Saturday, May 17, 2014

Build Me Up Buttercup

Soon we will be back with one our own instructional videos. In the meantime check out one of my favorite music videos, a cute and ingenious rendition of Build Me Up Buttercup on YouTube. This 1968 hit by The Foundations had many reincarnations since, appearing in many movies and popular TV shows. This seemingly simple little song is actually a progression of umpteen chords in a very creative pattern, making the song fun and bright.

Some like this song, some hate it, musical tastes differ widely. If the need arises I will create a teaching video about this very song, but if you're fast enough you can catch some of the chords right off the original video. It is interesting to note that Julia holds the C chord with her pinky multiple times, thereby making the transitions to/from the neighboring chords more comfortable. Players interested in learning this song also have to contend with the many fast chord changes. Intensive practice can prepare your fingers to make it to the right place on time, chord after chord.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Let It Be - The Beatles

Let's introduce some chords with Let It Be by The Beatles!

What is a chord? Short answer: a chord is a combination of three or more sounds. The ukulele has four strings, so at most you'll be able to sound four notes at the same time. On a piano you can sound up to 12 notes simultaneously, using all ten fingers plus hitting two keys at once with a couple of them. Striking two strings at the same time gives you an interval; striking three or more gives you a chord. Depending on where you put your fingers on the fretboard you'll get different chords. What's the importance of chords, you wonder? When you listen to songs you're actually listening to chords and the tunes based on them. The chord changes determine the mood of the song. Chord shifts and sequences will significantly influence the listener's like or dislike of any given song. Of course there are other factors, such as tune, lyrics, beat, orchestration, and presentation, just to name a few.

What makes a chord on a ukulele? You'll need to know which string/s to leave open, and which string/s on which fret you should place a finger on to create a specific chord when you strum all the strings. Naturally, to make this happen takes practice :)

The four chord charts below demonstrate the chords played in the song Let It Be. A chord chart is a visual representation of you ukulele. The vertical lines are the strings, while the horizontal lines depict the frets. The red dots indicate on which string at which fret you'll place your finger to sound the given chord.

This is a common way to depict not only ukulele chords, but chords for other stringed instruments as well. As you get into learning more songs, you'll learn more and more chords by heart. Let's see how the four chords above will play The Beatles' perennial favorite, Let It Be:

This video will give you a jumpstart on showing you how to hold the chords. A daily 25-30 minute practice routine can quickly get you to a level where ukulele music is fun both for the player and for the listeners. Of course if you can spare more time for practice, so much the better!

Once you get going on the bumpy road of learning chords, you'll see that the limits will be only set by your own musical tastes, by what songs you want to learn. The internet has many websites listing chord charts and lyrics for tons of songs, usually in the following format:

The Beatles - Let It Be

C G Am F
When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
C G Am F
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Am G F C
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree,
there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is still a chance that they will see,
there will be an answer. let it be.

Let it be, let it be, .....

And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light, that shines on me,
shine until tomorrow, let it be.
I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, .....

My teaching video doesn't show you how to play the refrain (Let it be, let it be, let it be.... part) of the song. It is your homework to get through it; just follow the chords written above the lyrics. You can see that from the second verse the chords are not even indicated, because you'll just play the same ones you did during the first verse. To make it easier in the beginning you can copy and paste the lyrics, and write the chords in for quick reference. Listening to the song multiple times and playing along on your ukulele will also boost your learning curve.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Tuning the Ukulele

In this blogpost I'll address the nitty gritty details of tuning your ukulele.Tuning can be a challenge for beginners, and I'd received many requests for detailed explanation of the topic. So, my first instructional video is dedicated to ukulele tuning.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Grab ahold of your ukulele

When watching professional ukulele players on YouTube your attention doubtlessly is focused on the musicians' hands and fingers as you're trying to see how the music is made. You probably won't even notice the subtlety going into the act of holding the instrument, another important aspect of instrumental play requiring special skills and practice.

Before learning to play the uke I've read about the unique circumstances of holding a uke, and the part the instrument's size plays in its successful mastery. Of course, playing a uke with a shoulder strap can eliminate this problem altogether. Due to its small size, the uke doesn't present players with an obvious way to handle it during play, unlike the guitar (or the piano :). This became clear to me very quickly the first time I held a uke in my hands. You have to make sure the uke doesn't crash to the ground even while your left hand is busy supporting the neck and fretting, and your right hand is busy with strumming. My usual mantra works for this scenario as well: It's all just a matter of practice. Assuming short daily practice sessions, a beginner player can get comfortable with holding the uke within a few weeks. Give it a solid month and you'll barely waste any energy on fidgeting with the positioning anymore. From personal experience I can tell you that playing while standing is extremely difficult, except of course if you have a shoulder strap. Sitting on a chair, or perhaps sitting Indian-style, and propping your uke in your lap is the easiest way to hold your uke. Sitting allows you to rest the uke on your upper thigh, so you can relax your grip at all the contact points. (When I was a beginner I even tried to rest the bottom of the uke against the arm of a chair.) So, as the best option, find a comfortable chair and sit. Don't get too comfortable though, leaning back and putting your feet up just isn't going to work. Wedge the uke between your right elbow, forearm, and upper thigh in such a manner that your forearm only touches the soundboard, but not the strings. Angle the uke away from your body just enough that you don't muffle the sound and destroy the acoustics. Left handed players will have to mirror everything described above. Once again, I strongly discourage beginners from playing while standing up without a shoulder strap.


