Learning a new skill is the best, but maybe you don’t have a ton of time to dedicate to taking a class or working diligently for weeks on end. Well, fear not! The humble ukulele is here to help.
I taught myself to play the ukulele back in my undergrad years (yes, that may be a bit of a stereotype), and found it was an awesome stress reliever and break from my studies. What could be further from studying Latin than playing a cute tiny guitar? It ended up being a hobby I really stuck with and I would have friends over and give them lessons, too.
For this post, I want to go over the basics to get you started learning the ukulele in just a single weekend. Yeah, it’s possible! I’m going to walk you through:
- picking out an instrument
- learning the chords
- finding music you like
- places to find further instruction
It’s really as simple as that.
I’m totally endorsing this hobby to people not just because I love it, but because its an easy and cheap way to start learning a musical instrument. I think there are a lot of perceived barriers to learning to play music in general – whether that be how expensive lessons are, or how much instruments cost, or how long it takes to start making pleasant sounds come out. I mean, I guess there’s also the recorder as an easy-to-learn option, but nobody wants to listen to that!
How to pick out your ukulele
My first ukulele was a really simple $20 yellow number from a local music chain store. It really did the job well and I wasn’t even inclined to upgrade – rather, I was given a really nice one from Hawaii and so my yellow ukulele was delegated the “student” instrument for the lessons I gave.
The two most important things to look for in a really basic ukulele is string tension and a wooden body. String tension means that the instrument isn’t going to go out of tune on its own – cheap toy instruments meant for kids will do this. And a wooden body is important for the sound quality: a plastic body won’t sound right, and the notes won’t reverberate properly.
If you get really into the hobby, you can always consider picking up some nicer strings or just upgrading the whole ukulele to something in the $50-60 range.
Also, there are different sizes of instrument. The traditional ukulele is known as a soprano, because it has a high sound and small size. Then there is a concert, which is slightly larger, and the tenor, which is slightly larger still. The larger size is a baritone, which can sound a lot like a guitar, in my opinion!
There are some other odd sizes, but those four are the most common. I’ve owned a soprano and a baritone and they are wonderful for different reasons. And different songs sound good on them! I will say, if you’re concerned about how small the soprano is (if you have big hands), you’ll definitely find the baritone easier to navigate.
Tuning your ukulele can be done using a fancy little device that most music stores carry that listens to each string and tells you if its too high or low. But a much simpler way is to use a website that plays a continuous note for each string – just search for “online ukulele tuner” and find one that works for you!
Learning the Basics
Thanks to the fact that the ukulele has just four strings, it’s really easy to figure out the basic chords.
The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to simply google “ukulele chord chart” and start practicing based on the shapes that you see.
Chord charts are laid out as if you were looking at the instrument front-on. So, the four vertical lines represent the four strings, from left to right.
The horizontal lines mark out the different frets. Frets are where you put your fingers (just slightly above it, usually) to hold down the string to change the note.
The dots on the chord charts indicate where you should be pressing down for each chord. You can use whatever fingers you want to hold them down, but typically there is a way that is most comfortable. You can figure that out for yourself – don’t worry too hard about “rules” like that!
Two of the most common chords are C and G. They are in nearly every song, so they are a good place to start learning chords.
These are example of some easy chord charts – they’re from Ukulele Chords, which is a good site for thorough info about different chords (in case the name didn’t give it away!)
The C chord (first image above) is very simple. You just press down on the fourth string (closest to the right) on the third fret. Strum all the strings, and you’ve played a chord!
Practicing chords is a good way to get familiar with them. But I think the best way to learn is by picking a song that you know and like – a really simple one to start – and giving it a try! If you can sing along with it, you’ll know what sort of sounds your ukulele should be making, so you can easily tell if you’ve got a finger out of place or a string out of tune.
Finding Ukulele Music
Books of sheet music probably still exist somewhere out there in the world, but music websites really have taken over the game.
The most popular place to find ukulele music is the Ukulele Tabs website. Users upload their interpretations of thousands of songs as either a tab or chords. Tabs are slightly more tricky, since it involves playing individual strings for a more complex melody, so that’s something to give a go once you’re more comfortable with the instrument. Look for songs listed with the word chord.
On this site and others, the chords required for a song are listed at the top of the page with a little graphic showing the specific fingering. So there’s no need to continually reference back to a guide! It also helps teach you new chords if a song requires a particularly unusual one.
Here’s a little secret trick that I use all the time: look for a “transpose” feature. This means that the song will be pitched up or down a step. Sometimes, if the chords for a song are too complicated, you can look at it in a different pitch and find that it’s much easier! I do this if a song has too many minor chords that I’m not good at reaching for.
Often, you’ll find that you can use guitar tabs for the ukulele. The chords won’t be played the same, but a C usually translates to a C on the ukulele too. This is just a helpful tip in case you’re looking for a particular song but can’t find the ukulele chords for it; sometimes it works out great.
You can also try noodling around on the ukulele yourself to figure out songs! Knowing the melody and the lyrics can go a long way to figuring out a close approximation of a song.
If you need even more instruction than this, there is a world of learning to be found on youtube. Just searching for basic ukulele lessons can reveal a lot of helpful tips. In particular, you can find videos to help with:
- tuning your instrument
- methods of improving your speed
- different strumming patterns (listening to these really helps to understand them!)
- how to start working from tablature
You can also find inspiration from some famous ukulele players, like Israel Kamakawiwwo’ole and Jake Shimabukuro.
A final tip – I found it super helpful to use my laptop to record myself playing, then listen to it back (and sometimes play along). It really gave me a chance to study my own playing style and to see my progress as I went! You don’t have to share it with anyone – but it’s fun if you do!