Guitar vs. ukulele

I am the kind of guy who has a musical interest but not a whole lot of musical talent, or at least not a whole lot of musical training. I have begun to learn guitar many times, always to give up with some frustration or another. Sometimes it was the pain in my fingers, other times the inability to make any chords that sounded half decent, still other times said fingers getting tied up in knots as I attempted to move from one chord to another. But I think I’ve found a way to end this. If you have a similar history, you may want to read on.

No, I’m not ending this by smashing the guitar into the nearest wall. I took up the ukulele instead. But before you start laughing let me tell you a few things the ukulele has going for it:

  1. It’s a lot smaller, so you can carry it around, even on trips.
  2. It’s got only four -4- strings. This is fundamental, as we’ll see shortly.
  3. There are lots of helpful instructors on YouTube, and pretty much all of them wear wedding bands in their ring finger. Can’t say the same about guitar instructors. Irrelevant? Perhaps not.
  4. As one of those instructors put it: “can’t make sad music with a ukulele.”

Since the size advantage is obvious, let’s begin with the number of strings. The next two pictures are chord charts for guitar (left) and baritone ukulele (right). I’ve chosen the baritone because it’s tuned identically to strings one through four of a guitar. Chords are important for me because my main purpose is to accompany my singing (I have a decent voice, and pretty good technique after years of karaoke practice, but don’t take my word for it).

I hope the pictures are detailed enough to show that many of the guitar chords (in fact, all of them except E and its variants, and a couple of G’s) include at least one “x” at the top, indicating a string that is not to be played. That’s right, folks, the guitar seems to have at least one too many strings when it comes to making chords. This means that you need to be careful with your strumming, or else you’ll play notes that won’t sound good. Forget about strumming down or up reversibly as in the ukulele. Revelation number one.

Revelation number two comes from music theory, which states that a base chord, major or minor, is made of three pitches. For instance, C major is made of C, E, and G. More complex chords use four pitches. Example: C7 includes C, E, G, and B flat. Those pitches can be on different octaves, or be arranged in different order pitch-wise, but the quality of the chord, and therefore its use for accompaniment, is not affected very much. Therefore, it is enough to have four strings. Five strings implies that two of them are putting out the same note (perhaps on different octaves); six strings rises that to two duplicated notes, which do add some resonance to the chord but are ultimately dispensable. And I don’t have that many fingers to spare.

So why do guitars have six strings? You may ask. Wikipedia says that the first guitars had only four, and the top bass strings were added later in order to extend their range. I understand this as using it as a solo instrument, which carries the melody. Violins have four strings but they are a fifth apart from each other, so in total they cover 7*3 = 21 semitones, which is almost two octaves, plus the range of the first string, which is typically a little over one octave, for a total of nearly three octaves (as a comparison, a 81-key piano spans seven octaves). The guitar is tuned in fourths except for a major third interval between the 2nd and 3rd strings, so the range covered by open strings is 4*5 + 4 = 24 semitones or two octaves, plus roughly one extra octave by fretting the 1st string. The baritone ukulele would span only 2*5 + 4 = 14 semitones plus that extra octave. In other words, four strings tuned like a guitar gives a smallish two-octave range of notes, but adding the two extra strings brings it in line with the violin and other solo instruments.

But in my case, I want my voice to supply the melody. I’m not interested in a solo instrument. The two extra strings of the guitar are superfluous for me, even a nuisance. I’d better stick with the ukulele, provided I can make it sound serious enough when necessary.

Which brings point 4 and, indirectly, point 3 as well. It’s really hard to sound sad with a ukulele. People start smiling before you touch any strings. Maybe it’s that baby guitar look, and how it seems to coo rather than speak. And the rings? It would involve a rather complex social study, but let me speculate that perhaps ukulele players are happier people who play in order to share their joy, and it’s nicer to stick around them, hence the much higher proportion that seem to be happily married. I don’t say this doesn’t happen with the guitar, mind you, so maybe their wedding rings impede the correct fingering of the cords?

So, are ukulele players happier because they play that instrument, or do they play the ukulele because their natural mirth attracts them to it? Perhaps both, or perhaps they are simply less frustrated, as in my case. In six months dabbling with the ukulele, I have made more progress than in decades pursuing guitar. Now I got myself a baritone uke, which hopefully will server as a transition to playing guitar.

But maybe not. Maybe I’ll be able to play something sad with only four strings, and then the guitar will become superfluous forever. I’ll keep you posted.

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