One of the most fun instruments you’ll find in the music world is the ukulele. It is that cute smaller-sized guitar-like instrument that people love pulling out at parties and get-togethers. What makes it so popular is that on top of its convenience, it is relatively easy to learn how to play the ukulele.
If you have no musical background whatsoever the ukulele is the perfect instrument to start with. You’ll get the education on music you are looking for and have pretty quick results if you put time into practice. With a good guide (like this one), you’ll also be able to work at your own level.
How to Play Ukulele Basics
Holding Your Ukulele
Let’s start at the beginning of your ukulele journey. Here is where you learn the proper hold for the instrument. If you are a fan of the musical instrument (and you likely are if you want to learn how to play it), then you probably have seen Tiny Tim. He’s a musician from the 60s who made the instrument famous. Now his musical style may be in question, but if you look at a picture of him playing, he has the perfect hold for it. Note that he plays left-handed style so if you’re a righty, hold it the same way but reverse.
For a right-handed hold, the ukulele should be cradled by the right arm and held between your body and your forearm. On your right hand, your index finger is extended and used for strumming. You should be strumming at the neck of the ukulele, where it meets the body. If you play the guitar, you might be tempted to strum near the hole of the ukulele but this isn’t right. You should focus on strumming much higher; this is how the vibration works uniquely to the instrument.
Hold your instrument high to your body as you are playing. Again- a guitar is held much lower, but the ukulele has to be higher to get the proper sound. The crook of your elbow is where it should rest. If you are holding it properly you should be able to move either one of your hands away and the instrument should stay in place. Take a look at this video tutorial showing how to hold a uke:
Ukulele Chords Structure and Tuning
If you hold your ukulele up facing you, the strings are outlined as follows:
• The top left is the C
• The top right is the E
• The bottom right is the A
• The bottom left is the G
Inevitably at some point you’ll have to tune your uke. There are 4 notes you should concern yourself with: A, C, E and G. You may be wondering why this is an important step of your ukulele training. The truth is that it is important because properly tuning it will give you the right sound. Sometimes when people first start with a new instrument, they think their playing is bad or they are just “not getting it”, when in reality their instrument just isn’t tuned properly. That’s why it is important to take a few moments to make sure you’re getting the right basic notes.
The first time you purchase your ukulele you should ask someone at the store to tune it for you. You can get a tuner for reference, but once you get the hang of it, you won’t likely need it. That’s why it is not always a good idea to invest in a tuner. The good news is that you can go online for an example of an A, C, E and G note. Play each one and match your ukulele to it. Strum each of the strings individually and tighten or loosen them until you get the appropriate sound. Start with the G-note and then move on to the C-note, the E-note and finally the A-note. When you’re done, remember to go back and make sure that the earlier tuned notes are still calibrated.
Learning How to Strum your Uke
When you strum all four of your strings at the same time you are creating a “chord”. This is where the real music starts. The first chord you should work with is the C-chord, also referred to as the C-major chord. To create it, you press your ring finger down on the A-string. You want to hold it down hard enough so that it’s pressed against the ukulele’s fret. Next, take your fingernail of your right index finger and glide it down across all four of the strings. When you do, you have created your first chord! Be sure that you’re strumming and using your down-stroke where the neck joins with the body of your instrument.
It will take some practice to learn how to hold the instrument properly and then remember which string is which. Here’s where practice will come into play. One good tip to use when you’re getting used to your ukulele is to count. Saying “One, and two, and three” as you strum your uke chords can help you with timing. This isn’t long-term—you’ll stop soon enough. It is just a method of getting used to the timing needed for a cohesive song delivery. It helps your brain to synchronize and that’s why counting is a part of formal musical education. Use it – it may make your ukulele training easier!
While you’re playing your ukulele you may hear some people tell you that you get a “better” sound with a pick. This isn’t necessarily true, but you do get a slightly different sound. It basically comes down to preference. Some people love using picks on their ukulele and others don’t. Try each option and see which ones is easiest for you and which one produces the sound you want.
