Where do I go?
First, to make a good purchase, you need a good place to look. Musical instruments are not the best things to buy online. Sometimes this cannot be helped and--with research--you can still make a quality purchase. Still, what sounds good to one person may sound horrible to someone else. Even the same make and model can sound, look, and feel different. Ideally you would go to a local music store that has many (new and used) stringed folk instruments on the wall. Yes, that means mostly guitars (electric and acoustic) and bass guitars with the occasional banjo and mando thrown in. They will know their ukes.
Stores that sell band instruments often will have a few entry-level ukuleles that are just barely rising over the "toy" level that haunts players everywhere. Many of these are good, but ukes are popular now. If your teen has asked for one, they are probably not thinking of something like this. They want something classy. Guitar Center and other "instrument malls" are also best thought of as a last resort. They are OK, particularly if you have done a lot of research, but the helpers don't always know much past the basics, particularly since you are not interested in an electric guitar. Also, I know that places like Best Buy and Barnes and Noble will have "Kits" with an instrument and perhaps a book. Avoid these...really...
The key issue, however, is to not be afraid! If you are not someone who has spent time around instruments and music stores, you might worry about appearing stupid, getting ripped off, or just feeling out of place. Honestly, don't worry too much about these things. Most of the dudes and dudettes who work at the stores are really nice. They have a passion for music and they want to share it, even if they are a lot younger (or older) and hipper (always hipper) than you.
What do I need to know?
Good question! Know the basics, of course...
Size: There are four ukulele sizes that you should be thinking about and will encounter in your average store. There are others and some combinations of sizes, but that is fairly advanced so think four and adapt on the fly if necessary. Remember, none of these are very large! They are all smaller than your average-sized guitar...
The soprano (or standard) is the traditional one. They are bright and festive and charming. Most of the "toys" are in this category because they are smaller and therefore cheaper to make. Still, some of the best and most classic ukes fall into this category. They are portable, practical, economical and--getting away from the toys but not spending too much more--beautiful to see and hear. I have four sopranos and through my kids own two more. The one that keeps me company in the office and when I travel is a soprano. The one I find myself picking up the most often at home is a soprano long-neck (one of those hybrids, more later)...
In fact, all "long neck" means is that the neck is from a uke one size up! In this case the concert. The intergenerational Eliot Church Ukestra to which I belong (as pastor and member) has a love affair with the concert. The neck is bigger (more range, somewhat easier to play). It is a bit louder. The sound is also a tad mellower and (I find) somewhat more round. The purpose of the instrument is right there in its name! These positive traits can outweigh the loss of charming uke-sound in certain situations. I play a concert uke in the Ukestra. It has seen a whole lot of action.
Next up is the Tenor. This somewhat larger instrument is tuned the same way as the other two (gCEA). That "g" is not a typo. This is called "re-entrant tuning" and the g is tuned one octave higher than the other strings. Hum to yourself the famous tune "My Dog Has Fleas". There yah go. Uke tuning. Now, I say this, but some of my ukes have other tunings and it is common to find tenors and concerts tuned with a low "G" as well.
The tenor has a fuller, richer sound (usually) and, again, a larger neck. Many of the pros use this size because of greater range of notes available. Jake Shimabukuro uses one that you cannot afford. The same is true for Eddie Vedder, though he has played a variety of sizes in concert. My son plays the tenor in the Ukestra. We have one more in the band as well. Again, it is about what you like. The biggest difference is the sound they make.
Finally a note about the Baritone. This graceful instrument is tuned like the four highest strings of a guitar. I like them a lot though I do not own one or play one frequently. I think they add something special to songs that a guitar does not. However, they are for specific functions. We do have one in the Ukestra and it is important to our sound. My recommendation is NOT to buy one as a first ukulele. If you think you should buy one because you already play guitar, don't. You are buying a guitar with fewer strings. If you think you are buying one so you or someone you love can learn to play the guitar, don't. Respect the Bari and buy a small guitar.
Strings: OK...so the best kept "secret" about the ukulele is that the greatest influence on sound comes from the strings. This is particularly true for the smaller models and is less true going up in size. Yes, the wood, plastic (not always a bad thing) or plastic/wood bodies do influence the sound, but because they are so small a good set of strings will influence the experience a great deal. Here is my first actual purchase recommendation: Get new strings with the uke. For concert-size and up I am a fan of Aquila Nylgut strings. For the "true" (not long-neck) sopranos, I suggest Martin Polycarbon strings. These can be ordered online.
I should say that the strings are a matter of personal taste. The Martin polycarbons are a bit brighter which sounds "thin" to me on a larger uke but just right on a soprano. That said, my son has Martins on his Tenor. The Aquila strings are "fatter" sounding and help to fill it out. Be sure--whichever you choose--to purchase the right size for the uke. Uke first, then strings.
Body: Some ukes are plastic. Most of these are junk. However, some of them are brilliant. I have two ukes that are made entirely or in part out of plastic. Play them and see what you think!
Other ukes (most even) are made out of wood, but that wood can be some form of press-board in the toys. It can be laminate (plywood) or it can be solid wood. Now, I am assuming you know little about these things and you are looking at purchasing your first "serious" uke. In my opinion there is no real reason to get a solid wood instrument at this time. There are great laminate instruments that sound as good as (sometime better than) the solids. Go with a laminate or a good plastic model. Do not get pressured into buying more ukulele than you actually want!
Now, in all honesty, I covet a couple of solid wood instruments (made by Pono) just outside my price-range. Someday they may not be and I will not hesitate to try to convince my wife I need one. The wood is part of the reason for the quality of their sound and I can envision myself using an instrument like this in my ministry. However, laminates sound great and are not nearly as finicky. I have a solid wood Mandolin and sometimes I feel like I am caring for a bonsai tree. I worry if it has enough water. I worry if it is too cold or two hot. My ukes don't treat me that way and I love them for it.
Final Body Note: Those hybrids I mentioned earlier? They get even more elaborate than different neck-sizes. The ones that are particularly trendy right now are the banjo-ukes and the resonator-ukes. In both cases, those aren't what you are looking for in a first good ukulele. Like the Baritone, they have a place and time but you will want to figure out if they possess a sound you want. The one exception may be British people who recall the banjo-uke work of George Formby.
Tomorrow: So this is a lot to take in, isn't it? Also, much of what I have written isn't all that specific. This is not the worst thing. If you are in a rush, you might just want to read this and go out into the marketplace to see what you can find. However, tomorrow I will make some specific product recommendations that may help. For an amateur, I have gotten a chance to play a whole lot and a whole of different instruments. I am blessed in this way and will make sure to pass along some ideas and directions.
Until then, check out the Ukestra Christmas Video Card!
For the record: you are listening to 1 Baritone, 2 Tenors, and 4 Concerts. One (mine) is a plastic/laminate hybrid. The others are all very pretty plywood. The strings are by choice but mostly some form of polycarbon. They all have re-entrant tunings except one of the concerts and the Baritone. So there ya go! A great combination...
Here is Part II !