Choose Your Ukulele Dealer Carefully!

17 Nov 2016

Choose Your Ukulele Dealer Carefully!

In a conversation this morning helping out a new ukulele buyer, I once again came across the issue of choosing your ukulele shop with care. It was being answered by the usual suggestion of buying from Amazon...

Amazon ukulele
This Stagg ukulele was rated one of the best ranked ukuleles on Amazon - it was more fit for firewood...

Now this is a subject I have touched on in various other blog posts, but realised that I hadn't written a more consolidated advice guide on where I think you should consider buying your instrument, particularly your first one. Well, that and why I don't recommend the 'Mighty Zon'..

I regularly see comments made online on this subject that say, 'That chap at Got A Ukulele doesn't recommend buying from Amazon'. And it is almost always followed with someone saying 'Well, I bought from Amazon and it was absolutely fine, so he doesn't know what he is talking about'..

Let's be clear - NO, I don't recommend buying from Amazon except in certain cases. Same goes for eBay if you are a beginner, and in fact also goes for a worrying number of big brand music stores too. I will deal with the exceptions further on in this piece, as like anything there is no one size fits all here, but lets first look at where and why I make the general warning against the big A.

The likes of Amazon, big selling channels on eBay and the large brand music stores come with a couple of issues for me. First of all, those sellers tend to concentrate (in the main) on the cheaper end of the ukulele market. We are talking the sub £200 price point with a particular focus on the sub £100 (or even sub £50) price. And the second point is that direct purchases from Amazon (and sadly, many big brand music stores) mean that for online shopping the ukulele will come to you unopened. In other words what the factory sends to Amazon is exactly what you will get. And here lies my problem.

It is a simple fact that the cheaper you go with a ukulele, the greater the chance you will find that the instrument needs (at the least) some setup work (adjustment of the saddle or nut to ensure accurate intonation), or something more serious like a warped neck or misplaced bridge that means that it should have been weeded out from sale altogether. Not every cheap ukulele needs that, and of course such issues can occur even with higher end instruments, but it's about percentage chances. Trust me - the cheaper you go, the more the chance a ukulele will need checking over before being shipped. Enough instruments have come through my hands over the years to see the pattern.

And Amazon just don't do that checking over. Big channels on eBay just don't do that and even big brand music stores who have jumped on the uke bandwagon just don't do that. So why is that such a problem?

Well put simply, the majority of buyers of instruments at this price may well be beginners. It may be their first instrument in fact. Do they really know how to adjust setup on a ukulele, or how to reject an instrument that has a fatal build flaw. In fact will they even know that there is an issue? I see lots of beginners talking about cheap ukuleles saying things like 'this one is good because it holds tuning, the other one I bought sounded out of tune'. I've seen beginners suggesting that wonky tuning is actually a 'feature' of the humble ukulele and is to be expected. Holding tuning is not something that is good or bad and specific to certain brands - it's something that can be fixed on ANY ukulele. That is part of setup! But I think more often than not, if they hear an instrument playing out of tune, they tend to blame the strings and not the setup. And no, wonky tuning is NOT a feature of the ukulele.

And for those people who DO recognise there is an issue with the ukulele, what do they then do to resolve it? Return it? Have a go themselves and get frustrated? Take it to a shop and pay them to fix it? All of a sudden that cheap ukulele isn't so cheap any longer. If you spend £30 on a ukulele, then another £10 on strings because it sounds out of tune because somebody on the internet told you its a string issue, but then that doesn't fix it... You then pay another £20 to get a shop to set it up and all of a sudden your £30 ukulele becomes a £60 ukulele complete with a load of extra hassle and wasted time.

And that price issue is really the reason why people choose Amazon. They are highly competitive, and also offer excellent and cheap delivery options. Similar ukuleles, when you consider shipping, from independent specialists may cost you more money and people vote with their wallets. What I am saying is it's completely false economy if you are going to have to spend more money down the line. And it's for that simple reason that I recommend specialists who will look the instrument over and adjust the setup if needed. It's called peace of mind.

