There have been some famous Ukulele players over the years. George Formby, a Lancashire musician-cum-comedian in the 40s and 50s, was famous for playing one. Along with a Ukulele-Banjo hybrid aptly named the “Banjolele.” He was just one of many who wanted people to learn how to play Ukulele.
But there haven’t been many musicians of the same caliber as George Harrison who have been so fascinated by it. He would go to shops whenever he was away and buy their complete stock. He would do this so he could give them away to people.
He preferred the Kamaka Uke and had dozens in his house. Visitors were often given one to join in for a mass ukulele jam in one of the rooms. George Harrison loved his Ukulele.
Quite fitting then that on the first anniversary of his death, there was a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Joe Brown closed the evening with a solo performance of “I’ll See You in my Dreams” on one of his Ukuleles. There weren’t many dry eyes in the house that night.
Why Is It So Appealing?
There are lots of reasons, some of them just practical, why people love the ukulele.
- It is small, compact, and easy to carry around.
- It’s not expensive.
- Quite easy to learn.
- Most of all, it’s fun.
A Lifetime’s Journey
Learning to play any musical instrument is a journey that usually lasts a lifetime. There will be plenty of things to learn along the way. I am going to attempt to smooth the way a little. It will include talking about which Ukulele is right for you and what accessories you will need.
We will look at how to tune a ukulele, how to strum it, and, most importantly, how to play it. And we will look at some easy chords to get you started. Just try and offer some simple advice. But perhaps the most important thing I can say is to have some fun with it.
But in answer to a question I see all the time. Yes, you can teach yourself to play the ukulele. Let’s start by looking at choosing the right instrument for you.
Choosing Your Ukulele
There are quite a few options, and it can be confusing to decide which type of Ukulele is best for you. Each has its own tone and sound, and of course, some are slightly bigger than others. Let’s take a look at the most popular. Let me first just clarify some terminology.
Scale Length – the distance between the nut, the end of the fingerboard nearest the headstock, and the bridge.
Instrument Length – the full measurement of the instrument from one end to the other. All measurements are approximate, and there may be some small variations in some manufacturers’ designs.
The Soprano Ukulele
Scale Length: 13 inches. Instrument Length: 21 inches.
Of the most popular Ukuleles, this is the smallest. Although, there is a Pocket Ukulele or “Sopranissimo,” which is slightly smaller and with a different sound. The Soprano has a higher tone and slightly sharper sound than its larger family members. They are particularly suited for young people, and those with smaller hands as the frets are placed closer together.
The Concert Ukulele
Scale Length: 15 inches. Instrument length: 23 inches.
Next up in size is the Concert Ukulele. Still small enough to be played easily by young people. They have a few extra frets and a different sound to the Soprano. The sound is slightly deeper but has a warmer resonance and is not quite as bright. It is the favored instrument of many Ukulele players.
The Tenor Ukulele
Scale Length: 17 inches. Instrument length: 26 inches.
Again a step up in size, the Tenor Ukulele brings with it some different attributes. The neck is slightly wider, meaning it can be played easily by those with larger hands.
The extra size of the body gives it a more pronounced bass sound than either Soprano or Concert instruments. So, if the lower frequencies are your hinge, this is a good style to consider. It tends to pronounce the bottom-end and has a richer sound. Not so good for the starter, though.
The Baritone Ukulele
Scale Length: 19 inches. Instrument Length: 30 inches.
Not as popular as the soprano, concert, or tenor, the baritone is still quite widely used. It has a much deeper sound than the other three. And whilst you wouldn’t call it a bass instrument, it is moving in that direction.
There is a Bass Ukulele that has a scale length of 21 inches and an instrument size of about 32 inches. These are not often seen other than in groups or orchestras that require some bottom-end. Probably not a Ukelele that you would use solo in a concert situation.
So, there are four to choose from. But if you are looking for the standard ukulele sound, we all know then that comes down to three – the Soprano, Concert, and Tenor.
How Do You Hold it?
So, you’ve been out and bought your first Ukulele, and now you can’t wait to get started and learn to play it. There are a couple of things you need to do first. One is just basic preparation. The other is something you will need to learn and practice. Let’s deal with some basic playing preparation first.
How to Hold Your Ukulele?
