The ‘ukulele is a lot of fun to play, and we are fortunate to be alive in a time with so much information readily available about this instrument. In fact, there is so much info, it may be overwhelming and confusing. If you’re a beginner, you may not know what to expect when committing to taking that first ukulele lesson, or to study any musical instrument.
This article covers what you need to know about your first weeks practicing ‘ukulele, from using the tips of your fingers to changing between chords.
The First Things to Know About Playing the Ukulele
Using Your Fretting Hand
The fretting hand is the hand that touches the strings on the fretboard. If you are a right-handed player, this will be your left hand (and the opposite for lefties). The fingers on your fretting hand have numbers assigned to them: index is 1, middle is 2, ring is 3, pinky is 4. Your teacher will refer to your fingers by number to guide you while you learn to play. Be sure to use the tips of your fingers when playing, as this allows for greater precision.
Simply touching the strings isn’t enough; you will need to press your fingers into the fretboard to get the strings to touch the wood. The way to do this is by placing your thumb behind the neck so you can apply a squeeze motion to get the strings to meet the fretboard.
You may not have considered this but having fingernails (at least on your fretting hand) gets in the way of your playing. Players who do not trim their nails use the pads of their fingers to play, which causes strings to be muted and compromises your sound and ability to make chord shapes. Others will use the nail to press the string into the fretboard while fretting a note, causing the nail to chip or break and scratching your ‘uke. Trim them as short as possible (without injuring yourself) to set yourself up for success!
On the other hand (pun intended), having fingernails to strum with will give you a nice bright sound. I personally trim the nails on my strumming hand less frequently and not as short as on my fretting hand. They’re still not long, and I’m the only one who would notice the difference. This is up to you as a player but may be something to consider.
Calluses are layers of skin thickened by repeated stress. You may have developed them on your palms if you like the monkey bars, or on your feet if you like to hike. You will also develop them on the tips of your fingers on your fretting hand. You may have thought you were safe from this since the strings on many ‘ukuleles are made of nylon and are small, but the pressure of squeezing the string into the fretboard to play notes and chords is what will cause your fingers to be sore. It takes a couple weeks, but soon enough your fingers will toughen up to the point where it will not bother you to play for longer. Don’t give up before this happens!
Changing Between Chords
Chord changes will throw every new player for a loop. It can be very frustrating but consider this: you are developing fine muscle coordination in a way you have likely not done before. Building up your muscle memory for chord changes takes patience, but we can help speed along the process by thinking critically about this.
The general way I think about chord changes is by trying to get from one chord to another with as little movement as possible. Take the C to G7 change from Twenty One Pilots’ version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” found on ukutabs.com.
Take a look at where the third finger is on both chords; on the A string. This means you don’t have to pick it up to make the change, only slide it down a fret and then add the other fingers to the chord. Any chord change can be broken down like this will a little analysis and a metronome set to a slow speed.
Remember, Have Patience & Diligence
Learning a musical instrument is a commitment, and ‘ukulele is no different. It takes patience and diligence. It requires more time than just playing once a week during a lesson with your instructor; the majority of the progress you make will be during the time you spend practicing on your own. Be sure to work on what your instructor gives you. At the beginning, this may be simple chords and scales. The longer you play, the more interesting the ‘ukulele will become!