I’ve owned and played an electric/acoustic ukulele since 2011, and I have owned and played an electric/acoustic guitar since 2003.
Each instrument has its pros and cons and they have some significant differences.
So how are guitars and ukuleles different?
- The ukulele has four strings and the guitar has six strings.
- Ukulele strings are typically made of nylon making them easier to press down than guitar strings which are typically made of steel.
- They are tuned differently.
- The ukulele has 4 standard sizes some of which have alternate tunings.
- Ukuleles have a higher tonal range than guitars.
- Even the largest ukuleles are smaller than guitars, and are therefore more portable and better for travel.
- The ukulele is less popular and is played in fewer genres than guitar.
- Because the ukulele is less popular, learning resources are less abundant for ukulele than for the guitar.
- Even though ukuleles are less popular, starter instruments are less expensive than starter guitars, and performance-ready ukuleles are comparatively priced with guitars of the same quality.
These differences can have a significant impact on which instrument is best for you to learn.
I’ll discuss how these differences can help you choose which to learn below.
Guitar Vs. Ukulele: Strings
The ukulele’s 4 nylon strings have one big advantage over the guitar’s six steel strings:
Nylon strings are easier to press down than steel strings making ukuleles a great instrument for beginner musicians.
So many recognize this that Canada has actually used the ukulele to teach music literacy in their school systems since the 1960s.
And although some strings on classical guitars are nylon, the thicker strings on a classical guitar are usually steel wrapped.
Nylon strings are also a benefit if you live in a particularly humid environment.
Humid, rainy areas can cause steel guitar strings to rust and decay prematurely.
Nylon stringed instruments don’t have this same problem.
If you live in a humid/island environment, this might make the ukulele a better choice for you.
Some also think that the ukulele’s 4 strings make it simpler to play than the guitar with six strings.
Though this is a matter of debate, it’s something to consider when deciding which instrument to pursue.
Ukulele Sizes and Tuning
Ukuleles most commonly come in four different sizes:
- Soprano – with an average height of 21 inches and a standard tuning of GCEA
- Concert – with an average height of 23 inches and a standard tuning of GCEA
- Tenor – with an average height of 26 inches and a standard tuning of GCEA
- and Baritone – with an average height of 29 inches and a standard tuning of DGBE
The most common ukulele is the soprano ukulele.
Usually if someone doesn’t mention the type of ukulele, you can assume they are referring to a soprano ukulele because it is the most common.
You may recognize the tunings of the soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles as the same as the top 4 strings on a guitar (DGBE) tuned up a 4th (like a guitar with a capo on the 5th fret).
The difference in standard ukulele tuning is that the G string is an octave higher (just two steps below the high A string note).
However, some ukulele players prefer a tuning with the G tuned an octave lower to be closer to the guitar’s tuning.
And the baritone ukulele actually has the same tuning as the top 4 strings on a guitar: DGBE.
Ukuleles’ smaller size (than even travel guitars) makes them better suited for travel than guitars.
Ukuleles Tonal Range Compared to Guitars’
Ukuleles have a narrower range of possible notes than that of a guitar.
This likely contributes to the less versatile nature of the ukulele.
However, it can also be great for musicians that have a higher vocal range or a range that fits nicely in the range of ukuleles.
If you’re not sure how your vocal range compares with the ukulele, try singing along to some ukulele songs like:
- I’m Yours by Jason Mraz
- Elephant Gun by Beirut
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
- Riptide by Vance Joy
Ukuleles’ Popularity Compared to Guitars
Few instruments rival the guitar in terms of popularity besides the piano.
So to say that the ukulele is less popular than the guitar isn’t saying much.
However, it is important to keep this in mind when determining which instrument to learn.
If you want to learn all your favorite songs on the ukulele, you may not be able to find as many tabs or learning resources for the ukulele as you would for the guitar.
On the other hand, you have a much higher likelihood of finding a guitar tab or instructional video to play whatever song you want than you do a ukulele tab or instructional video.
Ukuleles are also played in fewer genres.
There simply aren’t as many songs originally played with the ukulele as there are with the guitar.