This might not be something you have considered. It’s quite small. Surely you just pick it up and play away. Not quite. Learning to hold it correctly will help you get a better sound. And it will make it easier to get around the fingerboard. But it will also ensure you remain in a comfortable position.
Positioning the Body of the Uke
Sit the Ukulele against your body, but not too tightly. It should be in a position where the right arm, the strumming arm, can reach it comfortably without stretching. So not too high up your body, but not too low either. Just above the waistline is a good place to start. Although, you will naturally get the instrument into a comfortable position that suits you.
The Left Hand
The positioning of the left hand is important. You have to ensure you can shape your notes and chords easily and correctly. You position your left hand so that the palm is on the back of the neck. It should sit comfortably so that the neck lies between your thumb and forefinger.
Get the position, and then just move your left hand up and down the neck to make sure it feels comfortable. With the left and right hands in a comfortable position, you’re ready to go. But there is still something that needs to be learned, as I said.
How Do You Tune Your Ukulele?
There is a standard tuning that applies to three of the four most popular Ukuleles. That is the Soprano, Concert, and Tenor Ukuleles. The Baritone Ukulele has a different standard tuning. We will look at that soon. However, learning to tune your uke is crucial in learning how to play ukulele.
Tuning with a Piano or Keyboard
The standard tuning for Soprano, Concert, and Tenor Ukuleles is G-C-E and A. Sometimes this is written as G4, C4, E4, and A4. The four is the number of octaves up on the piano or keyboard from the lowest note.
The C or C4 is also known as Middle C on the piano. Start tuning with the second string and get that tuned to Middle C. Up three notes up is ‘E’ for the third string. Come up again to ‘A’ for the fourth string. The first string or bottom string is tuned to ‘G’ above the Middle C.
You will note that this is not what we would describe as a conventional way of tuning a stringed instrument. Normally the first or bottom string would be the lowest note rising to the first or highest, which would have the top note.
With these Ukuleles, the bottom or first string is tuned to a note higher than either the second or third string. This is known as re-entrant stringing. It seems strange, but it is what helps to give the Ukulele its unique sound.
The Baritone Ukulele
We have looked at the most common way of tuning a Soprano, Concert, and Tenor Ukulele. If you have chosen a Baritone ukulele, then the tuning is more conventional in its practice. However, the notes are different. Most Baritone Ukuleles are tuned to D, G, B, and E. These are sometimes written down as D3, G3, B3, and E4.
But, there is no re-entrant tuning. It is strung from bottom to top, with the lowest note being on the bottom string, the highest on the top. On a Piano, you will find the D3 note almost an octave below middle C. Tune that string first, then it is easy to tune the rest in ascending order.
Tuning with a Digital Tuner
If you haven’t got easy access to a piano or keyboard, then you will need a digital tuner. Many people consider this the best option anyway. They are cheap and small enough to carry with you to use whenever you need them. Certainly an accessory you will want to consider very early on.
If you are going down the digital tuner route, then don’t buy a standard guitar tuner. They are set up to just tune the six guitar strings. Ukuleles need other notes. You need to buy a Chromatic tuner as they can tune to any note.
One final thing to be aware of about tuning. The strings on your Ukulele are Nylon or a similar material. They are very prone to stretching. The upside is that they are soft on your fingers. Great for a beginner.
The downside is they lose their tune quite regularly, so being able to tune is important. But another upside is that they don’t break as often as metal strings.
Okay… Let’s Play
So you have got your playing position correct, seated or standing is fine. Your ukulele is in tune. So let’s play.
One of the important techniques you must learn is how to strum. This is the cornerstone of how you play this instrument. Strumming is just the action of striking the strings in either an upward or downward motion.
You will find that some of the songs you will learn have different strumming patterns. With some, you will play all downstrokes in a straightforward 4/4 rhythm. Others will require you to play a downstroke that is followed by an upstroke.
There are several variations, another being a down, down, and then up, down pattern. As you practice, you will get a feel for these patterns. And also, you will begin to understand what patterns best suit some songs. It is purely a familiarity exercise, and of course, what sounds best to you.
Where to Start with Strumming Practice?
Normally you use a pick. A felt pick will be best as it will be kinder on the softer nylon strings. A hard pick could cause them to snap.
Although, at first, just use your thumb and forefinger. Your thumb for the down strum and your finger to strum up. Once you get the feel of it, place your thumb and forefinger together as if you were holding the pick. Now try up and down strokes.
