Frequently Asked Questions About the Ukulele
Here are some answers to basic questions with a lot of links (click them all!).
Is the Ukulele a “Real” Instrument?
This is a fair and great question, and if you are asking about it, it means that you have an open mind about it
I grew up during the 1970s and 1980s, where the ukulele was either seen as a Hawaiian folk instrument (e.g. Don Ho) or a freakish toy (Tiny Tim). Ukulele wasn’t taught in schools, and the ukuleles that you saw (on the Mainland USA) were basically toys. While the ukulele was a popular folk instrument in the 1920s and 1950s, it was certainly out of favor until the mid 2000s. While the popularity of the ukulele was mixed in other countries (e.g. the impact of George Formby in England), generally popular American music (or at least the music companies) sets (set) the tone for global popular music. Ukulele remained a part of the educational system for many Canadian schools under the method of J. Chalmers Doane.
Meanwhile, people in Hawaii kept playing ukulele and including it in their music–some of it nationalistic in nature–and why shouldn’t it be?
In the mid-2000s, a few things happened that brought the ukulele back to the attention of pop culture. First, Jim Beloff started making resources for the ukulele and his sister and brother-in-law started their own ukulele company (The Magic Fluke Company). Second, Jake Shimabukuro, the ukulele virtuoso, posted a performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from Strawberry Fields in Central Park, New York (across the street where John Lennon was shot) on YouTube, and the video went viral. And then artists started using the ukulele sound in a lot of music, and it also started appearing in commercials as background music. Since that time, a number of ukulele pop-culture virtuosos have emerged (James Hill, Taimane, Aldrine Guerrero, Kalei Gamiao, Abe Lagrimas, Jr., Tobias Elof, and more).
While you may not play like Jake Shimabukuro…who has played since he was four years old…you will find that you can make music with the ukulele, either as an accompaniment instrument or as a solo instrument. So yes, it is a “real” instrument.
Why is the ukulele so popular as a musical instrument?
- Inexpensive: While I wouldn’t suggest the purchase of a $20 ukulele, there are many ukulele kits that I could recommend with confidence in the $50 range. There is no other multi-purpose instrument that you can get into for so little money.
- Not intimidating: The ukulele is small and has four strings. We have four fingers. How hard can it be? In reality–it can be VERY hard, but you can start playing simple chords in five minutes.
- Play the songs you know: Nearly all the songs you sing can be accompanied by a ukulele.
- Take it with you: The ukulele can travel anywhere and not be a burden. Try taking your piano with you. Or your full size guitar for that matter.
- Ease of care: While you do have to take care of a ukulele, many models are made of laminate wood or plastic and require little to no maintenance. That said, it doesn’t hurt to learn how to take better care of an instrument.
- Tons of resources: While individual lessons can help, you really can learn to play the ukulele through the many resources–free and paid–that exist.
- Social: The ukulele results in getting to know other ukulele players, often singing and playing with those other players in social groups.
- A culture of happiness: Ukulele culture tends to be a very low-key, happy group of people that are graceful to each other (most of the time).
- Fun: It is great fun to be able to play your own music and share it with others!
Why does the ukulele fit in music education?
Most of these are mentioned above…but here is the list…
- The ukulele is relatively inexpensive. Schools can afford a complete set for less than the price of some other common instruments (e.g. tuba, bassoon)
- The ukulele is popular. You can’t turn on the radio without hearing a ukulele sometime within the hour (unless you are listening to the classical, hard rock, or oldies station).
- The ukulele isn’t easy, but it is less complicated than guitar. The ukulele, regardless of scale size, has four strings (instead of six) and is significantly smaller.
- Success is immediate. A number of basic chords can be learned quickly if a student applies themselves
- There are thousands of free resources. The ukulele is a rare instrument that can be learned through YouTube.
- There are many paid resources. Music publishers, as a business, will follow the money. Your local music store will have ukuleles on display as well as ukulele music.