Guitar Vs. Ukulele: Pricing
You can find inexpensive and barely functioning plastic ukuleles at toy shops everywhere.
But ukuleles and guitars of a similar quality are typically priced similarly with the ukulele sometimes being a little less expensive.
This is most often the case with starter instruments where you can find an inexpensive but functioning ukulele in the $60-$90 range whereas it’s harder to find a quality starter guitar for much less than $100.
This isn’t the case with all stringed, fretted instruments that are less popular than the guitar.
For example, I’ve found that mandolins are usually priced higher than guitars of similar quality.
So even though ukuleles aren’t as popular as guitars, you can still purchase good-quality instruments without breaking the bank.
This is a great starter ukulele.
And if you want a performance ready ukulele of slightly higher quality, check out this one.
Guitar Vs Ukulele: The Final Verdict
You should probably pursue guitar if many of the following are true:
You should probably pursue ukulele if many of the following are true:
You don’t mind a little bit of finger soreness as you develop callouses on your fingers from playing on steel strings.
You’re afraid of the minor soreness associated with pressing down steel strings and would rather learn on easier nylon strings.
You want to have an abundance of learning resources.
You’re OK figuring out some things on your own since there aren’t as many ukulele learning resources.
Your hands are large enough that you think you may not be able to effectively play the ukulele.
Your hands are small enough that you think you might not be able to effectively play the guitar.
You want to be able to play a variety of genres and styles and think the ukulele would limit this.
You absolutely love the island style sound the ukulele produces and are OK with the limitations associated with this sound.
If you’re planning on singing along as you play, you’d prefer to have the guitar’s wider tonal range because you don’t think your vocal range matches the ukulele very well.
If you’re planning on singing along as you play, you know that the ukulele’s tonal range fits your vocal range.
You don’t travel much or don’t bring an instrument when you do.
You travel frequently, you want to bring an instrument with you, and you appreciate the compactness of a ukulele.
You don’t live in an extremely humid environment. Or if you do, you don’t mind changing your steel strings frequently.
You live in an island environment that’s extremely humid which could corrode and rust steel strings quickly.
If you’ve looked at the table above and have decided to pursue the guitar, check out my acoustic guitar buyer’s guide here.
If you’re still thinking about pursuing the ukulele, check out the next section where I discuss how to have the best of both guitar and ukulele worlds.
The Best of Both Worlds with a Guitalele
The ukulele’s similarity in tuning to a guitar makes it the perfect instrument to mix with the guitar.
If you’re not familiar with this concept, instruments mixed with the guitar (sometimes called guitar hybrids) are tuned the same as (or very closely to) the standard tuning of a guitar but have one or more features of another instrument.
The banjo guitar has six strings tuned like a guitar but with the body of a banjo.
This enables the guitarist to get a banjo sound without needing to learn a new instrument.
Similarly, the guitar ukulele (also called a guitalele or guilele) has six strings tuned like a guitar but up a 4th (as if you were to capo the guitar on the 5th fret) on a soprano ukulele body.
If you’re already a guitarist and you’re considering the ukulele, I recommend trying the guitalele first.
I think guitaleles present the best of both guitar and ukulele worlds because:
- You can play both ukulele and guitar tunes on them.
- They have nylon strings making them easier to play than steel string guitars and less likely to corrode in humid environments.
- They have the portability of ukuleles and are even smaller than most travel guitars.
- Because they are tuned up a 4th, the guitalele player has access to a higher tonal range than a standard guitar.
- You will have access to the abundant learning resources available to the guitarist.
This is a great starter guitalele if you’re interested in trying out this instrument.
And if you want a performance ready instrument of higher quality, check out this one.
Check out my article about guitaleles to learn more about them.
Is it easier to play the guitar or the ukulele? I think the mechanics of playing a ukulele are easier than the mechanics of playing a guitar. However, I think the guitar is ultimately more versatile and gratifying to learn. Plus, if you’re set on getting that ukulele sound, you can always purchase a guitalele so that you can play both ukulele and guitar songs on a single instrument with many of the benefits of both instruments.