Are you ready to pick up a ukulele and start strumming? Ukulele teacher Willy M. shares three things you should know before you strum that first chord…
Hey budding ukulele players! I wanted to take a moment to tell you about three important things you should probably know before you decide to learn to play ukulele.
1. Make sure you have a ukulele and not a toy
When I first decided I wanted to learn to play ukulele, it was after a trip to visit relatives in Florida. I walked into a gift shop along the beach, and there it was! A beautiful ukulele with a sound hole cut out to look like a couple of palm trees swaying in the breeze. It called to me!
It was in a gift box so of course I couldn’t really examine the instrument very well, but the wood and tuners looked nice and the frets seemed real. Being a guitarist and mandolin player, I knew a few things about what to look for before buying a ukulele. It seemed to pass all of my inspections, so I thought it would be a good starter ukulele since it was less than $50.
I thought that until I got it home and tuned it up. Not knowing much at the time about the ukulele, I just tuned it to an open tuning and started strumming. It didn’t take me long to realize that the frets were not aligned properly. In fact, after a few minutes I learned that they weren’t real frets at all, but stick on pieces of metal glued in place. They weren’t even glued in the right place on the instrument, but were in fact just randomly placed on the neck anywhere the craftsman wanted to place them.
This leads to the first thing you should know about the ukulele. It is an instrument, not a toy. An instrument requires a certain precision when building it. The frets are there for a reason. When you divide the strings into shorter segments, it represents where the proper notes need to fall. If the frets are not placed where those notes need to fall, then you will never be able to play music on the ukulele.
So if Aunt Bertha gave you a ukulele as a present from her trip to Hawaii, make sure it is really a ukulele and not a toy! Starter ukuleles are cheap enough, and most music stores will have relatively inexpensive beginner ones that can fall between $20 and $50. If you are serious about wanting to learn the ukulele, spend the extra cash and make sure you get one that is well-built and has quality tuners.
2. Ukuleles are not tiny guitars
A ukulele is limited in the scope of music that can be played on it. A guitar, regardless of its size, has six individual strings that provide six separate notes which can allow a wide variety of musical styles, melodies, and techniques.
The ukulele, in contrast, has really only three strings that have individual notes. The fourth string is actually a repeat of the first string. Now, that being said, you can still play a great deal of music on a ukulele. You can use a lot of techniques that are similar to the guitar, and you can have a lot of fun with it, but there are things you will probably not be able to play on the uke.
Why am I telling you this? Well, think of it this way” if you want to learn how to play “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix on the ukulele, there are certain sounds, such as the dive bombing at the start of the solo, that require a specialized bridge that the ukulele does not possess. Just keep in mind that the ukulele’s purpose was to provide some musical accompaniment to singing. It’s the perfect instrument to have around the camp fire on the beach at sunset. But if you secretly want to be Eric Clapton, you might want to pick up your guitar.
Something you will want to note is that the ukulele uses nylon strings, whereas most guitars (acoustics and electrics) use steel strings wound with brass or some other similar material. Even classical guitars, which use nylon strings for the upper ranged strings, use silk (or some similar material) wound around the lower ranged strings. The nylon strings on the ukulele give it its unique sound that you aren’t going to find on most other instruments.
Now that I’ve given you all of that information about the difference between the ukulele and the guitar, I want to pass on my third bit of information…
3. The ukulele is a really unique instrument
As we just learned, a lot of people approach the ukulele as if it is just a small guitar, but the ukulele is a very expressive instrument in its own right. It has sounds, tones and texture that you’re not going to find in other instruments. As a high ranged rhythm instrument, the ukulele can’t be beat. And gentle melodies are great as well, whether fingerpicked, or flatpicked, or picked with a felt ukulele pick.
Perhaps due to the connection with Hawaii and Florida, the ukulele instantly calls up beaches, summer, and sunshine. The ukulele is branching out in recent years however, due to the use of it in songs by Bruno Marz, Jazon Mraz, Colbie Caillat, and even the band Train. New uses for classic instruments like the ukulele are being found all the time! It definitely has a special place in the realm of music all its own. Who knows, if you get really accomplished at playing ukulele, you might be the one who does for the ukulele what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric guitar. Your name might be the one spoken with reverence and awe among budding uke players the world over!
So take up that ukulele with pride and start playing. I hope these three things will help you to become the best ukulele player you can be. I can’t wait to hear your unique music!
Willy M. teaches guitar, ukulele, and mandolin lessons in Winston, NC. He is the author of the Dead Man’s Tuning series of mandolin songbooks, and is a former member of the American Federation of Musicians. Willy has been teaching for 20 years, and his students have ranged in age from young children to folks in their 80’s. Learn more about Willy.
Photo by Michael Fawcett