5 Songs, 5 Things To Practice

Most of my ‘ukulele students are really excited to play songs. Practicing scales, chords, or techniques by themselves don’t hold much appeal – understandably. They want to play music! But there is always more to a song than just “the song” for a practicing musician.

What I’m talking about is using a song to practice some specific piece of music. This could be chords, picking technique, speed; or more abstract concepts such as: emotion and flow. You can focus any song to practice any facet you like, but some are more obviously suited to one thing or another.

5 things to practice with 5 songsHere are some of my top picks for songs that you can use to focus your ‘ukulele practice. Each is linked to a tab or chord sheet so you can follow along and pursue the quest on your own time. (Yay printers!)


Samba Pa Ti

Santana’s classic instrumental is a textbook look at how less equals more. The song is already fairly slow, but widely spaced melodic lines creates an even more enormous feel.

Things to focus on:

  • The metronome. Humans tend to rush. So the metronome was invented. Use it to make sure you’re “playing the space” and allowing the rests the space they deserve.
  • Count in the spaces. You don’t always need to count 1… 2… 3… 4… throughout the song; doing so will often screw you up, but counting during long rests will almost always dramatically reduce your chances or dropping beats or adding beats. Try writing in the counts so you can visually see what the cadence is.
  • Learn the inflections. Santana’s playing is so nuanced that it’s hard to capture on paper. But there are still some detailed melodic rhythms shown here that are incredibly rewarding to play.
Samba Pa Ti
Carlos Santana

Chord Changes:

Dream A Little Dream Of Me

There are many great swing-ish sounding songs that have lots of challenging chords, but Dream A Little Dream is a standout that a student wanted to learn a while back.

Things to focus on:

  • Clean changes. When you switch from chord to chord, mute the strings, move your fingers, and then strum. Trying to move without the mute will sound sloppy.
  • Imprinting the shapes. When you learn a new shape, one by one lift and return each finger to the proper fret repeatedly keeping the rest held down. This helps build muscle memory. The goal is to do this enough that the entire chord can be fretted instantly instead of “layering” fingers one at a time to make sure you’re on the right frets.
  • Persevere. If you’re going to play through the song – play it! Don’t stop and try to get a chord right. That’s what practicing chords is for. Keep the beat going and if you don’t make a chord change, move on.
Dream a Little Dream of Me
The Mamas And The Papas


E Ku’u Morning Dew

There are few songs as well suited to creating a sweet sound on the ‘ukulele than Eddie Kamae’s E Ku’u Morning Dew. It’s a slow Hawaiian classic with simple, evocative chords and a graceful melody.

Things to focus on:

  • Play softly. Attack the strings softer than you normally might.
  • Work on your tone. Find the sweetest spot along the length of the string to pick.
  • Roll your chords. Adding chords to a picking arrangement help fill out the sound greatly. But in a mellow song, strumming them in the normal fashion might be a little harsh. A better approach would be to “melt” the chords and drop your thumb down the strings slow enough to hear the individual notes, but not slow enough to change the timing. By slowing down the strum you’ll create a much softer feel.
E Ku’u Morning Dew
Eddie Kamae (Low G)


Is This Love?

Nothing will whip your ability to feel alternative rhythms like a reggae song. By focusing on playing only on the upbeats you will gain much confidence in playing in odd places and creating more interesting strums.

Thing to focus on:

  • Timing. Spend lots of time just chanking on the 2 and 4 beats.
  • Shortening your chords. It won’t sound like reggae unless you make the chords ring as little as possible.
  • Keeping it simple. So often we get hung up on doing things that make the music sound more fancy, but often this just makes us play beyond out abilities. Play simply and excel at it.
Is This Love?
Bob Marley


Canon In C

Playing many notes quickly is not something that ‘ukulele players are often forced to do. Hawaiian music certainly doesn’t use a lot of speed! But genres like classical and bluegrass music often have to outline the chords with single-note lead instruments like the fiddle. This is achieved by brisk arpeggios that make the sound of a chord without actually playing the notes at once.

Things to focus on:

  • Going slow. If you can’t play something correctly, practice it slow. You can slow anything down enough that anybody can play it. Don’t be impatient and rush the process.
  • Play precise. When you play slow you can also practice fretting the notes in the most ideal way for the cleanest sound.
  • Learning in pieces. Don’t try to play the whole song in one go! Learn the first bar. Once you’ve mastered it, go to the second. Then combine the two and add a third.
Cannon in C
Johann Pachelbel

Meet The Author:

Brad Bordessa

Brad plays 'ukulele on the Big Island of Hawai'i. He writes original music, performs, and runs this site from a little cabin in the jungle.

2 comments… add one
  • paauilojo Mar 12, 2016, 7:46 pm

    it would help very much other you play the song.

  • John Lindquist Apr 7, 2016, 5:13 am

    Thanks for the songs. I could not open two of them: Cannon in C and E Ku’u Morning Dew. I like Cannon in C and play it all the time on our stereo and would like to be able to play it on my uke.

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