Whenever I get bored with things, I try to pick up a new and unusual hobby. In Fall of 2010 that hobby was learning to play the ukulele. It seemed like an appropriate instrument for the little island of Okinawa, and shortly after I started playing, one of my friends pointed out a newspaper announcement that they were seeking Japanese and Americans to start up a ukulele club. My timing couldn’t have been better.
If you want to be like me (trust me, you do) and teach yourself how to play the ukulele here’s how to do it:
1. Pronounce it right!
If you speak English, it’s yoo-kuh-lay-lee. Some people snobbishly pronounce it oo-koo-lay-lay like they know Hawaiian; it’s not even a Hawaiian invention. Besides, pronouncing it that way is like affecting a Spanish accent when you say burrito.
2. Acquire a uke.
Buy one, borrow one, rent one. . . steal one if you have to (but not mine). If you have a choice in your selection of ukuleles, there are plenty of different kinds to choose from, but you can narrow them down pretty easily by settling on a personal preference.
The typical starter uke is the soprano size, which has only twelve frets. The concert size is about the same as the soprano but has fifteen frets. Tenor ukes are larger than concerts and are usually more comfortable for people who are switching from the guitar. Finally, the baritone ukulele is the largest, and the standard tuning for it is different from other ukes; it is usually tuned the same as the four highest strings on a guitar.
Once you’ve decided what type of uke you want, there are a variety of woods to choose from, and you can pick a solid or a laminate. Solids are made from a single piece of wood and they will gradually warp to produce a unique sound that typically suits the player’s style of music. Laminates are made from a few pieces of wood pressed together. They are more resistant to warping and keep a consistent sound throughout their life. Solids are typically preferred and are more expensive, but laminates can also sound great, and are usually more affordable. Koa is most ukers’ preferred wood, but I would recommend just picking something you like to hear and look at.
If you get stuck ordering one online like I did, good luck. I didn’t get to try any of the ones I ordered before I received them, but my second one, a Koa Pili Koko tenor, has a gorgeous sound, and I’m pretty fond of it. If you can try it before you buy it, find the one that you think sounds the best. Take a tuner with you and make sure all the strings stay pretty well in tune on each fret. Listen for buzzing when you pluck the strings (buzzing is bad). Take a look at the tuning pegs and make sure they have gears (usually on the back side of the headstock). The other kind are friction tuning pegs, and they go out of tune more easily.
Play several ukes and pick the one that sounds the best with the best quality that you are willing to pay for. Some people get hung up on brands, but there are a lot of brands out there, and good and bad ukes come from each. You may miss out on your perfect soul-mate ukulele if you’re going to immediately judge them by their brands.
3. Get a Hal Leonard book.
I recommend Hal Leonard Ukulele Method by Lil’ Rev because it includes a CD with examples, and the self-teaching instructions are easy to follow, beginning with basic techniques and working up to playing some basic chords and strumming techniques. Even if you don’t know anything at all about music, these instructions will help you get from absolute beginner level all the way up to not sucking.
4. Learn some songs.
Once you’ve got the basics down, learn some songs. You can get songbooks, find songs on the internet, learn them from friends, or even write your own if you’re up to it. Learn songs you like, even if they’re challenging. Especially if they’re challenging. Keep practicing until you can get the more difficult chords and rhythms. Play as slowly as you need to, and practice the more difficult parts over and over until you get them. Once you’ve got it down, playing faster will happen on its own.
5. Start jamming with friends.
In my case, I started out jamming with my friend Aaron while he played his guitar. Later I joined Okilele. If you can’t find other ukulele players in your area, play with guitar players and then talk them into switching to the far superior ukulele (like Aaron did). They may not be able to teach you all the finer points of the ukulele art, but you can strum along to a lot of the same songs and get used to playing together. This, in my opinion is the best part of learning an instrument. You’ll make new friends, learn new songs, and your playing will improve.
This video was from Okilele’s first live performance at the Hula Hawaii store in Ginowan. My friend Masa provides the vocals, and and then Ulu and Adam are playing along. I like this video because it shows all the ladies who got up to dance, but it also includes a brief interview in Japanese at the end, and I just assume that they’re commenting on how good looking the gaijin in the hat is.
6. Get on Ukulele Underground and check out some of their video lessons.
You’ll be able to learn some more advanced techniques to play lead parts on a lot of popular songs. It’s a great way to suck even less after you learn to not suck.
These steps are all you need to learn how to play the ukulele. The rest of it is hard work and putting in your time. Don’t expect to get good without putting in the time. When you practice, it’s better to play daily for a short time (20 minutes) than every few days for a long time. Of course, it’s even better to play daily for a long time. If you start to get discouraged or burnt out, take a break or play something you already mastered.
If I were going to learn another instrument, I would probably follow most of this process. It could easily be tailored for learning the harmonica, the banjo, or the tympani. Whatever instrument you choose, I wish you the best. Making music is awesome!