The ukulele is one of those instruments that everyone thinks that they can play. It’s an instrument that populates the corners of kids’ bedrooms. And it’s an instrument that is generally seen – a bit disrespectfully, perhaps – as generally just a ‘small guitar’, on which you can strum along to things like Jason Mraz.
Yet, this does not really do credit to the instrument itself. Because ukuleles are not just guitars for beginners. Rather, they are quite distinct instruments, with their own history, their own sound, and their own particular traditions. Tell Jake Shimabukuro, for example, that it’s just an easy guitar; we’re sure that it will be appreciated.
So, rather than collapsing this instrument into the category of the guitar, we’re going to talk about how you can learn to play the ukulele properly. We’re going to talk about how you can be a proud ukulele player with an awesome ukulele technique. We’re going to give you the knowledge of this instrument and the skills you need to hold your own in it. And, finally, we’ll point you in the direction of some ukulele teachers who guide you further on your journey.
Let’s get started. Because the ukulele is a beautiful and hugely versatile instrument that you’ll love to learn and to play. So, there’s no reason not to take it seriously. Let’s have a look.
What is the Ukulele?
Yes, the ukulele is a type of guitar. But only in the same way that a mandolin or a cittern are. Because whilst the guitar has come to be the most recognisable of all plucked string instruments, it, like many of the rest of them, developed out of the lute.
The same is true of the ukulele, which itself took its form from the Portuguese string instruments such as the cavaquinho and the rajao, as you’ll see below.
As you’ll probably know, the ukulele is a small four-string instrument that uses re-entrant tuning – in which the strings are not necessarily tuned in order of pitch. Most often, the highest string (physically speaking) is not of a low pitch but is tuned much higher.
These days, ukuleles are played in all sorts of different genres of music – not just in Hawaiian music.
A Brief History of the Ukulele.
So, whilst you probably know that the ukulele was played originally by the Hawaiians, this is not to say that it developed there. Rather, the Portuguese – some sixteen thousand of whom moved to the islands at the turn of the twentieth century – brought their native instruments with them.
These, such as the cavaquinho or the machete, were four-stringed instruments from the islands of Portugal – and they gave both their structure and their common tunings to the ukulele.
Enjoyed by Hawaii’s king at the time, King Kalakaua, the instrument became hugely popular across the islands – and soon spread to the United States. From there, as is predictable, it went global – and moved from traditional Hawaiian music to all sorts of different genres.
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Different Types of Ukulele.
If you are hoping to play ukulele, it is probably helpful to know the many different styles and types of instrument that you can find. Because whilst we say ‘ukulele’ as if it were just a single thing, there are actually many sizes that you should be aware of.
The most common type is the soprano ukulele, which has generally become known as the standard ukulele. It comes in at about fifty centimetres, with about twelve to fifteen frets. Whilst you can tune the instrument pretty much however you want, a standard tuning is GCEA.
Alongside this, there is the concert ukulele (or alto ukulele) which is slightly larger, as well as the tenor ukulele, the baritone, and the bass. These get progressively larger, with a longer fretboard and a lower pitch range.
If you can play one, you can play them all. However, as they increase in size, you may have to get used to the extra stretch.
Some Famous Ukulele Players and Performances.
Whilst knowing the instrument’s history and types is helpful if you want to learn ukulele, it is pretty crucial to hear some real ukulele music too.
Because watching a professional play the instrument is inspiring – like, actually – and it shows you what your instrument can actually do. And whilst strumming major chords is fun, that’s not half of what you can get out of learning the ukulele.
So, get ready to see some performances that are actually impressive. Watch their technique and learn a little bit from them too.
George Formby was the comedian and musician from Wigan in the UK. He was, for a while, the highest-paid entertainer in the country – and he was known primarily for his ukulele and banjolele.
Whilst he was known more for his comedy, Formby was actually quite an important figure in the history of the ukulele. After his death, the George Formby Society was set up to continue performances in his spirit. And this, in turn, influenced the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – an organisation that continues to tour the world.
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After the sixties, after George Formby had died, the ukulele fell out of popularity a little. It wasn’t until the nineties, when Israel Kamakawiwo’ole started making music, that it entered back into the mainstream.
Israel, or IZ, remains Hawaii’s biggest selling artist ever, and it was his arrangement of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ that brought attention back to the instrument. Since then, the instrument’s popularity has reached stratospheric levels.
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If you want to see ukulele playing that moves away from simple strumming patterns, check out Jake Shimabukuro, the Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso who went viral with his covers of George Harrison.
If you want to see how to play ukulele in a way that will simply astonish people, Shimabukuro’s work is where you need to look.
His music has won a huge number of awards – alongside the music he recorded with his early band, Pure Heart – and he continues to tour the world with his instrument.
How to Play the Ukulele.
So, we hope that you have seen the beauty that you can get out of the ukulele’s four strings. But now we’re turning to look at how you can learn to play ukulele. You’ll be playing your favourite songs in no time.
As you’ll have read above, the most common tuning for the ukulele is GCEA, in which the G is the string physically highest as you hold the instrument.
How to Hold the Ukulele
The trick with knowing how to hold the ukulele is in remembering that you need to press the instrument against you whilst you are strumming the chords. You’ll do this with the forearm of your right arm.
This may mean that you don’t immediately feel like you have a lot of movement in your right arm. This is true – however, you don’t need that movement. What you need instead is space for the movement of your wrist. Because this is the motor that will power your strum.
When you play the ukulele, the majority of your contact with the strings will be done with your thumb or your index finger.
If you are using your index finger, you’ll want to keep it loose and relaxed – whilst striking the strings with your nail.
The alternative to fingerpicking is that you use a pick or a plectrum. However, with the uke, you usually play with one that is felted. This means that you won’t get the plasticky click of pick on nylon strings – which tends to ruin the vibe.
Where to Find Ukulele Lessons.
Much of the materials that you will need to get started with the ukulele are available online. By this, we mean the basic ukulele chord charts and chord shapes, the tablature for easy ukulele songs, and the required music theory for beginner ukulele players.
If you don’t like to read this sort of stuff, there are plenty of video tutorials on YouTube for you to learn in a bit more of a practical way.
However, you may well want to find a teacher to help you develop as a ukulele player. They would be able to show you the ukulele techniques first hand – and jam with you once you know the basic chords.
Head to Superprof to Find a Private Ukulele Instructor.
Superprof is one of the best places to find a ukulele tutor in your area.
Across the UK, we have hundreds of ukulele teachers who can teach you everything you need to know – either face-to-face or online. It’s a great – and super easy – way to learn the ukulele – and the vast majority of our tutors offer their first hour free!
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