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How to Play ‘Ukulele – Beginner Lessons

teaching nobuSo you tried playing an ‘ukulele and want to do more, but your first chord seemed so difficult to strum! You have to wonder if learning this instrument is even doable. The good news is that if you work at it you will find yourself progressing quickly through the beginner stage.

This page acts as a pointer to many other parts of Live ‘Ukulele.com. I encourage you to follow the links depending on what you are interested in. You will find much more information down the “rabbit holes.” Middle-clicking on a link in most browsers opens a link in a new tab so you can refer back to this page.

Listen to ‘Ukulele Music:

If you haven’t heard it, you won’t have much of a reference to go off of when you want to play it yourself. I recommend listening to lots of ‘ukulele players. It will give you an idea what you can do and can’t do (or want to invent!), what the instrument can be expected to sound like, and what styles you’d like to be able to play yourself. Listening to any genre you wish to play is also a good idea. You probably already do, but take an extra critical listen and see if you can hear where an ‘ukulele part would fit (or what the ‘ukulele player is doing in the song). These two things might overlap. Great!

Check out the Recommended Stuff page for my favorite ‘ukulele albums and more.

To get you started, here are my top 5 favorite ‘ukulele albums:

Buy or Borrow an ‘Ukulele:

It’s hard to practice unless you have an ‘ukulele constantly at your disposal. Get hold of one some way or another.

‘Ukulele 101:

On the surface the ‘ukulele is a pretty simple instrument, but there are a couple of things that are useful to know about it:

  • It is usually tuned: GCEA (G closest to your face, A closest to the floor).
  • The strings are counted backwards – A is the 1st string, G is the 4th string. Think of it like the stories in a building.
  • Parts of the ‘Ukulele
  • History of the ‘Ukulele

Hawaiian_okina

The word itself: The ‘ukulele originated in Hawai’i. Because of that fact it was the Hawaiian people who named it. Thus, ‘ukulele is a Hawaiian word. It is pronounced in Hawaiian like: “oo-koo-le-le.” How everyone else ended up with “you-ka-lay-lee” I will never understand… Since it is a Hawaiian word, ‘ukulele is actually spelled with the Hawaiian letter ‘okina at the beginning. An ‘okina at first glance looks like an apostrophe, but it is actually an inverted apostrophe that looks like a tiny “6.” So ‘ukulele actually should be spelled like this:

‘Ukulele

Say it how you will, but don’t forget the origin of your new-found favorite instrument!

How to Hold the ‘Ukulele:

I see so many beginning ‘ukulele players struggling with basic things because they are holding the instrument in such an unnatural way. The exact way you hold your ‘ukulele depends on the size of the instrument. You will also find info on playing left or right handed via this link:

Tuning Your ‘Ukulele:

If you wish for any music that you play to be pleasing to the ears, you need to play in tune. You can tune your ‘ukulele with your ear, a pitch pipe/piano, or a tuner. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Learn Your First Three Chords:

Now that you have an idea of how to position your ‘ukulele and hands, you can go about learning some of the basic chords. With these chords you will be able to play your first songs! Start with “C”, “F”, and “G7″.

cmajor

C Major

fmajor

F Major

g7

G7

 

Hold C with your 3rd finger on the 3rd fret. Hold F with your index finger on the 1st fret, 2nd string up and your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the top string. Hold G7 with your index on the first fret, 2nd string, your middle finger on the 2nd fret, 3rd string, your ring finger on the 2nd fret, bottom string.

Remember, thumb on the back of the neck, fingers parallel to the frets, and use the tips of your fingers to hold chord notes. As a general rule, use your index finger to hold 1st fret notes, middle for 2nd fret, 3rd for 3rd fret, etc… That works great for the first two chords, but G7 needs two fingers on the same fret. This is an exception to the rule. You should play G7 with your 1st finger on the 1st fret, 2nd string (E), 2nd finger on the 2nd fret, 3rd string (C), and 3rd finger, 2nd fret, 1st string (A). To fit your fingers in, it helps to turn your wrist up towards the headstock.

Learn to Strum:

You can strum a bunch of different ways . To start off it’s probably going to be easiest if you play just down strokes with your index finger. Curl up the rest of your fingers, point your index finger towards the soundhole and brush down across the strings, rolling your wrist a bit and moving your forearm.

The D U (D=downstrum, U=upstrum) strum is a great second step. Now instead of just the downstrokes, add an upstroke to the mix in between. When you do this D U strum it will help if you roll your wrist a bit back and forth so the strings deflect cleanly off your index finger. Otherwise if you keep your wrist stiff, you might end up jamming your fingers into the strings.

Learn a Simple Song!

This is where it gets exciting because you are actually making music! Here is a list of easy beginner ‘ukulele songs. I recommend something like “Island Style” by John Cruz or “Ku’u Home O Kahalu’u” by Oloman. Both only use C F and G7 and are great places to start with a simple down, up strum.

Try to sing them once you learn how the chords go. It will give you a point of reference to keep you on time. Keep in mind that not all the songs on the list are in the same key as the recording. That means it will sound off if you play along with the CD and the two keys don’t match. That’s why singing will make things easier because your ear will automatically find the right key to sing in.

Expand Your Chord Knowledge:

Once C, F, and G7 are a piece of cake, move on and continue learning all of the major, minor, and 7th chords, working on new songs as you go. The more you know, the more songs you can play.

Vamps:

Vamps are the glue that holds most Hawaiian music together. They go between verses (or whenever you forget the words! ). If you like Hawaiian music learn some vamps.

New Strums:

Now you should be able to play a few songs, and the D U strum is getting a little plain. Spice things up by learning some new strums off of the Strumming page. Work on whatever looks interesting to you.

Simple Picking:

Most beginners seem to think of picking as something that is really hard – it’s not. You use many fingers to hold chords, you only need one to pick a single note. Start working on picking with something like a simple picking vamp:

A |-------------2-3-
E |-2-3-2-3-1-3-----
C |-----------------
G |-----------------

That’s a “C” vamp, you can play that vamp along with D7// G7// C////.

The numbers and lines are called “tab”. It’s a way of writing out music without knowing standard notation (think piano music). Learn how to read tab here.

When picking you will still use the one finger per fret technique. Start with songs like “Happy Birthday” and the “Jeopardy” theme. You can also find more picking vamps here

Practice:

It’s the only way you will get better. If you are struggling with something you find hard, dedicate some time to it every day. After a week or two, maybe you’ll find something new that is a challenge and the old thing won’t be that hard anymore. There is no “get out of jail free” card in music. You get out what you put in, and there are no shortcuts.

Play:

You’ve got to enjoy the music you make or you are wasting your time. So once you learn a song, just play it and enjoy the music you are making. Don’t judge, “Oh shoot. That chord buzzed.” Just play it as best you can. This is called “jamming.” We all focus so much on improving that sometimes it’s refreshing to take a step back, realize how far we’ve come, and then just play. The best music comes out when you don’t even think about it.

Find a Local Kani Ka Pila:

A kani ka pila is a jam group that usually forms in a circle and everyone takes turns choosing songs. Usually the pace is very slow so it’s a fabulous place to hone your skills in a group setting without any pressure. You’d be surprised how many groups there are across the country and around the world – you just have to find them. ‘Ukulele Player Magazine has a huge list of ‘ukulele clubs in the back of each issue. Download a copy and take a look through to see if your area has one that you could ask about local kani ka pilas.

The Next Step:

If you feel like you’ve passed the beginner level, check out the intermediate page.

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