Yes, this is Ukulele Tricks, a website that helps you become a better ukulele player, but…
I’m not just going to tell you to learn to play ukulele!
Contrary to popular belief, ukulele might not be the best instrument to learn if you’re a beginner.
I’m a lifelong ukulele and guitar player of over 25+ years, having learned both instruments right around the same time (in addition to piano), so I know there are a lot of factors that go into choosing to learn ukulele or guitar.
The last thing I would want is for someone to make a decision learn ukulele because they feel like they should or they have to… because I know I didn’t and you shouldn’t either!
Ukulele is a truly amazing, beautiful-sounding instrument, and just because it’s smaller doesn’t mean it’s an “easier” or “kid-level” instrument that ranks below others.
That said, it might also not be the instrument for you!
I know all to well that learning to play an instrument is a commitment of time and an investment of money, so you want to make the best choice.
In this guide, I’ll help you do that by guiding you through the most important things you need to think about if you’re trying to decide between ukulele or guitar.
Step #1: Ask Yourself This Important Question
There comes a point in life where you think…
“Hmm, I think I want to learn to play an instrument.”
This is a powerful, exciting, and even scary thought.
For some of us, this hits us early on in life, and others, later.
It doesn’t matter when it hits you. All that matters is you’re making steps right now towards fulfilling your dream of making music. That starts with picking the right instrument.
If this is you, then the most important thing to ask yourself is:
What’s inspiring me to learn to play an instrument?
For example, maybe there is an artist you saw at a concert and thought, “I want to make music like them!” Or maybe, there is a genre of music you love listening to and dream of playing songs in that style. It’s also possible you went to a local festival and saw a group jamming together and thought, “I want to do that!” And perhaps you just want to take up a new activity in retirement or want to play music with the grandkids.
Learning an instrument starts with that seed of inspiration.
Don’t ignore it.
So when you close your eyes, if you imagine yourself shredding guitar in your garage with your friends, then, move towards that.
But if you close your eyes and imagine jamming ukulele on a sunset beach, then, go that direction instead.
Should I Learn Ukulele First and Then “Graduate” to Guitar?
No, the most important thing is to choose the instrument you see yourself playing.
Pick ukulele because you love the idea of making music with that instrument, not because you feel like you should learn it first.
Picking an instrument out of a feeling of “should” is a sure-fire way to kill your joy and motivation.
I promise there is a path to learn either regardless of age, prior experience level, or musical knowledge. I can say this with confidence because I routinely teach people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s, how to make music on ukulele for the first time in their life. The magic of playing music starts with your inspiration, so follow that and don’t listen to anyone else!
This means you don’t need to start with ukulele first and then move to guitar… unless that’s what you want to do!
Still though, maybe you think you could be happy playing either instrument, in which case there are some things you need to think about.
Step #2: Decide Your Budget
Assuming you could be happy learning either guitar or ukulele, your budget is the biggest deciding factor on which one you learn.
Buying a ukulele is a lot cheaper than buying a guitar, especially when you consider playability.
One of the biggest benefits of learning to play ukulele is that you get more “bang for your buck” in terms of quality, which means it’s easier to spend less money on an instrument that plays great.
Playability refers to how well the instrument stays in tune and how easy it is to fret (i.e. press down on) the notes of the fretboard.
For less than $100, you can buy a ukulele that will stay in tune and be easy to fret. However, to get that same level of playability in a guitar, more often than not you need to spend at least $500 dollars to get a playable instrument. Cheaper guitars can be had but they often are more difficult to play, which is the last thing you want as a beginner.
Believe me, I wish this weren’t true…
Growing up, my mom had an old steel-stringed Yamaha acoustic guitar in a case in a closet, but that instrument was so poorly and cheaply made (the guitar probably cost no more than $250), that it made me never want to learn guitar!
It wasn’t until my dad let me play his guitar, which was better quality (and costed more), that I was hooked.
There was a reason mom’s guitar stayed in the case in the closet and remains there to this day.
Learning an instrument is already hard enough, so you don’t make it harder on yourself by having a poor quality instrument!
Pro Tip: The story of “The Guitar in a Case in the Closet” is a tale as old as time, so if guitar is the instrument you want to learn and budget is a problem, see if you can find a friend or family member who will loan you theirs.
