Starting out on ukulele

Acquiring a ukulele:

The first step in playing the ukulele is to make sure you have a ukulele, and make sure it is sufficient for basic playing. The two most important factors are that it 1) is able to be tuned and 2) that the instrument is in tune with itself. This essentially means that the tuning screws are decent and the frets are installed correctly. For those who have a basic familiarity with musical instruments and want to try to use a ukulele you've acquired from wherever, check that the ukulele can be tuned to the correct pitches and holds those pitches (the strings may stretch if they are new, but the tuning screws should not move out of place), and that playing up at least the first 4-5 frets on each string sounds like a chromatic scale that is in tune.

If you have read that and have no idea what I just said, then what you probably want to do is go to Amazon or your favorite retailer and find an entry-level ukulele with a lot of ratings and a high average rating. This means that the instruments are consistently made in such a way that they stay in tune and play in tune. This one is a nice deal for just under $40, and comes in fun colors if that's your thing. This one is a bit nicer for a bit more money. Both are brands I've played around with, and they're fine. Unless you have a background in stringed instruments and can assess the quality of an instrument, I would avoid anything cheaper. There are a few on Amazon in the $20-30 range that have mixed reviews from people who seem to know what they're doing, with some folks apparently receiving an acceptable instrument and others receiving a defective instrument. A local music store also is likely to have instruments in the $40-$60 range, and is not likely to be selling substandard instruments. I would not purchase one from a toy store or big-box store, unless you have found quality reviews of the exact same brand and model.

Ukuleles come in several sizes. The most common are (from smaller to larger): soprano, concert, tenor, baritone. Most beginner ukuleles are going to be soprano. A younger child will definitely want soprano. An older child, teen, or adult may be more comfortable with concert, which allows for the fingers to be a bit more spread out when forming chords. For beginner lessons, the baritone is the only one that will not work, as the standard tuning for it is different than for the other three. There are also some other less-common sizes and variations on the ukulele. If you are unsure what size you have, measure the string length from the nut to the bridge (the length of the string that vibrates). Soprano is around 13 inches, concert around 15, tenor around 17. A baritone is huge, like guitar size, and is expensive, and is unlikely something you randomly acquired. 

Tuning the ukulele:

For those familiar with tuning instruments, you can match pitch to a piano, tune it to itself by intervals, or whatever your preferred method is. For absolute beginners, you will want to either buy a hand-held tuner, use a web-based tuner, or use a mobile device tuner app. This web-based tuner works well.

The first thing to know about the ukulele is that the strings are out of order. For anyone familiar with a stringed instrument such as guitar, violin, cello, harp, lute, piano, this is going to seem really strange. It is correct though; the strings are not in order from lowest to highest like you expect. This graphic from does a nice job explaining where the strings lie on the staff and on the piano. 

To tune the ukulele, start with either the highest or lowest string. It will most likely be flat (below the correct pitch), so turn the tuning peg in the direction that makes the string tighter until the tuning app says it is the correct pitch and in tune. If it's too high (sharp), loosen the string. If your app is one that shows the octave of the pitch, all of these pitches should be in the fourth octave (G4, C4, etc.). 

Once you have each string in tune, go through and check them all again, as they may throw each other off while tuning. If the ukulele is new, tug each string at the soundhole to stretch it until the pitch is a bit lower, then tune it again. You'll want to tune it every 10 minutes or so while you play around with it. After you've gotten the strings stretched out a bit, it will then stay in tune most of the time and you will only need to make minor adjustments. Try to make sure your ukulele gets to this point before class so we aren't spending class time doing heavy-duty tuning. 

Starting to play:

To play your ukulele, hold the neck in your left hand and strum with your right. There is some debate about whether left-handed folks should play ukulele or other instruments in the opposite hands and/or string them in the opposite direction. As someone who comes from the classical world, my view is that all instruments should be played in the traditional fashion unless someone has a limb difference or other disability that makes it impossible to play traditionally. Think about symphony orchestras that are filled with people – and have a very high proportion of lefties! – who all play their instruments in the same direction. There really is no reason for most left-handers to play an instrument flipped, and it can be limiting in terms of finding instruments and finding teachers who are willing to teach this way.

The ukulele can be rested on the leg, held up against the torso, or supported with both hands/arms. As a folk instrument, the playing posture is less standardized than some other instruments. Find what works for your body size and personal preferences. 

Start off by playing a C major chord, shown in the diagram. Place the third finger (ring finger) of your left hand in the third space between the frets and press the string all the way down. Strum across all of the strings with your right hand. Now can you play a C major chord. Practice getting used to how this sounds and feels, and make sure to re-tune the instrument if the strings are new. You will then use the same approach to learn more chords, then put them together into songs, and before you know it you will be playing the ukulele. 

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