Tips for Ukulele Newbies
A major goal of our festivals is to attract new players to the ukulele community. On this page you will find mini-lessons that I give to my new ukulele students. Some are a bit different than what you’ll find in typical lessons. I hope they will help you as you learn the instrument we love. And feel free to ask questions using the form below!
If you struggle with rhythms and strumming patterns, this is for you:
The ability to strum your ukulele in time, to the beat of a song, is more important than all other playing skills combined.
I can’t stress this enough: Learn your strumming hand first!
Let me illustrate my point: Anyone can learn where to place fingers on the fretboard. But if you can’t keep the beat, it doesn’t matter how many chords you know–your playing will be erratic.
Now, consider the opposite: If you’ve got a good sense of rhythm and the ability to strum, you can know zero chords and still jam and sing with any group! By lightly wrapping your hand around the fretboard and muting your strings’ musical tones, your uke can be a complimentary percussion instrument, much like a washboard in a jug band.
There are two reasons that some newer players struggle with strumming patterns:
1) They’ve never unlocked their natural sense of rhythm.
2) #1 is true and they tried learning both right and left hand skills at the same time.
A natural sense of rhythm is a cerebral skill. Everyone has it, but in some people it has never been accessed, so it’s locked away. Since we can’t unlock it through hypnosis or psychotherapy, we must use physical exercises. But that’s not a good formula for your brain. It’s sort of like trying to program a computer by using a hammer. The tools don’t match the job. But it’s all we’ve got to work with. So…
The secret to unlocking and developing a good sense of rhythm through physical exercise is to make it as easy as possible on your brain. We do this by eliminating all other outbound tasks. In this case, that means removing left-hand fretting skills from the equation.
How to unlock your sense of rhythm and enhance your strumming abilities:
1) Pick out 3-4 of your favorite slow songs. The slower the better. You may use Youtube, a CD player, a phonograph, or any other source where you can control the music. Songs with few instruments and simple arrangements are best, with a very apparent beat. Avoid heavily orchestrated songs or harmony rich recordings like choirs.
NOTE: These exercises will work best if you are using headphones or earbuds. You must hear the music as clearly as possible.
2) Listen to your first song and try to pick out the beat, whether it comes from a drum, bass guitar, recurring piano note, guitar strum, etc.
3) TAP the fingers of your strumming hand to the beat. You can tap on your leg, a table top, anywhere. You may tap your feet too if you like.
4) Repeat this exercise until you can tap along with all of your songs, then listen to different songs and do the same thing. Do this until you are very comfortable with tapping to the beat of any song.
5) NEXT, mute your ukulele strings by wrapping your left hand around the fretboard, so that your fingers are barely touching the strings, then strum. You should hear no musical tones, just a thudding of the muted strings. If you hear tones, you are pressing too hard. Adjust the pressure of your fingers until you hear just the sound of the strings.
6) Listen to your same 3-4 songs again through your headphones. Again, tap to the beat, but this time lightly across your uke strings.
7) Now, instead of tapping, try strumming the back of your fingers, or your index finger, or your thumb, across your muted strings. Feel the beat of your strumming while you listen to the beat of the music. Strum with whatever fingers feel most natural to you.
Do #7 with a song or two, twice a day, preferably once right before you go to bed. If you can’t yet do #7, do #6 or whatever earlier exercise you can do until you can move on. Continue until you can effortlessly strum in time with all of your selected songs.
8) Final exam! Go to this song on Youtube: Somewhere Only We Know
This song begins with a distinct, clear drum beat that disappears during portions of the song. Your challenge is to keep tapping to the beat of that drum, even when you don’t hear it, until you’re still on beat when the drum returns.
Still can’t feel the beat?
I highly recommend that you continue these exercises and unlock your sense of rhythm before you tackle the left hand in any depth. Hang in there. It happens differently for everyone but it will come!
