But the instrument is symbolic of Hawaiian culture and how it brings people together using music as a language.
Even if you are not a history buff, the ukulele is a fun, accessible, and inexpensive instrument. It’s one of the smallest, most portable, and easiest to learn from the stringed instrument clan.
But it is a lute-like chordophone. Therefore, the number of strings and frets is a key element of the instrument.
A standard ukulele has four strings tuned to G C E A, also called the C6 tuning.
Some ukuleles can have five, six, or even eight strings. But these are considered unique cases, the ‘standard’ is just 4 strings.
That is the short answer for those in a hurry, which is a lot to chew if you have never seen a ukulele before.
If you’ve got a minute, read on to understand the types of ukuleles categorized by size and strings. We also discuss the string materials and their sonic differences below.
The number of strings on a ukulele
Traditionally, ukuleles have a total of four strings, as opposed to the six found on a standard guitar. However, five, and even eight-string ukuleles exist today.
They also have a different musical theory because the tuning and number of strings differ. Thereby, scales and chord shapes learned on a guitar are not transferrable to a uke.
Moving on, there are four types of ukuleles based on the size (scale length) of the instrument:
Soprano Ukulele (scale length of 13 inches)
Concert Ukulele (scale length of 15 inches)
Tenor Ukulele (scale length of 17 inches)
Baritone Ukulele (scale length of 19 inches)
The scale length of these instruments varies and so does the length of their strings. For instance, a Soprano ukulele has a 13″ scale length and needs 21″ strings.
On the other hand, the long-necked baritone uke has a 19″ scale length and needs 30-inch long strings.
You can also find bass ukuleles like the Kala U-Bass. We will not get into those details as we have covered it all in our post – Types of Ukuleles & Their Uses (With Examples).
The Soprano is the most common ukulele size. In general, it will use four strings, however, new versions of the instrument have come about that use more than four strings.
Most of these were created for musicians who want to explore and expand the sound of the instrument. Here, we discuss the four types of ukuleles based on the number of strings they have.
The four-string ukulele is the most common type of ukulele. It can refer to a soprano, concert, tenor, or baritone ukulele.
The standard tuning for four-string ukuleles is the C6 tuning, G C E A. But unlike a regular guitar where the strings go from low to high, oftentimes the G string is tuned an octave higher than what you’d expect, which is also called the high-G tuning.
Sometimes this will be swapped out for a thicker string and tuned an octave lower which you can refer to as a ‘low-G tuning’, it’s still technically the same G, C, E, A, but you’re choosing whether that G is an octave higher or lower.
Bear in mind that beginners generally start learning on a four-stringed soprano ukulele.
Once well versed with the instrument, some musicians add ukes with more strings as additional instruments to their collection. But it’s an individual choice. Most pros play 4-string ukes for their entire career.
The relatively modern five-string ukulele has one ‘doubled course’ pair of strings, with a low G and high ‘g’ on top.
A doubled course means two strings placed close to each other, tuned an octave apart. Which can then be played with a single pluck. Thereby, the 5-string uke is tuned gG-C-E-A where that very first g is the higher octave.
That being said, it is not easy to get your hands on one of these instruments. Lanikai and Kala offer a few models of acoustic and acoustic-electric tenor ukuleles with five strings.
They are famed for increased projection and a full rich tone.
The six-string ukulele (not to be confused with a guitalele) was invented by Sam Kamaka Jr. in 1959. Six-string ukuleles are niche instruments, but are reasonably famous in Hawaii.
They are also called “liliʻu” to commemorate Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last Queen of Hawaii.
Six-string ukes are generally tenor ukes with high-G tuning and octave pairs on the doubled A and C strings. They are tuned to g cC E Aa.
These instruments have a distinct voice and are tonally intriguing. The low A fattens the tone, making the sound resonant and ideal for rhythm playing.
However, you can also find eight-string baritone ukuleles tuned down to dD gG BB EE.
The idea behind tuning so many strings in unison rather than in different pitches is so you fundamentally play the instrument in the exact same way, and all your chord shapes and scale patterns are preserved. But the doubling up of strings increases the harmonic overtones and projects creating what could be described as a ‘fuller’ or more ‘rich’ sound.
The Tahitian Ukulele, a variant of the Hawaiian instrument, is also an eight-string uke tuned to GG CC EE AA. Either way, these instruments have excellent projection and a rich, jangly sound.
What are ukulele strings made from?
It’s important to understand the characteristics of ukulele string materials when you go shopping for a new set. After scale length, string material plays the most crucial role in how a uke sounds.
Here, we discuss the most common ukulele string materials with a brief description of what they sound like.
Nylon ukulele strings
Nylon strings are the successors to the traditionally used gut strings made from animal intestines. These strings are easily available and inexpensive.
Thereby, they are the most common type of strings found on ukuleles. Tonally, a ukulele with nylon strings sounds warm and mellow.
Nylon strings are great for strumming or getting the “Hawaiian” sound. Additionally, nylon strings are fully resistant to humidity (read: no corrosion).
Therefore, they last longer than steel or wound nylon strings. However, like gut strings, they don’t hold tuning as well as other options and can often lack that top-end projection in the treble.
Wound nylon ukulele strings
Wound ukulele strings generally have a nylon core with a thin copper or silver winding. The winding is a thin thread that can be as tiny as 40/1000 of an inch.
If you cut the strings, it results in unraveling the entire length of the winding.
Also, it is tricky to install these if you don’t want to leave the bindings on both ends. Sound-wise, wound ukulele strings are typically used on tenor and baritone ukes.
They sound brighter than nylon, but less so when compared to fluorocarbon ukulele strings.
Fluorocarbon ukulele strings
Fluorocarbon strings sound like a super-bright set of nylon strings, but are harsh on the fingers because the material is dense and hard.
They are not recommended for beginners who tend to have sensitive fingertips. However, you can use a thinner FC gauge to compensate.
Fluorocarbon ukulele strings have better projection due to the added top end and generally cut through better than other string materials.
But they lack that warm and mellow quality that nylon offers.
They stay in tune longer and are more durable than nylon strings. FC strings, much like nylon, are resistant to humidity.
Do ukuleles have 4 or 6 strings?
A traditional ukulele has four strings. You can find 5, 6, and 8-string ukuleles, but they all are a class of their own.
However, do not confuse the six-string uke with a guitarlele (like the Yamaha GL-1), which is a guitar-ukulele hybrid.
What is an 8-string ukulele called?
An 8-string ukulele is called a taropatch or simply an 8-string ukulele. It has the highest number of strings among all types of ukuleles.
The Taropatch is a descendant of the Portuguese rajão, a 5-string version of the ukulele.
What is the standard tuning for the ukulele?
The standard ukulele tuning is G C E A or the C6 tuning. The string closest to your chin is tuned to G and the string closest to the floor is tuned to A.
The G string is generally tuned an octave higher, which is why it is called the high-G tuning. It is also possible to tune it an octave lower, known as the low-G tuning.
Today, the unpretentious ukulele has breached borders and become a go-to instrument for songwriting and campfire entertainment across the globe.
Now you know about the regular 4-string ukuleles and modern iterations with 5, 6, and 8-strings.
If you are a beginner or plan to soon be one, start with a four-string ukulele. It is the standard instrument for students and learners. 6 and 8-string versions are relatively difficult to tune and play.