For such a cool little instrument, the ukulele or ‘uke’ hasn’t been around for too long. Originating in 19th century Hawaii, it was an adaption of an instrument called the Portuguese Machete.
From the shores of Hawaii, it soon gained popularity and spread across the world with good reason: its fun to play, sounds great and most importantly for the beginner, it’s relatively easy to learn.
In this beginners guide, we’ll show you how to learn to play the ukulele.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
1. Buy the Right Size
Before you just go out and buy any old uke, its important to know about the different sizes to ensure you pick the right one according to the size of your hands. You don’t need to spend a lot to get something half-decent that’s suitable for beginners.
- Soprano ukulele: The soprano is the smallest and is ideal for children or those wishing for a traditional, bright sound.
- Concert ukulele: The concert size is slightly bigger by a couple of inches and produces a deeper sound.
- Tenor ukulele: The tenor has a length of 26 inches with a bigger fingerboard and is ideal for those with larger hands.
- Baritone ukulele: The baritone size is the largest and produces a much deeper bass sound. This is considered the easier instrument for those transitioning from a guitar.
They are categorized by shape too. Three popular ones are Guitar/Figure 8 (the most common and well known of the shapes), ‘Pineapple shape’ and ‘Boat paddle’ shape. They’re also made from a variety of different woods. A popular option is Hawaiian Koa, which gives a balanced tone. Mahogany is the most well known as it gives the classic sound of the uke without sounding too thin.
2. Hold It Properly
Once you’ve bought your instrument and you’re all set, make sure you know how to hold it properly.
You should hold it in a relaxed manner, with the thumb of your fretting hand behind the neck. Keep the uke upright and held against your belly and make sure your fingers are relatively parallel to the frets.
Try to avoid letting it slide flat onto your lap which makes things harder for your wrist.
3. Tune It
Next up, you need to tune it.
With only four strings, it shouldn’t take long.
The four strings go, from lowest to highest, G > C > E > A. The first string is the A, the second is the E, the third the C, and the 4th string the G.
To tune, buy a tuner (or use an online tuner like this one), pluck each string in turn, and adjust until you have each string in tune.
4. Work Out Some Chords
Once it’s in tune, it’s time to get some simple chords under your belt.
You could start out by trying to remember a ton of major, minor and seventh chords, but from experience, we’ve found its more beneficial (and fun) to master a select few so you can play songs, then add more to your arsenal as you need them.
The four to nail first are C, A minor, F, and G. With these four, you’ll be able to play countless songs.
The numbers at the bottom of the chord diagrams refer to the finger you should use.
1: index finger
2: middle finger
3: ring finger
If you’re a guitarist you’ll find these new shapes quite bewildering (guitar shapes are not going to help you here) but you’ll soon get the hang of them.
Practice each chord separately until your fingers are comfortable, then practice going between them. Try strumming a few times with each one until you can effortlessly go between each one.
5. Play Some Easy Songs
The easiest songs to play first are nursery rhymes like Baa Baa Black Sheep, but unless you have kids to entertain, you’ll probably want to pass on those.
But plenty of ‘grown-up songs’ are just as easy.
In fact, with the four chords you’ve just learned – C, Am, F, and G (see above) – you’ll have a heap of tunes at your fingertips. Here are three popular songs that are worth learning. Pay special attention to the strumming patterns, as rhythm is important too.
1. Let it Be – The Beatles (C, Am, F, G)
2. All Along the Watchtower – Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix (Am, G, F)
3. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2 (C, F, G)
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.