Ever wanted to learn how to play ukulele? You’ve come to the right place.
The Ukulele is an excellent instrument to learn at any age. Lightweight and portable, it is the perfect addition to a summer night campfire circle or a terrific way to transition into playing the guitar.
People are drawn to the Ukulele for various reasons, from the wallet-friendly cost of buying a Uke compared to other instruments, to the fun, playful sound it produces. In this article, we will share our easy-to-follow guide on all things basic ukulele. Before you know it, you’ll be strumming to your heart’s content.
There are many different ukes to choose from, such as the baritone ukulele, the soprano ukulele, and even the banjo ukulele. However, before we get into choosing the right ukulele so that you can perform your first ukulele song, it seems fitting to explain where the ukulele originated.
The Ukulele originated in Hawaii during the 19th century when Portuguese immigrants brought a tiny guitar-like string instrument, similar to a banjo, to the island. Entertained by this new sound, the Hawaiians created their own variation of this instrument and called it the Ukulele. Depending on who you ask, ukulele means “jumping flea”, (perhaps in reference to the movement of the player’s fingers as they play) or “the gift that came here” – uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).
The ukulele’s warm, jaunty sound is definitely something worth learning to play. Ukelelists remind us of our time on the beach, toes in the warm sand, and cool ocean breeze in our hair. Sometimes, they serenade us with sweetly romantic melodies that warm our souls.
How To Play Ukulele
Whatever the tune, the ukulele brings with it light and airy sounds that are unique and unparalleled. As with learning any musical instrument, it’s hard to know where to start. This guide will break it down into 5 easy steps to help you learn to play the ukulele faster.
Step 1: Buy the Right Ukulele
It is important to research the ukulele you want and, if possible, go and try it out in the store before you make a purchase. A good ukulele will bring you joy for decades, so best to choose one that is best suited to your needs in order to get the most out of it!
There are four main sizes of ukuleles: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The soprano, at 20 inches (51cm), is the most traditional and most common size. In terms of its look and sound, this is the size that most people associate a ukulele with. The concert is a size up from the soprano at 23 inches (58cm). Although slightly louder, it still has the classic ukulele sound and is somewhat easier to handle due to its longer neck and spacing between frets. As of late, the tenor – 26 inches (66cm) – has become increasingly popular. This size deviates ever so slightly from the classic sound with a hint of a classic guitar. This is the most popular size amongst professional and well-known ukulele players. The baritone ukulele is the least popular option. At 30 inches (76cm), it has the deepest tone and more closely resembles a classic guitar in terms of tuning, sound, shape, and size.
The materials used to make your ukulele will also affect its quality and sound. Koa comes from Hawaii and, therefore, is used to make Hawaiian-made ukuleles. Its grain is esthetically beautiful and gives off a warm sound. Most high-end ukuleles are made from Koa. Mahogany is typically used for mid-range ukuleles (although it has been used for expensive ones as well) and creates a softer sound. Spruce is also a common wood-type and typically used for lower-end ukuleles. When it comes to laminated versus solid wood, the latter, although more expensive, is always the best option in terms of quality and sound.
If you are serious about learning the ukulele, skip the cheap starter sets ($20-$30). Anything lower than $50 will not be of great quality and cheaply made ukuleles tend to fall out of tune very quickly. There are many good ukuleles and starter sets anywhere from $50-$100.
Step 2: Learn How to Hold It
Much like a guitar, how you hold your instrument has a significant impact on how you play. When you learn ukulele, you don’t want to be stiff or feel awkward with your uke in your hands. You also want to make sure that you don’t hold your ukulele too tightly, as the sounds have to vibrate through the body. If you grip it too hard, those vibrations will be restricted, and the tone will be different.
With your left hand, let your thumb rest against the back of the neck of the ukulele. Then keep the instrument close to your chest or stomach, whichever feels most natural. Many beginners find it easiest to play sitting down at first, so they can rest the body of the ukulele on their thigh as they play. When standing up, you have to focus on securing the ukulele against your body while also strumming chords and melodies. Try getting comfortable in the sitting position before moving onto standing while playing. Learning ukulele is much easier when you are relaxed and content.
Learning to hold your ukulele properly from day one will save you from awkwardly having to fidget and reposition yourself later when you’re ready to bring your musical talents out into the world. Learn to hold your ukulele both while seated and while standing (so you can pick up and play any place, any time).
While seated, try resting the base of your ukulele on one of your legs with your strumming arm on top, allowing the neck of the ukulele to move around easily and freely while you play.
When standing up, use your strumming arm to hold the ukulele against your chest. Pro tip: don’t hold your ukulele too tightly – the sound needs to be able to vibrate through the body of the instrument. Sure, you could always buy a shoulder strap, but you don’t really need one and you’ll look way cooler without one!
Step 3: How to tune a ukulele
If you do not tune your ukulele, you will not produce the pleasant, harmonious sound you are looking for. This can be particularly irritating when you are trying to play a specific song and it just doesn’t sound right. One of the most common ways to tune a ukulele is to use an electric tuner. You can find these at most music stores. You can also use an online uke tuner by visiting websites like www.ukutuner.com. These sites use the microphone in your computer to help you tune your ukulele. A great option if you don’t want to invest in a physical tuner or remember to constantly keep it with you. Lastly, you can manually tune your ukulele on your own. This requires a trained ear and some patience. There are some extremely helpful videos on YouTube that teach manual tuning. If you’re looking for one, we recommend checking out this video. These are valuable resources when learning how to play ukulele.