Is Ukulele a Toy or Kids Instrument?
The ukulele is cheaper and smaller so it must be a toy or kids instrument, right?!
The ukulele is an instrument for anyone who wants to express the emotion of music in a unique and beautiful way.
In fact, the ukulele was the instrument of choice by the late queen of Hawaii Queen Lil’uokalani (1891-93) who wrote the well-loved song Aloha ‘Oe.
And in recent times, we’ve seen things that have never been done with the ukulele thanks to amazing artists like Jake Shimabukuro who demonstrated the power of ukulele in a TED talk by performing an extraordinary cover of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
The ukulele might be friendly to kids because of it’s small size but that doesn’t mean it’s not a serious instrument with a rich history.
Step #3: Evaluate the Pros and Cons of Ukulele and Guitar
Both ukulele and guitar have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Let’s unpack these by looking at the most common questions that come up about each instrument.
Ukulele vs. Guitar Comparison Breakdown
|Number of Strings||4||6|
|Number of Frets||12-19||19-24|
|Size||21-26 inches||38-41 inches|
|Type(s) of Strings||Nylon||Steel or nylon|
|Average Entry-Level Price||~$100||~$500|
Is Ukulele Easier to Learn to Play Than Guitar?
A lot of people think the ukulele must be easier because…
“It just has four strings!”
The guitar has six strings so it must be harder, right?!
Just because the guitar has six strings over the ukulele’s four strings doesn’t make it inherently harder to play.
Four strings might make the ukulele less intimidating but not necessarily easier.
What do I mean?
Think about the thing all ukulele players and guitar players have in common:
They both have four usable fingers to fret chords: index, middle, ring, and little.
In terms of playability, a guitar and ukulele is about the same if the instruments are of equal quality because each player still only has four fingers.
For example, compare a common chord shape on both ukulele (left) and guitar (right).
Ukulele G Chord Shape vs. Guitar D Chord Shape
Which one is harder to play?
Now, it’s okay if you don’t know what those diagrams mean yet… what’s important is that you can see that both diagrams show an identical pattern of three dots, which indicates the same chord shape on both instruments!
This means, the same exact fingers are required to play both chords!
So just because a guitar has six strings doesn’t necessarily make it harder to play.
When it comes to ease, the playability of an instrument matters more than the number of strings.
Is Ukulele or Guitar Easier on the Fingertips?
While the number of strings doesn’t necessarily make the four-string ukulele easier over the six-string guitar, the ukulele feels easiest when pressing down on the strings with the fingers because the strings of the ukulele are made out of nylon.
Because of this, the ukulele has an edge over guitar if you have arthritic hands and fingers.
For those of you learning to play an instrument later in life, this is a really big benefit the ukulele provides and can be the difference between playing a musical instrument or not!
It’s normal when you’re first learning to have a period where the tips of your fingers hurt from fretting chords, but with consistent practice, your fingers toughen up and develop calluses which allow you to play for longer periods of time without the fingers hurting.
This period will happen no matter what instrument you choose but the period is shorter on ukulele.
Is it Best to Learn the Electric, Steel-Stringed, Nylon-String Guitar or Ukulele?
You can make the guitar easier to approach if you are worried about fingertip soreness.
For example, an electric guitar tends to be easy on the fingers because the strings use a smaller string gauge, meaning the strings have less tension and are easier to press down and bend.
Of course the disadvantage of learning to play electric guitar is that you need to purchase extra gear like a guitar amp, pedals, and cables in order to amplify the sound from your instrument and have it be heard.
On the other hand, a steel-stringed acoustic guitar tends to be hardest on the fingers because of a thicker string gauge, but if that’s the sound you want and you don’t want to have to worry about plugging into an amp, then, you’ll want to go this direction.
Alternatively, consider a nylon-string guitar. While a nylon guitar isn’t designed to be strummed with a pick, pressing down on the strings feels almost identical to the ukulele, which makes it easier to play than a steel-stringed guitar.
Is Guitar a Harder Instrument to Learn Than the Ukulele?
Where the guitar can be harder than the ukulele is fret spacing.
