Ukulele Mythbusting

I might not have thirty years of special effects experience, but I still want to tackle a few myths and misconceptions I see crop up now and again.

If you’ve got any you want to tackle, leave them in the comments.

There’s only one way to play each chord

The chords you see in chord books and at the top of sheet music are only one way of playing them. There are many other ways you can play them (known as inversions).

Uke chords are made up of three or four notes and any combination of those notes will give you the chord. You can play the notes higher up the neck. Or you can switch the string you play them on. It’s still the same chord.

For example, a C7 chord has the notes C, E, G, Bb. So you could play it 0001 (G-C-E-Bb) or 3433 (Bb-E-G-C).

There are good reasons to play a different inversion of a chord:

– It fits better with the chords around it.
– You’re playing with other ukulelists and want to stretch out the sound.
– You want to give it extra emphasis by playing higher up (or lower down) than the other chords in the sequence.
– It’s easier to play. Which brings us to.

Fmaj7 is impossible to play

I don’t know who decreed that all chord books would list Fmaj7 as 2413 but there are two possibilities:

1) They were so impossibly good at ukulele they forgot mortals can’t twist their fingers into a shodow puppet of Hogwarts.
2) They’ve never played an Fmaj7 on a ukulele in their life.

The vastly easier way of playing it is 5500. But you can usually get away with playing it exactly the same way as Am 2000.

Chord charts are “tabs”.

This one is infuriating to me. Not because I’m a grumpy pedant (although I definitely am). But because you want to know what you’re going to get. If the there’s no distinction it makes it harder to find what you’re looking for.

You have to play things the way they’re tabbed

It’s best to see tabs as suggestions. You can always play the same note on a different string, change a chord inversion, use a different strumming pattern. Or change things completely, call it an original composition and hope no one notices.

There’s a ukulele on I’m Yours

There no ukulele on Jason Mraz’s released version of I’m Yours (or any version I’ve ever heard by him for that matter).

The chugging instrument goes as low as the F# on the bottom E string of a guitar. Much too low even for a baritone ukulele.

The higher instrument is much closer to standard ukulele range (he’d only have to tune down a semitone to fit it on). But it sounds a lot like an electric, steel-strung instrument to me. There aren’t many steel-strung electric ukuleles around, even fewer in 2008. Seems very unlikely.

The entire world seems to be against me on this one. So if you have any evidence either way let me know.

UPDATES

Some more myths from the comments:

Any uke made of laminate will sound rubbish: Suggested by Lizzie. Cheaper ukuleles are made with cheap wood underneath and just a thin layer of nice wood on top for looks. Can you tell the difference between that method of construction and a solid wood ukulele? Here’s a – not entirely fair – test by Musicguymic. (The answers are here.)

Three Things I’ve Got Wrong

Of course, I’ve spread a few myths of my own. So, in the spirit of the meme that’s been knocking around the UK politblogs, here’s just three of them.

1. You can never have too many ukuleles

I was fully in the grip of UAS. Coming up with any excuse I could think of to buy another uke. But I finally hit rock bottom when I wasted far too much money on this ridiculous monstrosity.

Despite a huge collection of ukuleles, I only play two or three regularly. The rest collect dust. And now I wish I had fewer ukuleles.

2. You should start on a soprano

I’ve never been quite sure of the best advice to give when asked what size ukulele they should start with. So I went with soprano since that’s what most people mean when they think of a ukulele.

When I started, it took a lot of stumbling around before I settled on which ukes I preferred for which purposes. And I don’t really think there’s any shortcutting that process. So now I’d say try a few out if you can. Otherwise just buy whichever size takes your fancy. It’s not a big deal which you start out on. So long as it’s not a baritone.

3. I didn’t give Hawaiian culture enough repect

While I don’t agree with the, “Hipsters playing the ukulele is horrible cultural appropriation,” thing, I do think we should keep in mind we owe the instrument’s popularity to Hawaiians and should show them and their culture respect.

I wouldn’t tab Ukulele Lady now for that reason. It’s a song that turns Hawaiians into a caricature and reduces the language to nonsense.

And I’m going to try to combine points 3 and 1 by only buy ukuleles made in Hawaii from now on. I’m not sure if I’m capable of sticking to that though.

If you’ve got any myth corrections or something you’ve changed your mind on, leave it in the comments.

