Looking to pick up the ukulele? Many seasoned players have experience and ideas to get you started on the right chord. Getting started is easy - but don't let that limit where you can take the ukulele. You may find yourself at a lot of great events with more new friends that you can count.
The first step is choosing a ukulele to buy. Barry Maz, author of many beginners handbooks and Got A Ukulele, says that the "uke I probably play the most is a Magic Fluke Tenor from the USA. That's most probably because it has a flat base which it can stand up on, and for that reason it lives next to my sofa. That's the first one that gets grabbed when the mood takes me."
Al Wood, the author of Ukulele for Dummies and creator of the ukulele resource hub, Ukulele Hunt, says that his favorite ukulele to play is “my KoAloha Sceptre. But my go-to ukulele is my Ohana TK-35G. It's beaten up and cracked but it still sounds good and plays well.”
Matt Dahlberg teaches individual lessons online as well as offering workshops and touring. His choices are sometimes specific to what he needs for his website, MattUkulele.com. "When I’m teaching I use my Mya Moe ukulele. It has some sweet fretboard inlays for my students to see my hands easier! The Sycamore wood shows up great on camera too for all of my Skype students."
For live performances, Dahlberg's ukulele preferences may be different, "I prefer either my DaSilva or Moore Bettah. All of the ukes I play are tenor scale. I prefer the larger size for its tone. I’m really lucky to have so many great ukes!"
The ukulele world even offers options for the DIY set. Dominator began playing the ukulele after a trip to Hawai’i, and now offers tabs, transcripts and lessons on his site at Dominator.UkeLand.com. He has “a few commercially-made ukuleles, I prefer to build and play my own. My current ‘go-to’ ukulele is a mahogany tenor that I initially built several years ago.”
Does Size Really Matter?
John Henderson, president of the Brisbane Ukulele Musician’s Society, does not recommend one style or brand of ukulele over any other. He advises aspiring uke players to "go and try before you buy – and ask questions. In my experience – people who work in music stores are usually musicians – and they are usually very friendly and helpful, so just talk to them."
The Dominator agrees that musical experience can help with starting to play the ukulele, but it is not strictly required. "Obviously if someone has some experience playing guitar or another stringed instrument it will make for an easier transition to the ukulele. However, with just 4 strings where many chords can be played with just one or two fretted strings, I believe the ukulele can be played by the first time player in a very short period of time."
The ukulele is a great choice for kids interested in starting to play music. The smaller scale and the shorter road to playing entire songs can keep kids (and adults who act like kids) engaged and happy. Colin Tribe, a contributor to the Humble Uker Ramblings, loves the accessibility of playing, and the response that children have to the ukulele, and says that kids “can be so close to the experience of making music that the small steps to becoming a musician can be encouraged at a very early age.”
A Chord in a Minute, a Song in an Hour
Starting to play chords on the guitar can be challenging, and the construction of the ukulele allows beginners to skip past some of that complicated process. Is the ukulele just that simple? Many say no.
“It is the fact that it can be either easy or complex that are part of its charm,” says Tribe, “Anyone can play a chord of C in 2 seconds and a three chord trick in an hour, but it can lead to a lifetime of studying complex fingering with both hands.”
Tribe counsels beginners that “even if people say I make it look easy doesn't mean it actually is! Recordings for YouTube frequently go wrong before I get a take I am 90% happy with, but as I am more interested in people learning from me than promoting myself as a performer I am happy with that.”
Al Wood thinks that the perception of the ukulele being easy to play is “quite useful even if it isn't entirely accurate. Many people have decided they're not musical. Often because they were told that in school. And they'd never think of trying to play an instrument with an intimidating reputation like violin or piano.” The friendly, more fun reputation of the ukulele can be helpful in this care. The ukulele is “so approachable and expectations are low it's easier to start playing without judging yourself.”
Barry Maz warns that “no musical instrument is easy to play if you want to play it well - they can all take a lifetime (literally) to master and the uke is no different. That said, the uke does have a slightly easier learning curve than many instruments in the early stages, and I can quite easily get an absolute beginner playing a simple two or three chord song in half an hour.” This can be beneficial for beginners as it makes the ukulele “incredibly accessible.”
