Five Tips for Playing Live Ukulele

Today’s post comes from Brazilian ukulele virtuoso João Tostes. He’s one of the top ukulele players in the world in my estimation. So it’s a huge pleasure to have him on.

João has a new live album out called Live Ukulele: Here, There & Everywhere which you can find on Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services via his HearNow and on YouTube.

When we first discussed this in February it seemed like a great tie-in to do a post with tips on playing ukulele live. Although these tips aren’t immediately applicable right now, there’s still great advice for when things return to normal.

Everything changes when you are in front of the crowd. What do you need to prepare before the stage time? What are good things to do when preparing to perform?

The stage… The place most dreamed of by many, where you can feel butterflies flying around the stomach. Sometimes it seems that it takes a life to prepare and then the stage time just disappear when you’re there.
You have to be well prepared to enjoy and have fun. Small things can’t get in the way of your performance. The jitter, fear and tensions of the moment are enough. Get ready to enjoy every minute!

1) Tune your ukulele

This is not a joke. Once in Vancouver to take JHUI classes with James Hill, there were a social night and some of the ukulele teachers were allowed to play live. My uke was in tune – tuned and double checked – and while going to the stage, somebody hit my ukulele headstock and some strings just lost its tune completely. I tried to get everything in place by ear but the rush with time, noise, nervousness and missing a clip-on tuning (which I had and was just a few meters far from me), rendered me a not-that-good-presentation. It’s subtle, but it’s possible to listen.

So, believe me. Even if you use pedals and have a tuner just under your feet, be sure to have a clip-on tuner on the headstock or even on your pocket. You’ll never know when you’ll need it. Even if you know how to tune by ear – which is great and you can learn it if you still can’t, sometimes you need to hurry up and the noise around you is intense: just use your clip-on tuner, but make sure your ukulele is in tune!

2) Practice and preparation

Know what you’re doing. If you are confident of your skills, your live performance is going to be great. If you are playing a song with two different parts (we call A and B parts), are you prepared to start by the B part? I mean, if you are live on television and they ask you to play 30 seconds of some song you are going to play on stage, are you well prepared to start a song by a different part than the beginning? It’s like playing Bohemian Rhapsody starting from “Mamma mia” part, for instance.

This means that it’s good, it’s really better for you if you master the song, if you really know how to play it and all the details. Make sure there is no stone left unturned while you are studying. Then, practice.

It’s also important to highlight that if you are part of a band or you are joining them to play some song, you better know how to change the key, how to transit between different tones. We never know when a singer is getting sick and need to low the tone. Are you prepared to play all the chords in a different key?

3) Gear

This is a big part of the thing. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, just take a sit. When I talk about the gear, I mean: pickup (or mic), cables, picks, capo, strings, tuner, batteries, pedals or multi effects processors, strap, stand, chair, foot rest, power supply, surge protector power strip, anything you need to be ready.

I know that some of you are purists, or just like to hear the acoustic and pure sound of the ukulele. Sorry to tell you but it’s not that simple: even if you don’t use effects or cables and just want a mic in front of you, believe me, there are lots of details to take care of. Think about the mic position: are you comfortable with your hand position or is the mic something that bother you? Are you used to play just seated? Is it a great chair like yours? Do they have something to help position your legs correctly? And if it’s needed to play standing? Lots of questions to think about. So, let’s talk about some of them!

    Pickup: generally, you have the passive and active ones (the actives give you the possibility to change some things, like volume and tone). It’s possible to combine the undersaddle pickup with a microphone inside the ukulele, like Fishman Matrix Infinity Mic Blend (PRO-MAK-MBV) or Double A2U. There are versions of these pickups without the microphone, just with the undersaddle pickup (PRO-MAK-NFV for Fishman and A1U for Double). Also, there is a very nice one called 5.0 (Five-oh) from LR Baggs (this is the one I use in my Ohana Tenor TK-350G). Jake Shimabukuro says that sometimes he needs to put up to 3 t-shirts inside the body of the ukulele to stop noises and things like that, in this case we know that even there is a microphone system inside, it’s not in use. There are other good pickup systems (like Fishman Kula) and some very popular (like UK-300T) which is widely used.
    Mic (ukulele): if you don’t have a pickup system installed on your uke, and prefer to use a microphone instead, you have to be sure that the place where you are going to play live offers this condition to you. Normally it is, so it’s good to test before – I mean a good soundcheck.
    Mic (voice): of course, if you sing you need this microphone, always remember to maintain your mouth in a place where you can sing and also catch a fleeting glimpse of your uke. I insist you must try it at home with proper sound equipment.
    Cables, pedals, power strips and so on: If you use multi effect processors, pedals and things like that, you have to be well prepared and think about your equipment. 1/4 cables are normally offered by people from the sound system, but you might have yours. If you use pedals, it’s normal that you have some patch cables, so in the same way it’s great to always have your own 1/4 cables with you. Also, think you are in a different continent and they use an unknown power supply standard, so be careful and make sure you have your own power strip with some good conversion kit (like international power adapter – travel power strip). Don’t forget backup batteries, when you need them most they will end.
    Capo, picks, tuner, backup strings and strap: Remember to carry the small things with you. If you use picks, have some handy in case you drop the one you’re using. Make sure your strap is well set. Again, don’t forget your clip-on tuner and always carry a set of backup strings.
    Chair, foot rest, uke stand: If you need a chair, try to know the one you’re going to use before you go to the stage – it’s something that is not easy to carry. Try it while checking the sound, and if you think it’s not comfortable as it should be, you may try to use a foot rest. It’s great to try all those things at home, chairs, stools and so on. Also, if your instrument is going to stay on the stage, consider having a ukulele stand, so it will be safe.


Here I mean two different things. The first one is related to stage presence, when you are completely surrendered to art and the crowd is able to feel it. Be spontaneous, be the boss of your space, take the stage to you. Let the people watching you know that you are in love doing it, let them feel your love and passion for the ukulele. Enjoy what you do, people will notice it. The second one is about the way you deal with people around. Did you ever had the chance to be close to your idol? What did they say? Would you do or say the same thing? You must take care of your fans and people who appreciate your work and efforts.

Be ready

Be prepared for surprises: a broken string or cable, a requested song, a “one more” song in the end, when they ask for a song you used to play in the past (but you don’t remember it anymore), someone invading the stage, if your mind goes blank, to tell a joke if the moment asks to, think how to start, what to say to the people, how to end your show.

Don’t forget to watch your favorite artists’ performances. There are lots of good live concerts available on YouTube and we have lots of things to learn from them.

Also be sure: it’s not something you’ll learn just here, just now. Use this text to open up your mind and start to search, read, try, buy, test, and loop it until you have a good experience. It’s all about experience, so go for it and enjoy yourself!

Thanks to João for his insight. Be sure to check out his new album on Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services and on YouTube.

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