. Thanks Janet. Yeah, NM will keep you busy with a humidifier, so best to stick with a laminate–which can sound great, BTW. 🙂

  3. When on MAUI check out meleukulele.com. 10 years ago had one custome built as we waited to get mauied. Both still going strong

  4. I’d also suggest a ukulele with geared tuners so it’s easier to tune accurately and help keep it that way.

    I also have nothing but good things to say about Scotty’s Music in Kalaheo on Kauai. They gave me a great deal on a beautiful Kala concert ukulele with a cedar top and koa body, which was my favorite of the several that they happily demonstrated for me since I didn’t know how to play yet.

  5. Thanks Benjamin. Certainly geared tuners are easier for a beginner, but good quality friction tuners can be great. I find the ones on my KoAloha are awesome, while on cheaper ukes, not so much. That said, if in doubt, go for geared tuners. 😉

  6. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for mentioning our store, it was very nice to meet you! One small correction tho, my husband Andrew and I started HMS as a full line music store in 2005. We hired MGM as our buyer and consultant earlier this year when we switched our store’s focus to ukulele. Here is a link to our about us
    http://www.theukulelesite.com/about-us

    Aloha,
    Jennifer Kitakis

  7. We loved the salesperson that helped us out at Ukulele Pua Pua at the Westin, he was great, and gave Adam a really good deal!

    Adam is VERY slowly teaching me things. I learned ‘e’ tonight 😉

  8. Beautiful blog! Well organized and so informative and wonderful. Sheila, you are great. I enjoy reading every bit of it. So mcuh to learn. I got here from 12 travel bloggers you should read in 2012 article and indeed, will come back again and again.

  9. Great information! I am Japanese and going to visit Hawaii to buy a Ukulele in April. I checked Hawaii Music Supply web site out and decided to visit the shop at first. However no Japanese Ukulele player introduced Hawaii Music Supply in Japanese blog or website. I don’t know why. Your article is really helpful! Thanks.

  10. I’m flying to Hawaii next week (from New Zealand) so this is a very timely blog post! Thanks a lot

  11. my husband and I area real excited to visit hawaii! this website is great and has given us some great ideas. I came across your buying guide and now I really want a ukelele and to learn to play. Would you know/recommend which store to visit that may have most selection of laminate standard ukes in the lower price range($50/60)? Would the swap meet be my best bet?

  12. Aloha Jane,

    The swap meet would be my first choice–you should find them in that price range. Any of the other stores should have either Lanikai, Kala, or Makala brands in your price range.

    Have fun shopping!

  13. Thanks! This was VERY helpful to help me decide where to get my first ukelele this summer.

  14. G’day mate,

    Before seein ur page even I bought a uku at the stadium swap meet. It’s zebra wood n sounds absolutely beautiful after trying many on my trip. It’s brand is pacific ukulele which I haven’t been able to find much on (I assume it’s a Chinese but I was still more then happy with it). Anything u could tell me on them would b much appreciated 🙂 thanks mate
    Regards
    Matt

  15. Hi Matt,

    I don’t know much about Pacific Ukulele, but you are probably right about it being Chinese made. Zebra wood is a great wood and I’m glad you’re loving your new ukulele.

  16. Thank you so much, I have recently taken an interest in the simple yet very famous art. I have always been intrigued in this instrument but was not one you would call talented when it came to music. Very informative and once again thank you so much

  17. I also bought a Pacific uke at the swap meet. Mahagony tenor size uke and I love it. Holds it’s tuning and sounds great.

  18. Hi Andy,

    Headed to Kauai and Maui in December and will not come back unless I have a uke in tow. Had hoped to do a factory tour, but since we aren’t going to make it to the Oahu, where would you suggest I shop for a quality instrument?

  19. Hi Andy,

    Any recommendations to have some repairs done to a tenor uke made from koa wood (at least that is what the guys told us at the swap meet). It needs some regluing. I am considering bringing it to Honolulu on a future trip to have it repaired by an expert.
    Thanks in advance.
    George

  20. Hi Andy,thank you for this information. I want to ask you,what about the OHANA brand? Thank you!

  21. Andy,
    What a great article!
    I’m an experienced guitar player, going to HI today to buy a ukulele! I will care about tone, and BEING IN TUNE as I play up the neck. Ideally Hawaiian made koa, but I hope to keep my cost in the $500 range. Any stebsuggestions you might have would be appreciated!!

