An Introduction to the Ukulele

By Lyle Cady, Music & Arts Lesson Instructor

Tools for Success

Strings Shop Now
Quality strings are one of the most important factors impacting a ukulele’s tone and playability. Professional players typically change their strings every three months or so, while beginning to intermediate players should change theirs about every six months. In addition to improving the sound and feel, changing your strings also provides for a great opportunity to clean your ukulele to keep it looking new.

If you’ve been playing on old strings for a while, you’ve likely forgotten how much better new strings sound to your ears and how they feel on your fingers, so here are a few tips to recognize that it’s time to change your strings:

  1. One or more strings are discolored and are no longer shiny
  2. Dents have formed where your strings have repeatedly made contact with the frets
  3. A string breaks seemingly for no reason or you notice one or more strings beginning to fray
  4. Your instrument is no longer holding its tune

Ask your teacher or sales associate for tips on which strings to buy and how/where to put on your new strings.

String Changing Accessories

Chromatic Tuner Shop Now >
Tuners help keep your instrument in tune and sounding great. Tuning should be performed prior to every playing session, so tuners are an essential tool for every student. When it comes to purchasing the right tuner, there a lot of great options for string players, including handheld and clip-on tuners. I highly recommend clip-on tuners for uke players because they are small and work well in noisy environments because they use the vibrations of your instrument rather than the sound to tune.

Metronome Shop Now >
Metronomes provide a steady beat that helps musicians develop their sense of rhythm in addition to helping players build up their speed by allowing them to work on a passage slowly and to steadily increase the tempo until their desired speed is achieved. Over the years, metronomes have come a long way. More than the bulky pendular devices that may come to mind when you think of this tool, there are now a lot of great compact digital options to choose from that do much more than their wooden predecessors, including ones that provide complex beat patterns and headphone jacks. Regardless of which type is best for you, metronomes are one of the most important practice partners you’ll ever have because rhythm is the one of the most fundamental aspects of music. Without a good sense of rhythm, you won’t be able to play well with others or perform your own music accurately, so make your metronome your friend.

Music Stand Shop Now >
Using a music stand is highly recommended because it helps you to read your music more accurately, play with proper technique and sit or stand with good posture.

Ukulele Strap Shop Now >
Straps are helpful both for standing and sitting with your instrument because they help you to maintain proper posture/position while protecting your instrument from falling.

Ukulele Picks Shop Now >
Although some players prefer to strum and pluck with their fingers, every ukulele player should own a good set of picks. Picks help ensure consistency of tone, protect your fingers from injury and help you play faster and louder. Please note that it is important not to play with picks intended for other instruments as they may damage your strings.

Ukulele Stand Shop Now >
Using an instrument stand helps keep your ukulele safe and easily accessible when you’re not using it. They are a great place to set your instrument down briefly during play or to leave it overnight between practice sessions. Although they do not protect your instrument as well as a hard case, I recommend using them whenever possible because of the out of sight out of mind phenomenon. If your instrument is locked away inside a case in a closet, you are less likely to pick it up and play it, yet if it’s visible throughout the day, you are more likely to remember to practice and to make regular play a part of your daily routine.

Ukulele Case Shop Now >
Instrument cases are essential for safe transport of your ukulele from your home to your lesson studio or to a gig. Prior to purchasing a case, it is necessary to ensure that you are buying one that fits your instrument and your needs. This will likely come down to a choice between a hard or soft case. Both types of cases make your instrument easier to transport and may also provide pockets in which to place your sheet music. Soft cases are the cheapest and lightest to carry, but do not protect your instrument as well as hard cases. And while hard cases are heavier and more expensive, they can withstand the inevitable bumps and falls that will impact your instrument. In dry climates, hard cases also provide a more sealed environment to keep your instrument hydrated. Ask your teacher or sales associate for suggestions on which type of case is best for your instrument and your needs.

Ukulele Humidifier Shop Now >
Humidifiers are helpful in protecting your ukulele from damage caused by changes in climate and are especially recommended for players who live in dry climates or places that experience dry seasons. Remember that whether you choose to humidify your instrument or not, it is always a bad idea to leave your uke in the car or garage where it will experience weather extremes for any length of time.

