How to Play the Ukulele
Beginner ukulele players tend to have quite a few options to choose from when it comes to learning how to play. There are many ukulele learn-to-play resources available online in the form of articles and videos - even full websites devoted to learning the uke! Teaching yourself using online resources has its disadvantages, however. Beginner players who struggle finding the time and motivation to practice may choose to join a local ukulele group, orchestra or club. These groups often share resources and tips and help beginner players to maintain the motivation and focus they need in order to advance. The group environment isn't for everyone, however, and some ukulele players may look into hiring a private ukulele tutor for one-on-one lessons. Private tutors are a good way to get very specific, instantaneous feedback on your playing, and often these tutors know of great pieces to learn to help you advance through using different chords as well as harder strum and picking patterns. Whatever way you chose to learn the ukulele, it can be a very rewarding experience that will give you many hours of enjoyment!
Whatever way you chose to learn, there are a few things you should be aware of before you start to play the ukulele. It does help to have a look at the different types of ukulele well in advance of starting to learn, as each type has its benefits and you may find that while you first liked a soprano, you would feel more comfortable with a different kind of ukulele. For example, if you are interested in moving from the ukulele on to the guitar at some point in the future, it is an easier transition to make between the baritone ukulele and guitar, than the soprano and the guitar. This is because of the tuning and style of music that is played by the baritone ukulele. Baritone ukuleles are also bigger, and so there is less of a difference in size between a baritone and a guitar than there is between a soprano and a guitar. Have a listen to the sound that each type of ukulele makes. If you are interested in the more traditional sounding ukes, then you will most likely want to start learning with a soprano or concert. If you prefer a deeper tone, then a tenor or a baritone may be more your style. Check out hybrid instruments like the banjolele and the bass ukulele too, as these instruments can have completely unique playing styles and sounds to a regular soprano.
Do keep in mind when choosing a ukulele that music for the baritone and other less popular kinds of ukes is harder to come by. Also these models are generally considerably more expensive than the soprano (which can be found very cheaply) and the concert. If you have big hands, you may also find playing a soprano awkward as it is such a small instrument. It may be best for you to start with a concert, which is slightly bigger and so has more room for you to move. The concert ukulele uses the same tuning and music as a soprano, so you can still move back to a soprano once you feel you can position your fingers with ease on a concert.
Correct Posture for Playing the Ukulele
As different types of ukulele are so varied in size, there is not one right way to hold a ukulele, however there are general guidelines to help you get comfortable and maintain good playing techniques and a good sound. As ukuleles are quite small instruments it is important that you sit down to play the ukulele to start off with. Otherwise, your muscles may tense up in fear of dropping your instrument - which in itself can cause muscle strain or soreness and a tight, tense sound. It is important to position your body how you feel the most comfortable and relaxed (within reason!); while being sure to maintain a straight back to avoid back strain. In general, the ukulele should be held across the upper chest, or perched on the leg while sitting, whereas the instrument can also be half-tucked under the right arm while played when standing. Your shoulders, elbows and especially wrists should all be as relaxed as possible in order to produce a relaxed, comfortable sound.
To make sure that you have the correct left-hand position, try this short exercise. Place your first finger on the first fret of your ukulele, on the E-string (or equivalent, second string from the bottom). Then with your first finger still on the string, place your second finger on the second fret, then your third on the third fret. All three fingers should be sitting just behind the fret lines in a row all along the same string. Look at the position your hand and wrist make when your three fingers are curled up along the string. Try wiggling your wrist joint slightly to make sure it is not tense, and 'squish' your large thumb muscle to make sure it is 'squishy' and not tight. This hand position is what you should more or less maintain when playing simple 2-3 finger chords and melody lines.
For your right hand, it is crucially important to maintain fluidity in your joints (wrist and elbow) as these joints are what drive a good strumming motion. A good basic strum does not require you to move your arm up and down like a windscreen wiper! Instead, the strum should come primarily from turning the wrist, with a little bit of elbow movement. Keep in mind that the smaller you can make your movements on the ukulele, the faster these movements will be able to become - with plenty of practice of course!
Ukulele Finger Names
For beginner players, the names of the fingers that we refer to are as important to know as the parts of the instrument. Although you may not need to know the names of the fingers of the strumming/picking hand right now, it's best to become familiar with these terms so that you can identify the terminology that is used on written music or tab.
The left hand is known as the ukulele hand, as this hand is the one that controls chord structures and notes (unless you are playing left-handed, in which case the hand names are reversed). The right hand is known as the picking or strumming hand, and is used to strum or pick the strings. The fingers on both the ukulele hand and the strumming/picking hand have different names to differentiate them from one another. On the ukulele hand, the fingers are numbered off from one to four, with the thumb simply being known as the ukulele thumb. The first finger is the index finger, second the middle finger, third the ring finger and fourth the pinky finger. Sometimes in good tab, written music and chord charts there will be little numbers above the notes that indicate what finger you should use to play that particular note or position in a chord. This can be very helpful for beginner players! If the music you are using does not indicate what fingers should be used, then follow this general rule: The first finger should be used on the first (or lowest) fret, the second finger on the second fret, and the third on the third fret.
