So…you got a ukulele for Christmas (or as a gift at another time of the year)…
You were given a ukulele? That’s great news! Although you were probably not given the world’s greatest ukulele (don’t worry—I don’t own it, either), there is a good chance that your ukulele will be quite serviceable until you buy your next ukulele.
I’m going to warn you right away: owning a ukulele (and liking it) usually leads to something we call UAS, or Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome. As you learn to play, you will learn more about the instrument and want to add different sizes and types…and quality…of ukuleles to your collection.
If you are brand new (or relatively new) to ukulele, the first thing I would do is recommend some reading. Check out Barry Maz’s (The creator of the Got a Ukulele website) book The Complete What Ukulele Players Really Want To Know.
The next thing to do is to check your ukulele to make sure that it isn’t broken. Look it over—even shake it. You shouldn’t hear any rattling or see any major imperfections (unless you were given a family heirloom). The next step is to play up and down the fretboard on each string to make sure that each pitch sounds clearly without a buzz. Press down hard enough that the string can vibrate when you are on each fret. If you hear a buzz, you may want to exchange that ukulele. Buzzing happens—and can be very difficult to diagnose. Sometimes it is just easier to get a different ukulele.
Ukulele set-up is really important. This means that the saddle and nut of the ukulele have been adjusted so that the strings are not too far away from the fretboard (we call this “the action of the ukulele”). Really good ukulele vendors adjust action before selling a ukulele (Mim’s Ukes, Mainland Ukuleles, The Uke Republic, and the Ukulele Site). Many music stores and most Amazon vendors do not set up ukuleles. If your ukulele isn’t set up correctly, it becomes more difficult to play the first few chords, as you have to work much harder to press down on the strings. It is worth checking the action. If the first fret is more than 1mm away from the strings, and the 12th fret is more than 2.65mm away from the strings, your action is probably too high. If that is the case, you have some options. You can try to adjust the action yourself, you can take it to a luthier (instrument repair place), or return the ukulele and order one from a vendor that sells them set up. I understand that may not be desireable at the moment—but it makes a difference, and is worth the wait. Let’s make this abundantly clear: $1500 ukuleles need a proper set-up just as much as a $50 ukulele. Ukuleles are meant to be able to be adjusted. There are some Amazon vendors that are doing well with set-ups, such as Enya Ukuleles and I had good experiences with the Aklot brand.
The third thing to do is to tune your ukulele. Chances are that you were given a soprano, concert, or tenor ukulele. These ukuleles are usually tuned GCEA (some Canadian schools tune too ADF#B). Tuning is simple…but hard. If you received a tuner with your ukulele, use the tuner. If you didn’t…try some apps. I recommend the Kala App Tuner, John Atkins (the Ukulele Teacher on YouTube) has the Ukulele App, and Elise Eklund another YouTube personality) suggests the Tunefor Ukulele Tuner. There are MANY YouTube videos about tuning ukuleles.
Most ukuleles—particularly starter ukuleles are tuned in a “reentrant” method where the 4th string, the string closest to you as you hold the ukulele, is the G above middle C, where the next 3 notes are middle C, E, and A. If you have played guitar, this is a little weird—but you get used to it. Having your ukulele in tune is really important. Also…ukulele strings are made out of very stretch compounds—so they stretch and go out of tune for quite a while before they settle down—and even then, you’ll need to tune regularly. At school, I tune over 250 ukuleles each day…sometimes more. My advice: go slow, try to move up to pitch (stretching the string instead of making it looser), make sure you are tightening the right strings (it happens to all of us). And once you have it in tune, keep tuning it. Play for a while…then tune. Play for a while…then tune. And so on.
If you are a left handed player—you have a choice to make. You have to decide whether to change your ukulele to be left handed (usually swapping the strings in the opposite direction) or to learn how to play right handed. It is your choice…but if you decide to go “lefty,” you need to learn how to change strings.
As for chords, I would encourage you to follow the sequence I have written about on this blog before:
C (or C Major) -> F (or F Major) -> G (or G Major) ->G7 -> Am ->Dm -> Em
These seven chords can play a huge percentage of the music that is out there.
There are MANY videos on YouTube showing how to play these chords. Learn them. Learn how to switch between them. And then start putting them into songs. That’s when you can follow YouTube accounts like The Ukulele Teacher, Elise Eklund, Cynthia Lin, Ukulele Underground, or the play alongs created by Dr. Jill Reese and myself (UkueleTenor). Or go find ukulele song sheets for the music that you want to learn, such as at ukutabs.com.
As you play and learn, you will add other information to your knowledge of the instrument, such as care and feeding of your ukulele, ukulele maintenance, and more.
Congratulations! Enjoy your new ukulele!
- Posted in: Nuts and Bolts (How To)