21 December 2020

A beginner’s guide to playing the ukulele

I recently decided out of the blue to teach myself how to play the ukulele. I had briefly tried a guitar a few years ago but various factors (4 strings vs. 6, smaller form factor, one distant colleague playing the instrument 14 years ago) led me to go for the ukulele instead. Here are some of the things I learned as I started from scratch, including the list of resources I found the most useful as well as the things I wish I had understood from the get-go.

Progression of notes

It certainly helps to know a bit of music theory or to have played the piano to be able to understand whole tones (7 of them in an octave) and semitones (5 of them in an octave, none between B and C nor E and F) and how they map from the linear progression on the piano to multiple strings on a ukulele. The fact that notes overlap from one string to another helps to understand why it’s possible to play the same note on different strings, bearing in mind that each fret corresponds to a semitone; it’s also a method for ensuring the instrument is properly tuned, by playing that same note in different ways and ensuring they sound the same.

The following video is a good exercise in whole tone progression:

Creating the perfect sound

As a beginner, it’s easy to make mistakes: touch strings by accident, not pressing on them hard enough, pressing on them too lightly, pressing too far away from the frets, etc. Avoiding creating “dead” sound simply means that the string is not vibrating and that’s most often because the string is not pressed hard enough. The vibration is created between the bridge of the ukulele and the point of contact of the string with the fret. It’s mechanically easier to ensure contact if the finger is pressing right behind the fret, as opposed to far away from it.

Different types of ukuleles

Four different sizes exist, each bigger than the other roughly by 2 inches in length, from 20 to 30 inches. In increasing order of size, they’re called the soprano, the concert, the tenor and the baritone. The first three are stringed similarly (G, C, E, A strings) while the baritone is lower-pitched (D, G, B, E). It’s usually not possible to tune a GCEA ukulele as a DGBE and vice versa: I learned it the hard way when I bought a baritone-sized ukulele that was actually GCEA stringed. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, any instrument can be stringed to the musician’s preferences. Any chord learned on a given string arrangement can be repeated on another string arrangement: it will simply sound lower or higher pitched – not a problem per se, it will still sound “in tune”, even if it may not be in the key the composer had initially intended it for.

Tuning the ukulele

The ukulele needs to be tuned at the start (and ideally at the end) of each practice session, especially when the strings are new and haven’t been stretched much yet. I use the free app called Ukulele Tuner Pocket but that only works in silent environments (otherwise it will pick up surrounding sounds and corresponding frequencies). The other option is otherwise to use a tuner that attaches itself straight on the headstock: it works by analysing vibrations.

Chords vs. melody

Coming from the piano, I didn’t realise at first that playing a string instrument didn’t necessarily require playing a song note by note, picking each string with one finger. It’s possible for sure, but there also exists the option of strumming all the strings all the time. On the piano, playing a melody through notes and chords always seemed interwoven to me. It’s not the case on the ukulele, which in my opinion makes it easier to start. The obvious limitation to strumming is that it sounds more like the background, accompanying music, which makes singing or humming on top perhaps more necessary or natural (singing is unfortunately not my forte).

A lot of the practice will go into knowing the chords and, most importantly, playing them. One-finger chords are obviously easier than three or even four-finger chords. The other tricky aspect is chord progression, namely moving from one chord to another without interrupting the rhythm of strumming.

There are a number of tricks to make it easier playing those chords and those progressions. For instance, B flat is easiest played with the thumb right behind the neck of the ukulele, acting as a support to the other fingers. The C chord should ideally be played with the middle finger when the next chord is E minor (Em), placing the index finger on the second fret of the A string (since the middle finger is already pressing on the third fret, that changes nothing but prepares to play the Em chord).

Strumming patterns

It’s very interesting to observe that songs sometimes share the same 3 or 4 chords but strumming them differently and at different tempos makes all the difference. For instance, Feliz navidad and The lion sleeps tonight both share 2 of 3 chords (C and F) and yet they sound completely different. Here are some of those strumming patterns:

  • island strumming: ↓↓↑↑↓↑ down – down – up – up – down – up on a 4/4 tempo, so that’s 1 (“and” mute), 2 “and”, (3 mute) “and”, 4 “and”. Used on songs like Feliz navidad and Over the rainbow.
  • variation of island strumming: ↓↓↑x↑↓↑ where x is hitting the ukulele with the palm of the hand, in replacement of the third down stroke which is muted.
  • ↑↓↑x up – down – up – muted (palm on the ukulele) on a 3/4 tempo. Used on songs like The lion sleeps tonight and Jason Mraz’s I’m yours.
  • folk: ↓↓ ↑↓↑ down – down – [pause] – up – down – up on a 4/4 tempo, so it’s important to note that pause in the middle, which makes it different from the waltz tempo (3/4) even though the strumming looks the same (no pause because of the 3/4 tempo). So it should read: 1 (“and” mute), 2 (“and” mute), (3 mute) “and”, 4 “and”. Used on songs like Riptide by Vance Joy.
  • waltz: ↓↓↑↓↑ Down – down – up – down – up on a 3/4 tempo with a first accented down stream, not to be confused with the folk’s 4/4 tempo mentioned just above, even though it looks the same. There’s also an emphasis on the first down stroke (hence the uppercase D). Used in songs like Can’t help falling in love by Elvis Presley or its cover by 21 Pilots.
  • ↓↓↓↑↓↑ down – down – down – up – down – up. Used on songs like Train’s Hey, Soul sister (you can see the ukulele player until the 8th second, and later on in the video too).
  • ↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓ Down – down – Down – down – Down – down – Down – down on a 4/4 tempo, with every other Down stroke using the index finger and every other down one (instead of up) using the thumb on the top string only. Used on songs like Let it be by The Beatles.

Tutorial videos

I progressed quickly by following the very well made kickstarter series on the All for uke YouTube channel, as well as another similar playlist:

Since then, I’ve been practising the same songs and strumming patterns over and over, trying to avoid dead sounds and attempting to play at the correct tempo.



February 2021: here’s a recording of me playing Over the rainbow, two months after picking up the ukulele for the first time.