How to Practice ‘Ukulele: Supercharge Your Session

Learning how to practice ʻukulele is very important. It’s easy to think about the thing we’re practicing, but it’s important to correctly implement it during your practice time.

The old saying goes “practice makes perfect.” But really, perfect practice makes perfect.

What follow are some tips for maximizing your ʻukulele practice sessions that I’ve collected over my years in the woodshed.

The ‘Ukulele Practice Session

The space, time, goals, and approach you use during your practice greatly affects how successful you’ll be. The session is really its own entity.

Practicing is NOT playing. Both are very valuable uses of your time, but practice is the act of focusing on specific skills in order to improve.

Space

You can practice anywhere. But there are certainly spaces better suited to the task.

Find yourself a good spot. It can be a cozy chair in a corner, a rock on top of a mountain, or in your car. But make sure it’s distraction-free and YOURS.

Bring what you need for the practice session into the space. Your uke, obviously (an instrument stand can be nice), any sheets you’re studying from (a music stand can be nice), a tuner if you need it, etc…

As soon as you have to get up to fetch something, the woodsheding flow is broken. Make sure your zone is undisturbed by intrusions from outside sources (the phone, whinny cat, etc…) and your own needs (forgetting your sheet music, needing to pee, etc…).

Time

The more you practice, the better you get. Simple as that. So more practice = better, right? Not necessarily.

It’s easy to set yourself an ambitious schedule. However, if you can’t realistically meet the goal, it’s not productive.

Maybe you just don’t have the time. Maybe you get fearsomely bored before you’re done. That’s okay. But if every single day you’re failing to make it until the timer beeps, you will start to get discouraged.

So instead, I propose setting yourself a realistic time goal that you can always meet. For instance: Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 30 minutes. Or every day for 15 minutes.

Set that goal and stick with it. Put a timer on for your exact time and get to work. You should be mindfully focused on your playing goals (next section). Stop as soon as the timer beeps.

Maybe it helps you to know that your practice is always at the same time of day. At 5:31pm, after your second coffee, before the kids get out of school, etc…

Consistency

All that said, you should practice as regularly as possible. This might seem obvious, but there are a LOT of people who allocate their uke learning time into one big chunk on the weekend.

Don’t do that.

15 minutes a day for a total of an hour and 45 minutes across the week will usually yield much better results than four hours on Saturday.

By spacing your practice out evenly, it allows you to build upon what you learned in your previous session. Otherwise, you’ll end up relearning everything that you forgot over the work week.

Goals

You can sit down and practice without a plan, but often you will find yourself aimlessly drilling things you think you should be working on.

A better approach is to define several areas you’d like to improve in. For instance, “I want to be able to play the reggae strum.” Or “I want to be able to solo in the key of C.”

Make a list. Then create a gameplan that will give you specific, actionable items to help you progress.

To practice the reggae strum you could follow these steps (notice how I’m not starting with THE reggae strum, but working up to it):

  1. Work on upstrums
  2. Play upstrums on the beat with a metronome
  3. Learn to feel the “2” and “4” beats by clapping along with the metronome without playing
  4. Play upstrums on “2” and “4” with the metronome

At this point you could complete the last step and be “there.” But it’s better to achieve full competence by applying the skill. So I’d add a couple more tasks for myself:

  • Chank on the “2” and “4” at increasing tempos until I can play it easily at 200bpm
  • Learn the chords to One Drop so I can use the strum in a song
  • Play along with the recording 10 times in a row while learning the words
  • Sing the song myself and hold down the rhythm without Bob’s help

With those additional steps you have gone beyond the bare minimum and are well on the way to becoming comfortable with the skill.

This is a very intellectual breakdown of practice steps, but it would make you many times more productive than not having any direction at all. As you practice and create your routine you’ll be able to break these things down in your mind as you go.

Other Tips

With the above outline in mind you’ll be well on your way to successful ʻukulele practice. Here are some other ideas that you should keep in mind.

Brain Power:

Learn when you are fresh. Your brain retains things better if you are not tired!

Be sure to drink plenty of water. Make sure you’re getting your eight glasses daily or your brain will be starved for fuel. (They say your brain is already drying out by the time you feel thirsty.)

Slow Down and Don’t Practice Mistakes:

Give yourself the room to play it right the first time. Anytime you get sloppy you build bad habits.

The key to never making a mistake is going slowly. Slowly.

Learn to use your metronome and set it very slow. Then play the piece to the click.

It should be slow enough that you feel border and stifled. Focus on playing everything perfectly while you have the chance to look ahead and take your time getting to notes.

If you can’t play your uke at a slow tempo, you might as well not play the song at all. Going slowly should be easier than the normal tempo once you figure out how to do it.

By skipping this step you are simply muddling through the song and covering up bad playing with speed.

