If you are just starting out in the world of ukuleles or maybe you are a youngster in one of the many school ukulele orchestras that are replacing that dreadful recorder racket, then you are probably looking at lots of different brands of cheap ukuleles with slight bemusement. It’s a minefield. The first things that people are shocked by is how cheap these things are! On popular internet auction sites you can pick them up for as little as £12! But remember people, a £12 ukulele may be a bargain, but a £12 pile of steaming poop is not such a good purchase. So today I will narrow down this big market to review the 3 most popular brands that I have good experience of.
The ukulele brands I am reviewing today are: Mahalo, Makala & Ashton. These are the brands most synonymous with the bargain end of the market and the cheap soprano ukuleles they produce are roughly similar in price. It is worth noting that they each produce more expensive and better quality models and the fact remains that you get what you pay for.
Mahalo Ukulele Rainbow
Quality: Light, cheap but solid feeling. Coated in a thick plasticy paint job which goes a long way to conceal the obvious slight imperfections on joins and body work. It is a cheap uke, but the quality of these instruments is not bad at all. As I said, don’t expect perfection.
Sound: Tinny but bright sound with a pretty good amount of sustain and volume. I think the sound can be summed up as typical of a cheap ukulele. Playing up the fretboard, the notes stay in the right key. Comes with terrible strings which, when replaced with something good, make all the difference in the world. Like most of these instruments it goes out of tune very quickly, but you get used to retuning.
Style: It’s a soprano uke, not much more can be said, the glossy finish is available in many colours from understated to the garish ones that your kids will love.
Summing up: I love this light, cheap ukulele. Unless you are pitch perfect you really need a cheap clip-on digital tuner to keep it sounding sweet.
The Makala Dolphin Range
Quality: More solid in construction to the Mahalo brand, slightly heavier feel with a marginally broader body and thicker neck. Again coated in a thick plasticy paint job which covers all the sins.
Sound: This solid uke has a more solid “guitar” like sound. Less bright and, therefore, less like a ukulele. The lower tone impacts the sustain which is shorter, the volume is also a little quieter. The sound would probably appeal to a guitar player. Playing up the fretboard, the notes (at least on my model) tend to bend out of key just a tiny amount, nothing too serious but an indicator that the factory setup process is not top priority. The strings are cheap but actually not as bad as the Mahalo. Also, it stays in tune forever – which is odd.
Style: Often referred to the as the “Dolphin” ukulele. The saddle is a big chunk of wood shaped like every child’s favourite aquatic mammal. Again, the glossy finish is available in many colours, but some models with a nice gradient “sunburst” type pattern.
Summing up: These tend to be around the £20 at time of writing. It has a quality feel and is a bit chunkier and heavier. The thicker neck feels a bit odd to me and may be a challenge for smaller children. It come with pretty good strings and can probably take a significant amount of abuse from a kid. The styles are nice and the quality not bad at all, the dolphin looks a bit childish for an adult to pull off. Importantly the sound falls a little flat compared to the Mahalo and that is the key metric here.
Ashton – Union Jack design
Quality: I picked up and played 5 or 6 of these ukuleles with the hope of finding a “good one”. Nope. All of them light and cheap feeling with a tremendously high action.
Sound: Tinny, but the high action made it a bad experience. Almost impossible to play properly.
Style: 10/10 – Ashton know how to make an attractive cheap ukulele. The “London” themed ukuleles are lovely looking.
Summing up: A great looking ukulele which will break your heart. Browsing through the internet to buy a cheap ukulele, you will be tempted by the look of the Ashton, that is all you can base you decision on after all, but it would be a mistake to buy one. The quality of these instruments is just terrible. Form does not win over function in the ukulele world. This ukulele could put you off ukes for life. Buy one if you run a theme pub and want something to hang on your wall.
I own a Mahalo and Makala, I play the Mahalo all the time and gave the Makala to my kids to abuse. I wanted an Ashton, but couldn’t bring myself to pay ANY amount of money for one, even though it would mainly hang on my office wall 😉
Buy a Maholo, a digital tuner, some good aquilia strings and it will only cost a few quid more than a bog standard Makala, then enjoy your first ukulele experience. For your kids, buy the Makala, it’s a survivor