Owing to the recent boom in popularity, many guitarists are wondering about what it would be like to spend some time with the ukulele. Many friends of mine have played the guitar for many years before ever trying the ukulele so here are their tips to make a smooth transition.
It is not a difficult transition between guitar and ukulele but there are some details and some subtleties that you must take note of to make it smooth and fun. When transitioning from guitar to ukulele, you will notice that the tuning is slightly different and everything is smaller and therefore closer together.
Let’s dive right in and see what this means to a guitarist taking on the ukulele.
Starting off with basic chords
Let’s begin with a nice simple start. An easy way for a guitarist to play the ukulele is to start with basic chords.
• Choose chord shapes that use only strings 1 to 4 on the guitar (those are strings E, B, G and D);
• Move them down by 5 frets;
• Or up by 7 frets.
What you are doing is adapting the same chord shapes and transposing them to the ukulele. And you can transpose any chord progression in this way because as compared to the guitar, the open strings of the ukulele are tuned up a perfect 5th (that is 7 semitones or 7 frets on the fingerboard).
Depending on your experience on the guitar, it should only take you a few minutes to get the hang of this pattern. Once you do, you can play any simple song by adapting the chords from guitar to ukulele and strumming them in exactly the same way.
Now this brings up the subject of the tuning of the ukulele. This is crucial as it is not as straightforward as the guitar. Obviously, the ukulele has 2 strings fewer than the guitar but this will not take you long to get used to. (In fact, guitarists often find playing the ukulele easier because of this reason).
The challenge with the ukulele tuning is that the fourth string (that’s the string closest to your face when playing) is NOT the lowest sounding string. It is actually the second highest! Read all about tuning your ukulele right here.
If you are coming to the ukulele either from the steel-stringed acoustic guitar or the electric guitar, you are obviously used to metal strings. The ukulele has nylon strings and you will face two specific challenges in transitioning between these two materials:
First of all, you do not need as much finger strength to press a particular note on the fretboard (a motion technically known as ‘stopping a string’). Let’s take the F barre chord on the guitar, for instance. This takes quite some strength in the left hand fingers, wrist and arm to pull off well. The equivalent chord shape on the ukulele takes significantly less effort due to the ukulele’s size and its fewer number of strings.
This is good news, of course, but you do have to get used to making the lighter movements. If you press too hard on the fingerboard, your hand will get exhausted making your technique inefficient. Even worse, you might get an injury. It has happened to me before and it really sucks to have to wait for days or weeks to get back in shape.
The relative technical facility comes at a price because nylon strings demand a certain precision, too. To get the best sound out of them, make sure you are using the fingertips to stop a string. Beginners on nylon strings tend to get sounds that are flat, muted or buzzy. The culprit, typically, is either using the bony side of the finger (the left part) or the fleshier part on its face (the centre). Neither of these can stop a string as well as the fingertip can.
Keep in mind also, that the best place to stop a string is on the right part of the fret. This part requires even less strength and it will help you produce a cleaner sound.
None of this applies to you, however, if you are coming to the ukulele from the classical guitar because the strings you are used to are pretty much the same!
Right Hand Technique
This is probably the biggest issue when transitioning to the ukulele from the guitar. If you are used to playing with a pick and want to stick to it, you can do so but I suggest bringing in a thinner pick. The heaviness and hardness of certain guitar picks are not necessary for the smaller ukulele. The best option, of course, is to go for a ukulele pick.
If on the other hand, you want to drop that pick and adopt the traditional right hand technique, you are in for a challenge but also lots of rewards. Like the classical guitar, this is what gives the ukulele its traditional sound. You can play virtually anything plucking the strings with the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers. And if you are wondering, yes that also includes strumming!
Those are the biggest issues you will have to take care of. Some of them, like learning a new right hand technique, can take a few weeks while others will not present any challenges.
There are other, smaller matters too:
- The range (that is the distance between the lowest and highest possible notes) of the ukulele is smaller. While the guitar spans almost 4 octaves, the ukulele has just half of that: 2 octaves (and a bit).
- You have two strings less, specifically the bottom ones. This is obvious but if you are going to adapt guitar riffs, chords and solos to the ukulele you have to find alternatives to those low notes (by moving up a couple of octaves) or rearranging the music itself (playing in a different key than the original, for example).
- Choose the right ukulele. There are 4 common types of ukuleles: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The biggest difference between them is their size. Check this article out for more details about choosing the right one for you.
A Simple Exercise to Transition from the Guitar to the Ukulele
Let’s finish off today’s article with a quick lesson that will help you make a smooth transition.
Compared to the guitar, everything is smaller and closer together on the ukulele so here is what you can do to get used to the new dimensions really quickly. This is something you can do right now and see the results in 30 minutes or less!
Pick an exercise that you do very often on the guitar, preferable a warm up exercise. It could be some scales, some arpeggios or broken chords, some simple melodies or anything you use to get your fingers moving and ready to go.
Play it on the ukulele at a super slow tempo. Don’t worry about transposing it to get to the same key; you can stay on the same frets. Just focus on playing it slower. For example, if you can play it at 120 beats per minute on the guitar, play it at around 40 to 60 bpm on the ukulele.
There are several reasons why this works:
1. Since your fingers are already very familiar with the movements for the exercise, you do not need to stop to think about what goes where. This frees up the brain to focus on the fact that everything on this instrument is closer together.
2. Since you are playing it so slowly, it allows you to practice deliberately. It allows you to confirm that your fingers are actually going where they are supposed to, and it allows you to listen carefully to the quality of the sound you are producing.
Do this exercise for 20 minutes a day for a week and you are almost guaranteed a perfectly smooth transition from guitar to ukulele!
Check out this video that explains transition from guitar to ukulele:
Transition from Ukulele to Guitar
What if you are transitioning in the opposite direction, from ukulele to guitar?
In this case, the opposite of what we have talked about in this article applies to you. Do the same exercise as suggested here but in the other direction. You are going from small to big so you will be stretching and strengthening your left hand. Do this slowly as your arm, wrist, hand and fingers need time to adjust.
You will also need to learn about the bottom two strings of the guitar, use a thicker pick and explore the wider range.
Have a happy transition!
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.