View Comments

46 Comments

  1. Dom November 7th, 2012 10:05 pm

    Thanks for the advice on Fmaj7, I remember the first time I saw that chord and spent a few minutes just staring at my fingers, wondering how me and my sort of broken pinky would ever be able to make that ridiculous shape.

  2. Mike November 7th, 2012 10:24 pm

    Phew! I just checked my chord chart for Fmaj7 to make sure I gave 5500 as an alternative (yes). F#maj7, on the other hand…

    The issue of fake-Hawaiian songs is a tricky one, as many hapa-haole songs with English lyrics were written by and performed by Hawaiians (for tourists, or for each other), and are still a much-loved part of the repertoire. And others are silly imitation-Hawaiian and really should be retired. And others are in between.

  3. karthik November 8th, 2012 8:08 am

    “You have to play things the way they’re tabbed”

    Thank you for clearing this up. I can never play any of your tabs as presented; I usually get the notes that make up the melody right and mess up all the others, the ones that add “flavor” and harmony. In the best case I play different notes that are easier to reach for. (The Sherlock Theme has given me trouble ever since you posted the tab.)

    And then I feel terrible about it for weeks because my fingers aren’t moving fast enough. So thank you for the official endorsement of improvisation.

  4. Lizzie November 8th, 2012 8:09 am

    Love it!!

    More myths:

    – Everything on Chordie is TRUE!

    – Any uke made of laminate will sound rubbish.

    – All pegs are useless so you should swap them for machine heads.

    As for the electric stringed uke in 2008 – got myself one of those Risa’s that looks like a fried egg in a frying pan (well, it does to me) for my birthday that March :-)

  5. Ryan November 8th, 2012 8:18 am

    People who call chord charts ‘tabs’ get my goat too! Is it really that hard?

    I’m all for instrument appropriation. It can easily be done with respect and it’s how new instruments are invented!
    I’ve been studying music in indigenous societies this semester at uni. We learned that the Inuit tribes around the arctic circle have had european contact for a few hundred years now. Through these contacts they acquired violins and began making their own. It’s consider a traditional instrument now. Some were surprised when they discovered that Europeans had them too! =)

  6. Uke of Carl November 8th, 2012 8:52 am

    The Uke chord chart – tab things annoys me no end.

  7. Tina November 8th, 2012 9:17 am

    Thanks for that interesting post. And by the way, if you need to get rid of a few dust-collecting ukes, I’d be happy to help out ;-) Especially the monstrosity!!

  8. Woodshed November 8th, 2012 11:38 am

    Dom: You’re welcome. Glad I could save your fingers!

    Mike: Yeah, it’s a complicated subject.

    karthik: Nice work! Great to hear you’re working out your own way of doing tunes.

    Lizzie: Excellent points! I’ve added the laminate one to the post.

    Ryan: That’s really interesting. I’ll have to read up on that.

    Uke of Carl: Glad I’m not the only one!

    Tina: I’ll keep that in mind!

  9. Tim Keough November 8th, 2012 12:31 pm

    Dissing the harp uke!

  10. Tricity Vogue November 8th, 2012 12:46 pm

    Thank God! I thought I was the only person in the world who couldn’t play Fmaj7 and I was crippled with guilt and shame about my inadequacy. Thanks so much for the 5500 tip!

  11. George November 8th, 2012 1:02 pm

    My only concern/comment with your final comment about buying Hawaiian made ukes is that you’re potentially inadvertently telling your loyal readers that ukuleles made off island aren’t good enough. There comes a point where it’s just a musical instrument, made to be played and enjoyed. Specifically one with a history/association of fun. A veritable “people’s instrument” if you will and one with Portuguese antecedents at that. Does that mean we should only buy Hawaiian ukes made by Portuguese descendents? I’d hate to see you or anyone short change themselves by not buying a great uke just because it didn’t come from Hawaii. There are some great ukes being made worldwide today. Outta curiosity, does this mean you’ll be spelling ukulele with the okina now? I’ve always liked the look of ‘ukulele. It’s like a star hanging in front of the word expressing what the uke really is… Brilliant!
    Anyway, so I don’t end sounding like a long winded pedantic pig’s arse, I’d like to thank you for the reminder about the 5500 Fmaj7 inversion. I always forget about that one. Thanks!

  12. Toast November 8th, 2012 1:30 pm

    Surprised that right at the top of this wasn’t “Ukuleles are just small guitars” or that they are “easier to play”

  13. Allan November 8th, 2012 2:27 pm

    Having just enough (O-level) music theory to work out some chords I was always a little surprised when my ‘calculated’ Fmaj7 ended up being Am! – so thanks for that. Liking the 5500 version though.