About The Ukulele

The ukulele is a small guitar-like instrument with Portuguese and Hawaiian origins. Although it has been around for over 100 years, the ukulele has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity with groups like Train and Twenty One Pilots and artists like Eddie Vedder, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and Jake Shimabukuro who are getting a new generation of musicians excited about this great instrument.

The three basic parts of the ukulele are easy to remember because they mirror that of the human body with a Body, Neck and Head. The remaining parts include the Bridge, the Soundhole, Frets, Nut, and the Tuning keys.

There are four different sizes of ukuleles ranging from Soprano to Baritone. The Soprano, Concert and Tenor ukuleles are all in what is called standard tuning, with the notes C, G, E, A. Baritones are tuned the same as the first four strings of a guitar, with the notes D, G, B, E.

Reading Music

In order to be a good musician, it is important to be fluent in the language of music. This includes having an ability to read music and understand basic music theory. The following are four major components of written music that students must become familiar with in order to develop their musicality:

Notation: Ukulele music is written in the treble clef using standard notation and also in a tablature system that uses numbers to represent frets. In standard notation, the notes on the staff will tell you which notes to play on your ukulele. In beginning method books, the fingering is shown each time a new note is introduced. For tablature, the horizontal lines represent the strings and the numbers are frets as shown below in the example below:

Rhythm: To convey rhythm, different shapes and symbols are used. The differences in shapes, beams and stems indicate how long each note should be held. Here is a basic chart explaining note values

Time Signature: The top number in a time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure and the bottom number tells you what type of note will receive the value of one beat. The chart below is a brief summary of some of the most common time signatures you will encounter:

Key Signature: The key signature tells you which notes are changed to flats or sharps throughout a piece of music. Sharps look like italicized number signs and flats look like lowercase b’s. To sharpen a note, you raise the pitch of that note by playing it one half-step (one fret) higher. To flatten a note, you lower the pitch by playing it one half-step lower. A key signature can have anywhere from zero to seven flats or zero to seven sharps. Sharps always build in the following order, known as the Circle of Fifths: F, C, G, D, A, E, B. Flats move in the opposite order, which means that you will never see a key signature with only a D sharp because it would also have to also include F, C and G sharps. This would make the key of E in the chart below:

Good Practice Habits

Play Smart
Good practice habits are essential to the mastery of your instrument. Find a quiet room to play in––perhaps an office, bedroom or empty living room. If possible, use a music stand and an height-adjustable armless chair when practicing. If you cannot adjust the height of your chair, you may want to prop your leg up on a footstool. Once seated, sit with good posture and try not to hold tension anywhere in your body that isn’t necessary. This means that your shoulders should not be tense and that your fingers should be relaxed when not in use.

Many players find it helpful to have a specific goal or goals in mind prior to beginning their practice session. I always recommend starting your routine with warm-up exercises. These exercises get the blood flowing so that you can play your best. They also provide you with an opportunity to focus solely on proper technique. After you’re all warmed up, you may want to start playing the studies and pieces recommended by your instructor in your method book.

While playing new material, you are bound to encounter difficulties and things you can’t play very well yet. When this happens, don’t just fumble through it and move on, but instead capitalize on the opportunity for improvement. As author Denis Waitley says, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat”. With this in mind, I suggest working on these difficult areas slowly and not moving on until you have performed them correctly five times in a row. This creates what many players call a good muscle memory and dramatically increases your likelihood of playing the section correctly the next time you play it. After you’ve finished all your homework, you may want to end your practice session by doing something fun like improvising, composing or playing some of your favorite music.

Play Often
Your ukulele should not be collecting dust all week until it is time for your lesson. For most beginning ukulele students, a reasonable amount of practice time is approximately 15-20 minutes per day. Consistent practice is very important and in fact, it is better to practice your instrument for 15-20 minutes most days of the week than once a week for two hours. Also, new players must first develop calluses on their fingertips and strength in their fingers before they’ll be able to play for longer periods of time. Intermediate players often practice anywhere 30 minutes a day or more and advanced players may play for several hours a day.

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