The finger names on the strumming/picking hand are slightly different. These fingers are known by letter-names rather than number-names, with these letters referring to the name of the finger. The fingers are known as follows: Thumb (T, or sometimes P) Index (i) Middle (m), and Ring (R or sometimes A). The Pinky finger is very rarely referred to in ukulele music as the general rule with fingerpicking is to use one finger per string. As the ukulele only has four strings, the weakest finger - the pinky, is very rarely needed to pluck a string. The letters referring to finger names will often be found in fingerpicking music for the ukulele.
Practical Playing Tips for Beginners
To play the ukulele, you either strum or pick the string, or a combination of both. Strumming is often used as an accompaniment to a melody line, which is most often sung. Picking on the other hand brings out the melody line itself, whereas a combination of picking and strumming brings out both the melody line and an accompaniment to that melody. To strum the ukulele, you put your finger(s) on your ukulele hand (or left hand) in a chord position, and use your right hand or your index finger on your right hand to strike across the strings (side note: some chords require you do not play across all four of the strings). To pick the string, you place your thumb above one string and use your thumb to play a single string. Plucking is a more advanced technique than strumming as it requires increased independent finger movement in the right hand, which can take some considerable time and practice to perfect (see more about fingerpicking in the 'Advanced Playing Techniques' section below.
Timing, speed, and rhythm are very important when learning to play a musical instrument. If the timing of the notes you play is incorrect, it is probably a good idea to slow down and work on the piece until you can play it flawlessly - then increase the speed. A good tool to help with timing is a metronome. Luckily we have an Online Metronome here at Get-Tuned.com that can help you as you learn to play the ukulele.
If you are just starting to learn the ukulele, employ some of the following tips when you practice to advance your skills quicker and easier!
Try singing along with your ukulele (or with a recording) to get a feel for how the notes are pitched. Start by playing a simple melody on the uke and then try to sing it. Doing this exercise helps you to 'tune-in' to the notes you are playing. If you can match the note you just played with the note you stored in your memory then your pitch recognition has become sharper.
Experiment with sound! Don't just stick to one strumming pattern; try different strumming and plucking styles to get the most out of your uke. There is no 'wrong' way to strum, and experimentation with types of strumming will help you to become familiar and confident with your instrument.
Keep your fingers as close to the front of the fret as possible (just behind the metal bar) - if your fingers are far away from the front of the fret, you may produce a 'fuzzy' or unclear sound, especially on the frets closest to the nut, where the size of the frets is much bigger.
Set aside time to practice every day. Even if it is only for ten minutes, getting into the rhythm of playing every day will keep your practice momentum going.
Advanced Playing Techniques
Barre (Bar) Chords - Barre chords, (or bar chords, both are pronounced the same) are where a chord structure can be moved up and down the frets to create different chords. This kind of chord requires that there are no open strings in the chord formation. Simple chords can become barre chords by placing the first finger across all of the strings where the nut would be if the chord was played with open strings. As an example, to play another version of a D chord, you could take the C chord formation and move it up two frets, creating a 'bar' on the second fret with the first finger (G-string 2nd fret, C-string 2nd fret, E-string 2nd fret, A-string 5th fret). Move this formation up a further 2 frets and the chord becomes an E chord.
Chuck strumming - Chuck strumming is where the strings are muted in order to make a percussive sound accompaniment. Chuck strumming can be performed in several different ways, but is usually performed by touching the strings lightly with the ukulele hand so that they do not vibrate as much, and then strumming across the strings with the strumming hand using your fingernails. Chuck strumming is a great stylistic feature to use in some ukulele pieces and is a good technique to learn for ukulele soloists who want to fill out their sound.
Fingerpicking - Fingerpicking is where the fingers of the strumming hand are used to pick the strings individually. On a ukulele, usually the thumb is used to pluck the G -string, the index (i) finger the C-string, the middle finger (m) the E-string and the ring finger (r,a) the A-string. Fingerpicking requires the fingers to move independently from one another, which can be a difficult skill to develop if your fingers are used to doing pretty much the same thing most of the time.
Hammer-ons, Pull-offs - Hammer-ons and pull-offs are techniques commonly used by guitarists. Hammer-ons are where the finger is tapped strongly onto a fret above the current note while the current note is still ringing. The pitch of the current note will then change to the pitch of the fret currently held down. Pull-offs are the same, but in reverse order. As the strings of the ukulele ring less than the strings of a guitar, sometimes a hammer-on or pull-off will require flicking the string again to restart the vibration, however this is seen as a bit of a 'cheaters' way around this technique.
Slides - Slides are where an original note is played and then the finger is slid up the fingerboard to sound a secondary note. Occasionally this technique is used with multiple notes or chord structures, which can be quite tricky! Again, this is a technique that is harder in practice than it is on a guitar because of the tendency for ukulele strings to not vibrate as much.
Vibrato, String Bends - Vibrato and string bends are both techniques used to change the pitch of a note by a very small increment of less than half a tone. Vibrato is where the finger is rolled back and forth on the string creating a small 'shake' or waver in the note. String bends is where the string is held down and stretched sideways. This creates a note that tapers off higher towards the end.