Ten Tips for Ukulele Beginners

A couple of weeks ago Mike asked me for one or two tips for ukulele beginners. My brain went whiring into action (actually, is was more a nasty screetching and cracking of gears). I ended up with a big list of stuff. So here, in their original, un-rewritten and bloated form, are all of them.

1. Record yourself playing and listen back to it. It’s difficult to play and listen to yourself at the same time. Quite often just noticing what you’re doing wrong is enough to fix the problem. It also gets you used to playing infront of the mic – making it less of a big deal when you want to record yourself properly.

2. Much to the RIAA’s disgust, you can’t sue someone for stealing a chord progression. Although Metallica tried to sue the band Unfaith for changing from F to E. If you hear something you like, work it out and steal it.

3. Practice so slowly you can’t possibly make a mistake. If you make the same mistake over and over again, it’s incredibly hard to get rid of it. It’s much easier to start slow, get the tune under your fingers and gradually speed up. If you’re more consciencious than me, you’ll use a metronome while you’re doing this sort of thing.

4. Learn how to read ukulele tab. There are plenty of people around who can play the ukulele without learning to read tab. But there’s so much ukulele tab around on the net now that it’s really going to increase the speed that you can pick up new tunes.

5. Once you’ve decided you enjoy the ukulele, get a nice one. Almost everyone starts of playing on a very cheap ukulele. These ukes are fine for deciding if playing the ukulele is for you. But once you’re into it, get yourself a decent quality ukulele. It’ll be easier to play, sound better (so you’ll be more pleased with the way you sound), and will give you more impetus to practice.

6. The type of strings you use can make a big different to the sound of your ukulele. The strings you get with your ukulele are likely to be cheap and nasty. It’s worth replacing them with higher quality strings such as Worth or Aquila.

7. Don’t hold your ukulele too tightly. The ukulele is small and it’s very easy to smother the sound out of it. Don’t hold it too tightly or you’ll lose a lot of volume and tone. Watch how masters like Jake Shimabukuro and hold the uke.

8. Listen to lots of ukulele players. The more you listen, the more you’ll get a feel for the ukulele and the way it sounds. It will influence how you play subconsciously.

9. Take the time to tune up properly. The ukulele isn’t the easiest instrument to get in tune and keep in tune, but it has to be done. If your ukulele is out of tune, you WILL sound terrible. I’m looking at you, Mr Merritt.

10. Enjoy yourself. The big appeal of the ukulele is that it is the most fun instrument around. People try to denigrate the ukulele as a toy. I think calling the uke a toy is a huge compliment. Toys are fun to play with and so is the ukulele.

If you want more beginners’ tips, you can find 101 of them in my ebook Ukulele 101.

View Comments

77 Comments

  1. Ian March 26th, 2008 7:21 pm

    Are you really recommending D’Addario strings?

    I think they’re pretty much the worst thing ever. They don’t hold a tune and the tone is thin.

  2. Ron March 26th, 2008 9:24 pm

    Great advice for me…the beginner. Can you please explain exactly what the “Tabs” are? Thanks!!!

  3. Woodshed March 26th, 2008 11:01 pm

    Glad you like it, Ron. I’ve written a a series on how to read tab here. I should add that to the post.

  4. Woodshed March 26th, 2008 11:06 pm

    Ian: Personally, Worths are my choice. If D’Addarios are Jake Shimabukuro’s choice, then that makes them worth checking out. I’d recommend trying them. You can make your own choice from there.

  5. pam March 27th, 2008 12:03 am

    This is a great list. I concur on #5, though I suppose it’s true for ANY instrument, right? (Are there others?)

    Also, I’ve found that playing with others is oh so edumacational. Uke players seem to be a very social lot, happy to share their tunes and tricks. I’ve learned more from showing up to play with our local uke club than anywhere else.

  6. LonnaB March 27th, 2008 11:27 am

    Well written, Woodshed.