Once you’ve played it perfectly slow, you can speed up by a few BPM each time around until you are back at the performance tempo.

Repetition:

Repeat yourself and play whatever you are working on over and over (as long as you aren’t practicing mistakes!). The best way you can get something in your head is to play it again and again. The goal is to get to the point that you don’t have to think about what you are doing. It should just happen by itself.

I call this “autopilot.” It’s a little freaky when you play a whole song at a gig and then realize you were watching the crowd instead of thinking about where to move your finger. That’s when you really know a piece well.

Don’t Watch Your Fingers:

Many people have to stare at their fingers to play well. This is a severe limitation and should be avoided by practicing without any visual input. If you’re playing a song in a coffee shop and someone drops something, your reaction is to look up to see if there is a threat. Is that going to make you stop playing? The answer should be “no.”

One way would to practice this be to play your ʻukulele in the dark (really dark) – it forces you to feel and hear the notes and not see them. Another one I’ve heard is to play lying down. This makes it difficult to lift your head and look at the notes. (I shouldn’t have to say that you must maintain proper technique and positioning for this to be worthwhile – don’t turn your ʻukulele up toward you!)

Warm Up:

Warm up before practicing. That way you will already be on the top of your game when you begin you practice session.

Stretching your fingers is a good place to start. After that, maybe run some scales or chord changes to get your fingers going. Here are some ʻukulele warmups I’ve put together for you.

Use Your Ears:

Transcribe songs to train your ears. Being able to know what’s going on in the music without a chord sheet is very powerful. By practicing along with the radio or iTunes you can work on hearing chord changes, keys, and melody.

Start easy and if you want, write out the song as you go. The more you do this, the better you will get. If you need some ideas on how to start, look at: How to Figure Out Songs by Ear on ‘Ukulele.

What to Spend Time Working On:

Working on fresh material is a million times more effective at pushing you to new heights than playing what you already know.

Here are some examples:

  • Use a higher inversion of a chord. C is never going to change once you know how to play it. Add a new shape to your repertoire and use that instead.
  • Pick with a different finger. Mastering a new motor skill is only going to come by doing it a lot. If you know the notes with your left hand, make the right hand work harder.
  • Learn a new song with chords you already know. If you know the strumming and chords to “I’m Yours,” find a new song that uses the same shapes. The new timing and progressions will make you work.

The bottom line is just like exercise: “No pain, no gain.” You can’t “practice” lazy and expect huge results. Every second spent with an ʻukulele in your hand is valuable, but dedicated effort multiplies your efforts by many, many times.

For more insight, I love this article by Martin Schuring on many aspects of practicing. It was written for oboe, but is mostly universal for ʻukulele players.

Things to Practice

Sometimes as musicians we run into a period of time where practicing can seem sort of unhelpful. Nothing seems to be interesting and it’s hard to find new things to work on. It happens.

The good news is that the phase soon passes and you realize that there are thousands more things to work on than you previously thought. Here’s a list for those tough times or when you just feel like practicing ʻukulele for eight hours and run out of ideas for what to do.

Scales:

  1. To a metronome
  2. Straight up and down
  3. In 3rds (C to E, D to F, etc…)
  4. In 4ths (C to F, D to G, etc…)
  5. In 5ths (C to G, D to A, etc…)
  6. In 6ths (C to A, D to B, etc…)
  7. In 7ths (C to B, D to C, etc…)
  8. Up or down in groups of 4s (C D E F, D E F G, etc…)
  9. Up or down in groups of 5s (C D E F G, D E F G A, etc…)
  10. Groups of 6s
  11. Slow
  12. Fast (notice the order there?)
  13. Play two notes, skip a string, play one note – up and down
  14. Play one note, skip a string, play two notes – up and down
  15. Play any number of notes on any number of different strings in a pattern
  16. Using 3rd intervals (played together)
  17. Using 6th intervals
  18. Using all other intervals
  19. Any of the above in a different position
  20. Any of the above in a different octave
  21. In a musical fashion (practice is just preparation for real music)

Chords:

  1. With a metronome
  2. A different way to play all chords
  3. Replacing one note with a 4th, 2nd, etc… to get a suspended sound
  4. Omitting a note from a chord shape (removing the 3rd, 5th, root)
  5. A new chord (you’ll never find them all)
  6. That one chord you struggle with
  7. Substituting chords
  8. Chord Melody
  9. Soloing with chords
  10. Soloing around chords

Rhythm:

  1. Straight note durations (quarter note, 8h note, etc…)
  2. Triplets (1 2 3 1 2 3…)
  3. Playing any number of notes in the space of one beat (start with two, then three, four, five, etc…)
  4. Playing with a metronome
  5. Playing with a drummer (it’s harder than it looks after playing by yourself all the time)
  6. Tap on things (just play a beat – your body is a drum set: left leg = high-hat, right leg = snare, right foot = bass drum)

