10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Ukuleles (Before I Bought One)

Jemsite has been doing a series called 10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Guitars (Before I Bought One) and I know a good idea when I steal one. The concept: if you could hop into your DeLorean, whack it up to 88 mph and visit yourself when you were buying your first instrument, what advice would you give?

In about 50 years’ time I imagine myself sitting in a comfy chair and my grandkids scurrying up to me in their space-pyjamas and asking, “Granddad, what was life like before the internet?” And I’ll say, “Put down your hoverboards, jump up on my knee and I’ll tell you.” Then I’ll twirl my mustachios wistfully and reply, “It was FUCKIN’ AWFUL!”

Back when I got my first ukulele – during my teenage guitar obsession – there were no internets, YouTubes or blogs to teach a boy anything. I didn’t know anyone who played ukulele. I’d heard George Formby and one other song with a ukulele once. I didn’t have a clue. As a result, it took me many years to see the potential of the uke. So here’s what I’d tell the fat, ugly, stupid, teenage me as he wandered into Bakewell Music Shop to buy a ukulele.

1. The strings don’t go fattest to thinnest.

Just to prove how ignorant I was, I actually tried restringing it the ‘right’ way. It didn’t occur to me that the people who made it might have had a better idea of how to string it than I did. I did have a book. But it was a very slim, old one. I either didn’t read it or it failed to mention this fairly important detail.

2. Good ukuleles exist. Your local music shop doesn’t have one.

Bakewell is famous for it’s tarts (and they are exceeding good). It’s not famous as a centre of outstanding luthiery. The uke I bought was complete junk. I didn’t even know there were better ukes. I think this is the main reason I rarely played the uke for many years.

Message to me: buy a Martin ukulele or six. They might seem expensive now but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

3. Good ukulele strings exist. Your local music shop doesn’t have them.

The same goes for the strings. In fact, I don’t remember them selling strings at all. I don’t know where I would have been able buy good strings. God, I love you, internet. I’m going to miss you come the post-apocalyptic Mad-Max world.

4. Tighten the screws. It might stay in tune.

I think I did eventually work this one out myself. But only many months after giving up on ever getting it to stay in tune.

5. Ukuleles are not little guitars.

I started figuring this one out pretty quickly. After trying to strum it with a plectrum for 3 minutes I realised that clearly wasn’t the way to go. It took me much longer to figure out that the high-G string could be a help rather than a hindrance (partly because it took me a while to figure out it was a high-G string).

6. Eventually, you won’t want to play the guitar any more.

Actually, I might gloss over this fact lest it puts me off picking it up in the first place.

7. Fewer strings means harder, not easier.

Not entirely true, I know. But it is more of challenge to play difficult pieces on the uke. And more rewarding.

8. Don’t steal plutonium from the Libyans.

9. In about 15 years time ukuleles are going to be the coolest thing in the world and you’re going to be writing about them every day. You should practice more.

There’s no getting round the fact I’m a mediocre player. It might be the fact that I’m not naturally musically talented. But more practice certainly couldn’t harm.

10. You like her. She likes you. Just ask her out you useless, spotty idiot. And sell your sister to organ harvesters and put the money into Google and Microsoft.

No, it’s nothing to do with ukuleles. But if I’m time traveling here, I’m not going to spend all ten on ukuleles.

What do you wish you’d known about ukuleles before you bought one?

View Comments


  1. Jim Demello August 13th, 2016 5:51 am

    I am an ESL teacher in China and two years ago was given a cheap but playable uke from my students. Having played guitar since I was 12 (am 62) it was easy to transition to fingerpicking the uke and now that is all I play. I have a Chinese Kala though I thought Kala was an American made product so I suppose it is a knockoff but it is a good little instrument. I feel the uke is fun while the guitar was always laborious. Just bought a ukulele (Rainie – chinese brand) for two of my former students how learned You Are My Sunshine and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on my ukulele. I have learned Pengyou (still trying to remember the Chinese words though) – absolutely beautiful song. Got the tab from Ukulele Chord Melodies by Mike Lynch and it has an amazing Misty tab. Cost 29.95 for kindle pdf but a great investment – unusual for me as I am such a stingy beast. Rock on.

  2. Patti September 2nd, 2016 12:11 am

    Jim Demello..thanks for the info about Kala ukulele. Hve been looking for a beginner one for my daughter..would though be just as interested about teaching in China. Private message me if you get this. Patti.newell@gmail.com

  3. Brian Policoff September 19th, 2016 5:19 pm

    Hey there, your Kala is probably legit. Although they are designed in Hawaii, and the materials sourced internationally, like most things now they are assembled in China. Its still a great little instrument! Enjoy

  4. Jim Demello September 19th, 2016 11:00 pm

    Thanks Brian. Good to know.

  5. Jen October 3rd, 2016 2:57 am

    I have a Kala baritone — LOVE it. I have cheaper sop and tenor. Kala wins!

  6. Keith McIntyre October 3rd, 2016 11:30 am

    To Jen, thank goodness, here’s another baritone player. Have you discovered yet the true value of the size, tone volume,playability and general flexability of the tonaly superior pitch. Heavier strings, but not a lot, wider spacing if your blessed with male fingers that have spent 54 years squeezing bass strings.Full scale, I mean, not bass ukes Having said that, I’ve nearly finished my uke bass conversion, an Aria half size acoustic 6 string. Any one want to fool with this kind of thing, the Aria has an advantage over other half sized guitars, hey appear to be made from similar gauge materials as full size models so they take the strain really well. No too bad for $$, mine was $165NZD new and as I mentioned in a previous message here Iv’e strung the thing with light gauge bass guitar strings off one of my other full scale models and tuned to G/C/F/Bb it stopped most of the string rattle that cant be avoided by not being able to get the needed tension that full scale instruments get naturally.Any uke you may be messing with like this, a tailpiece will help take the pull off the lower top area and prevent the top and saddle/bridge area from lifting. Geez I ramble!! Happy plunking folks…Haggis

  7. Nikka October 4th, 2016 9:20 am

    I want to know more about ukelele. I’m used to playing guitars but I don’t have any idea how to start with the uke.

  8. Geoff October 29th, 2016 6:34 am

    Nikka Buy a Chinese made uke. Most of them play really well these days . They won’t break the bank . With modern engineering standards in most large factories gone are the unplayable toys that were around 15 or 20 years ago. EBay or Amazon have lots. If you spent $200 or more you would be loath to throw it in the back of the car or let others have a play at a bbq. I have a soprano which cost $ 39 aud a tenor for $45 an acoustic electric baritone $130 and recently a Bass uke $230. Caramel ukes are well made and very affordable. Dr uke or Ukulele Mike on you tube are all you will need to learn.

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