So you’re hooked. “Got the bug” so they say. Glad to have you with us!
This page will guide you through the basics of learning to play ‘ukulele and to some of the most relevant parts of the site for beginners. I encourage you to follow the links depending on what you are interested in. You will find lots of information down the “rabbit holes.”
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 – 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.
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.
There’s much more info here on how to tune your ‘ukulele.
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”.
Some people pick up on how to read chord diagrams right away. Others need a little explanation.
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.
Here are 10 more strumming patterns and techniques.
Learn a Simple Song!
This is where it gets exciting because now you are actually making music!
Both only use C F and G7 which is ideal on the ‘ukulele for beginners. Use a simple down, up strum.
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.
Most teachers start beginners with strumming. 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.
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.
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.
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.