Looking around on YouTube among all the ukulele videos, you will find that the musicians employ many different kinds of strumming techniques. Traditional ukulele strumming is mostly done by the index finger, but some fancier strumming techniques use the thumb and the other fingers as well. Picks (especially the commonly available guitar picks) are not popular with ukulele players because they click the strings and sharpen the sound, none of which enhances the uke's lovely, unique sound. On rare occasions when a pick is called for a felt pick, made specifically for ukes is used.

The simplest strumming, done by the thumb, is mostly used during tuning and while learning/practicing new chords. To play songs and to vary strumming speed, use the basic strumming technique using the index as shown in the video below:

Point at your chest with your right index finger, rotate your wrist downward, and let your index finger strum each string as your hand travels down. Now practice, practice, practice! The perfect combination of the right angle and right speed will sound the strings in unison. There are a lot of requirements to fulfill during strumming, and usual, practice makes perfect! Strumming the right way is not terribly hard, with a little practice you can get it right within a few days. The exciting part comes when you start repeating the strumming motion rhythmically, thus giving the base character to the songs you'll play.

Soon we'll start getting to know the the chords!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Priceless ukulele video

To put you in the mood to play, I'm going to share with you one of my favorite ukulele videos. This video demonstrates what ukuleles can do, or more precisely what a ukulele orchestra can do.

In the video, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performs Ennio Morricone's famous musical score from the 1966 spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The orchestra is composed of six ukuleles and one electroacustic bass guitar. The UOGB is very popular in England, as well as internationally. During their stylish and humorous performances the orchestra plays remixes of wildly diverse songs, including the like of the Morricone score:

In one of my earlier blog posts I'd mentioned the squeaky sound of the soprano uke. I'm mentioning this again to stress the fact that an acoustic ukulele will never sound full toned and bass-like, even with a microphone amplifying its sound. This is the reason behind the particular composition of this orchestra; the various ukulele sounds complete each other for complexity, and the electroacustic bass guitar underlines the rhythm by stressing the strong beats. It is not a coincidence that the guy on the right plays an electroactustic bass guitar and not a "regular" one, as this instrument looks just like a ukulele under a magnifying glass. One of the female musicians (third from the left) is playing on a white resonator ukulele. This special resonator uke is similar to a resonator guitar, like the one pictured on the cover of the Brothers in Arms album by Dire Straits. Resonator ukes have a very unique sound. I'll talk about them in more detail later, for now I'll just mention that they can be pretty pricey. Until then it's worth watching this excellent, well-constructed video a few times.

a resonatore uke in the middle

Friday, October 18, 2013

Naming parts and tuning strings

The following illustration shows the main parts of the ukulele, named just like the parts of its bigger cousin, the guitar. Any part might have more than one name. 

Knowing the names of parts doesn't bear with any practical significance, but it's nice to know what part of your instrument you're talking about. It's much classier to say "tuning pegs" than "that twisty thingy up there".
Learning the importance of tuning before strumming your ukulele is much more important. This step is an absolute must, especially if you are a beginner, and even if you find it difficult or boring. Let's get your uke in tune! This post is going to address standard tuning only. My goal is to help brand new players just sitting down with their new toy. (Patience, my musically advanced readers, as this post will not cover basic music theory either.)
Holding the ukulele as you'd hold a guitar, the strings will be tuned to the following notes in a top to bottom order: g-C-E-A. Just to keep things interesting, the high g is commonly noted as the 4the string, followed by C as 3rd, E as 2nd, and A as 1st strings. The lowercase g indicates that this note is higher than the G you'd expect in a guitar style tuning. Hopefully, I don't have to explain how to hold a guitar. You've all seen a guitar player, no? The gCEA order is true if you hold the neck of the ukulele in your left hand, which is typical for right handed players. If you hold the neck in your right hand, as typical for lefties, the order of the strings will be reversed. You can play the ukulele this way too, but it will be a little different. More about this later. So, back to standard tuning: assuming you don't have a badly out of tune instrument, plucking the strings in order will produce a high g, followed by the lower C and E, and finally the A.