Now, back to that comment of 'I bought one from Amazon, and it's fine' that I always get in defence. I never said that it's impossible to get a good one. In fact you could buy ten ukuleles from Amazon and find that they are all setup just fine. Great. I'm really glad for you! But I'm afraid there are many examples that are not fine and just because you did well doesn't make it a hard and fast rule for all. Case in point is the Kaka ukulele I recently had from Amazon for review. The saddle needs adjustment and so does the nut. Those are fixable if you know how, but the bridge that is in the wrong place is more fatal and a massive job to fix  (if it's even worth it). I see a LOT of instruments from Amazon, and trust me - these things happen more than I would like. And it's a fact that a good ukulele specialist would have weeded this one out from sale. I've seen many like that from Amazon. Oh, and bear in mind that ukulele specialists that do setups do so for a REASON.

One other worrying trait I have seen with Amazon ukuleles in the last couple of years are the huge numbers of new brands that hit the Amazon sales pages (usually from China) that look utterly generic and in a short space of time start to amass huge numbers of 5 star votes. How can that be? Well, it's well documented in the press that with many product lines the Amazon review system is, frankly, broken. That's because a lot of these reviews are faked one way or another. In fact I have evidence of several brands who are effectively 'paying' people to write good reviews in return for free instruments. I even saw one who was paying hard cash for people to write pre-prepared product questions and answers on their items. And why? Because lots of activity and lots of 5 star reviews makes the product appear higher on searches when you tap in the word 'ukulele'. So what that means for the seaching consumer is they are faced with at least three full pages of brands that never appear in music shops, with impossibly low prices and massive 5 star vote counts. Totally unethical.

So what are those exceptions I talked about? Well there are a couple of situations in which I wouldn't hesitate buying from Amazon.

1. When you already know how to undertake a full ukulele setup. I do, so I know that if a uke arrives with a high saddle, high nut or dodgy tuners, that I can easily put it right. I wouldn't want to tackle a warped neck however, but I can sort the majority of issues that instruments face. If you are not comfortable with this though, I'd recommend using a dealer who will do that for you and remove the worry.

2. That you are dealing with a real specialist who is using Amazon or eBay as a marketplace storefront. When you look at your product listing - have a look whether it says who is fulfilling the order. If it is coming from Amazon it is coming direct - from a shelf in a warehouse and will NOT be set up by anyone. It may however be coming from a marketplace seller who is a reputable ukulele specialist. I know a few great stores who use Amazon this way - those sort of sales are fine because you KNOW that you are getting one from a dealer who has opened the box before shipping it to check it over.

But sadly that's it.

People often ask why my list of ukulele dealers isn't longer. It's short for the simple reason that I only list stores that I know will check instruments over before despatch and may offer a full setup a part of the price. And the sad thing is - there are not all that many of them, even globally. Just because a big brand music store is on every high street and happens to sell ukuleles - doesn't mean they are ukulele specialists. In fact for online sales, most of the big brand stores are despatching, unopened, from warehouses themselves. So I'd still really urge sticking to the stores who know and understand the instrument. Trust me, it will be less of a headache in the long run.

And yes, I know that some of you can only rely on online shopping, but most if not all the specialists I list offer that. And yes, even the specialists can get things wrong too - but again, it's all about the chances. Think of it like Russian Roulette. Mistakes do happen with any store, but at least the specialists are opening the boxes which is more than can be said for the big box shippers..

Go carefully!




  1. I can't imagine ordering a uke from Amazon - too scary. I just got a uke from Hawaii Music Supply (The Ukulele Site) a few weeks ago and even though I hold them in the highest esteem I was pretty concerned about it before it arrived for the simple reason I was buying before trying. Of course they did an awesome job of setup - about a 2-1/2 week wait before they could ship it, but that's a big reason why I ordered it from them and worth the wait. Talking to some shops locally, they don't even think there's much that can be set up on a uke. Mim sells through Ebay but she's the only one (I know of) I'd buy from off that site.

  2. Although he's never played a musical instrument, my husband has always wanted to learn to play a ukulele (even more so after seeing a clip of the Ukulele Orchestra of GB online, and finding out that there's a music/folk group started up at our local pub).

    I decided to buy him one a surprise Christmas/anniversary present. I was initially going to buy from Amazon, but then I found your site, read some reviews and settled on a concert size Pono (probably sacrilegious for a beginner, but hey, it's a 'big' anniversary...).