Success? You got rhythm? What to do next:
If you’ve worked to dial in your rhythm hand, even if you know very few chords, I encourage you to attend a ukulele jam as a percussionist only, to ingrain your new found ability. Just mute your strings and strum along. And don’t be afraid to sing along too! Singing will aid your overall music comprehension and retention.
If you now just want specific strum patterns, here’s a good video from Aaron Keim.
You can certainly do the above exercises with a metronome, but I’ve always found the mechanical perfection of the device less appealing than the ever so slight imperfections of a human performing music.
If you don’t know what songs to pick, here are some suggestions and Youtube links:
Alone Again, (Naturally)
This is not necessarily a slow song, however it does have a recurring tamborine beat repeating at approximately 1 second intervals. Use that beat for the exercises.
How Sweet It Is
A good, steady percussion beat while vocals take a different pattern. Concentrate on the beat, keep it going through the rests.
Heart of Gold
Good drum beat throughout.
1st Golden Rule for Newbies
Don’t lift a finger! (If you don’t need to).
It’s plain and simple. Look for common fingering between chords and keep those fingers in place whenever possible. For instance, compare Am and F major. Your middle finger is on the 2nd fret of the 4th string for both. Keep that in place and just drop or lift your index finger on the 1st fret of the 2nd string to change between chords. Look for every opportunity to do this.
Take Advantage of your Clunkyness!
Introducing the 3/4 Cheat: The first full bar chord you will probably learn is D7. As shown in the left half of the photo above and the chord chart at left, you play it by barring all four strings with your index finger and placing either your middle or ring finger on the 3rd fret of the 1st string. Which finger you use depends on comfort and which chord in the song comes next, but disregard that for now. What I want to discuss here is a “cheat” that occurs when you remove that extra finger.
When most newbies simply bar all four strings, as shown in the right half of the photo, they lose strength toward the middle knuckle and the first string doesn’t get pressed down far enough to achieve a clean tone. Most likely, all you will hear when you pick the first string will be a clunk or a thud. Eventually you will overcome that, but for now, use this “early-bar-chord-clunkyness” to your advantage. Here’s how…
Take a look at the D major chord. Most books will tell you to play this chord by fitting your index, middle, and ring fingertips next to each other, in that tiny space on the second fret. That’s fine and dandy and should be used, but it usually takes a newbie a bit of time to finagle their fingers into that space. So instead, now and then, you can quickly achieve 3/4 of the full chord by barring the entire 2nd fret and taking advantage of the fact that your newbie clunkyness will render the first string mute.
This is an example of my 2nd Golden Rule for Newbies: As long as you don’t play a wrong note in a chord, you don’t need to play all the notes! This is especially true when the chord is played quickly for only a beat or two. But wait, there’s more!
You can now move your clunky, 3-out-of-4-string-bar up and down the neck and achieve other 3/4th of chords! Move it down to the 1st fret and you have C#. Move it up to the 3rd fret and you have Eb! 4th fret? E! 5th fret is F, 6th is F#, and 7th fret is G. Just make sure that first string is thudding merrily along, not creating a musical tone.
And when you're no longer clunky...
Once you build strength so that you can easily press down all four strings, you will find yourself returning to the 3/4 cheat when you need to pull up a quick passing chord. You’ll want to practice controlling that first string pressure with the middle of your index finger for that reason, plus a new, exciting reason:
Once you can press down all four strings cleanly, you’ve unlocked two new chords on every fret!
If you read the Cees section, you’ll remember that the ukulele is tuned to an open C6 chord. Curiously enough, it is also tuned to an open Am7 chord! Why? That requires a little music theory, it has to do with what individual notes are being played in relation to the root note of the chords, but let’s not think about that. Just remember… no fingers on the fretboard = C6 & Am7.
Now, using the theory we touched on in the Clunkyness lesson, if you bar all four strings and move them up the neck, beginning at the 1st fret, you also have two chords at every fret. Here they are:
Bar all 4 strings at:
1st fret: C#6 & Bbm7.
