Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A young person’s guide to the ukulele

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Marilyn Monroe with ukulele

A few weeks ago, I was browsing through an old copy of the Guinness Book of World Records when I came across an entry for the easiest and most difficult musical instruments, as determined by a panel of experts. The hardest instruments were the French horn and oboe; the easiest, the ukulele. I noted this fact with some interest, since I’ve been playing the ukulele a lot, and although I’m not sure it’s really the easiest instrument to learn—I suspect that the real title belongs to the musical saw, which I’ve always wanted to try—I’ve got to admit that once you dive into it, it is pretty easy, although this can be hard to believe if you approach it without much in the way of earlier musical experience. I’ve been playing it off and on for about three months now, and while I’m not exactly at a point where I can give any recitals, I’ve performed it with pleasure for my family and friends, and I’m certainly good enough to entertain myself. As someone who loves music but has never played it, I wouldn’t have thought this was possible, and I thought I’d take a minute today to share some of my discoveries for other aspiring ukulelists. (For those of you wondering what any of this has to do with the larger themes of this blog, don’t worry—I promise that there’s a point.)

First, you need to get your hands on a ukulele. (It’s like the famous recipe for rabbit stew: “First, catch one rabbit.”) I’ve been playing on a Lanikai LU-21 soprano uke, which comes highly recommended by enthusiasts and ships from Amazon for $89.99, and I couldn’t be happier with it. You’ll also want to pick up an electronic tuner—mine is a Snark SN-6, which costs about twelve bucks and is worth every penny, especially to the ears of your friends. Once you’ve obtained and tuned your ukulele, the next thing you’ll do is teach yourself four chords: C, G, F, and A minor. Fortunately, you’ve got a universe of online resources available, and a quick search uncovers dozens of instructional videos for every level of expertise. This happens to be the one I used for my first three chords, but there are plenty of other options. You’ll also want to learn a basic strumming pattern. Again, there’s a world of possibilities out there, but I’ve found that if you’re playing for your own amusement, it’s best to pick one good pattern and stick with it until it becomes wired into your fingers. I’m a fan of the calypso strum: it’s a little tricker to manage at first than some of the simpler ones, but infinitely more useful, versatile, and satisfying once you’ve gotten the hang of it.

Arthur Godfrey's ukulele

Now you’re going to practice those four chords, getting to the point where you can move between them easily while keeping the strumming pattern going. But you’re not going to switch between chords at random: you’re going to focus on a handful of chord progressions, particularly variations of the I-V-vi-IV progression: C, G, Am, F, and so on around the horn. You’ll be doing this, above all, because it sounds good—there’s a reason why just about every pop song seems to follow the same basic progression—and because you want these progressions to become a matter of muscle memory: once you start playing songs for real, you’ll find yourself coming back to the same combinations again and again, to the point where your fingers are playing the chords before you’ve had a chance to think about it. But that’s all in the future. What really matters is that once you’ve become reasonably accustomed to those four chords and that one strumming pattern, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to keep doing it. The ukulele, above all else, is a fun instrument, and the fun starts surprisingly soon, once you’ve devoted a few hours to learning a set of simple skills. (I’d estimate that it probably takes ten to twenty hours of practice before you’ve internalized the motions enough to start to sing along.)

And the fun is the crucial part. What playing the ukulele has taught or reminded me is that it’s easiest to devote energy into learning something new once it’s become a pleasure for its own sake. Those early steps are the hardest, and in fact, I owned my Lanikai for years before really picking it up, simply because even playing a G chord seemed so daunting. Once I’d gotten past those essentials, though, I found that I wanted to learn more, and even if I stumbled along the way, I could always fall back on those few simple chords if I just wanted to noodle around. And there’s no hurry. Gradually, you’ll want to add more chords to your repertoire: I’d start with an E minor, just because it lets you hack your way through “Over the Rainbow,” which is the only song that anyone will ever request by name. D, D minor, A, and Bb will vastly expand the universe of songs you can play, all the way up to the dreaded E chord. (This list gives you a good sense of the most common chords, although I’ve found that it’s best to learn chords as specific songs require them.) The secret, if there is one, is to master a few basic skills, focus on entertaining yourself, and then move on to learning a few things you like. And it doesn’t just apply to the ukulele: it’s true of any form of art, writing included. Once you’ve started to love the instrument for its own sake, the rest is nothing but play. And you’ll learn more than you ever thought you could.

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2014 at 9:41 am

One Response

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  1. Reblogged this on Nearly Named Elvis.

    nearlynamedelvis

    February 3, 2014 at 2:27 pm


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