How to Play Ukulele – A Complete Guide for Beginners

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:

Decide on Type / Size

Before you just go out and buy the first one you see, it’s important to know about the different sizes of uke so you pick the right one to match the size of your hands.

The four main types are:

  • Soprano: The soprano is the smallest and is ideal for children or those wishing for a traditional, bright sound.
  • Concert: The concert size is slightly bigger by a couple of inches and produces a deeper sound.
  • Tenor: The tenor has a length of 26 inches with a bigger fingerboard and is ideal for those with larger hands.
  • Baritone: 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.

ukulele sizes

They are categorized by shape too. The three most popular are:

  • Guitar/Figure 8 (the most common and well known)
  • Pineapple (shown in the pick above)
  • Boat paddle

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.

For further reading, check out our guide to the best beginner ukuleles here.

Tuning

Next up, you need to tune it. With only four strings, it doesn’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 the strings, either buy a tuner or use an online tuner (many guitar one’s will work for uke too).

Pluck each string in turn, and adjust until you have each one in tune.

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.

C, Am, F and G

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
4: pinky

fingers numbered

 

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.

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)

 

Summary

So there you go, that’s the basics to learning the uke.

Make sure you know how to hold the instrument properly too. 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.

It’s also good to study up on the anatomy of the ukulele so you’re familiar with what all the parts are called – so that when you rock up to your local uke jam you aren’t clueless when someone blurts out ‘woah, your saddle needs adjusting’.

Best of luck!

Ged Richardson

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.