    I especially like tip number 10.

    I taught a two-year-old how to form and strum a C chord yesterday and it was the most fun I’ve had all week.

  7. Art Crocker March 27th, 2008 11:58 am

    Thanks for the refresher course, seems I forgot a few basic helpers, like recording yourself for improvement. I am very grateful you did not stress the use of a Metronome. Just when I think you have something learned, I try playing with that thing and find out just how bad my timing is.

  8. maduke March 27th, 2008 4:19 pm

    exellent. i have to remember that record-yourself-thing, too.
    but i disagree on the use of a metronome. i have terrible timing and when i use the metronome it serves as the simplest drum machine ever and helps me to get into the groove. and when that happens, the easiest tune is so much fun (for me at least).

  9. Art Crocker March 27th, 2008 5:49 pm

    I do agree with the metronome comment when struming simple songs, it helps and feels good. My frustration starts when I into finger picking and challanging tunes like some of the Dominator stuff. Trying to get all of his notes into 4 beats can be tough.

  10. zym March 27th, 2008 7:22 pm

    Good article.

    The only other things i can think of are;

    * play with other people

    * find your own music at places like chordie.com (where you can transpose songs into other keys to avoid that pesky ‘E’)

  11. Ian March 28th, 2008 2:04 am

    Al,
    It should be noted Jake does not use D’Addario ukulele strings, a subpar product. Or maybe he does since signing a contract with them. Prior to that he used D’addario guitar strings on his ukulele.

    I cannot speak for the tenor strings that he now sponsors, but the soprano strings are really inferior.

    Otherwise, awesome article!

  12. Woodshed March 28th, 2008 3:32 pm

    pam: Other instruments? You’ve lost me.

    Lonna: Thanks. Keep spreading those C chords.

    Art and Maduke: My position on metronomes: you should use one, it’ll help your playing, I rarely use one.

    zym: I know I should play with other people, but I’m completely anti-social. There seems to be an image that ukulele players are all happyily strumming along in big orchestras, but I don’t think that’s really the case. I seem to remember a pole on the Cosmos and most people described themselves as ‘lone wolf’ ukers.

    Ian: OK, you’ve won me over. I’ve taken the D’Ads out.

  13. Art Crocker March 28th, 2008 4:05 pm

    Al,
    On metronomes, you are right, it is an important but frustrating tool. Just wondered how you developed your natural timing ability? Just come naturally, or was it worked on and learned? Meaning, after a while does one get much better at keeping a steady time? Also, do you work on giving most anything you play a notice-able Beat. Someone once told me, “if it doesn’t have a beat, it isen’t music”, think it was a banjo teacher.

  14. Ian March 29th, 2008 4:04 am

    Boy, was I confused for a sec, there… was wondering how I managed to post while my internet was down without knowing it. I take it there’s another Ian here…

    And also, you might want to add showing off to your friends once you have a good number of songs down… at least where I live, people see a ukulele as somewhat of a novelty and are awed by someone who can play it. MY friend and I, both being ukulele addicts, have a lot of fun with it….

    And as far as metronomes, I have been playing in orchestras for years, and have developed a rather good sense of rhythm, partially due to the constant ticking (and booming) of metronomes. They help a lot over time, and once you become good at holding a steady beat, they become unneccessary.

  15. Woodshed March 29th, 2008 2:57 pm

    Art: I have to say, my timing is pretty poor. I have a real tendency to speed up. Quite a lot of my recordings are made to metronomes. Particularly the stuff for Uke Hunt and How to Play…

    Ian: There’s only one Ian ;) I might have to do a post of the top ten other people’s tips.

  16. Ian March 30th, 2008 8:56 pm

    Gah… so when I go to sleep I sleepwalk to Massachusetts and live another life as… another Ian? Creepy… =P

  17. Andy December 25th, 2008 8:35 pm

    i’m a guitarist who just got a ukulele for christmas and when playing guitar, I swear by d’addario strings, so it was a shock to hear them bad-mouthed here. maybe the uke is more different than expected…

  18. Marco July 11th, 2009 10:31 am

    You were so smart when you saied:

    “..calling the uke a toy is a huge compliment. Toys are fun to play with and so is the ukulele”

    That’s so true!

