Ukulele vs Mandolin – Which Should You Learn & What Is The Difference?

Fancy learning to play a new instrument?

Great idea!

The only question is, which one should you start with?

Beginners are often drawn to instruments like the ukulele and the mandolin.

I’m not surprised, they’re great little instruments!

So, if you’ve found yourself in a bit of a conundrum then I’m glad to say I can help you out.

Let’s take a look at the differences between the ukulele and the mandolin so you can figure out which one you should start with.

Ukulele vs Mandolin: What’s the Difference?

Aside from both being similar sized stringed instruments, there really aren’t many similarities between the ukulele and the mandolin.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the confusion. Stringed instruments can be a bit mind-boggling so hopefully, this clears things up.

Different Musical Families

The ukulele and the mandolin are from different musical families. I know, it’s kind of baffling considering they’re both stringed instruments and tend to get bundled under that umbrella term. As you probably guessed, the ukulele is from the guitar family and was adapted in Hawaii from a Portuguese guitar-like instrument called the machete.

The mandolin, however, is an off-spring from the lute family (see, I know a little bit of history – as my dad would say, not just a pretty face). As a result, the two instruments have completely different sounds and tend to be played within different musical genres.

Their Soundholes

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the ukulele and the mandolin from the outset is their soundholes. Ukuleles typically have round guitar-esque soundholes, whereas mandolins have f-holes just like the violin. So what’s the difference between an f-hole and a round or oval soundhole?

Well, f-holes allow for better projection which ultimately means mandolins are louder than ukuleles. Plus, they look kinda retro and fancy, right? Round soundholes, on the other hand, generally create a warmer and much fuller voice. Hence why the ukulele is the perfect accompaniment for a day at the beach!

Construction 

The soundholes are just the start of the differences between the ukulele and the mandolin, so grab yourself a cuppa cause we’re not done yet! Like ukuleles, mandolins typically have hollow wooden bodies and fretted fingerboards, but the main difference lies with their bridge. The mandolin has a floating bridge, with a tailpiece below to secure the strings.

This means the mandolin has quite a high action (the distance between the fretboard and the strings) when compared to the ukulele. On top of that, because mandolins have steel strings, they’re usually fitted mechanical tuning machines rather than the friction pegs used for ukuleles.

As ukuleles have grown in popularity, it’s no longer standard for them to be made from solid wood. Luckily for us uke junkies, companies now craft ukuleles from laminate wood, plastic blends, or even innovative materials like carbon fiber. That’s why there are so many affordable ukes on the market these days!

Different Sizes

If you’re a regular reader of my blogs then you’ll already that the ukulele comes in four different sizes- soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone whereas the mandolin only comes in one. Like the violin, it is the soprano instrument in its family, so there are other similar instruments like the mandola, mandochello, and mandobass.

Let’s not complicate things with all that (unless you’re planning on starting up an orchestra or something).

Ukulele vs Mandolin: Which One Should You Learn?

Now that you know the differences between the two instruments, hopefully you have a bit more of an idea about which one you’d prefer to learn. However, I know what it’s like when you’re spoilt for choice, let’s figure out which one would suit you better based on your taste, musical experience, and budget.

Which is Easier to Learn?

Most people would find the ukulele easier to learn than the mandolin. Ukuleles’ soft nylon strings are much kinder to the old fingers and, because there’s only four of them, you might find it easier to learn the chord shapes. On the other hand, learning scales and the names of notes is much easier when it comes to playing the mandolin. Again, it really comes down to your own musical style and what genre you’d like to play.

If you fancy learning chords and playing popular songs, then the ukulele is your best bet. But, if classical music is your thing, you’ll find the mandolin will suit you better.

Your Musical Experience

Are you learning an instrument for the first time? If so, the ukulele will be your new best friend. Most people I’ve taught over the years have been able to pick up the basics in just a few sessions. However, if you already play a stringed instrument, especially if it’s the violin, then you’ll be able to learn the mandolin in no time.

They have the exact same tuning, so you’ll already know the scales. The only thing you’ll have to get to grips with is the courses, but that shouldn’t be a bother. You’ve got this!

What’s your Budget?

If you’re a thrifty person like myself, then you’re probably looking at spending as little as possible on your new instrument. So, if that’s the case, you should definitely get yourself a ukulele. A good quality beginner ukulele will cost between $50 and $150. Not too bad, hey?

Mandolins, on the other hand, are a bit more pricey. For a good quality beginners mandolin, you’d probably have to fork out around $300. Make sure you do your research though because a big price tag doesn’t always guarantee high quality.

Ukulele vs Mandolin: FAQ

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of things, I’ll answer a few of my most frequently asked questions about these two instruments. So, if you’re secretly reading this at your desk, you’ll figure things out before your boss notices! I’ve been there, we don’t want that…

Which is easier to learn, the ukulele, or the mandolin?

Most beginners would have more glory with the ukulele. The main reason being that the ukulele only has four strings whereas the mandolin has four courses (two strings tuned in unison) of steel strings. However, certain people may find it easier to get a grasp of the mandolin, but I’ll get into that in just a sec.    

Can you string a mandolin the same as a ukulele?

It is possible to tune a mandolin to the ukulele’s standard tuning, however, mandolins with nylon strings are pretty hard to come by. Therefore, you could easily tune your mandolin the same as a ukulele but it will still sound quite different.

Is it difficult to learn the mandolin?

The mandolin is relatively easy to learn, especially if you already have experience with stringed instruments. But, like any instrument, you have to put in a healthy amount of time and effort to see progress.

Do you play the mandolin like the ukulele?

No, playing the mandolin is rather different than playing the uke. The mandolins four courses are tuned in perfect fifths (G, D, A, E) whereas the ukulele’s standard tuning is to the key of C (G, C, E, A). Also, ukulele chord shapes are much different from those you’d play on the mandolin. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though! There’s way more to discuss…

The Ukulele or the Mandolin, that is the Question…

I’m always happy to help people along on their musical journey (as cheesy as that sounds) because picking up an instrument was the best thing I ever did. If you’re still wobbling between the mandolin and the ukulele, why not have a think about what kind of music you’d actually like to play?

The ukulele’s iconic Hawaiian sound is perfect for pop and folk music whereas mandolinists typically play classical music, bluegrass, and traditional folk music. That being said, you should always let your creativity flow. There’s no limit to what you can play once you’re a pro!

Plus, whether you choose the uke or the mandolin today, who’s to say you can’t learn the other one later on? The musical world is your oyster!

Further Reading:
About Fiona

Fiona is a musician and writer. When she’s not working, she’s either playing the ukulele or finding another instrument to add to her collection.