On a properly tuned uke the pitch of the high g will be somewhere between the E and the A. Those familiar with guitars will remember that on guitars the order of the strings goes from lowest to highest pitch. Having a high pitch g as the first string you pluck, followed by lower pitched ones, is one of the ukulele's specialty. Among other things, this gives ukes their unique sound. (As a side note: a common alternative to standard tuning is to replace the high g with a low G string, making the fourth string lower in pitch than the C of the third string.)
In summary, the standard tuning of a ukulele is as follows: gCEA. How to tune your uke's strings to these sounds, you ask. There are two types of tuning to choose from: absolute or relative. I'm a firm believer in absolute tuning, which is the tuning of each individual string to the pitch it is named after. You'll tune the g string to a g pitch, the C string to a C, and so on. When done, the name of each string will correspond to the pitch it will play. With relative tuning the player picks one string, and tunes the rest of them to it. In this case, for example, the g string will probably be off, but the tune or chord played will still sound good, because the pitch of the other strings is tuned to g string, so the instrument is basically in tune to itself. Relative tuning is useful when no other tuning methods are at hand, but makes jamming with other players impossible. Enough about relative tuning though, instead let's talk about the much simpler and more precise absolute tuning.
For absolute tuning you'll need a tool that will indicate or check which direction you'll need to modify the tension of the strings. When you tune your strings you tune up by tightening the string, and you tune down by loosening the string, until you get to the proper note.
I've found many tuning programs on the internet, some made specifically for ukuleles. I've used this one in the past:

Online Ukulele Tuner

By pressing play below any of the four strings, you can listen to the given sound over and over. In the meantime, you're turning the tuning peg of the given string slowly and carefully on your uke, plucking it after each adjustment. When you hear the same sound out of your ukulele and the speakers, you're done. Training your ears so that you can tell when the two sounds (uke string and computer) are at the same pitch takes some practice. Keep at it, be patient, and you'll get the hang of it. Don't skip tuning, because playing a well tuned ukulele will make your play sound so much better.
Spending $15-20 on a chromatic tuner can make the job of tuning even easier. Chromatic tuners have tiny microphones that listen to the pitch, showing the name of the note you're playing on a display screen. Now you can read if your string's pitch is too high, too low, or just right. I think of tuning this way as visual tuning, since you don't have to use your ears at all. Clip on chromatic tuners, like the one shown on the picture, come in very handy when tuning in a noisy place, perhaps among other players. the g string is still a little the position of the lower left tuning peg...on the right the g string is in tune

I'd like to mention that the standard gCEA tuning is used for soprano, concert, and tenor size ukes. Depending on string set, baritones are usually tuned to DGHE, but I'll explain this in detail in a later post.

Once again: do not skimp on tuning! Tuning is the base for great sounding ukulele play. In the beginning this could take you up to 5 minutes, but with practice you can get it done in 15-20 seconds.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Let's Go Shopping - for a ukulele

A beginner ukulele player will probably wonder: what kind of uke should I buy? There is no perfect answer to the question, but to make it a bit easier I'll explore a few options to consider various perspectives.

The price-range for ukuleles goes from $20 for the cheapest models to hundreds or even thousands for the high end ones. First and foremost I'd like to talk you out of buying the $20 models, unless you are just looking for another knickknack to collect dust in your home. These super cheap, poorly constructed ukuleles are built from the cheapest materials. You really do get what you pay for: they are difficult to tune, they hardly hold a tune, and even the most careful tuning will result in false chords, flat notes, and unpleasant timbre. A less than desirable instrument like this could put you off learning to play the ukulele forever. Here is a picture of such a ukulele (without naming brand, model, or price):

I don't believe in starting off with a low end, cheap beginner's instrument, and waiting to upgrade later. It's worth it to pay a little extra right off the bat for a better quality starter instrument if you truly want to learn to play the ukulele. The small financial sacrifice will pay off immediately: you can spend your time learning and practicing chords, instead of tuning and retuning to get something more than discordant sounds out of your new instrument. For example, this middle of the price-range, well-built, great quality beauty would serve you well throughout your musical adventures:

Of course it is difficult to decide what kind of ukulele to purchase based solely on pictures. Just like with everything else, price will tell a lot about the quality of instruments: a cheap instrument will probably be a lemon, a total waste of money. In addition, I highly recommend investing in at least a soft shell for your ukulele. I personally prefer hard cases as they provide total protection. Finally, pick up a tuner to complete your setup. A basic, decent quality ukulele starter set (including a case and a tuner) will cost about $150-200. Using a free on-line tuner or downloading a free tuner app could save a few bucks.