Frets are the vertical pieces of metal that lay on the fretboard to create separate notes (learn more about the parts of the ukulele).
The guitar’s frets are wider, which can be a difficult for people with small hands and fingers because a longer reach is required.
But on the flip side, people with large hands and fingers, can find guitar to be a relief!
For instance, it’s easier for me to play most fingerstyle pieces on guitar versus the ukulele because it’s easier for my fingers to fit between the frets, where on ukulele sometimes I can’t fit all my fingers and need to find an alternative position.
So if you have small hands and fingers, then, the ukulele is probably a great choice for you.
If you have normal or large hands and fingers, you might consider a tenor or baritone ukulele, which are two of the largest of the four sizes of ukuleles. Because I have large hands and fingers, I play a tenor ukulele and I’m perfectly content playing and soloing fingerpicking pieces.
And finally, if you have normal sized hands and really want to learn guitar, then definitely don’t let the increased fret spacing stop you.
Pro Tip: For those who really want to learn guitar but have small hands and fingers, consider buying a short-scaled guitar, which reduces the spacing between frets to make it easier to play.
Common Challenges Learning Ukulele vs. Guitar
Ukulele players and guitar players all face the same challenges when starting out:
- Sore fingertips
- Making sure every note in a chord rings out clearly
- Playing smooth chord changes
- Holding the instrument
- The awkward feeling of strumming
No matter what instrument you choose you won’t get away from having to work through these fun challenges!
That said, guitar has some more unique challenges over ukulele, like some chords are more of a reach because of the increased fret spacing.
Additionally, barre chords, where you lay your index finger across all six strings and press down on all strings, tend to require more strength on guitar versus ukulele.
An example barre chord played on ukulele
Also, with certain guitar chords, you have to be more aware of which strings you’re strumming so you don’t accidentally strum the wrong note (for example, not strumming the top two strings of a D chord on guitar), whereas with ukulele you’re almost always strumming all four strings for every chord.
But ukulele isn’t without its unique challenges.
For example, with chords, you often have the opposite problem where it can be difficult to fit your fingers on the fretboard for certain chord shapes, especially those who have larger hands and fingers, although this can be mitigated by purchasing a larger-sized tenor ukulele.
And surprisingly, because ukulele is smaller, it can feel more awkward to hold than the guitar. This means the ukulele tends to move around more when playing which can impact the ease of changing chords. I dedicate a section to playing posture in my free ukulele lesson book, but for players who struggle the most with this, buy a strap to help stabilize the ukulele.
Which Learning Curve is Steeper – Ukulele or Guitar?
The beauty of both ukulele and guitar is that with just a few chords and a simple strumming pattern you can play hundreds of songs.
But guitar has a steeper learning curve over ukulele.
The first reason being because of the steel strings of a guitar. The steel strings are harder on the fingertips, which means you’ll have to keep practice sessions short but consistent to build up calluses on the ends of your fingers. Like I said above, a higher quality guitar can mitigate this significantly, but it’s a reason why guitar is harder to pick up.
The second reason being how you strum. It’s common to use a plectrum or nylon pick to strum the strings of a steel-stringed guitar. There’s added technique involved whereas with a ukulele you just use your fingers to strum, and there’s multiple ways to strum with the fingers.
The third reason the learning curve is steeper on guitar is if you want to fingerpick and play solo. Because of the extra strings on guitar, there’s more notes to learn on the fretboard. But if your goal is to just strum songs, then, this isn’t a big factor.
For these reasons, ukulele tends to be a more approachable instrument, but consider your goals, because if your goal is to strum chords and sing songs, then the guitar is not that much of a leap from ukulele in terms of difficulty.
Can You Learn Guitar if You’re Older in Age?
Yes, but ukulele is a more friendly option for anyone who struggles with arthritis or lacks mobility in their hands and fingers.
There are people later in life learning to play guitar but the approach is key.
The key to learning an instrument later in life is to:
- Have a plan for how you will learn
- Practice consistently (short sessions daily are better than marathon “Weekend Warrior” practice sessions on the weekend)
- Take it slow
Guitar isn’t just for young people, but ukulele might be the instrument that allows you to finally make music.
