Simple music theory for uke players

Novice Ukulele: A Totally Beginner Uke Lesson

Welcome to Live Ukulele. My name is Brad and I’m going to help you progress from a raw beginner ukulele player to an intermediate player with this collection of sequential lessons.

There are lots of good how to play resources available already for the uke. But to be useful, all these resources need to be put together in one place.

That’s what I’m going to do with this guided set of ukulele lessons along with implementing a step-by-step guide to practice and working your way through them.

An Intro to the Ukulele

The ukulele is a four-stringed fretted instrument with origins in Hawaiʻi. It looks a bit like a mini guitar, but lacks two strings and is tuned higher than its six-stringed counterpart.

Portuguese immigrants arrived to Hawaiʻi in 1878 to work the sugar cane fields. They brought with them their traditional instruments, the braguinha and rajão. Elements from these instruments were eventually combined to create what we know today as the ukulele.

There are four main sizes of ukulele. From small to large they are: soprano/standard, concert, tenor, and baritone.

A soprano size ukulele is the old-school sound and look that most people expect. It’s almost always tuned with a high-g and has a tight, bright, “plucky” sound that’s great for traditional strumming.

Concert size is a nice Goldilocks fit for size and sound since it sits in the middle of the GCEA-tuned ukuleles. This is what I recommend to most beginners unless they are big boned, in which case a tenor might be more comfortable to play.

The tenor size is a contemporary favorite. Its long scale at GCEA pitch makes it very articulate and clear sounding which is great for fingerpicking arrangements. The tenor ukulele is a favorite among performing professionals.

The baritone size is the most obviously different because it typically uses a lower tuning of DGBE. Because of its large body, it has a deep, rich sound and large fret spacing. The tuning is also exactly the same as the bottom four strings of a guitar so it’s a common transition size for experimenting guitarists.

Which size you choose depends mainly on the sound and feel you want from your uke. A smaller size has a brighter sound and tighter fret spacing. A larger size has a more full tone and more room for your fingers.

If you’re not sure, I’ve yet to see a beginning student struggle because they started on a concert. It’s a great place to get your foot in the door.

Getting acquainted

The ukulele is made up of a number of mostly wooden parts glued together to form a whole instrument.

Knowing what part is called what will help you find your place. Here are the very basics for now:

basic parts of the ukulele infographic

Detailed parts list

Buying 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 I recommend checking out an ukulele-specific dealer like Hawai’i Music Supply or MIM’s Ukes if you can afford it. They’ll take better care of you and make sure you get an ukulele that’s easy to play, right out of the box (plus you’ll be supporting small, “mom and pop” shops).

Better still, 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 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 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.

My big, huge ukulele buying guide

How to hold it

Your technique doesn’t need to be perfect to get started playing, but you do need to know which end points where.

If you’re right handed, the neck points to the left and your left hand holds it.

how to hold ukulele

Your right hand leans/drapes over so that you can touch the strings between the soundhole and where the neck meets the body.

arm positioning for holding ukulele

Here’s a great video from James Hill on how NOT to hold your ukulele:

If you’re left handed, you have a couple of options. Baz gives a good overview in this video:

I’m left handed. I play right handed. This works out best for me and my students who are predominantly right handed.

Keep in mind that if you do flip the ukulele over and play it truly left handed, you’re going to need to convert other learning resources. There’s just not enough demand for anyone to create dedicated left handed tabs or detailed chord charts (though you can find some simple charts to get started, like this one).


The ukulele usually requires tuning before playing. Unlike a piano which, once tuned, remains stable for many months, if not years at a time, an ukulele easily drifts out of pitch depending on the strings and environment, along with several other factors.

So odds are you’ll need to retune your uke every time you play it.

A typical ukulele is tuned to G C E A from the top string, closest to your face, to the bottom string, closest to the floor.

The uke’s traditional tuning moves the top string an octave above what you would expect. This means the tone goes from high to low to high instead of low to high like most other fretted instruments.

This “re-entrant” tuning lends itself to a compact, bright sound people associate with the instrument.

However, a low-G tuning is gaining popularity for its even, contemporary sound. This tuning mirrors the guitar and goes from low to high across the strings.

Ukuleles are almost always strung with plastic strings. These are usually nylon or variations on fluorocarbon fishing line.

Beware: Since they are built for light tensions, using steel strings can break your ukulele!
ukulele string names color coded

You’ll probably want to start by learning to tune with an electronic tuner. Much more on how to do that in this lesson.

Here’s a visual cheat-sheet:

And a video demonstration:

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.

Making Music

Once you’re in tune, you can start learning a couple chords.

There are a million tutorials on how to play C Am F G on your ukulele. Or Riptide. Or I’m Yours. But these aren’t very user friendly songs for a total beginner.

The best possible place I feel you can get started playing music is with James Hill’s Ready, Steady, Ukulele course (affiliate link). It’s for super beginners and is a course I wish I had put together myself first.

James presents brilliant teaching and quality for only $1 – seriously. I couldn’t believe it at first either. It’s the best $1 you could probably ever spend for your uke education.

I won’t go on about it, but suffice to say, I feel silly trying to put this page together when he’s done a way better job than I ever could assembling a comprehensive guide for beginners.

Pressing frets

When you press a finger from your left hand into the space between the fret wires, you shorten the string. This raises the pitch of the note.

how to press down fret on ukulele infographic

When the frets are called by number, press in the corresponding fret space. If you’re told to press the 3rd fret, press in the 3rd fret space from the nut (the little piece with slots at the end of the fretboard that holds the strings).

You can pick one note at a time to play melodies or play multiple strings at once to strum a chord.