Step 3: Learn the Basics First
Don’t go crazy trying to learn full songs or complex music theory right off the bat! Learning the basics first will make it so much easier and faster to pick up new songs later on. Start by learning the basic chords, major and minor chords first with the aid of a chord chart, and then move on from there. Online charts are great resources when trying to learn chords. Chord charts will help visually with finger placement. Start slowly – it is far more important to play properly than quickly. As you begin to pick up on the basics, you will get faster, I promise.
Many people go straight to trying to learn their favorite songs. And while this is tempting, it will better serve you in the long run to be familiar with your chords. One you have these fundamentals down, you will be able to figure out any song you love, rather than being limited to one or two that you know well. The most common chords are A, C, D, E, F and G. These are the ones you will want to learn first to build a solid foundation. If you struggle with the E chord, don’t fret (pun intended!). Many people find this chord difficult as you have to stretch your fingers quite far and the position is a little tedious at first. But as you learn, this chord will eventually become second nature. It is a popular chord in many songs, so you’ll get lots of practice as you progress.
Once you have gotten the hang of the basics, try looking up some song tabs online and learning how to put some chords together. Again, play slowly and really focus on each chord and proper technique.
PRO TIP: Make it a habit to tune your ukulele every time you pick it up so you’re consistently learning the right sounds of the notes you’re playing. There are online guides to tuning that can help with this or buy an electronic tuner from your local music store.
Once you have your major chords down to a science, it’s time to move on to minor chords. These chords are known as the “emotional” chords, as their tones are less joyful and exciting. They produce a sound that is much more pensive or moody. A minor, D minor and E minor are the most common of the minor chords. For a visual representation of these chords that you can refer to, we recommend checking out this article. It provides straightforward photos you can use to determine where to place your fingers. When you have mastered your minor chords, you can move on to seventh chords.
Step 4: Practice Strumming
Strumming is the part most people want to dive into! After all, there’s nothing like strumming away on a ukulele or another stringed instrument. It’s the thing you notice most when you watch other musicians play, and there’s a reason for that! You can strum gently or aggressively, quickly or slowly, and how you do so evokes a different emotion in the people who are listening. So, in order to start strumming, you will want to find a song that you are familiar with. Then, you’ll want to identify the strumming patterns. Basically, this is the rhythm of the strokes as you strum your chords. As a beginner, you’ll likely start by strumming in a downward direction. This is perfectly okay, but you will notice with time that you aren’t able to get the correct pace of a song by strumming in one direction only. Adding upward strokes gives a song a more dynamic and interesting rhythm. Most ukulele players play upward strokes by dragging the nail of their thumb in an upward direction over the strings. However, if you feel you need a pick, that works too!
Proper technique from day one is always important – trying to relearn it later on or correcting bad habits is hard. In the beginning, you’ll likely stick to the basic strum (up and down), but after awhile you might want to try some more advanced techniques such as slapping or palm muting to really give some depth and variety of sound to your music. Strumming guides online will help to teach different techniques – try some out, practice them and really get a feel for how each one changes the sound of your ukulele. This is just as important as learning your chords (if not more) since song tabs posted online will not have strumming patterns to accompany them (for copyright reasons). Getting a ‘feel’ for the rhythm of your music will help you overcome this hurdle and really bring those song tabs to life.You may even want to try using a metronome when learning new songs or strumming patterns – this will help establish and maintain rhythm as you learn to play.
PRO TIP: Fingering exercises are like strength training for your digits and will not only improve your physical playing ability, but it will also help you to develop calluses so you can play for longer without any pain! It only takes about 10-15 minutes a day and your fingertips will thank you!
Step 5: Watch and Play With Others to Strengthen Your Skills
Get out into the world and collaborate with other ukulele players! Not only is this super fun, sharing tips and techniques with one another will totally expand your knowledge and skill. As a beginner, there is always something you can learn from a more experienced ukulele player. If you have trouble finding fellow ukulele players out in the real world, the Internet is always a great place to turn. Watch YouTube videos and try to play along, while really focusing on the rhythm and tempo. This will help sharpen your skills and really bring you into the next level of play.
Take it a step further
The final brick in laying your basic ukulele foundation is learning to read a song, so that you can then learn to play it. The most common way to do this is to read tablature. For ukulele, a tab consists of four lines that represent your strings, and numbers that represent your frets. Remember that tabs are always read from left to right, and that when you see chords, there will be numbers directly under one another on different lines (strings). For a more detailed breakdown of tablature, visit this useful guide. It is an excellent way to learn ukulele chords.
With these ABCs covered, you are well on your way to becoming a seasoned uke player. Of course, there is always more to learn. But these essentials will stay with you for as long as you continue to play. Countless Ukulele and instrument players never master the underlying elements of playing. By understanding your musical instrument on an integral level, you ensure that no matter what song you want to learn, you can figure it out by relying on your core knowledge.
Above all, the most important thing when learning to play the ukulele is to HAVE FUN! The ukulele should be just as enjoyable and relaxing to play, as it is to listen to. As they say in Hawaii, Pomaika`i (good luck)!
Congratulations on learning ukulele for beginners!
- Top 10 List: Best Ukulele for Beginners
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- E Chord Ukulele: How to Get Better Playing It
- How To Read Ukulele Tablature (Step-by-Step Tutorial)
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.