It can be hard finding a steel string ukulele. Most ukuleles use nylon strings, which are partly responsible for the unique sound of the instrument. But steel strings give a ukulele a very different tone that can work great for certain kinds of music. If you’re looking for that steel string sound, nothing else will do. While most steel string ukuleles are custom builds, Vorson and Seagull have both made production models. Both offer that steel string sound, with a few differences, for much less than a custom ukulele. Here’s how they stack up.
WARNING: Only put steel strings on ukuleles that are designed for steel strings. If your ukulele came with nylon or fluorocarbon strings on it, chances are almost nil that it has enough bracing and neck strength to withstand steel ukulele strings. You may not notice it at first, but the vastly increased tension will rip your bridge off, warp your neck, and otherwise severely damage your ukulele. The ukuleles in this article are built specifically for steel strings; do not try it with other ukuleles.
Vorson Steel String Solid Body Electric Ukulele
Summary: A steel string ukulele that looks to legendary electric guitars for inspiration
Best for: Someone looking for an electric guitar sound in a ukulele
Vorson modeled their steel string electric ukulele after the legendary guitars of rock. You can get one in the shape of a Les Paul, Stratocaster, or Telecaster. But the similarities aren’t just in looks. The steel strings on the Vorson ukulele help make it sound like an electric guitar. If you want to sound like a classic rock god, the Vorson ukulele might be the uke for you.
The key is in the pickups. Most ukuleles with nylon strings use a piezo pickup system. These pick up the vibrations in the body of the instrument. They’re great for reproducing a faithful acoustic sound. But most electric guitars use magnetic pickups. The magnets pick up the vibrations of the strings themselves, which only works with steel strings. Even most solid-body electric ukuleles can’t get that magnetic pickup sound quite right. But the Vorson can, and does.
The pickup system of the Vorson is more or less the same as on a standard electric guitar. It has two magnetic pickups, one closer to the bridge and one near the neck. There’s a three-way selector allowing you to choose either/or or both, as well as tone and volume control knobs. Both are fairly sensitive, and you can get a wide range of tones between the knob and the pickup selector. The pickups aren’t too noisy, with only the faint hum that all magnetic pickups share.
The Vorson is also very playable, with almost perfect action and intonation out of the box. The bridge is fully adjustable, which allows for fine-tuning intonation. That comes in handy if you’d like to try different tunings, especially the popular low-G. The Vorson is a tenor scale ukulele, giving plenty of room for bigger fingers on the fretboard. It’s definitely heavier than most tenor ukuleles, and might be more comfortable for most people with a strap. Otherwise, up and down the neck it feels very much like a standard ukulele, albeit one with steel strings.
Being a solid-body electric ukulele, the Vorson won’t make any noise without being plugged into an amplifier. This could be good or bad depending on your use. It makes a great practice ukulele for when you want to play without disturbing others. It also makes for a great travel companion, since it’s very sturdily built. But if you’re going to want to play acoustically, you might better served with the Seagull steel string ukulele.
- Unique electric guitar-like sound
- Great action and intonation
- Different body shape and weight might feel uncomfortable for some without a strap
Seagull Soprano Steel String Ukulele
Summary: A steel string ukulele with a unique look and sound that puts it in a category all its own
Best for: Someone who wants an acoustic-electric steel string ukulele that sounds like a cross between a uke, guitar, and mandolin
If the Vorson is a mashup of two different traditions, the Seagull steel string ukulele throws it all out the window. Seagull, a Canadian company owned by Godin, is probably better known for their guitars. And in some ways, this feels a bit like a shrunken-down acoustic guitar. But there are some very key differences, starting with the shape of the body.
At first, it looks like a standard cutaway design. There are a few distinctive flourishes like the triangular soundhole. But turn it on its side, and you’ll find that the Seagull steel string uke is about half the depth of a standard ukulele. This slim profile is actually very comfortable to hold, about halfway between a solid body and acoustic uke. While it has a soprano scale length, the body is wider and longer overall than the typical soprano ukulele. Still, it’s a fairly compact instrument, about the length of a concert scale uke in total.
One thing to note is that the neck is thinner than most ukuleles. This is largely due to the fact that steel strings are thinner than nylon ones. There’s actually a similar amount of space between strings, and it doesn’t feel crowded at all. Anyone who has picked up a mandolin will feel right at home, and most uke players probably won’t notice a big difference. The intonation and action are great, and there’s an adjustable truss rod in the neck should the action not be quite right for you.
Acoustically, the sound is like nothing else out there. Really a kind of cross between a 4-string mandolin, a small acoustic guitar, and a ukulele. The thinner body does make for a somewhat thinner, more trebley sound, but there’s still a decent bit of volume.While it won’t compete with an acoustic guitar for volume, it’s definitely loud enough to be heard in smaller settings. It has more sustain than a traditional ukulele and a similar tonal range to a mandolin without the doubled-up strings.
The Seagull steel string ukulele is fitted with an undersaddle piezo pickup, which sounds great when plugged in. It doesn’t have the same feel as the magnetic pickups found in electric guitars, but it gets closer to that sound than most ukuleles. It has electric guitar-style volume and control knobs on the front, which are both visually striking and quite useful. Overall, it’s definitely not a traditional ukulele, but its unique sound would be a great fit for a lot of people’s collection.
- Striking looks
- Great intonation and adjustable action
- Good sound both acoustically and plugged in
- Thinner neck might be uncomfortable for some