With a Felt Pick
Hold the pick firmly but not too tight. Angle it back slightly toward the top string from the bottom of the pick. Angling it slightly back will help to create a smoother strumming action. It will also be kinder on the strings, reducing the impact.
This is an important element in creating a smooth strumming action. Keep your wrist loose so it can flex up and down. If your wrist is too stiff on the strike of the strings, it will create a very choppy, fragmented sound.
You will also find that it will reduce fatigue. Holding the wrist too stiff or holding the pick too tight will cause tension in the arm. That will turn into fatigue quite quickly. Staying relaxed is the key.
Playing Some Chords
Okay, here is the moment you have been waiting for. You have tuned it. You are holding it correctly, and you have practiced a little bit of strumming up and down. But now, it is time to use the fingerboard to create sounds.
You will be playing either single notes or combinations of notes. We call these chords. Chords are the very foundation of the songs you will play. And this applies not only to the Ukulele but most instruments with strings.
Some Common Chords
Some of the most used chords on the Soprano, Concert, and Tenor Ukulele are C, D, E, F, G, and A. I have included them below in a chart showing all six, so you can start to learn them.
How To Use this Chord Display
You will see that they are a visual representation of the top of the fingerboard up to and including the nut. They show you where to place your fingers to create the chords.
The nut is the white insert between where the headstock ends and the fingerboard starts. On the diagrams, the nut is the top horizontal line. The other horizontal lines below are the frets.
The four vertical lines are the strings, with the left line the bottom or fourth string on the Ukulele. The black dots show you where to put your fingers. So as an example, to play a C chord, you need only use one finger. That is placed on the top or first string between the second and third frets.
They are not all as easy as that
The D chord requires three fingers. These are placed on the bottom or fourth string, the third string, and the second, all between the first and second frets.
The great thing about these instruments is that the songs are usually so easy to play and laid out in a simplified fashion. Learn the chords of C, F, and G, and you will immediately learn how to play ukulele for literally dozens of songs.
As with all instruments, there are scales to be learned. As I am dealing with very basic issues with the first steps in learning the Ukulele, I can’t include them here. But they are to be found in the materials I have included below.
What to Choose?
If you haven’t been out and bought your Ukulele yet, there are some things to consider. The woods it is made of is one. Different woods produce different sounds. Spruce is very bright, whereas Koa wood is balanced and plain sounding, which for this instrument is a good thing.
Different sizes for different people
The Soprano is great for children and adults with smaller hands. But it can be a little bit of a challenge for other adults. The Concert has a little more space on the fingerboard, and it will produce a slightly louder sound than the Soprano.
The Tenor is once again slightly larger, making it easy to place their fingers in the right places. However, the chords can be a little harder to play, making it more difficult for the beginner. In my opinion, the Soprano or the Concert will be the best for the new player, while the Tenor for the more experienced player.
Ukuleles are one of the most cost-effective instruments you can buy. There is no huge outlay of cash as there are with some instruments. This is great music at an affordable cost.
Even at the higher levels of quality, you won’t expect to pay big amounts. For a starter, it represents a great instrument. One that will last you for a long time and give you hours of enjoyment.
I mentioned earlier some further practice materials. For an easy guide to playing the ukulele, there is Easy Ukulele: A Complete, Quick and Easy Beginner Ukulele Method for Kids and Adults. Get started with 21 Easy Ukulele Songs For Christmas (Beginning Ukulele Songs). And for the Lefties, there is Left-Handed Ukulele – The Complete Method.
Looking for a Great Ukulele or Ukulele Accessories?
We can help you find what you want. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Ukuleles for Beginners, the Best Concert Ukuleles For Beginners, the Best Ukuleles for Kids, the Best Tenor Ukuleles, the Best Bass Ukulele, and the Best Baritone Ukuleles you can buy in 2021.
Also, have a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Lanikai Ukuleles, the Best Luna Ukulele, the Best Electric Ukuleles, the Best Ukulele Tuners, the Best Ukulele Capos, the Best Ukulele Straps, and the Best Ukulele Case currently on the market.
How to Play Ukulele – Final Thoughts
Hopefully, you have a better understanding of what it takes to play the ukulele. And don’t forget the golden rule of ukuleles… Have lots of fun!
Until next time, let your music play.