Be sure when you are strumming that your right index finger stays extended and your nail is facing downward. Focus on giving yourself enough time to learn each chord you work with. It may be tempting to rush ahead and start playing more chords, but resist the temptation. You want the chord play to become automatic. When you need to create a C-chord you want your fingers to automatically know where to go and what to do. To get this automatic response, it takes practice.
Practicing Your Ukulele
When you start formally practicing your ukulele, pick a few easy ukulele songs. Play them and get used to the sounds you find. You want to pick songs that have only a few chords and are relatively short. These are the best to start with because they let you really train your brain and hands to replicate the sounds you hear.
After you are comfortable with the C-chord, move on to the F-chord. This is going to be played by pressing down on two strings (rather than one for the C-chord). You’ll be using your index finger on the third string (from the top) and your middle finger on the first string (top string). When you have both secured to the fret, try strumming to hear the F-chord. Again, play this chord a few times to get used to the finger position and movement needed. This one may take a little getting used to because you need to use your fingers on two different strings. Keep with it though—once you train your fingers it will be much easier!
You can use the “one, two, three” count here too. It should go like this: “one” with a strum, “two” with a strum, “three” with a strum. This is an exercise that will teach you tempo and rhythm. Though you’re new to creating music now, once you get to playing songs these both will be very important.
The Ukulele Chord Exchange
When you’re comfortable with the C- and the F-chord, you next are going to start changing chords. It may be clumsy at first; most likely it will take some time to get used to it, but don’t fear! Start by saying out loud “C-chord” and play the C. Then, say “F-chord” and play the F. The strategy here is to train your fingers to go where you want them to go automatically. At firs the chords (in particular the F) may seem difficult to master. It isn’t! It’s just not what your hands are used to…yet!
While you continue to practice transitioning from C to F and back, be sure that you give yourself adequate time to learn. Automating your brain to play takes time. Saying the name of the chord is a helpful tool that will expedite your learning, so be sure to use it!
Other Uke Chords
Once you start getting used to the C- and the F-chord, you can start working with other chords the same way. The most popular chords you’ll work with are the C-, the F, and the G7-chord. The good news is that learning these three chords is going to take you far in the world of ukulele songs. You already know the C and the F. The G7 involves holding three strings down- the second, third and fourth with your middle finger on second string, the index finger on the third string and the ring finger on the fourth string. This is another chord that you should practice on its own. Because you have to get used to holding down three strings while you strum, this may take some time.
Next, you should start doing more exchanges, only this time using all three chords you know. Say “F-chord” and play it. Say “C-chord” and play it. Say “G7-chord” and play that one. Do this exercise a few times a week to train your mind to handle transitions easily. Vary your transitions from the C to the F, and then the F to the G7 and then the G7 to the C, and reverse. The purpose here is to get your fingers used to transitions and the chord delivery. You want to be able to create sounds as smoothly as possible and that takes practice!
Easy Ukulele Songs
You likely have been looking forward to playing easy songs on your ukulele. Though it’s tempting, give yourself enough time to feel comfortable with chords before trying to tackle one. Once you are good, try easy songs. One great starting point is to learn happy birthday ukulele chords. Another one is “Twinkle, Twinkle”. What makes them so helpful is that they use the three chords you already worked on. They are great tools in helping you to learn your transitions and movements without just strumming one chord after another, which can admittedly get boring.
You will know when you have perfected these songs. You’ll feel comfortable with them and be able to play them without concentrating. Your fingers will know where to move and what to do.
By far the most important thing to do with learning to play the ukulele is to practice. Set aside a half-hour every day where you practice holding it, tuning it, strumming it and eventually playing songs. As you grow as a musician, you’ll find that things get easier. The good news about ukuleles is that they are relatively easy to learn how to play and with some practice, you should be producing the music that everyone loves!