Techniques:

  1. Sliding into a note
  2. Sliding out of a note
  3. Sliding from one note to another
  4. Sliding one fret up or down and then back rapidly over and over again (trill)
  5. Bending up a half step
  6. Bending up a whole step
  7. Bending up a step and a half (oww!)
  8. Pre-bend and release the above
  9. Bending and releasing
  10. Bending and releasing a whole step, stopping at the in between note on the way down (C to D bend: stop on C#)
  11. Tremolo picking 1 string
  12. Tremolo picking 2 strings
  13. Tremolo picking 3 strings
  14. Hammer-ons
  15. Pull-offs
  16. Hammer-on to pull-off
  17. Pull-off to hammer-on
  18. Double hammer-on
  19. Double pull-off
  20. Everything in between
  21. Natural harmonics
  22. Artificial harmonics
  23. Harp harmonics
  24. Octaves on the C and A strings
  25. Octaves on the G and E strings
  26. Octaves on the G and A strings
  27. Palm muting
  28. Attack (picking hard or soft)
  29. Classical vibrato
  30. Normal vibrato (Clapton style)
  31. Wide vibrato
  32. Piano style (picking the strings simultaneously with one finger to each string)

Strumming:

  1. Fan strumming (tremolo 4 strings)
  2. Mono strum (strumming all strings, but only sounding one note)
  3. Mute strum (chunk)
  4. Strum patterns
  5. Strumming and then picking in between
  6. Hammering on new notes to a chord (Hendrix style)
  7. Triplet strum
  8. Fast
  9. Slow
  10. And changing chords (the strum doesn’t count if you can’t use your fretting hand)

Songs:

  1. Dynamics (one part loud, one part soft, vice versa)
  2. Arranging (a new intro, what parts where, etc…)
  3. Learning to play a song all the way through with no mistakes (none)
  4. Timing (a metronome might help)
  5. Learning all the parts (chords, melody, other instruments – on ʻukulele still)
  6. Learning a simple song and intentionally playing it simply

Ear Training:

  1. Tuning your ʻukulele by ear (double check yourself with a tuner and remember if you were sharp or flat)
  2. Picking out simple songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle”
  3. Learn how different chord types sound (major, minor, 7th, etc…)
  4. Figuring out chord progressions
  5. Hearing different intervals (notes played separately or together)
  6. Putting it all together and learning a whole song – all parts (by ear!)

Performance:

  1. Playing to the crowd
  2. Playing with a looper
  3. Playing through a set list (talk to the “audience” too!)
  4. Your smile
  5. Playing from the heart
  6. Working through mistakes
  7. Making eye contact with the audience
  8. Using your amps, PA, effects
  9. Singing
  10. Soloing
  11. Changing things up
  12. Being entertaining
  13. Making a set-list
  14. Setting up your gear
  15. Playing with a band
  16. Starting a with a bang
  17. Ending with a bang

Theory:

  1. Reading music
  2. Reading tab
  3. Understanding the modes
  4. Building scales
  5. Building chords
  6. Key signatures
  7. Time signatures

Odd-ball:

  1. Playing cleanly (nobody cares if they can’t hear the notes)
  2. Teaching
  3. Living (music is life on a small scale, life is music on a big scale)
  4. Transcribing (putting music to hard media – sheet music, tab)
  5. Writing a long post on things to practice (and sharing your ideas with me because I’m out!)

Squeezing More Practice Time Into Your Day

There are never enough hours. Especially when you add another pursuit, like the ʻukulele, to your life. The good news is that few modern lives are fully optimized for ʻukulele playing and there is usually room for improvement.

  • One of the best things you can do for quick practice moments is have your ʻukulele on a stand or in a case nearby. If you have to dig it out of the closet you are much less likely to pick it up. Make it easy.
  • Put the TV volume on “mute” during commercials and run through a scale or song before your show comes back on. That’s a good 15 minutes – at least – of wasted time each hour. Don’t just watch the talking heads and read the “possible side effects” – sneak in some practice time!
  • Use driving time to work on anything you don’t need an ʻukulele to practice. There are lots of things like this: singing, rhythm, thinking through songs and chord progressions, etc… Just because you can’t play ʻukulele doesn’t mean you can’t practice music. Better yet, get someone else to drive when possible and jam in the passenger seat.
  • Replace Popular Mechanics with an ʻukulele in your “library.” Any musician worth his salt knows that the bathroom is usually one of the best sounding rooms in the house.
  • You can practice strumming anywhere by using your leg as an instrument of sorts. A pair of pants actually seems to have resistance similar to ʻukulele strings. Just strum against your thigh. Everyone else in the doctors office will think you have a bad case of ADD, but you’ll know you’re making progress.
  • Make choices on how you want to spend your time. Less Facebook = more ʻukulele. Simple as that.

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

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