From the family of stringed instruments, the ukulele and guitar are the most popular ones. These two musical instruments are the most accessible, affordable, and playable. Basically, they looked almost the same and have similar parts, but they differ in size as the ukulele looks like the baby brother, and the guitar looks like the big brother.
Due to the huge difference in size, some people find the guitar easier to manage in the sense that you can hold it properly. On the other hand, some people find the smaller ukulele easier to manage because of its smaller size. Using size difference as the reason for preference on both instruments can be confusing, but when you get into the details of its similarities and differences, you will understand why.
Clear and Visible Similarities Between Ukulele and Guitar
Before we go into the major differences between the standard ukulele and a standard guitar, let us first go to the obvious similarities. Just to make it clear, the guitars we will refer to are acoustic guitars as electric guitars rely on electronic devices to amplify their sound.
First, the ukulele and guitar use the same sound process of natural amplification. They use strings that needed to be strummed or plucked to create a sound that vibrates into the hollow wooden body.
Those sound waves resonate with the instrument, which amplifies the sound that we hear.
Second, both instruments have a long wooden neck from which a certain number of frets or metal bars are located. The strings are laid stretched on the neck from the bridge to the nut. They share the same fretboard system to help in creating a fundamental tone or pitch. Generating notes would mean pressing the strings on to certain frets when strumming. Chord formation and scales would depend on the combination of strings pressed.
Major Differences Between Guitar & Ukulele
The guitar and ukulele may visually look the same at first glance, but when you look into the details, there are certain disparities. If you thoroughly examine both instruments from the origins of the sound that they make, ukulele and guitar are quite distinct from one another.
1) History & Origins
The Ukulele: When people see a ukulele, they immediately thought of luau festivities on the beach shores of Hawaii. The tiny instrument is often regarded to have originated from the Aloha state. However, historians have discovered that it originated from Europe and was brought to the island by Portuguese immigrants back in 1879. One of the immigrants, Joao Fernandez, started strumming and singing after jumping from the boat when they reached the island shore. The locals were fascinated by his performance and with his small instrument, which he called “branguinha” but also sometimes called the “machete.” Eventually, the locals gave it their own name, “ukulele,” which they pronounce as “oo-ku-lay-lay.” It became an instant sensation that even the island nation’s king during that time was impressed and took time to learn how to play the instrument, which helped popularize the instrument.
The Guitar: The origin of this popular stringed instrument can be traced back to 1050 BC. There are many conflicting theories as to who, where, when, and how of the guitar. However, it is generally accepted that stringed instruments are one of the oldest instruments that have survived up to this century. Our ancestors used gourds with strings connected to long sticks that evolved to the lute and the guitar. The oldest known stone carving, which was over 3300 years ago and found in Turkey, represented the features of the modern guitar. It has a long fretted neck connected to a flat body with small sound holes. However, the modern guitar probably originated in Spain back in the 16th century. The term guitar was influenced by Guitarra Latina and Guitarra Moresca, which Spaniards used in the past, referring to a couple of stringed instruments. The terms Latina and Moresca were eventually dropped, hence the word, guitar. The original version was slimmer and has four strings. It evolved through the years and created with a broader body and two strings added.
2) Differences in Size
Anyone can easily spot the difference between the ukulele and guitar judging by the mere size of each instrument. While hybrids have been created along with different sizes to accommodate different body shapes and heights of a player, the standard uke is about 35% to 50% smaller than the standard guitar.
Smaller ukes have shorter necks, which mean shorter and slimmer fretboards. Smaller hands would automatically prefer a ukulele to play with, as there is no need to stretch the fingers when pressing the strings. A smaller instrument also means lighter in weight and easier to carry; there would be less hassle with handling and storage when traveling.
A guitar may be bigger and longer, but it does not give most people the Goldilocks effect. The length of our arms is just perfect for holding the neck and the body of the guitar. People with bigger hands prefer the guitar as they have more room in the fretboard, making it more comfortable while playing.
3) Sound Difference – Range and Tone
Guitar: The size differences also affect the sound that it can make. Guitars have additional frets in the fretboard, and that would mean more notes to be reached. A guitar player can enjoy a wider range and offer lower tones than the uke. In the family of ukuleles, the baritone uke resembles a little guitar as it comes with a bigger size and extra frets on the neck so it can reach some low tones.
