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. 

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 is generally an indication 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.

Despite the ukulele being an inexpensive and simple instrument, there also does exist a creature known as a "toy ukulele." If your instrument was less than about $30, is plastic, or low-quality particle board, you may have such a thing. Please make sure you attempt to tune your instrument (see below). If it can be tuned and stays in tune, you likely have a sufficient instrument for a class. If you have familiarity with music or a friend who does, also check the frets to make sure they are roughly in the correct place (each fret should be a half step, and playing up them should play a chromatic scale).

Because this has happened more than once: A ukulele has four strings. Something that doesn't have four strings and doesn't have frets is a different instrument, regardless of size, or what someone told you. Please bring a ukulele to ukulele class.

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, 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 is what I recommend.

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 (originally from ukulelestart.com, which I edited to correct some errors) does a nice job explaining where the strings lie on the staff and on the piano. 

These directions assume you are using this web-based tuner.

To tune the ukulele, start with the G string. Pluck it and see what pitch the app says it is. It will say a letter and number, such as A3 or C4. The pitches go from low to high using the musical alphabet, and the numbers tell you what octave it is in. The pitches in order will be C3 D3 E3 F3 G3 A3 B3    C4 D4 E4 F4 G4 A4 B4    C5 D5  etc. There will also be flat/sharp pitches in between some of them. Middle C is C4. When you pluck the string, it will most likely be flat (below the correct pitch), so turn the tuning peg in the direction that makes the string tighter. The app will go up in pitch. Keep turning until it says G4. The arrows on either side of the pitch are for fine-tuning it so it is exactly in tune (green). If it's too high (sharp), loosen the string. Do the same for the C string. Pluck it, see what pitch it says, turn it until you get C4. Do the same for E and A.

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 and/or strings are new, tug each string firmly at the soundhole to stretch it until the pitch is a good 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.

Another option is to go to a local music store and ask someone there to tune it. If they are not busy and especially if you purchase an accessory or book to show some courtesy, they will usually be happy to do this for you.

Please try very hard to come to group classes with the ukulele in tune, and the strings stretched/broken in so that they stay in tune. In online group courses, I do not check tuning as there is nothing I can do about it without spending many minutes walking the student through how to tune the instrument. I permit students with untuned instruments to stay, though their learning is negatively impacted since the instrument sounds wrong despite them doing everything correctly. In my in-person classes, I may quickly tune the instrument if necessary, but cannot keep retuning if the strings have not been properly stretched. In online private lessons, I will check tuning, and I will use the student's lesson time as needed to walk the student through tuning the instrument.

If tuning proves difficult, a fellow Outschool teacher is offering live tuning walkthroughs by appointment for $5.


Please read the following for left-handed students:

There is some debate about whether left-handed folks should play ukulele or other instruments in the opposite hands and string them in the opposite direction. As someone who comes from the classical world and music education 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. While ukulele is a great instrument for social music-making and learning beginning music skills, it is not an instrument that one can typically use to do things like play in youth orchestras, get scholarships to colleges and so forth. If you find your child has musical aptitude, they will probably eventually want to play another instrument. Ukulele skills transfer nicely to orchestral string instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass), which are always played with the left hand on the fingerboard. Learning to play ukulele in reverse from the standard setup means that the ukulele skills will not transfer to these instruments.

In my beginning group ukulele classes (both online and in-person), I require students to play in the standard fashion, in which the right hand strums and the left hand fingers, except in cases of disability. In a group class, if students are playing in different orientations, I would need to give two directions each time I give a direction, and I do not wish to overwhelm and confuse students. Also, nearly all of the students who have arrived at my classes with parents stating they are "playing left-handed" despite my recommendation to play in the standard fashion have not actually set their ukulele up correctly to do this, which means they had the wrong strings and wrong notes positioned relative to their hands, could not learn any correct skills, and were playing incorrect notes that throw off the rest of the class.

Students with physical disabilities/limb differences who need to play in an adapted fashion are very much welcome to contact me privately for a one-time very-low-cost music therapy consult in which I can assess abilities and determine a suitable way to adapt the instrument, generally using readily available household items or low-cost commercially available products. Students are then generally able to join my online or in-person group classes on an adapted instrument. Students who have established a method of adapted playing on their own or with another professional are welcome to send me details, and I can assess what group class would be appropriate.

(This post contains affiliate links. This means I get a small credit if you purchase products via my Amazon recommendations.)