  19. Woodshed July 11th, 2009 10:56 am

    Marco: I was smart enough to steal a good idea when I hear it. Jim Beloff said something very similar.

  20. inesias March 7th, 2010 4:40 pm

    Woodshed or anyone who knows, can tell me where can i buy in a europe site a good uke. Andd.. the top five uke good to start.

    Thank you

    :-)

  21. Woodshed March 8th, 2010 10:11 am

    inesias: You might try Juste Cordes and check out the best ukuleles for beginners.

  22. Lydia June 2nd, 2010 1:45 am

    Great article!! this helps SOO much! im just starting off w/the ukulele, and i have a question!

    how am i supposed to put new strings on a ukulele?!?! LOL!
    im concerned that im not gonna be able to find many places that can help me w/the ukulele (where i live)!

  23. Woodshed June 6th, 2010 12:12 pm
  24. Helissa June 14th, 2010 3:09 am

    Any tips on how to strum? What part of the finger etc? Would you ever use a guitar pick? I have takens some guitar and now have a wonderful little Ukulele that I am teaching myself to play this summer. Great websit! Thanks.

  25. Woodshed June 14th, 2010 5:04 pm

    Helissa: Take a look at the strumming for dummies post.

  26. Dave July 10th, 2010 9:55 pm

    Hi just got a metronome but dont have a clue whats sort of beat to start @ and also is each beep a full beat.If so full = downstroke so would i need to fit a upstroke in before next beep?

    thx

  27. Woodshed July 13th, 2010 8:25 pm

    Dave: 120 bpm is a pretty average tempo. Yeah, a down-up strum would be one beat together.

  28. John August 28th, 2010 10:22 am

    I got an essay to do on how you would help someone to play better..These tips is not helping.

  29. N.C.J October 8th, 2010 5:42 am

    First off I want to thank you greatly for this guide and the entire site you provide. But I have a bit of a dilemma:

    I’ve been playing cello for a while now and I’ve tried the guitar (too many strings for me). I’m considering the ukulele for its size/string number (I have tiny hands) and sound. I would like to purchase something somewhat (even if marginally) similar in sound to the cello like the tenor(?).

    So, my question: should I start out with a standard sized uke to figure if ukulele in general is something I’d want to pursue then purchase a tenor, or should I buy the tenor straight away?

    Thanks so much again.
    ~NCJ

  30. Dwyteuke November 6th, 2010 9:52 pm

    You are way ahead of me mate (musically anyway). Hopefully someone else will advise you on your query.

    Go for it tho’ Ukes are splendid fun.

  31. Sooh November 8th, 2010 1:12 am

    Wow!
    What a wonderful list!
    I’ll got it and take it.
    tnks.

  32. Woodshed November 10th, 2010 11:00 am

    NCJ: Yeah, go for a tenor. Shouldn’t give you any problems. Although I’m not sure how much it sounds like a cello.

    Sooh: You’re welcome.

  33. Gary November 21st, 2010 9:37 pm

    I’ve just purchased a Lanikai LU21 for my neice as a Christmas present, and as a rubbish guitarist couldn’t resist a go prior to wrapping. What a joy!! Easy to hold chords – instant gratification! I’m not a small bloke and the body isn’t obstructed by my erm.. body. Your site has been a tremendous help so a massive THANK YOU on my part. I can see an ‘up market’ model beckoning – I think I’m in love!!!

  34. Woodshed November 23rd, 2010 10:47 pm

    Gary: Glad to have you ukeing. It’s always a huge risk to buy a ukulele as a gift.