Step #4: Make a Decision
Now that we’ve looked at some of the biggest factors and questions around ukulele versus guitar it’s time to make a decision.
Here’s what it comes down to…
Ukulele Pros & Cons Summary
The ukulele is an instrument with a very low barrier to entry.
Since it’s easy on the fingertips and easy on the wallet, it makes a perfect instrument for beginning musicians (i.e. those who’ve never played an instrument before).
For many, it’s the instrument that finally allows them to make music for the first time in their life… and that’s huge!
Additionally, it’s a jam-friendly and fun instrument that is good for group or ensemble playing, like at your local ukulele club.
And because of its small size, unlike lugging a big guitar with you around town, you can easily carry your ukulele with you in your backpack, on the train, or bring it with you to the park without attracting too much attention.
Of course there are some trade offs…
The smaller size of the uke means it’s quieter (which could be a good thing for some), so playing in band settings with other guitar players or instrumentalists means you’ll most likely need to plug into an amplifier to be heard. Not to mention, the smaller size means closer fret spacing, which can make some chords more difficult on the ukulele versus the guitar.
Guitar Pros & Cons Summary
Although ukulele artists are pushing the limit with what’s possible on ukulele, guitar still offers more versatility across musical genres and styles, so if you’re into the idea of creating a lot of different sounds with your instrument, then ukulele might feel limiting. The guitar is best to learn if you want the most amount of versatility across musical genres and styles.
Because of the larger size, it’s a louder instrument, so an acoustic guitar is perfect for performance settings without amplification.
The downside of learning to play guitar is the barrier of entry is higher because it costs more to get a quality, playable instrument and because the steel strings of the guitar are harder on the fingertips. Those with small hands or arthritic fingers might find the guitar to be too difficult.
How to Make the Right Choice Between Ukulele vs. Guitar
As someone who has played ukulele and guitar their entire life, these are the most important things to consider.
Takeaway #1: The most important factor is your personal motivation
Follow your inspiration and influences as you pursue your musical journey and you’ll be more motivated.
So if that means, you dream of playing guitar, then, go and do that.
Both instruments will require effort and practice.
Ukulele is not just a “stepping stone” instrument – it can be your instrument and give you a lifetime of joy.
Takeaway #2: Decide if budget is the biggest factor
With the ukulele, you can get a quality, playable instrument for less than $100.
But if money is not a factor, you can get a guitar for no less than $500 (my personal recommendation from experience) that plays just as easy, if not easier, than a ukulele.
For many, budget will be the deciding factor.
Even if your budget is small, the good news is if you do get get started making music with the ukulele then any skills you build will translate very well to the guitar…
Or you just might discover it is the instrument for you!
Takeaway #3: Take an honest inventory of your strengths and weaknesses
If you have small hands and fingers, ukulele is the easiest option.
If you have arthritis, then ukulele will be the kindest to your fingertips.
And if you have normal or large sized fingers, then you’ll want an instrument with increased fret spacing… so guitar or at least a tenor-sized ukulele.
Takeaway #4: Make music as soon as possible
Finally, whatever you do…
Don’t put off making music any longer!
Avoid analysis paralysis by making a decision today.
Playing music is a lifelong journey full of twists and turns, and you can always change your course later.
What’s most important is that you start your journey as soon as possible and don’t delay!
My Number One Best Ukulele Recommendation For Beginners
For just $79.99, the Donner tenor ukulele bundle is the best option to start your musical journey today.
I’ve personally played this brand of ukulele and was surprised by how well the ukulele held tune and that it had good intonation up and down the fretboard (meaning, the notes stayed in tune!).
For a ukulele less than $100, this Donner ukulele bundle is my number one pick.
My Number One Best Guitar Recommendation For Beginners
I’ve been a lifelong happy Taylor guitar player (I play a Taylor 814ce).
With a reputation for quality craftsmanship, the Taylor BT2 Baby Taylor Acoustic Guitar is a perfect 3/4 sized guitar for new guitar players or those with smaller hands and fingers.
I’ve personally played this guitar and can recommend it to beginners on the basis of playability and tone.
For less than $500, this Taylor BT2 guitar is my number one pick.
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Proceeds are used to support this site.