Playing a chord

To play a chord on your ukulele, your left hand is going to hold down a combination of frets or open strings and the right hand is going to brush down through all the strings to sound them.

Let’s start with a one finger chord called C7. To play it, place your index finger on the first fret of the bottom string.

c7 ukulele chord

Now, while holding your index finger in place, brush your thumb down the strings repeatedly. Here are some tips for the thumb brush style:

Once you’ve got the proper motion, try to get a steady beat going. If you can count “1…2…3…4…” evenly and strum down on each number, you’ll be in good shape.

To play a song, we’ll need another chord so that we can rock back and forth between them.

This is F:

f chord ukulele

To play it on your ukulele, hop your index finger up one string towards the ceiling from C7. This will move it to the 1st fret of the second string from the bottom.

Now, add your middle finger on the top string, 2nd fret to complete the F chord. Again, strum this chord with a steady beat for practice.

Chord diagrams are simply a visual straight-on representation of the fretboard. These are helpful for reviewing chords or learning new chords once you’re comfortable with fingering mechanics.

The four vertical lines are the strings, the horizontal lines are the frets. A dot shows where you put your finger.

Here are the two chords we’ve learned so far:

c7 ukulele chord diagram


f major ukulele chord diagram


Keeping a rhythm

Once you’re comfortable playing C7 and F individually, try stringing them together into a chord change.

Continue counting “1…2…3…4…” as you play the chords. Strum C7 for eight counts (two counts of four). Then, jump to the F for eight counts.

More about counting and beats

Ideally, you won’t break timing and can continue counting from “1” when you change chords. This probably won’t happen the first few times you try it. You’ll need to pause and rearrange your fingers. This is fine at first.

As you get more comfortable you won’t have to pause as long between chords.

Once it’s easy to go from C7 to F, try going C7 to F to C7. If you can do this, it shouldn’t be much harder to continue switching back and forth, back and forth every eight counts.

Playing a song

With those two chords, you can play a ton of songs on the ukulele. For starters though, it’s best to keep it really simple.

When learning something new, I find students progress fastest when they are only introduced to one or two things at a time. Doing more makes everything worse.

To keep you focused on strumming and changing chords, begin with easy, familiar tunes such as children’s nursery rhymes. Most of these are already familiar and you won’t have to also learn how the song goes along with playing your uke.

Choose one of the first five songs on this page of songs that only use F and C7. These are the easiest and probably most familiar of the bunch.

For example, let’s use:

Itsy Bitsy Spider

F C7 F The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout F C7 F Down came the rain and washed the spider out F C7 F Out came the sun and dried up all the rain F C7 F and the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again

This kind of presentation of a song is pretty straightforward: Sing the words and change the chords over the corresponding syllable.

Writing out a song this way is easy to grasp, but it has some obvious drawbacks. There’s no solid reference for melody OR timing, so if you don’t know how the song goes, you won’t be able to play it right.

This is another reason why it’s super important to know the song you want to learn really well in your head. My general rule is, if you can’t hum or sing it confidently, you shouldn’t be trying to play it on your ukulele.

While a simple lyric and chord sheet like this does shows where to change chords, it can’t, by nature, be very accurate. If, for instance, I want to notate a chord change in a song happening on the word “love,” it could still happen a lot of places, depending on how I sing the word in the melody.

It could change at the beginning:


At the end:


Over a drawn-out “o” (which isn’t usually written out – “looooooooove” will still look like “love” on the sheet):


Over a drawn-out “e”:


You get the idea, it could go anywhere…

So how do you know when to change? Feel the rhythm (1…2…3…4…) and change on the 1 beat (or sometimes the 3 beat). Almost all chord changes happen at the beginning of the bar.

This keeps what you’re singing and what you’re playing completely separate (which they should be!).

Back to the music! Here’s a quick play-along for Itsy Bitsy Spider using the chords and strum we’ve already talked about (skip to :45):

Whenever you see a chord more than once in a row (like at the end of a line and again at the beginning of a line), just stay on the same chord and keep doing what you’re doing.

In the video above, she has the chords notated according to the strum (one diagram box per strum). This is not typical and you would usually just assume that you continue the strum, only changing chords when shown.


If you want to go down the route of picking melody instead of strumming, check out my intro guide ebook, Step-By-Step. It simplifies picking by keeping all examples on a single string.

There are a number of great tunes you’ll learn to play along with getting a small dose of background theory to help things make sense.

Level: novice to intermediate | 100 pages

An absolute beginner’s guide to picking melody on the ukulele. 14 easy songs and study pieces arranged for one string.

Learn More


What to Practice

Now that you have some ukulele skills under your belt, how do you progress?

Something that I see folks do too often is rush ahead to playing songs that are “cool” or “fun.” I’ve already talked about why “Riptide” and “I’m Yours” aren’t the best starter songs for uke, but even if you learn “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” first, you still probably don’t want to jump there next.

Since you’re just starting out, you want to build a strong foundation of understanding and skill. The player who learns to play something well – even if it’s super simple – sounds better than the player who jumps to something more advanced and sucks at it.

So if I was your regular teacher, I would encourage your to improve what you’ve already learned and slowly add variations to it.

What does this best? New songs! If you wanted to be really thorough, you should/could work through every song you know on the page of songs that only use F and C7.

Having these similar sandbox songs to play with allows you to fine-tune your chord changing, strumming, holding of the ukulele, and other little skills that you don’t want to muddle through.

As you play more of them on your ukulele, they’ll get easier and easier as the movements and muscle memory have a chance to settle in. There’s no rush! Find the joy and fun in creating this simple music.

Once you’re comfortable with everything discussed on this page, you can move on to adding some more chord shapes and working on the next level of strumming.