  35. Ukulovely January 13th, 2011 2:33 am

    Thanks Woodshed for all your tips… I’m busily working my way through them having just bought a nice Flea uke.

    Re ‘practise slowly’ advice: there are two thoughts on this.

    Pro- practising slowly and getting it right is something I recommend to beginner piano and guitar students. This way the brain learns the correct patterns and they don’t have to spend time ‘unlearning’ the incorrect patterns.

    Con- I was told by my piano teacher (when at uni doing a BMus)that the muscles used in the hand for playing piano are slightly different when playing slowly to when playing quickly. She recommended I play at a reasonable speed for the tempo of the piece, rather than practising a difficult section slowly.

    I don’t know if I really agree with the latter, but since I’ve never bothered to look at the scientific studies on this, I’m not really qualified to say.

    As for keeping the tempo steady- I recommend that if you can’t play along together in class (like we do at school on a variety of instruments), then play along with the recording (mp3, video, etc). Don’t do this all the time though, otherwise you won’t develop solo skills and you could be allowing the ‘backing’ to do all the work and you might accidentally be missing out some beats. (Does that make sense, or am I just rambling now…? lol)

    So in ukulove right now!

  36. Woodshed January 16th, 2011 11:01 am

    Ukulovely: That’s an interesting theory. I haven’t heard that before. I’ll have to do some research.

  37. Baz Maz January 18th, 2011 1:01 pm

    Great guide for the beginner

    Baz

    http://www.gotaukulele.co.uk

  38. Woodshed January 22nd, 2011 3:07 pm

    Baz: Thanks very much.

  39. Winters March 14th, 2011 10:47 pm

    Awesome post, Woodshed! In Norway, ukuleles are not popular at all… Music shops NEVER have them in-store, and most norwegians would probably respond: “What’s a uke?”

    So it’s AWESOME that I came to New Zealand and fell in love with this instrument :) Only been practicing for a little over 1 week, but getting the hang of it. *funfunfun!* =D

  40. Uke.Beginner. April 24th, 2011 9:11 pm

    Hiya! So Im a beginner ukulele player and I have a question..
    My first ukulele is the Mahalo U-30 (Soprano). I know, I know. It’s really good for a beginner, but has problems with tone and staying in tune. I was googling ways to improve the Mahalo, and one link I clicked on said to restring the uke. That’s what I plan to do with Aquila Nylgut Soprano strings. But the thing is, the link also said that I should try restringing the uke with Aquila Nylgut CONCERT strings to help improve the sound more than just soprano strings.
    Now my question is,
    Which string size should I do?
    Well, yeah sure, I want good quality from my uke, but I’m a little stumped on this one.
    Could someone give me advice on this?

  41. Woodshed April 30th, 2011 9:46 am

    Winters: That’s a shame about Norway. I hope you take one back and spread it there!

    Uke.Beginner.: There’s not much difference between soprano and concert strings. For a soprano uke, get soprano strings.

  42. Uke.Beginner. May 8th, 2011 1:19 am

    Thank you! And I really love my ukulele! :D

  43. Woodshed May 8th, 2011 9:05 am

    Uke.Beginner.: You’re welcome. And glad to hear it!

  44. Bruddah Frank May 18th, 2011 8:37 pm

    Just a couple of weeks ago I changed to a low G with a complete set strings from Aquila. I have a Lanikai uke made from Koa and with this change it sounded brighter whereas when I had my GHS’s it had a mellow tune to it but somewhat muted. In my opinion, Aquilas are the way to go, especially the Nylgut feel to it, I sense a nice grab to it with a nice feel when I strum to it.

  45. Woodshed May 19th, 2011 6:35 am

    Frank: Thanks for sharing.

  46. aem2 August 16th, 2011 2:28 pm

    Thanks so much for this! I’ve been playing uke for a few years, and I was reasonably satisfied with my soprano Mahalo until a few weekends ago, when I got a chance to play a much sweeter-sounding instrument. I thought I had to buy a new uke.