  22. Thank you for the helpful article! I am in the US and want to order a Hawaiian ukulele for my husband. He plays guitar and I am trying to find something for around $200. Would love it to have something specific to Hawaii on it – an etching, painting, etc, even if it’s on the back. We are in Georgia, so the heat running/ dry air in winter might be a factor for the wood type.

    What would you recommend? If Hawaiian made mean ls $500 or more, then what is a good option to buy used or buy one made elsewhere? Been looking on eBay but it’s overwhelming!!

  23. Great Ukulele Buying Tips. I’ll pick up one for my daughter

  24. Hey Andy,
    Thank you for great information. I want to ask you,what about the Nalu brand concert ukulele?

  25. Hello Andy!

    I am taking trip to Hawaii in a week and plan on buying a Ukelele while I am there. I don’t particularly want a “colorful” Ukelele, and Since it is my first one, I have a budget of about $100-$150. I will be staying in the Wahiawa area, do you know of any good places? Also, what should I look for as far as quality?

    Thank You!

    • The only place close to you is the Ko’olau Guitar & Ukulele factory. They don’t have a showroom, but I hear they sometimes sell ukuleles cheap – https://goo.gl/maps/DqwgNjvfgDA2 (though they still may not be in your budget). My advice would be to take the short drive to the Hawaii Music Supply in Haleiwa. They have a great selection that should fit your budget – https://goo.gl/maps/b2KGmihkEuJ2

      If you shop elsewhere, make sure the neck looks straight, there’s no excess glue on the joins, and you don’t hear any vibration when you play a string. Good luck and enjoy!

  26. Great recommendation on swap meeting – if there is one going on during your visit definitely stop by! You never know what you can trade and also talking to other players is well worth it IMO.

  27. Are the Ukes at the Polynesian Cultural Center worth a look, the website says they are made by Kanilea. I have a flea pineapple shape but I too want one specific from my trip to Oahu.

    Also the 47th annual Ukulele festival will be going on while I am there. Is this a good place to buy?

    Great Blog!

    Damian

    • Not bought an uke from either place, but Kanilea are a respected ukulele manufacturer.

      • Ok so I am back on the mainland. I enjoyed myself way too much on Oahu. I brought back 6 Ukes. 2 pink and blue ones for some local kids I love. I bought a Kala walnut and a Kala waterman. I bought a Lanikai tuner uke. But the one I like the most is the one I bought from Ken at the Aloha Stadium Swap meet. It is a Mahogany soprano. Ken says he builds them, picks the wood and sends it off. He does all the final assembly himself. He also has a electric pickup that slides under strings on the bridge.

        This mahogany uke with a soft case was $50 bucks. He probably had 50 of them in his tent. If could have I would have brought 25 of them. He makes expensive Koa wood ones too. But every one of my uke friends here cannot believe the sound and playability this little uke has. I hope I have a friend going over there so I can send some money with them for a suitcase and several more of those Ukes.

  28. We bought 3 Ukuleles at Aloha Ukulele in the Kalia Tower at Hilton Hawaiian Village. We can’t find the receipts and that was 5 years ago. Would you think think they sell beginner ones or budget ones? Not sure how to tell the quality of them. Thank you for any help.

  29. Is Hanohano a good brand? I got one at the Aloha Stadium flee market by a really nice couple who run besthawaiianukuleles.com and I purchased one and it seems pretty good but I was wondering if you have any experience with them?

  30. My daughter recently purchased a Lanikai tenor and loves it. She is interested in a soprano and we found one (we are here in MI) on offer up that is a brand simply called Hawaii. Pineapple shape, so I am guessing it is a soprano. Tried searching the internet to learn more about the brand but am coming up with nothing. Seller says the uke was his father’s so I am thinking it is a brand that isn’t made anymore? Tuning heads are also on the backside of the head instead of on the side. Any thoughts or suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks!

    • Hard to say what brand it may be. Could be an older brand or a cheap Chinese one. Test the tuning pegs to make sure they stay tight. Play the strings all the way up the neck, to check they don’t vibrate, and to the intonation.

      Pineapple ukes are a fun to own and play!

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