- The ukulele can be used to meet all state and national standards.
- Singers can use the ukulele to accompany themselves. My research indicates that this is how the ukulele was originally used (rather than as a solo/virtuoso instrument).
- The ukulele can be a transition instrument to guitar, or to baritone ukulele and then to guitar. This is a smooth, logical transition. That said, you don’t need to move to guitar, either.
- You can always get better, and there are always more skills to add. Have an advanced student? You can give them materials to keep challenging them while working with others who need more help.
- You can add a ukulele elective or unit in your school for little cost but excellent results, using existing resources.
- The hope is that students will play music of their own choosing on their own time.
What kind of ukulele should we purchase for our school?
In terms of scale size, I think your best best for most applications will be concert ukuleles. If necessary, you can buy a few sopranos and a few tenors, but a concert ukulele is a great middle ground to start with.
In terms of material, if you teach in a school where you have cold winters or hot summers, it is beneficial to NOT have solid wood instruments. You should consider laminate or plastic ukuleles. Laminate ukuleles can suffer “fret creep” on fingerboards, as the fingerboards are still made out of solid wood. An elementary teacher recently asked about cleaning ukuleles during cold and flu season, and with that, it’s hard not to recommend the Outdoor Ukulele (soprano and tenor only) as you can wipe it down with a cleaning wipe and it won’t impact the instrument as well–while still having a ukulele with great action and a good sound. The company sells their product to schools in sets of 15% or more at a significant discount. I did not receive any financial benefit for mentioning Outdoor Ukulele…I’m just a believer and had a prior school buy a set of them for my students.
Whatever you do, I can’t recommend Aquila KIDS Strings highly enough…if you order from the company (e-mail them), they will sell you sets of strings (20 pack) for less than you can buy bulk fluorocarbon fishing line. The colored strings make teaching SO much easier…even if you use a program like Rainbow Ukulele.
There are a lot of other great ukulele manufacturers out there, and if you are interested in a model, I would encourage to buy one and live with it for a while before deciding what to purchase. Don’t buy the cheapest ukulele you can find–resist that temptation! Many vendors offer discounts to schools; if buying for an individual, look at places like mimsukes.com, ukerepublic.com, or theukulelesite.com, which will all set up your ukulele for general “accepted” (i.e. good) action before sending it to you. Most ukuleles that are drop shipped have not been set up before they arrive at your door.
If you are dealing with wood or laminate ukuleles in your school, it would also be good to learn some basic ukulele maintenance skills, including how to do set-ups, change strings, and how to deal with sharp fret ends.
What is a “set-up”?
I wish I had known this before I started playing ukuleles. A set-up combines making the strings a (general) optimal height above the fretboard, making sure that you don’t have to press down too hard on the first fret to make chords–which is where beginners live. So many people buy ukuleles that are not set up, which makes playing hard–particularly chords like B-flat. A set up involves removing the strings, leveling the frets, crowning the frets, lowering the action at the nut and saddle, and putting the strings back on. It isn’t hard, but it is a learned skill. It is ideal if a ukulele can come to you with a “general” set up, but most drop shipped ukuleles have never been taken out of the box. There are some dealers who do include set-up as part of their sales process: mimsukes.com, ukerepublic.com, and theukulelesite.com (The Ukulele Site doesn’t really deal with beginner ukuleles).
What accessories should I purchase?
This is a great question, and I’m going to offer referral links (Amazon).
- Music Nomad 8-in-1 Octopus Tool
- Music Nomad F-ONE Fretboard Oil
- Music Nomad Instrument Pad & Neck Support
- StewMac Fret End Dressing File
- Guitar Repair & Maintenance Kit
- For Schools: Jowoom Smart Tuner T2 PLUS
- For Individuals: Kala Rechargeable Tuner
- Some steel wool (great for cleaning up metal frets before oiling)
Are there other questions you would like answered here (or in a video)?
If so, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org