    I came across this site last week as I was searching for recommendations and I saw that better strings would improve the sound. I ordered some Aquilas that night. They came yesterday, and already my baby sounds so much better! You’ve saved me lots of money.

    Of course, I will no doubt spend that money on a new concert or tenor someday.

  47. Woodshed August 17th, 2011 8:07 am

    aem2: Excellent! Very glad I could help.

  48. Dave October 10th, 2011 2:14 pm

    Theres so many Ukuleles on the market today
    My Opinion is to buy one that you can afford
    that has a good sound.Unless you are a professional
    Musician then look for a top of line Uke.
    I own a Soprano Oscar Schmidt,and Lanakai Tenor
    that are just fine for my own enjoyment both have great tone. I am sure there are better ukes out there.
    Thanks
    Dave

  49. liuhui October 25th, 2011 5:10 pm

    Very useful.thanks a lot.i have saved the site and i will read your suggestions carefully(not a good English learner @_@).By the way,i’m very upset that there isn’t any site like this in our country.
    and how much i wish i could get a Fendar ukulele…

    Have a nice day!

  50. AliTaka November 23rd, 2011 8:20 pm

    Okay, so I admit I jumped on the Amanda Palmer bandwagon, but your site has helped me immensely! Playing uke for five minutes beats all the happy pills and disney films in the world!
    Thanks very much, and I’m sure I will continue to trust your wisdom for some time yet!

  51. Bob January 9th, 2012 4:43 pm

    I have just purchased my first Uke, with the hope of making it my weapon of choice.
    I have a small problem. I notice that most strumming techniques require index finger nail on down stroke, I lost the tip of my index finger some years ago,
    should I use my ring finger or persist with my index finger?

  52. Woodshed January 9th, 2012 10:21 pm

    Bob: I think you’d be the best judge of that. I say go with what sounds and feels best to you.

  53. Anne February 2nd, 2012 3:12 am

    Hi,I`m a beginner uke player, and I have very small hands; any tips for that? Also would it be possible to make a simple version of the mario bros theme song, with just the chords listed as letters, because i haven`t quite learned how to read tabs.
    Thanks again for all your tips,
    Anne

  54. Winters February 2nd, 2012 10:15 am

    Hi Anne! As the ukulele is a tiny instrument, your small hands might be just the perfect fit! ;) Me, on the other hand (pun intended) have HUGE hands, and trust me! Huge hands and a tiny instrument is quite difficult, at first, but then you kinda get used to it, and it doesnt matter as much as you thought it did.

    I’d recommend you to spend FIVE minutes learning to read tabs. It looks complicated, but it’s really simple and more logical than our usual greek letters (ABC..)!

    Woodshed has some great info on it here on this webpage!

    Good luck! :)

    – Winters

  55. Anne February 2nd, 2012 9:15 pm

    thanks Winters, the only problem with small hands is streching my fingers for certain chords(haha, and I guess i`ll have to learn them eventually :)

  56. Araminta May 4th, 2012 4:14 pm

    Hi! i was wondering if anyone knew any tricks for tuning a ukulele? i just cant seem to get it right even with a tuner! and when i get it close to tuned, it just sounds horrid after like three songs!:( i have some strings i got from Guitar Center, but im scared to try to put them on lol. help?

  57. Mandoist July 11th, 2012 12:13 pm

    Strings are so subjective. the ONLY thing for certain is: instruments made of wood are very unique in their abilities to produce sound. lots of variables from type of wood, to bracing, carving, etc, etc. The one truth is that any one brand of strings will not necessarily sound good to you on all instruments.

  58. Gazzamm September 13th, 2012 7:44 pm

    Help!
    My C String does not go to C# when I press down on the first fret. All the other strings go up a semi-tone as expected but the C string rises a whole tone.

    Any idea’s? Is it the nut or the fretboard?

  59. Woodshed September 14th, 2012 1:46 pm

    Gazzamm: I’d say the most likely problem is the nut being too high.

