Tuning the ʻUkulele | Holding the ʻUkulele

ʻUkulele For Beginners: Basic Lessons on How to Play the Uke

So you’re hooked. “Got the bug” so they say. Glad to have you with us! This page is all about ʻukulele for beginners.

You’ll be guided you through the basics of how to play ʻukulele in this mini-lesson and pointed to some of the most relevant parts of this site. I encourage you to follow the links depending on what you are interested in. You will find lots of information throughout the site.

ʻUkulele For Beginners – Basics:

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

Buy An ʻUkulele:

It’s hard to practice unless you have an ʻukulele constantly at your disposal. Get hold of one some way or another. You don’t need much to get started.

Especially these days you can find quality instruments for a very budget-friendly price.

Amazon has some decent options, but I recommend checking out an ʻukulele-specific dealer like Hawai’i Music Supply or MIM’s Ukes. They’ll take better care of you.

Best yet, go to your local music store and try out every kind of uke you can get your hands on.

At the end of the day, in my opinion, the best ʻukulele for beginners will cost around $100-200 and often be a concert size. My reasons:

  • Spending at least $100 will get you a quality instrument, while staying under $200 will minimize your losses if you decide that ʻukulele just isn’t for you. It also allows you some growing room until it’s time to buy your next uke. You’ll know better what you want when it comes time to purchase a new instrument.
  • A concert is the middle of the road as far as ‘ukulele sizes go. Not too big, not too small. Maybe not “just right,” but it will certainly split the difference in sound and playability to give you a good idea what to expect from each.

This is, of course, not a hard and fast rule and you should get any ʻukulele that is going to get you excited about learning to play.

I made a huge guide to shopping for an ʻukulele that should be very helpful, if not overwhelming at first. It contains my tips and advice for getting an instrument suitable to your needs – price, quality, sizes, and more.

My big, huge ʻukulele buying guide

ukulele for beginners

How to Hold the ʻUkulele:

I see many beginning ʻukulele players struggle with the basics of learning to play because they hold the instrument in a very unnatural way.

How to hold the ‘ukulele.

Tune It!

In order for anything to sound good, you must first tune the instrument. Your options for getting your new ʻukulele in tune are (in order of ease for a first-time player):

  1. By tuner/app
  2. By pitchpipe/tuning fork/piano
  3. By ear/relative

If your uke came with a tuner, you’re set. If not and you have an iOS device, download a tuner app. If you don’t have a tuner OR an iOS device, you can go to an online pitch pipe to hear reference notes.

The strings are tuned to the notes G C E A, from closest to the ceiling to the floor.

Basically, when your tuner’s indicator is to the left, the string is flat and needs to be tuned higher. When the indicator is to the right, the string is sharp and needs to be tuned lower. When it’s center, the string is in tune.

how to tune ukulele with digital tuner

More on tuning your ʻukulele.

My headstock tuner of choice is the D’Addario NS Mini. It’s small – you can leave it on when you put your ʻukulele in the case and it’s very accurate.

Learn A Chord!

The great thing about an ʻukulele is that once it’s tuned it takes less than 5 seconds to learn your first chord: the open strings. Strum your newly GCEA-tuned ʻukulele. This is a C6 chord!

Even though it’s super easy, nobody uses that one very often because it sounds kind of “bleah” compared to other, hipper options.

Let’s jump ahead to the easiest fretted (fingered) chord – C major.

To play C, hold your ʻukulele with the headstock pointing left, body flat against your own. Now, squeezing the neck gently between the thumb and ring finger of your left hand, press the bottom string in the third fret space. (The little metal strips on the neck are called “frets.” You place your finger(s) in between them to change the pitch of the note.)

Like this:

cmajor

That’s C.

Strum-a-dum-dum!

Make a loose fist with your right hand (as if you were going to do rock, paper, scissors). Now, let your pointer finger pop out at a 90 degree angle. This is a ballpark for what your strumming position should look like.

While holding the C chord with your left hand, brush the index finger of your right hand up and down the strings in a perpendicular movement. Try turning your wrist as you move your hand up and down and allowing your finger to bend. This helps pilot your finger across the strings without getting stuck.

Strum down and up over and over again with even timing until it feels pretty comfortable.

More on strumming

More Chords!

Here are two more chords that are family members to C major.

To play F major, place the index finger of your left hand on the 1st fret of the 2nd string from the bottom. (The strings are counted like the stories of a building – 1 on the bottom closest to the floor, 4 on the top closest to your face.)

Then place your middle finger on the top (4th) string on the 2nd fret. Like so:

Fmajor

Next is a G dominant 7th chord.

Place your index finger on the 1st fret of the 2nd string (just like in F). Your middle finger plays the 2nd fret of the 3rd string (one string down from where it is in F). And finally, your ring finger plays the 2nd fret of the bottom string.

Since you have to play two fingers on the 2nd fret, you might need to turn your wrist outwards and down (clockwise) to get them both to fit.

g7

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 for beginner ʻukulele players, use your index finger to hold 1st fret notes, middle for 2nd fret, 3rd for 3rd fret, etc… We’ve already broken this rule with G7, but it’s a good guideline 98% of the time.

Practice changing between these chords, strumming four counts in between.

Faster and easier chord changes

Learn a Simple Song!

With three chords you can play way more songs than you’d ever think. Here are some good choices that use C, F, and G7:

Try to sing them once you learn how the chords go (or have somebody else sing). It will give you a point of reference to keep you on time. 

Keep in mind that not all songs you get chords for will be in the same key as the recording. That means it will sound “wrong” if you play along with the CD. That’s why singing will make things easier because your ear will automatically find the right key to sing in.

Here are some more easy two to four chord songs

Tips for singing and playing at the same time

Expand Your Chord Knowledge:

Eventually you’ll probably want to learn all of the basic major, minor, and 7th chords. It’s important to keep working on new songs as you go. The more chords you know, the more songs you can play, but it’s no use to learn chords if you don’t have songs to put them in.

Complete chord charts

Simple Picking:

Most teachers start with strumming when they teach ʻukulele to beginners. They seem to think of picking as something that is out of reach. It’s not.

You use many fingers to hold chords, you only need one to pick a single note!

Easy fingerpicking tabs.

“Tab” is a simple way of writing out music without knowing standard piano notation.

How to read TAB

Improve Your Timing

Understanding rhythm, beats, and timing

Practice:

There’s only one way you will get better. Practice!

If you are struggling with something you find hard, dedicate some time to it every day. You’ll be amazed where steady effort will get you in the course of several days.

There is no “get out of jail free” card in music. You get out what you put in and there are no shortcuts, though I do have some tips:

How to practice

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.

The Next Step

Tips for taking ʻukulele lessons

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. This is how I learned to play ʻukulele as a beginner.

You’d be surprised how many groups there are across the country and around the world – you just have to find them. Got A Ukulele has a huge page of ʻukulele clubs. Scroll through to see if your area has one you could ask about local kani ka pilas.

Intermediate ʻukulele lessons >>>

By Brad Bordessa

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once borrowed a uke to jam with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me

brad bordessa avatar