‘Ukulele For Beginners: Basic Lessons

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

You’ll be guided you through the basics of how to play ‘ukulele 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 down the “rabbit holes.”

First step:

Buy An ‘Ukulele:

It’s hard to practice unless you have an ‘ukulele 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 if you’re going to spend much more than $200-300 I would say check out an ‘ukulele-specific dealer like Hawai’i Music Supply.

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 ‘ukulele for beginners will cost around $100-200 and 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 ‘ukulele 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 ‘ukulele that is going to get you excited about learning to play.

I made a huge guide to shopping for an ‘ukulele 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.

Also check out What I Look For In An ‘Ukulele, an article by Byron Yasui – the amazing jazz player. It has some of his pro insights for getting the perfect ‘ukulele.

ukulele for beginners

‘Ukulele For Beginners – Uke 101:

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

  • It is usually tuned: G C E A (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
  • A brief history of the ‘ukulele will get you caught up on the uke’s exciting past.
  • Pronounced: oo-koo-le-le in Hawai’i, you-ka-lay-lee everywhere else.

How to Hold the ‘Ukulele:

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

The exact way you hold your ‘ukulele depends on the size of the instrument. Everything you need to know about proper positioning of your body in relation to your instrument can be found here: How To Hold An ‘Ukulele. You will also find info on playing left or right handed via that link.

Tune It!

In order for anything to sound good, you must first tune the instrument. Your options for getting your new ‘ukulele 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.

I’d waste more space here on tuning, but I’ve already made an entire page about it: Tuning Your ‘Ukulele.

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

Learn A Chord!

The great thing about an ‘ukulele 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 ‘ukulele. 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 ‘ukulele 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 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

If you really want to dive in, check out my book about ‘ukulele chord shapes. It has more chords in it than you’ll ever need plus tons of background info to help you understand chords.

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 ‘ukulele 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.

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:

This is where it gets exciting because now you are actually making music! 

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.

You can find more 2-4 chord easy songs here.

Expand Your Chord Knowledge:

Once C, F, and G7 are a piece of cake, move on and continue to learn 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.

Simple Picking:

Most teachers start with strumming when they teach ‘ukulele 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!

Here’s a collection of easy fingerpicking tabs.

“Tab” is a simple way of writing out music without knowing standard piano notation. Learn how to read tab here.

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. 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, though I do have some tips on 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.

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 ‘ukulele 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 ‘ukulele clubs. Scroll through to see if your area has one you could ask about local kani ka pilas.

Listen to (‘Ukulele) Music:

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.

The Next Step:

If you feel like you’ve passed the beginner level, check out my intermediate ‘ukulele lessons for the next level.

By Brad Bordessa

brad bordessa avatar

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