Ukulele: However, the sweet mellow tone of the standard ukulele is quite unique and cannot be replicated even with the use of a capo on the 5th fret of the guitar. The bigger body of the guitar and the high-tension steel strings that it uses, prevents it from sounding exactly like the uke. With the use of a guitar pick, it sounds a lot brighter and louder. Whenever guitar players want to achieve a mellow sound, they change their strings to the classic nylon strings, but with the bass, it is still louder than the ukulele.
4) The 4 Strings and the 6 Strings
The glaring difference between the two instruments is the number of strings used. Ukulele only has four strings, whereas the guitar has six strings. Obviously, more strings would mean more notes, chords, and scales. Lesser strings would mean simpler chords that would make it easier for players to follow. The number of strings alone would be enough to indicate that they are quite different in producing sounds, and if you add in the kind of strings used by each instrument, you will undoubtedly know the vast disparity in the volume of the sound they produce.
A guitar uses steel strings that require more tension, while a ukulele uses nylon-made strings. This is mainly why the uke will always offer a warmer tone, whereas the guitar will always sound louder.
5) String Tuning and Tension
Since they have a different number of strings, they are tuned differently with some similarities. One of the main differences is that the guitar strings are arranged from low to high, and the ukulele does not follow that rule. The standard ukulele is tuned to G, C, E, and A, while the standard guitar is tuned to E, A, G, D, B, and E. They can share some of the chords, especially when the uke is tuned using low-G instead of the standard G. The uke notes will be exactly the same with the top four strings in the guitar when played at the fifth fret. It is also important to note that this uke tuning does not apply to baritone ukes. They have their own tuning, D, G, B, and E, which resembles the standard guitar tuning.
The strings on the uke and guitars are measured on their tightness or looseness. Generally, the guitar string tension is between 24lbs to 34lbs, whereas the ukulele string tension is between 7lbs to 13lbs. The huge difference in string tension lies in the material and length of the string. This can indicate how loud or how quiet the instrument will be when being played.
6) Strumming and Fingerpicking
The strumming and fingerpicking way of playing is not so different for the two instruments. Just note that the strings of the guitar are harder while the strings of the ukulele are softer. Guitar players can use fingers in strumming the strings, but some would prefer using a guitar pick to play the strings comfortably. Ukulele players can also do that, but since the strings are so gentle to the fingers, they rarely opt to use it.
While strumming is way easier than fingerpicking, whether using a ukulele or a guitar, some people love to use the fingerpicking method. Strumming would only mean holding the chord and playing all the notes at the same time. Fingerpicking would mean playing the notes individually, and it takes a lot of practice to be able to master a song using this method. If you plan on fingerpicking both instruments, it is best to master one instrument first before going back and forth. It is doable but presents a bit of a challenge.
7) The Riffs and Chords Differences
As mentioned above, the guitar offers a wide variety of range and tones due to the longer fretboard and the additional two strings. When it comes to riffs, the guitar has the advantage. However, when it comes to chords, the ukulele has the advantage due to the one-finger chords. Since the frets are smaller, a finger can easily reach between the gaps to find the chord. This is one of the reasons why the ukulele is popular with beginners. It is not as overwhelming to learn as the guitar.
8) Price Tag
For obvious reasons, the ukulele hands down offer the most affordable price as compared to the guitar. A curious kid can easily purchase a ukulele under $20 but do not expect high quality. They are priced that way for a reason. However, it does not take much to find a decently made ukulele for about $60 to $80. If you are serious about playing the instrument, look for more options, and spend a little more.
The guitar, on the other hand, will understandably be a lot costly than the uke. More raw materials to be used would mean a higher price tag. You can find a brand new guitar for under $100 but if you want decent quality, expect to shell out around $150 to $200. Not bad at all if you want to compare them to other musical instruments in the market today.
For beginners, the obvious choice would be the ukulele, especially if you like easier chords, and since it has four strings, you can play some songs faster than learning the chords on a guitar. However, if you are up for a challenge or if you want a wider range of riffs, the guitar is the best option. Whatever your choice would be, remember that your commitment to practice exercises and to learn the basics is a great start in your musical journey to become a master of both the guitar and the ukulele.