  60. Gazzamm September 14th, 2012 2:33 pm

    So it would be reasonable to say if I can make the groove for the string a tiny bit deeper it should sort it out?

  61. Woodshed September 15th, 2012 6:01 am

    Gazzamm: It’s a possibility. I wouldn’t say any firmer than that. The first thing I’d try is changing the strings.

  62. Markus Dixon September 25th, 2012 12:11 am

    Woodshed, thanks so much!

  63. Woodshed September 26th, 2012 10:20 am

    Markus: You’re very welcome!

  64. uke4evr October 15th, 2012 3:12 am

    A nice article Woodshed, thanks. I’m happy to say I’ve now started almost 10 people on the uke since I started playing 4 years ago. I would offer showing C – Am as a great way to get someone playing something “song-like”. It helps the player concentrate on the strumming while doing some 1-finger chord changes.
    I might be embarking on my first paid teacher gig soon, so your article will help get me started for sure. Cheers!

  65. Woodshed October 15th, 2012 12:42 pm

    uke4evr: Well done! Good luck with the teaching.

  66. micah November 29th, 2012 3:48 pm

    is it okay if ill buy an ordinary or toy ukulele for a beginner? i dont know anything about instruments and now i decided to learn one and i choose ukulele. but i dont want to spend more money at first. thanks! Godbless. :))

  67. Woodshed November 29th, 2012 10:33 pm

    micah: “Toy ukuleles” tend to not be playable. So I wouldn’t recommend it. I’m not sure what you mean by “ordinary ukulele” but what I’d mean by “ordinary ukulele” would be fine for a beginner.

  68. Jenny December 13th, 2012 2:05 am

    Dad went from tubas to ukes and got me hooked in the process (and, unlike the tuba, we can have at LEAST one in every room :-) Thank you for all of your hard work on this site. It’s much appreciated!

  69. Woodshed December 13th, 2012 8:03 am

    Jenny: Thanks very much!

  70. David December 26th, 2013 2:50 pm

    Thank you for these tips! I’m just curious, though: Does Stephin Merritt typically play with an out-of-tune ukulele? It was his playing that sparked my interest in the uke.

  71. Woodshed December 27th, 2013 4:04 pm

    David: Thanks. Not always. He seems to be more in tune these days!

  72. Lord Pancake July 30th, 2014 7:06 am

    Thanks for this list. I’ve only begun and there is so much on the net, I’ve come across so much info that contradicts other info. I know like with other instruments there are many ways to play, it comes down to finding what works for your and get you sounding like you want. However this is one of the better guides I have come across. Thank you.

  73. Woodshed July 30th, 2014 8:11 am

    Lord Pancake: Thanks! Glad you liked it.

  74. sybilrae August 2nd, 2014 11:32 pm

    This is so good! Thanks all for your wit and wisdom. I’m a reasonably new uker. My biggest problem more i have some chords pretty well down, is the strumming. I have a reasonable sense of rhythm but find improvised strumming frustrating. Guess i need to learn to read those charts????

  75. Woodshed August 3rd, 2014 8:14 am

    sybilrae: I’m very biased in this but I think the best thing covering that is my strums book.

  76. Stevious September 29th, 2014 9:21 pm

    I love this site! I love acoustic music, and it hit me like a wave last week how much I love hearing the ukulele, so I’ve decided to get one. I watched tutorials on how to play, and settled on playing “Into The Sunshine” by Julia Nunes as my first attempt (Only has D,A,G chords). Anyway, I’m going to get a uke either this week or next week, but have a $50 budget. Which brand (i.e Diamond Head, Rogue, Mahalo, Kohala) would you recommend as a starter? I’m hoping to make the transition from listener to player as painless as possible, heh

  77. Woodshed September 30th, 2014 6:54 am

    Stevious: With that budget I’d probably go with a Makala. Hope you enjoy playing!

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