Introducing the Ukulele

Glenn Sutton teaches guitar, electric bass, keyboard, theory and improvisation for over 30 years, he specializes in rock, blues, jazz, Latin, Brazilian, classical, country, and folk.

A basic introduction to Playing the ukulele

Whether you are a proficient guitar player looking for a fun new way to play, or you are brand new to the idea and feel that a ukulele might fit your style, the ukulele is wonderful little instrument to learn. This article will focus on introducing the instrument to beginners.

The Basics and Benefits

ukulele

Ukulele

The ukulele (pronounced you-ka-lay-lee), also called a uke, is an acoustic stringed instrument very similar to a guitar, but much smaller and with fewer strings. It originated in Hawaii. A typical uke has four strings made of nylon, though in the past they were made of gut. Traditionally, a ukulele is made of wood, the least expensive being laminate.

There are many benefits to playing the ukulele, these are but a few:

  • Ukes are lightweight and extremely portable.
  • Because of their small size, ukes are good for children and those with small hands/fingers.
  • They are relatively easy to learn and there are plenty of resources to help you do so.
  • Ukuleles tend to be fairly inexpensive and easy to find. Unless you are going nuts, you can get a decent uke for between $50-$100.
  • They are not complex in their construction and are easy to maintain.
  • Since you play without straps or picks, there are very few accessories to purchase, outside of a tuner and possibly a case.

Finally, it is a happy-sounding instrument that pairs well with nearly every type of music.

Ukulele Sizes

Ukuleles come in four basic sizes. The one you will see most often is the “standard” or soprano, and the body (nut to bridge) is 13 inches long. That’s 21 inches total. This is the size that was originally developed in Hawaii and that you will see the most often.

Other sizes include the concert, tenor, and baritone. Each increases in size from the next by 2 inches, and each size up (as you would expect) has a deeper, larger tone. The baritone is almost full-guitar size and doesn’t much sound like a ukulele anymore.

Holding the Ukulele

Most ukuleles are shaped exactly like any acoustic guitar, somewhat like a figure 8. Because they are much smaller than a standard guitar, it takes a little finessing to learn how to hold one properly without dropping it or making yourself too uncomfortable.

When playing a uke, you do not use a strap. Hold the back close – but not tightly! – to your body, up high on your waist or near your chest. Wrap your right forearm around and balance the ukulele in the crook of your elbow. Rest the neck between your left thumb and pointer finger. If you hold it correctly, you should be able to remove one or the other of your hands without it dropping it.

Try not to hunch. If you are holding it correctly, you won’t have to.

The idea is to touch it as little as possible so as not to cover or drown out the sound. It takes a little practice, and we’ve all dropped a uke or two when standing up at the beginning, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Eventually, it will just “click” and you’ll get it.

Tuning your Ukulele

The most common tuning is for a ukulele is called “C6-tuning.” The strings in order are: G/C/E/A. The sound the strings make, when tuned correctly and played top to bottom, is the “My Dog has Fleas” song that you may have heard before. You can get an inexpensive blow-tuner at your music store or download a free app that will have these tones specifically lined up for tuning your uke. You may also use an electronic tuner or your piano.

You are in Good Company

Learning to play the ukulele is a little simpler than the guitar and yet is very rewarding. Many guitarists learn to play it just to have a fun addition to their musicality. Some notable guitar players that also plucked a uke include three of the four Beatles (Georges Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney), Elvis Presley, Mick Fleetwood, Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend. See? Tiny Tim is not the only ukulele player!

Check out some of our other articles to learn more about this sweet little instrument.

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