    Just got a harpuke (not the same one), so I was slightly disappointed at your ‘monstrous’ description, especially after your lovely rendition of Albatross. KoAloha Sceptre Tenor on it way soon though – trust you still approve of that one ;)

  14. cardboardfrog November 8th, 2012 3:44 pm

    A nice article woodshed, Personally I love the incredibly awkward way of playing FMAJ7 because it allows for such varied pull-offs and hammer ons and I find stretching to some of the harder chord positions is good for the old fingers occasionally although i do have very long fingers and enjoy playing the mandola (an instrument which has the most obnoxious E chord ever, worse than the uke by some degree).

    When it comes to UAS I managed to go from a collection of 12 ukes to just one this year although that may have something to do with my job hunt and pub trips being somewhat out of balance haha.

  15. Lizzie November 8th, 2012 4:26 pm

    Ah! Toast: “Surprised that right at the top of this wasn’t “Ukuleles are just small guitars” or that they are “easier to play””

    Any instrument is hard to play WELL but if anyone wants to compare guitars with ukuleles, I would say that it is MUCH easier to play a guitar badly :-)

  16. C.Mike November 8th, 2012 4:26 pm

    Love it!

    Hmmm. Only buying Hawaiian? I’m not sure about that. I played an Oscar Schmidt that I rather liked. But I will say that buying from Hawaiian *sellers* is a really good idea. They definitely know more about the instrument than the music store on your corner (or the huge chain store), the set-up is always well done, and the ones I’ve bought from have always been really pleasant and eager to share knowledge. And since they sell mostly Hawaiian ukes — well, there you go. Maybe it’s less practical to buy direct from Hawaii if you don’t live in the US? I don’t know…

  17. Woodshed November 8th, 2012 4:42 pm

    Tim: It’s not intended as a diss on the instrument. More of a diss on me for spending far too much money on an instrument I don’t get much play out of.

    Tricity: Glad I could reassure you!

    George: It isn’t any comment on quality. I feel that with the huge contribution Hawaii has made to the ukulele along with the shabby way its been treated that spending my ukulele money there is the least I can do.

    No, I feel like a fraud using an okina. I don’t think having respect for Hawaiian culture means pretending I’m a part of it.

    Toast: The post is more aimed at myths that spread in the ukulele world. I think most ukulelists know those aren’t true.

    Allan: I’m glad that GCSE paid off! I think monstrous as in huge and deformed is pretty fair. I still think it’s a well made instrument and fun to play.

    cbf: Curse you and your long fingers!

    C.Mike: I agree there are plenty of good ukuleles that aren’t made in Hawaii. It is a bit more tricky to get Hawaiian ukes if you’re not in the US. Here in the UK you get hit with a big import duty bill.

  18. karthik November 8th, 2012 4:57 pm

    Woodshed: Can’t say I’m any good at it, though. Omitting half the notes on “Take a chance” so I could play it got me this.

  19. carreg wastad November 8th, 2012 5:03 pm

    can we invent some more myths please

    I can’t think of any good ones…

  20. Lizzie November 8th, 2012 5:23 pm

    Haha Carreg wastad, how about, “Every ukulele has a “sweet place” where you are meant to strum and pick the strings. This is NOT over the big hole in the middle – it is underneath the big hole, just above where the strings are tied on”.

  21. Sunny Jim November 8th, 2012 5:50 pm

    Or how about, ‘Woodshed had absolutely no idea that Uke Hunt sounds a bit a rude until a helpful American pointed it out to him’?

  22. Ian Andrews November 8th, 2012 7:07 pm

    “And I’m going to try to combine points 3 and 1 by only buy ukuleles made in Hawaii from now on. I’m not sure if I’m capable of sticking to that though.”

    I, for one, hope you don’t stick to it! Messrs Nune et al used local timbers that were readily available. To keep to their philosphy, you should be buying instruments built locally, from local materials, not stuff that needs to be shipped half way around the world, either in the raw firm or completed instruments! ;)
    On the other hand, as many easier chord shapes as possible should only be encouraged. :)

  23. Sven November 8th, 2012 7:18 pm

    “For example, a C7 chord has the notes C, E, G, Bb. So you could play it 0001 (G-C-E-Bb) or 3433 (Bb-E-G-C).”

