Just picked up your first ukulele? Thinking about starting to play? Read these 10 tips first!
There are quite a few of these “Top 10 Tips” out there on the internets. I’ll try to add something to that with my own personal Top 10 Tips for beginning ukulele players. When I bought my first ukulele I was completely unprepared, but I had the advantage of having some guitar background though. I’ll try to give you some really useful tips that will give you a jump start when you begin playing the ukulele. Make sure to also check out the before buying an ukulele guide and ukulele buying guide.
1. Get a decent ukulele.
This is the most important one of all when you are serious about wanting to learn how to play the ukulele. There are a few good ukuleles in the $100 range, but you can almost be sure that an ukulele under $50 is not that good. The main issue you will have is that it won’t be able to stay in tune. I speak from experience. I’ve bought a $45 “Harley Benton” soprano once and it couldn’t keep the E string in tune for even one strum. So be warned! Check out the “ukulele buying guide” to get the right ukulele for you and if you have the chance, try some ukuleles in your local music shop.
2. Learn how to hold your ukulele.
This may sound stupid but it can help you a lot in the future! Take a few minutes and try some positions either sitting and standing. When you are sitting, you can let the body of the ukulele rest on one of your legs and rest your strumming arm on the top of the ukulele. That way the ukulele neck should “float” in the air. When you are standing you can hold it against your chest and keep it there with your strumming arm. All this may take some practice but it will pay of in the end because that way you will be able to pick up your ukulele and play (even when walking around), without messing around first. In my opinion a strap is unnecessary and it just adds bulk to the ukulele. I had some trouble at the beginning, but nowadays I’m walking around the house, in the garden,… with my ukulele. Small note: don’t hold it too tight! The sound still needs to vibrate properly through the body.
3. Have fun!
The ukulele is a fun instrument. Some may call the ukulele a toy, so what, toys are fun to play with! But it really isn’t a toy at all, it’s a true instrument and you can do wonderful things with it. Also don’t make the mistake by thinking that it is an easy instrument, you will need to practice a lot to master it, but even when you only know the basics it is already so much fun! Enjoy playing it and without knowing, you will improve each and every day.
4. First things first, the basics.
When looking on YouTube and other websites you will quickly learn that amazing things can be done with the ukulele, but like every skill in life you’ll need to learn the basics first. Don’t try to play some big fancy tab when you are just starting out, learn your chords instead. Start with the majors, minors and then go on with other chords. The UkuChords chords chart is perfect for this, since it gives you a very decent overview of all the major chords. You will notice that once you know your chords you will be playing tons of songs without even thinking twice on how to play them. (Also check out the UkuChords Chord Library).
5. Decent strumming makes all the difference.
At the start you’ll probably only be doing simple up and down, up and down, up and down. But after a while you can try to add some slapping and palm muting to really get that chunky, funky and groovy feeling. I won’t explain how to strum in here, feel free to take a look at The Ultimate Strumming guide. Wondering why there aren’t any strumming patterns posted along with songs? Well, that’s a whole other story. This isn’t allowed by the MPA (Music Publishers Association) because of copyright issues. They say that it isn’t allowed to share online how to literally play a song. So strumming patterns (rhythm and tempo) aren’t allowed to be shared at all and I’m afraid that there isn’t much I can do about that. It will really help a lot if you try to figure out the strumming yourself. You will learn playing the ukulele a lot quicker and after a while you’ll come up with your own strumming patterns! Carefully listen to the song and “feel” the rhythm. I know that this isn’t easy, but once you get the basics, it’ll go real quick.
6. Use UkuTabs.com to learn songs.
Hah, this may sound silly but this is actually one of the best ways to learn new songs, since each song on UkuTabs has the chord diagrams for each chord in that song. That way you won’t have to look up the chord diagrams. Also, when you hover over a chord in the song itself, the chord diagram will pop up!
7. Play as slowly as you can.
When you know your basic chords and can do some basic strumming you can eventually start to change between chords. Practice this a lot and with many different chords and at first do it as slow as you can so that you can’t possibly make a mistake. Remember that the most important thing is to be accurate instead of being quick! The same goes for when you are starting out with tablatures. Make sure to get a clean sound with no buzzing and muting. Start with slow and easy songs that have easy chords and not that much chord changes. Gradually speed up and try more difficult songs.
8. Play along and listen to ukulele players.
Already in a band? Perfect! Bring along your ukulele and jam along with your friends. Not in a band yet? No problem either, convince your friends to start playing the ukulele! And if that doesn’t work, start your computer, go online and watch ukulele videos where you can play along. Or marvel at the true ukulele guru’s out there! All of this will help you to feel the ukulele “groove” and feel. Listen and watch carefully for tempo’s and rhythm and without knowing, you’ll be learning how to play the ukulele!
9. Record yourself playing and listen back to it.
I’ve got this tip from the UkuleleHunt (maintained by Alistair Wood). It’s difficult to play and listen to yourself at the same time. Quite often just noticing what you’re doing wrong is enough to fix the problem. It also gets you used to playing infront of the mic – making it less of a big deal when you want to record yourself properly.
10. Fingering exercises!
This might seem a lot. Besides learning chord shapes, learning how to strum, learn how to quickly change chords, etc… you’ll also need to do some fingering exercises. This will help to gradually build up calluses (= toughened area of skin which has become relatively thick and hard in response to repeated friction or pressure). This may sound weird, but this will help a lot in the end, because what you will learn quickly, is that when you start playing stringed instruments your fingers will hurt! Not as much with nylon than with steel stringed instruments though. With the (developing) calluses you’ll notice that will hurt less. I have found the below exercise by Faye Hicks to be a real good one.
Pluck the first string open, then with your index finger on (actually just behind) the first fret, then with your middle finger on the second fret, then with your ring finger on the third fret and finally with your pinky finger on the fourth fret. Do the pinky one twice and then work your way back down: ring finger on third fret, middle finger on second fret, index finger on the first fret, then open. Now move to the second string and repeat the pattern. Then the third string, then the fourth. Run through that a few times at the beginning of each practice. Not only will it toughen up your fingertips, it will limber up your fingers. You can also use this exercise to limber up your right hand too – by practicing different finger picking exercises as you do it. The second thing I found that helped in the early stages of toughening up the fingertips was to play for a short amount of time (e.g. 10 to 15 minutes) several times a days, instead of playing for one long (60 to 90 minute) session.
You need to play at least 10-15 min every day to build up those calluses. So even if you only have time to run through those exercises a few times, do it! Your fingers will thank you later on.
xx. One final tip
Especially for the female ukulele players out there: cut your fretting hand’s fingernails REALLY short! This is a necessity to get a clean sound since you need to press the strings with the very tips of your fingers.