Learn How to Play the Ukulele – Tips for Beginners

Want to learn to play ukulele? Excellent idea!

Many people think they’ve left it too late to learn an instrument. How wrong they are! The ukulele (or ‘uke’) is one of the easiest instruments to learn, whatever your age.

In this easy-to-follow guide, we’re going to lay out the steps to become a ukulele player in record speed.

We’ll walk you through the basics of learning ukulele, from choosing and tuning your first ukulele to learning how to strum a one chord song.

Sound good? Great, let’s crack on then.

Get a Ukulele

guy looking for a ukulele
Guy looking for a ukulele

The most important thing is to – surprise, surprise – get a ukulele!

It doesn’t need to be a new ukulele. Whether you borrow one from a friend or buy a new one, it doesn’t really matter. If you do borrow one, just make sure it’s in good condition and has a fresh set of strings on it. There’s nothing more detrimental to your success than a shoddy-sounding first ukulele!

Ukuleles come in four flavors.

  • The soprano is the smallest and great for that authentic, uke sound. Because of their size, they’re also great for children.
  • The next size up is the concert uke, then the tenor uke which both offer better resonance and projection, not to mention longer scale lengths and more frets (which can help if you have large hands, although the soprano can still be played by large hands).
  • Finally, the baritone ukulele is the largest size and is tuned the same as the top four strings of the guitar (which incidentally makes it easier for guitarists to pick up).
We wrote more about types of ukulele if you want to read more. You can choose any of the above, but I think the best to started on is the soprano as it’s easy to play. Some of the best beginner ukuleles are sopranos too.

Tune-up

woman tuning a ukulele
Woman tuning a ukulele

Next, you need to get your ukulele in tune. With only four strings, it slightly more straightforward than the guitar.

All the types of uke we mentioned are typically tuned to GCEA (known as ‘standard reentrant tuning’). The first (nearest the floor as you hold the uke) is the A note, the second the E note, the third the C note, the 4th string the G note.

One thing that throws beginners off is that G on the fourth string is actually tuned higher than the C and E strings, which is partly what gives the uke its characteristic sound (this is what the ‘reentrant’ refers to).

To tune the strings, use one of the many online tuning apps or use a clip-on tuner. It will take ages to begin with, but bear with it. You’ll get quicker in time, and learning this important skill is what all ukulele players need to master.

Hold Your Ukulele Correctly

man holding a ukulele
man holding a ukulele

Another fundamental thing is learning how to hold the ukulele correctly, which a lot of beginner ukulele players get wrong. If you’ve ever held a guitar, you’ll be tempted to hold the ukulele the same way. Don’t. It won’t work.

The uke isn’t meant to sit on your lap. Try it. It’s not very comfortable.

Here’s what you do:

Hold the lower bout of the ukulele against your body with your right arm (for a right-handed person…if you’re left-handed then the other way). The neck of the ukulele should then sit in the palm of your left hand. Hold the neck, but not too tight.

When you get it right, it’s actually really comfortable and lets you play effortlessly stood up, sat down, you name it.

Learn Chords

So we’ve got the fundamentals down. Now it’s time to learn a ukulele chord or two.

The first chord that beginners should learn is the C chord as it’s so darn easy (literally one note!). Playing ukulele shouldn’t be this easy!

Take a look at the image below. This is called a chord box, which is a graphic representation of the first few frets of the ukulele. The great thing about chord boxes is they show you where to put your fingers (think of them like a sat nav for playing the ukulele).

Left hand fingers:

  • Index finger = 1
  • Middle finger = 2
  • Third / Ring finger = 3
  • Pinky = 4

The vertical lines are the strings (see the string names at the top) and the lines running perpendicular are the frets.

To play a C chord, you press down on the A string at the third fret.

C Chord Maj Ukulele

Notice at the bottom of the chord shape you see the numbers 3? This refers to which finger you should play the note with. So in this case, it’s suggesting you should play it with your middle finger (but that’s entirely up to you).

It’s tempting to learn more chord shapes. But resist it for now. Learn to strum this one chord first.

Learn Basic Strumming Patterns

hipster man strumming a ukulele with a pipe
Hipster man strumming a ukulele with a pipe

Timing is everything in music, and getting a simple rhythm going is way more important than learning a ton of chords.

So with that one C chord, let’s learn some ukulele strumming.

We’re going to start with a simple strumming pattern, a D D D D pattern (D = down). So strum down to a count of four. 1234, 1234, 1234, etc.

To strum, simply use the forefinger on your strumming hand and brush it across the strings. 

 

Ok, let’s try a simple, one chord song.

Play along with me:

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

If you’re a guitarist, you may be tempted to try using a pick. To begin with, don’t. Of course, later down the track you can start using a plectrum (use a hard one in that case) but to begin with, your fingertips are just fine.

 

Next Steps…

Congratulations, you are now a ukulele player!

Now it’s just a case of taking your skills and learning more chords. Start with the basic ones such as F major chord, G major chord, and A minor chord. With the C you’ve just learned, plus these three, you can play hundreds of simple songs.

In time, you will want to learn barre chords and try different strumming patterns too. There’s a growing number of ukulele lessons on our category page for this kind of thing.

Well done, you’ve made the first step. Learning to play any instrument is hugely rewarding, and you’ll surprise yourself just how quickly you progress in the early stages. 

It’s now time to inflict your newfound talent on your loved ones!

man playing ukulele to woman laughing

Good luck!

Ged Richardson

Ged is editor-in-chief and founder of Zing Instruments. He's a multi-instrumentalist and loves researching, writing, and geeking out about music. He's also got an unhealthy obsession with vintage VW Campervans.

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