    A superb example of what you wrote, Uke Hunt, is in the latest UU Tutorial for “I Saw THe Light” by Todd Rundgren. Excellent song and lesson, but they have every chord “closed” (with at least three strings closed for each), then suddenly hit C7 with one string, i.e. “open” and ringing. The other reason to use inversions is to keep things tight and closed, when desired, relative to the other chords used. They should have (listen to me, telling them!) used the alternative that you gave for C7 in that song (please see it on UU vidoe, homepage–if you agree). Thanks for great insight, as always, woodshed.

  24. Fi from NZ November 8th, 2012 7:54 pm

    Yippee! Now I don’t have to avoid Fmaj7 anymore! Thanks heaps.

  25. Woodshed November 9th, 2012 9:57 am

    karthik: Sounds great! Nice work.

    Fi from NZ: You’re welcome!

  26. Lizzie November 9th, 2012 11:30 am

    What’s all this nonsense about Hawaii and the Portugese? Everyone knows the ukulele originated in Whitehaven, Cumbria: http://grillust.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/ukulele-me.html

    Every uke-lover should give pride of place to a framed copy of this map:
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-NiixIKgpLIo/TWO10IvhdRI/AAAAAAAAASQ/nwQIOlfxeA4/s1600/Whitehaven%252BMap.jpg

  27. Witold November 9th, 2012 4:14 pm

    Fascinating! After reading ‘101 things…’ + 12 pages of ‘Ukulele chord progression’ I can understand what you are writing in this post. = there are ‘teachers’ and TEACHERS.Some are tytular and some make things so easy that even an idiot fails not to understand.TU.Witold.

  28. Kyle Frazer November 10th, 2012 1:52 pm

    Very good post. The only time I regret having so many ukes is when they’re locked away in their cases; it’s only when they’re on display that you realise how beautiful they are and why you bought them. They’re also much more accessible – pick up and play – being on display than locked away.

    I’m in the process of moving house, so everything is cased up and I’m not in the best of moods about it. I also bought a Hercules tri-stand for my three ukes, then went and bought another 3. Gah!

    The laminate argument is true to a point; there’s quite a few ukes out there which are laminate but cost more than a solid wood construction. If money is no object then I say buy to your hearts content, but otherwise you’re paying good money when there’s other grea choices out there with better finishes and options.

  29. Kyle Frazer November 10th, 2012 2:01 pm

    Isn’t F7 2313? That’s what’s I’ve always played, then you slide it up one fret for the sharp version.

    The band I’m in does Summertime, and we do it in Em which requires you to go from B to F#7 then back to B in a flash. A first it’s eye watering, but its such a lovely song that I played it for days on end so it’s much easier and less hassle to do.

    Unless you mean F minor 7, at 1313, in which case I just play 5500 and mute the top two strings.

  30. Woodshed November 12th, 2012 2:26 pm

    Kyle: F7 is that, yeah. But Fmaj7 is usually shown as 2413. Which is near impossible to play.

    It’s not the money that holds me back from buying. It’s finding the space to keep them.

  31. Nixon November 13th, 2012 9:08 pm

    Sad to hear you’re disappointed by the harp uke. Love mine, probably my most played uke at the moment.

  32. Woodshed November 14th, 2012 7:22 am

    Nixon: Glad you’re enjoying yours.

  33. G November 14th, 2012 6:40 pm

    So, what’s up with #2 about not starting out on a baritone? I just got one yesterday to play with my equally novice 8 year olds on soprano and concert. What am I missing?

  34. Woodshed November 15th, 2012 10:00 am

    G: The biggest problem with baritone is that there’s a lot fewer learning materials out there. It’s getting better but it’s still lagging a long way behind standard ukulele.

  35. Lizzie November 15th, 2012 11:30 am

    Woodshed – thanks for adding my suggestion and also for the link to the ukulele “blind challenge” on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBNR-N1s-V0

    I have no idea which ones in the challenge are solid wood, which ones are laminate and which ones are laminate with a solid top – I just know which ones I like best from the sound of them.

  36. Woodshed November 15th, 2012 6:13 pm

    Lizzie: You’re welcome, thanks for the suggestion. The list of ukes used is here.

  37. jcmcgee November 18th, 2012 11:55 am

    5557 for fmaj7: http://youtu.be/QsienDb8T1M

  38. Woodshed November 18th, 2012 8:49 pm

    jcmcgee: Yeah, that works too.