    As there are no retailers anywhere near here I was stuck with making an online purchase. I even rang one store, who said they could send me the ukulele directly from their warehouse.......BUT then I came across your recommended list of UK specialist retailers, and realised how important it is that the use is set up correctly. Alex at the Southern Ukulele Store was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, and the Pono should arrive on Monday. Just hope I've chosen well and he likes it....

    Many, many thanks for sharing your knowledge, experience and enthusiasm on this site, and I've just ordered your Beginner's Guide and Chord books from Amazon to help my husband get started.


  3. Jane,
    I bought a Pono mahogany concert from the Southern Ukulele Store online shop about nine months ago. It's a beautiful instrument. Your husband will not be disappointed.

  4. This is good advice, but you might want to mention that people should be careful about what shops they go to in person. As I have discovered, it is extremely important to make sure the tech is familiar with ukuleles before asking for setup or repairs!

    I just got a Leho mahogany tenor at Long and McQuade, and was so excited that setup was included with my purchase. When I got the instrument back, none of what I had asked for was done (I just wanted the action lowered, really) and the strings were in the wrong place! I don't mean backwards, I mean wrong! Like EGCA instead of GCEA! Then I go yelled at by the tech when I pointed out the error. Eventually he admitted to knowing nothing about ukuleles (his words) and made another attempt at stringing my instrument (I honestly don't know why I let him touch it a second time...). Leho tie bars have two sets of holes for each string and he seemed to have put the strings through random ones, making the string spacing all wonky. In the end, I had to spend an extra couple of hours at home fixing the mess he made with the strings, and the action is still way too high.

  5. I am very lucky as in my home town is a small family run music shop. They live by their reputation and customer satisfaction. They will check every instrument and set it up. They will give you good advice on what to buy for your level and needs. You can buy with confidence from them whatever your own skills are. I try to support them whenever I can and would urge readers who have anything similar in their area, they support them. I also buy strings from them and in the case of my acoustic guitars, I pay the small amount extra to have them check, clan and adjust the neck, pickups etc.

    If you need to buy online, then I would always recommend specialists like Matt at World of Ukes and Alex at Southern Ukulele Store. Both are ukulele enthusiasts and will give good advice as well as inspecting and setting up every ukulele they despatch. I have bought beautifully set up ukes from both. I am sure there are others in your list with a similar enthusiasm, skill and ethic. Also, like my local specialist music store, I know Matt and Alex only stock instruments they have confidence in selling.

  6. I found a Bru sick BU4c with bag, tuner and two books on ebay for £64.

    Seller had received it instead of a guitar so was selling. Thanks To Barry's review of the brand I went ahead and bought it.

    A local music shop changed the ukulele from right handed to left handed and said there was nothing wrong with the instrument after giving it a close look.

  7. I agree 100% with your post! I got a Luna Tattoo and a Cordoba 15T both from Amazon for $99 each. They arrived in their basic box and no outer box! The Luna box wasn’t even taped shut! By some miracle they both were not damaged, but both had high action and intonation was way off. Notes got sharp by the 4th fret!

    THANKS to your site, you steered me towards Elderly Instruments. The man on the phone spent an entire hour with me with guidance and information. He even pulled ukes off the shelf to play to show tone! I ended up buying a higher end Cordoba and a beautiful solid mahogany Ohana CK35. They did an extensive 16 point setup on both, and shipped in a well padded and packed box and I received FedEx 2 day shipping, which was free.

    I spent no more than Amazon would charge, and got quality service, setup and fast shipping.

    I HIGHLY recommend Elderly Instruments as a GREAT place to buy from! (USA). And buying from a specialty shop is the ONLY way to go for musical instruments. I learned my lesson!

    That said, I kept my 2 Amazon purchases and have already worked on the Luna myself, lowering the bridge 1.5mm and angling the saddle as far back as possible for intonation. It still gets sharp up the neck, but it plays better, looks good, and it sits out on a stand so I can just pick it up and play it real quick. My treasures are in gig bags. Next up, tweaking the Cordoba and see if I can improve that one.

    Like you said, you can get decent ukes from Amazon, but no one will look at them or set them up to their full potential!


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