Fastest way to learn the ukulele

If you have been following this blog, you certainly know that I’ve been kind of crazy about the ukulele for the last three years (though perhaps not as much as George Harrison, in the picture). Now, locked up at home because of the coronavirus pandemic and with more ukuleles within reach than cats in the home of a British spinster (no relation to George), I’ve finally sort of put it together, perhaps for your enjoyment and even moderate edification. The result is no less than what I believe to be the fastest route to learning to play an instrument at a mature age. It may come in handy for the many folks who, perhaps because they comb white hairs already, are in no hurry to leave their hiding holes and breathe the (arguably pathogen-laden) fresh air.

But first, what’s the big deal about the ukulele? Why not the piano, the violin, or even the guitar? Shall I number the reasons?

  1. Because learning to play the ukulele is MUCH, MUCH easier than leaning to play any of the aforementioned instruments. Nobody will argue about the piano or the violin, but it might come as a surprise to hear that the ukulele is MUCH, MUCH easier to learn than the guitar. Having four strings that you can control with the four free fingers of your left hand (right hand, if you are a lefty) means that most folks always have enough fingers. With the guitar, this is rarely the case.
  2. Because it is very hard to play something sad on the ukulele. It puts a smile on your face just to hold it like a baby.
  3. Because it is much cheaper than the other instruments. You can buy a perfectly good ukulele made of fine mahogany for a little over twenty dollars (shipped from China). Before you realize, you may have thirty of them like me.
  4. Because, even if you have a bunch of them, you can make them all sound significantly different from each other—yes, even make them sound sad—by switching the strings around. I have a number of posts on this blog on how to do it.
  5. Because it is small, and you can take it everywhere. Try putting a piano in your carry-on luggage.
  6. Because there’s tons of chords and videos for the uke online.
  7. Because girls dig guys who play the uke, and guys dig uke-playing dudettes. The fact they play the uke shows they have no human respects. They don’t do it to look cool. They are the real thing.
  8. Because George said, “Ukulele is the only real, true instrument.”

So let’s assume I have convinced you that the uke is the way to go. So what’s the fastest way to learn it. Here’s the list:

  1. Get yourself a uke. Any size will do, but for an adult a tenor uke is easiest because there’s plenty of space for your fingers. Tenors tend to sound louder than concert and soprano ukes, too, and they are only marginally more expensive. After the tenor, get yourself a baritone. You’ll see why below. Get yourself a tuner, a strap, and a capo as well. You can find cheap ukes that sound good in Amazon, Ebay, and AliExpress.
  2. Buy a copy of “The Daily Ukulele,” by Liz and Jim Beloff. Most easy songs you want to actually play are there, plus the best succinct advice on how to play well I’ve seen anywhere in print. Forget about lengthy methods. The Daily Uke is all you need.
  3. Watch YouTube tutorials on how to play popular songs. I like particularly those by the late Michael Lynch (ukulele Mike). It’s like your own grandpa teaching you.
  4. Get yourself a pick. After much research, I found that the uke-1 pick by Mick’s Picks has the best combination of softness and durability, and it actually improves with wear (getting hard to find, though). It is hard to make a uke sound good with your untrained fingers, but with a pick it sounds great from the get-go.

Why is this last piece of advice important? Because if you don’t have fun, you’re going to give it up, and if it doesn’t sound good, you’re not going to have fun. The reason why you’re doing this is because you want to have fun with music, isn’t it?

Many will counter that “angels weep when uke players use a pick.” This is a bunch of baloney, and my angel certainly would never stand for it. This assertion comes from an essential misunderstanding of the instrument. The uke is primarily a rhythmic instrument, designed to be strummed, not picked note by note. A soft pick ensures uniformity and control in strumming, though it gets in the way of finger-picking. So, if you want to pick notes, by all means don’t use a soft pick, but then you may want to try the guitar or the mandolin instead (which, curiously, are often played with a pick anyway). But the uke was invented for strumming all the strings all the time, not for finger-picking, as history shows.

Now that you have all the gear, it’s time to learn some songs. Begin with 2-chord songs in the key of C. If you don’t want to browse through The Daily Ukulele, here is a list of its songs classified  by the number of chords in them, from ukuleletonya.com. Some two-chord favorites: “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,” “Clementine,” “La Cucaracha” (oops, not in the book, but you can find it online easily). Three chords: “Oh Susanna,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Folsom Prison Blues” (or any blues, really) and many, many more.

And then you just learn to strum the C chord, closely followed by G7 or F, focusing on switching from one chord to the next without stopping the tempo. Don’t worry about whether a strum is supposed to be “up” or “down.” That’s for robots. You just do what feels good. If you don’t develop an instinct for the rhythm, you’ve failed from the start. Metronome? . . . Nah. If it’s too hard to sing at the same time, just hum or whistle. Uke plus whistling sounds great. You can also try a kazoo if you (and your family) have the stomach for it.

The idea is to make this as different as possible from your typical music practice, to make you come back and try some more, or maybe try a different song among hundreds. I think my family must have been grateful when I finally got the “Lava” song down, only to have to listen to “Five Foot Two” for who knows how long. But I couldn’t help myself: I loved those songs, and still do. Now they ask me to sing them at family get-togethers.

“Somewhere over the Rainbow?” A worthy goal, but too hard for the beginning. Three years later, I still have trouble with that pesky Em chord.

The Daily Ukulele has a fantastic chord chart, but if you don’t have the book, there are plenty of good charts online. I’m partial to this one because it’s so simple, this one because it’s organized following the circle of fifths, and this one, or this one because they are so complete.

The easy chords on the uke are: C, G7, F, A, Am, A7, D7, E7, C7, Dm, Em7, C#dim, C6, which happen to be those most frequently found in Tin Pan Alley songs. Look them up on a ukulele chord chart. Next set to master: G, Dm7, D, Bb, Gm, F7, Em, B7, Cdim, Cm6, which are fairly frequent in the keys of G, F, and D. And then you have the tough ones: F#7, E, Ab, and all the rest up the neck, but by then you’ll be able to hack out almost anything. Too hard in the original key? Get yourself a capo and play in C or G; that’ll cover most situations.

Sounds too tinny when you capo the uke to reach another key? This is where the baritone comes in. Everything in the baritone is five semitones (five frets) down from the other ukes, so standard uke tuning is like a baritone with a capo on the fifth fret. So if you want to play in the key of Bb, which is pretty hard with standard uke tuning, you go down two frets from C tuning on the baritone, that is, you put the capo on the third fret and play as if the song was in C. No capo? Use the circle of fifths, as I explain in this article. When you make a standard-uke chord shape on a baritone, what rings is the chord directly clockwise from it in the circle of fifths. Examples: you make a C chord, you actually get a G; you make a Dm chord, you actually get a Am. Try it: you’ll be surprised how easy it is to memorize.

Did you know that the baritone ukulele has the same tuning as a guitar (minus two strings)? So congratulations, now you are playing guitar, and it took a lot less effort (and until they see what you are playing, most people won’t be able to tell the difference).

To further drive home this skill, here’s an exercise. Do a three-chord progression, like C – F – G7 – C, or some variation of it, and now transpose it to different keys by changing chords rather than using a capo. For instance, going up a whole step, the progression becomes D – G – A7 – D; another three steps and you get F – Bb – C7 – F; another two steps for G – C – D7 – G; two more for A – D – E7 – A. The progression sounds the same, except for the overall pitch, because the relationship between the chords is the same. This works particularly well for folk songs.

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