It's a good idea to do thorough research on the web before buying a ukulele. If all goes well I'll be posting about my own ukulele testing experiences here in the near future. Until then, here is a short list of some of the many ukulele brands available: Abbott, Ana'ole, Antoniotsai/ Hanworks, aNueNue, Applause (Ovation), Aria, Ashbury, Ashton, BeBop, Beltona, Brownsville, BugsGear EleUke, Bushman, Clearwater, Cole Clark, Collings, Earnest Instruments, Cordoba, Favilla, Fender, Flea, Fluke, Gibson, Greg Bennett (Samick), Gretsch, Hamano, Harmony, Hawaiian Ukulele Company, Hilo, Honu, Ibanez, Johnson, Kala, Kamaka, Kanile'a, Kau'wela, Keli'i, Kiwaya, Fender, Keech, Ko'olau, Koa Pili, Koko, Keli'i, KoAlana, KoAloha, Kumalae, Laka, Lanikai, Lazy, Le Domino, Lehua, Leolani, LoPrinzi, Luna, Lyon and Healy, Maccaferri, Mahalo, Makai, Makala, Martin, Mele, Mid, Mitchell, Morelli/Santini, National, Ohana, Ookook, Ortega, Oscar Schmidt, Pahu Kani, Pono, Regal, Republic, Riptide, Rogue, Road Toad, Savannah, Slingerland, Stagg, Swagerty, T's Guitars, Tangi, Tanglewood, Universal Worldwide Trading, Vineyard, Uluru, Weissenborn, Yamaha

When buying a uke, you get to choose your size. As I explained in the first blog entry, there are four main sizes of ukulele. From smallest to biggest they are: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. It's up to individual tastes which size you decide on. If you are completely unfamiliar with the sizing of ukes, I strongly advise to go to a music store and check them all out. Sopranos play melodies beautifully. They produce sound that is sharp and bright, not very orotund, and the chords sound bubbly. I think the soprano is too small for men, making it difficult to hold chords for the average hand-size. For large, manly hands I recommend concert, tenor, and baritone size ukes. In my opinion the chords sound better on larger size ukes as well. Ladies, with generally smaller hands, can take advantage of the soprano's smaller size. It's worth noting that while hand and finger size is important for forming chords, the whole length of the arm is important for holding the instrument during play, especially when there is no shoulder strap. For a man with long arms it might be uncomfortable to hold the body of the small soprano uke. Comfort with any size of uke depends on practice and habit. When choosing the size of the ukulele, beginners should aim to match it to their own capabilities.
If you can afford the $200-250 price range, an electric-acoustic ukulele might be a good option. The great thing about electric-acoustic instruments is that it can be used even without all the electrical bits. Unplugged, an electric-acoustic uke will still have a great sound, because the full body transmits and enhances the traveling sound. An even greater thing about these instruments is that hooking up to an amp can transform them into full fledged band instruments, adding amazing sounds to round out the musical effect. I suspect that most beginners will not pick an electric-acoustic uke as their first instrument. In later posts I'll talk more about electric-acoustic ukuleles. Until then, here is a picture of the output jack on the bottom of the body:

As seen, there are plenty of aspects to consider when choosing your perfect ukulele: price, brand, model, size. There is no simple answer. Finally, I'd like to suggest that you only order online if you are 100% sure about what you're going to get. If you're buying from a musical instrument retailer and you want a special order, wait until you can actually hold it in your hands before you commit to anything. Don't buy something that doesn't suit your needs just because it's on hand at the store.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

So why should you learn to play the ukulele?

The answer to this interesting question is not tied solely to the ukulele. Musical instruments are among humanity's greatest contributions. Instrumental play accompanies and completes the human voice, often enhancing it with intricate, artistic compositions. The international language of music connects people of various cultures, nations and backgrounds. Afterall, making music and listening to it are an essential part of what makes us human.

Now let's get back to the ukulele! As I described in my first post, ukes are simple, four-stringed instruments. Their simplicity allows even musically untrained folks to get quick results when starting to learn to play. This is very important, because most people will quit or simply won't even start learning an instrument due to the typically steep initial learning curve. Mistakes and difficulties discourage new players, generate a feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness, and many people will just give up practicing. Learning any new skill takes time. There is virtually no one who will, for example, sit down at the piano for the first time in their lives and play a palatable tune. Learning to play an instrument at an enjoyable level depends on time and work invested. Of course, there is also a variation in talent, which will also greatly affect the learning speed. I can honestly say that a beginner with a minimal 15-20 minute daily practice routine will get pretty fast results. Within a month or two you'll be able to play a few tunes with confidence and know the major chords by heart.

This is why I encourage you, and everyone else (regardless of age), to reach for a ukulele and start strumming. Follow this blog to get tips, advice, and reviews to help you along your journey!