Welina mai! Welcome to Live Ukulele! My name is Brad and in this ukulele lesson I’m going to help you get started playing the uke.
This lesson assumes you’re a total newbie who doesn’t know anything about playing the ukulele. If you have played a little bit however, there still might be some interesting things for you to learn.
Let’s get started!
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 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 lineup. 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 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, different tuning. 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, a concert size uke is a great place to get your foot in the door.
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’s an image of the very basics for now:
Depending on where you live in the world, the word “ukulele” is pronounced differently.
In Hawaiʻi, we say “oo-koo-leh-leh.” I live here so that’s what I use and you’ll see me write “an ukulele” instead of “a ukulele” because that’s what sounds right in my head.
In the USA and UK, people tend to say “you-ka-lay-lee.” You’re not wrong to say it this way, but I encourage you to check out my in-depth article on the subject for some cultural context.
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.
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 a beginner will cost around $100-200 and is often 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
- 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 give you a reference point if you decide to try a different size
This is, of course, not a hard and fast rule and you should get any ukulele that is going to make you excited about learning to play.
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.
Your right hand leans/drapes over so that you can touch the strings between the soundhole and where the neck meets the body.
Here’s a great video from James Hill on how NOT to hold your ukulele:
I’m left handed but 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. You can find some simple charts to get started, like this one, but, for the most part, they aren’t a lot of left hand-specific lessons.
An ukulele usually requires tuning before playing. Unlike a piano which, once tuned, remains stable for many months or 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 re-entrant 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 “high-g” tuning lends itself to a compact, bright sound that most people associate with the instrument.
Ukuleles are almost always strung with plastic strings. These are usually nylon or variations on fluorocarbon fishing line.
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:
As you’re learning to tune, it will take you a while to figure out how to adjust the strings. The more you do it, the faster you’ll get until it takes 10 seconds or less and then you can play!
The great thing about an ukulele is that once it’s tuned you’ve already learned your first chord: the open strings. Strum your newly GCEA-tuned ukulele without touching the strings. 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.
Once you’re in tune, you can start learning a couple chords.
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.
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.
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 with your thumb to play melodies or strum multiple strings at once with your index finger or thumb to create a chord.
To get started picking, 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.
Since strumming chords allows you to sing along with your uke, it’s often the most rewarding and common place to start learning the ukulele.
Playing a chord
A chord is made up of several notes played together to create a harmony sound. This harmony complements the melody (singing) in a song.
To play a chord on your ukulele, your left hand fingers are going to hold down a combination of frets and the right hand fingers are 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 1st fret of the bottom, A-string.
Now, while holding the C7 in place with your left hand, brush the thumb of your right hand 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 – an F chord! It looks like this:
To play F 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 (the E-string).
Now, add your middle finger on the top, G-string, 2nd fret to complete the F chord. Here’s a video example of F:
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:
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…” evenly as you play the chords. Strum C7 for eight counts (two counts of four). Then, jump to the F for eight counts.
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 SpiderF 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.
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):
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.
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.