  39. Ron Hale November 19th, 2012 7:43 am

    Well, let’s see, Al…

    “Mel Bay’s Ukulele Chords” uses 2000 for FMaj7.
    Ukulele Mike uses it as well in at least one of his lesson videos. Never liked 2413 because to my ears it just simply sounds crap. And 2000 sounds near enough for most mortal ears.

    “I’m Yours”… At this point Mraz is pretty much irrelevant to the ukulele life of this song. It’s a uke classic, like it or not. Whether he uses uke matters not one iota of a whit.

    A visit to YT will find 10,000 videos that do use uke in the song. One of which boasts 58 million views. It probably should have been video of the year for whatever year it came out. Whatever did win has been forgotten by now. Certainly by me.

    Which brings up the issue of revisiting videos of the year and reevaluating them. Like Oscar-winning movies of the year. Which of them stand up years later and which do not.

    You can play anything any way you choose. Grumpy pedants might cringe at Bach being revised, but so what?

    So long as it’s not a baritone? I take it Jeff either didn’t see this post or is being polite to his favorite blogger. I won’t tell him.

    Hipsters playing the ukulele is horrible, period. Ukes belong with their human incarnations — geeks. And “Ukulele Lady” is really pretty tame as far as these things go.
    More on this further down.

    Used to vacation in Waikiki during the late-’80s and early-’90s. The Hawaiian renaissance had matured a bit by this time and island musicians had begun playing the hapa stuff again after rejecting it for years.

    In shows when I visited (don’t recall seeing many ukes then) the hapa songs were the ones that really got the audiences going. They enjoyed the real Hawaiian stuff but for most non-Islanders hapa-haole songs were Hawaiian music.

    When a “Little Grass Shack” type of tune was played people perked up. Now, believe it or not, the same applied to the musicians. By then they were having fun with these songs. Which is what this stuff is — fun.

    The hapa tunes are part of Hawaiian history. Many come from the Islands not the mainland.
    Territorial period songs are loved over there. These songs, as opposed to the Tin Pan Alley stuff, do not mock the people or the culture or the land. Quite the opposite.

    I lived over there in pre-statehood days and this is the stuff I heard as a boy. Can’t recall how I felt about it then, but I like it today.

    As I said, “Ukulele Lady” is pretty tame, but I won’t argue with anyone’s negative view of this type of music. Perfectly legitimate opinion. Not the only one but defensible.

    Buying only Hawaiian-made instruments is not exactly making sacrifices for one’s opinion. I just picked up a Kala Pacific Walnut tenor from Hawaii Music Supply. Why are they selling non-Hawaiian ukes if buying only Hawaiian is so important?

    Laminate, by the by, and sounds good to my ears. Tin, admittedly.

  40. Bill Martino November 20th, 2012 9:57 am

    Here’s a very prevalent myth:

    The Kala U-Bass is a bass ukulele.

    Nope. It’s just a very short-scaled bass guitar. It’s not tuned like a ukulele, and it’s not played like a ukulele.

    Good test: find someone who’s only ever played ukulele and get them to try playing a U-Bass. If they have no idea what to do with it then it ain’t no uke.

  41. JohnnyH November 26th, 2012 8:40 pm

    In addition to the chord inversions part:

    If you have an iPhone or like product, I recommend the GuitarToolkit app (Not just for guitars, has a ukulele option). It is steep at $10, but it is easily the most used app I’ve owned. It has an incredibly extensive chord library that has helped me a ton (As well as other useful things like a tuner and metronome).

    In response to having multiple ukuleles: As a broke college student who could barely afford my one, I’m quite envious of that problem :P

  42. Woodshed November 27th, 2012 10:26 am

    JohnnyH: I have the free version of that app. It’s pretty good.

  43. Shawn Britton December 2nd, 2012 8:12 am

    Brett McQueen’s Ukulele Strumming Tricks course includes an arrangement in Bb of Mraz’s I’m Yours. I use the IPhone app Practice to lower the B original a semitone so I can play along with it. The song is well suited the the Ukulele. The challenge in McQueen’s arrangement is the left hand string muffling.

  44. Scott Gifford March 3rd, 2014 5:29 am

    FM7 — 5500? Or (even better!) 1000? “Thank ya, Jesus!”

  45. Scott Gifford March 3rd, 2014 5:30 am

    Oops — make that 2000. My bad.

  46. Woodshed March 3rd, 2014 8:28 am

    Scott: Glad I could help!

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