Don’t let its size fool you. The ukulele, or uke (pronounced “yuke” — or “ook,” if you’re Hawaiian), is a multi-faceted and versatile instrument. Many things that a guitar can do, a ukulele can do too, albeit with a slightly different method and a contrasting sound.
This compact, four-stringed musical instrument is a big part of the folk culture of Hawaii. Modeled after an instrument brought to the islands from Portugal, “ukulele” literally translates to “jumping fleas,” a unique way to describe what it looks like when the instrument is played.
The ukulele has gained in popularity due in no small part to the late Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoʻole, whose version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” kindled a worldwide uke awakening. More recently, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder recorded a ukulele album, bringing its music to a much larger audience. And today, the virtuosity of players such as Jake Shimabukuro — for good reason often called the “Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele” — continues to inspire musicians and would-be musicians to pick up the instrument.
You should approach the ukulele simply and easily. Use your favorite songs to help you learn the foundations of the instrument. Each instructor has his or her own methods, geared and specifically tailored to each student. Regardless of method, soon enough you’ll be discovering the beauty of chords, and how they work to support a song’s melody. Then, through practice, you’ll learn how to switch chords smoothly while remaining in the song’s tempo as you strum. If you so desire, your instructor can teach you to play melodies in much the same fashion. And if you’re a singer, your teacher can show you how to compose chords while vocalizing the tune.
Is the ukulele right for you?
The ukulele is an instrument for the free spirit. It’s small and travels easily, so you can bring your music everywhere you go. For the same reasons, the ukulele is great for someone who wants to learn music, but isn’t sure where to start. Because of its size and tuning, it’s very easy to start learning and performing songs right away, which also makes it an excellent instrument for children.
What to expect in your first lesson
First, you’ll learn how to tune the ukulele. From there, you’ll learn your first three chords. Your instructor will discuss your musical tastes and, based on your answers, will begin selecting songs for you to learn. Then, we’ll take the inaugural steps toward playing your very first song.
- Tap your foot to help prevent yourself from going too fast or too slow.
- Download a metronome app on your phone; play along with it and try to keep your tempo steady, especially when changing between chords or playing a difficult melodic passage.
- Hum or sing the song melodies as you play your chords.