The ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument with a carefree, jaunty sound. Its small size offers an ease of portability and gives players of all ages the chance to master it. Learn a bit about the basics of playing the ukulele, and eventually you will be a great ukulele player!
Method 1 - Understanding the Basics
- A soprano ukulele is the most common style. It is recognized by its small size and classic “uke” sound. This is the cheapest style of ukulele, and is most often chosen by beginners. It is on average 21” long, and has anywhere from 12-14 frets.
The alto ukulele (or concert ukulele), is the next size up from a soprano. It measures 23” long and has 15-20 frets. Because of its slightly bigger size, people with large hands find it easier to play than a soprano ukulele. It also has a slightly fuller sound than a soprano.
The next step up from an alto ukulele is the tenor ukulele. The tenor ukulele is 26” long and has 15+ frets. It has an even richer sound than the concert ukulele, and has the ability to reach more notes because of its extended fretboard.
The largest ukulele is the baritone ukulele, which is 30” or more and has 19+ frets. It is tuned the same way as the four lowest strings on a guitar, which makes the two instruments very similar. Because of its size, it loses the classic ukulele sound, but is a good option if you want really full, rich music.
Some ukuleles are a different shape, namely flukes, pineapples or fleas. A fluke is shaped like a triangle, a pineapple is shaped like, well a pineapple (oval shape), and a flea is shaped like a pineapple ukulele with a flat bottom. The one pictured in the illustration is a pineapple.
The body of the uke is the hollow wooden part that makes up the majority of the instrument. It has a small hole under the strings that you strum above.
The neck of the uke is the long wooden piece that the strings sit above. The neck refers to the slightly rounded bottom part, while the flat top part of the neck is called the fingerboard or fretboard.
The frets are sections of the fingerboard divided by metal fret dividers. Each fret divides the strings into different notes.
There are four strings on a ukulele, although depending on the type of uke you buy they may be different. The lowest or thinnest string is known as the 1st string, moving upwards to the highest or thickest string which is the 4th string.
- To tune the uke, you twist the tuner knobs at the top of the head to tighten and loosen the strings.
- Over time, the tension in the string reduces - they get looser - which puts them out of tune. That means you will have to tighten the strings more often than you will have to loosen them.
If you are facing the uke, the top left tuner is ‘C,’ the bottom left tuner is ‘G,’ the top right tuner is ‘E,’ and the bottom right tuner controls ‘A’. Adjusting these will change the corresponding string’s sound.
Use an electric tuner or an online tuner to hear the sound each string should make when plucked. Then, alter the sound of yours until it matches.
If you have a piano or keyboard available, you can play the key that corresponds to the string you are tuning and match those sounds.
- Regardless of whether you are sitting or standing, you will hold your ukulele in the same fashion.
- The ukulele should be slightly pushed between your right forearm and your body, and simultaneously resting in the crook of your elbow. If you are holding it correctly, you can remove either of your hands without the uke shifting position. This also means that the uke is held relatively high on your body, near your waist or chest.
- The neck of the uke should be resting on the thumb and web of your left hand, allowing you to reach around with your other four fingers to touch all the strings.
- When you strum with your right hand, use the back of your nails going down the strings and the fleshy part of your fingertips coming back up.
- Strum a little higher on the body of the uke than the hollow hole in the center. Although that is the correct position to play the strings on a guitar, for a uke it is the proper position to play nearer to the neck.
- Keep you back and shoulders straight so that you aren’t hunched over the ukulele. This will improve your appearance when playing and reduce the amount of pain and tension in your back.
2 - Learning Chords
- To play a C Major chord, place your ring finger on the 1st string on the third fret.
- To play an F Major chord, put your index finger on the 2nd string of the first fret, and your ring finger on the first string of the second fret.
- To play a G Major chord, place your index finger on the 3rd string of the second fret, your middle finger on the 4th string of the second fret, and your ring finger on the 2nd string of the third fret.
- To play an A Major chord, put your index finger on the 3rd string of the first fret, and your middle finger on the 1st string of the second fret.
- To play a D Major chord, place your middle finger on the 1st string of the second fret, your ring finger on the 2nd string of the second fret, and your pinky finger on the 3rd string of the second fret.
- To play an E Major chord, put your index finger on the 4th string of the first fret, your middle finger on the 1st string of the second fret, and your pinky finger on the 3rd string of the fourth fret.
- To play an A Minor chord, place your middle finger on the 1st string of the second fret.
- To play an E Minor chord, put your index finger on the 4th string of the second fret, and your ring finger on the 3rd string of the fourth fret.
- To play a D Minor chord, place your index finger on the 2nd string of the first fret, your middle finger on the 1st string of the second fret, and your ring finger on the 3rd string of the second fret.
- To play an F# or Gb Minor chord, put your index finger on the 3rd string of the first fret, your middle finger on the 1st string of the second fret, and your ring finger on the 2nd string of the second fret.
- To play a B Minor chord, bar the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings with your index finger by holding them all down simultaneously on the second fret, and hold the 1st string down on the fourth fret with your ring finger.
3- Playing the Ukulele
- Keeping a rhythm to your strumming pattern will be difficult at first while you learn how to adjust your left hand quickly between notes and chords. As you get better, try to avoid taking breaks between finger adjustments to improve your timing.
- Try counting in fours while you are playing to help keep a beat while you strum.
- If you have a difficult time strumming in time, try using a metronome. This is a small electronic gadget that sounds off little clicks at a steady rate, allowing you to pace your strumming to match. You can adjust the speed that it plays to meet your comfort level.
- Don’t try to play super fast at first, as you will be likely to make more mistakes. Start out with a slow, steady rhythm and then work your way towards a more fast-pace beat.
- Many ukulele music books provide popular tunes that are easy for beginners to learn. Pick one up at a local music supply store and start playing!
- If you want to learn some of your favorite songs, search online for the song’s uke tabs. Tabs are like the music for the ukulele, telling you the differing chords and fingering positions that are required.
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