A Community Ready to Help You
The welcoming ukulele culture and community also makes learning easy for beginners. The contemporary ukulele movement is quite communal: regular festivals, jam nights, and unique concert situations. It attracts attention and simultaneously encourages participation. This can be what starts people playing the ukulele, and what keeps them strumming. Many players have stories about their favorite experiences with the ukulele bringing people together.
Barry Maz cites the conception of his band The N'Ukes as one example. Maz relates that he "had been playing guitar in local pubs, just for fun, with a friend of mine for many years. One night I turned up with a couple of ukes and not only did we have great fun, so did the customers." The ukuleles attracted much more attention than the guitars - and had the unexpected bonus of audience participation.
"More and more often we played ukes not guitars, then friends suddenly appeared having bought one and asked to join in with us - some of them never having played music before. Before long we had, on some nights, dozens playing along." They are now frequently booked all over the country.
Maz emphasizes that his experience with sharing the ukulele is not unique - "you only need to turn up to a ukulele festival anywhere in the world to see how the instrument brings people together. I think it’s a great leveller, as absolute beginners can often find themselves jamming along with highly skilled professionals."
Not everyone feels the strumming love: Al Wood admits that the ukulele "isn't really a social thing for me. I know it is for many people but there are some of us grumpy loners who play too."
Great Lessons and New Friends, Online and In-Person
Learning the ukulele is not limited by the lessons that may or may not be offered in your area. There are many websites and videos offering lessons online. Matt Dahlberg remembers “my grandfather taught me the first things I learned and as I took to it more I looked to the internet for further instruction. Websites such as Ukulele Underground were my best teachers!” Dahlberg now gives back, offering lessons online.
Colin Tribe is always on the lookout for new ukulele experiences and friends, and the portability of the instrument helps. "Mine is always in the car, and I play at every opportunity." It is easy to teach and he often finds others who are interested. "I was in a Farm shop car park when I met someone in their 40's who had always wanted to be able to accompany himself as he is an excellent singer and now, in less than 6 months, has learned enough to be an accomplished performer."
Tim Hatcher advises new ukulele players to think at first in terms of songs, "don't feel you have to sit down and start memorizing every chord in existence. Just find one or two songs you REALLY want to learn, and learn only the chords you will need for those songs."
This may be unconventional advice for learning a new instrument, but Hatcher advises that it is "a very manageable and fun task, and your success with those one or two songs will spur you on to learn more songs....and the chords you'll need for them." This can lead to a more organic and enjoyable learning process.
Hatcher also cautions against being in a "big hurry to get up in front of an audience to play. Take all the time you need to make sure that you're first few experiences at a microphone are positive. Getting off on the wrong foot may make you shy about continuing to play in front of an audience."
Tiny, Intimate Shows to Huge World Record Attempts
Julia Nunes has found success with unconventional shows that often result in audience participation and collaboration. She recently discovered "living room shows - we ask for hosts via FaceBook and Twitter and sell tickets online and then I play my ukulele songs totally unplugged in someone’s living room for like 50 people. The host gets to invite friends of course, but most of the people they're inviting into their home are total strangers."
The unique environment of these shows often spark new friendships via the mutual enjoyment of the ukulele. "At every show there are at least 5 (usually more!) ukuleles in the audience. After these shows I always see people comparing ukes, exchanging numbers, and bonding over their shared love of ukulele."
In Cairns, Australia, Matt Dahlberg has been a part of 3 world record attempts for the most people playing the same song simultaneously. Unfortunately, they did not break the record, but "it was incredible to see over 1300 people all playing the ukulele. I don’t think any other instrument could be this approachable." Many of the participants had picked up a ukulele for the first time on that same day, "you could easily learn despite not having any past music experience."
Whether you are an experienced guitar player, or a complete beginner at playing any instrument, the ukulele may be just what you are looking for. With a long history and an ever expanding future, the ukulele can put players of any age on the fast track to making music and great new friends.
For part one of this series, please visit Four Strings of Happiness: Tales of the Ukulele.
Learn more about ukuleles of all types with our Ukulele Buying Guide.