2nd fret: D6 & Bm7
3rd fret: Eb6 & Cm7
4th fret: E6 & C#m7
5th fret: F6 & Dm7
6th fret: F#6 & Ebm7
7th fret: G6 & Em7
That’s enough…you get the idea.
C's The Day & B Flat!
If you strum a ukulele tuned GCEA without pressing down any strings, you are strumming a C6 chord, which is only one finger away from a C major. Because of this and the fact that the key of C has no sharps or flats, a majority of songs in uke songbooks are presented in C. And since you can play a C major chord by pressing down one finger, that’s typically the first chord you learn to play. But there’s no reason a beginner can’t start right off with a little “complexification.” If you do, it will enhance your physical abilities and shorten your learning curve with other chords. Lets do it!
How to “Complexify” your C’s
Take a look at the three chord charts above. The first step in this journey is to substitute the second chart for the first. Just lay the pad of your first finger across the third fret of both the 1st and 2nd strings instead of just fingering the 1st string. This will give you a C5 chord, which has a slightly different sound that will especially compliment songs in the key of C. But the main reason I want you to play a C5 is that it’s half way to a “closed” C major chord, as is shown in the 3rd chart. If you have difficulty pushing both strings down with the pad of your index finger, make sure your thumb is in the center of the back of the neck. This will give you more strength.
Once you can strum a C5 and can cleanly hear all four strings, move on to playing the white dots on the third chart. (Disregard the rest of the chart for now.) Your index finger stays where it is, barred across the 1st and 2nd string. Your middle finger presses the 4th fret of the 3rd string, and your ring finger the 5th fret of the 4th string. This might take a little getting used to. If you’re having trouble at first, build the strength in your hand by slowly pressing down all four strings in the closed C position, then slowly releasing the pressure. Do this exercise about ten times, 2-3 times a day. Within a week you should be able to crush it! Next, an extremely valuable hidden benefit!
Early on in your ukulele journey, you will encounter the Bb chord. It is a very common chord and many folks have trouble with it. We’ll discuss why shortly, but notice the shape. It’s exactly the same as the closed C that you just learned, except with your index finger on the first fret and the other fingers adjusted accordingly.
There are three reasons people have trouble with Bb.
1) It’s typically the first chord learned that involves barring, (but you’ve already got that down from the closed C).
2&3) Strings are hardest to push down at the first fret, because the string length to the nut is at its shortest and the nut is taller than the fret wires. But you’re ahead of the game! You’ve already learned this position up on the 3rd fret with the closed C, where pushing down the strings is easier. And you’ve built up strength in your had with the exercises.
The final hidden benefit is this: You now know a B major chord too! Simply slide your hand up one fret and duplicate this position, with your index finger on the 2nd fret! You are on your way to mastering closed chords by Complexifying your C!
The main point to take from this lesson is to make your Bb easier to play by playing a full C chord first.
About those dots and fancy inlays
Holding your ukulele in the proper playing position will make your playing easier and better! The proper position is with the face of the fretboard perpendicular to the floor…straight up and down, or tilted slightly away from you.
If you tilt your fretboard back toward you, everything will be harder to play. The curve of your left wrist will be more severe, putting extra strain on all the tendons and parts that make up this complex joint. Extra strain weakens your grip and slows your finger movement.
It’s a natural tendency to peek over the top of your fretboard to see what frets your fingers are on. That is already a problem for the reasons stated above. But those dots or pretty inlays on the front of some fretboards make it worse! They seduce your eyes and cause you to tilt the neck even more. Don’t look at them! If you can see them, you are holding your uke wrong! When I have a ukulele made for me, I eschew fretboard decoration for that very reason. Wait until you are a more accomplished player to order fancy inlays.
However, there are good dots too. Dots on the side of your neck are your friends! Use these to help you keep track of where your fretting hand is. Preferably you want side dots at frets 3, 5, 7, 10, and 12. If your uke doesn’t have them, you can get a white paint pen or white-out pen and put your own on. They are also easily installed by any guitar luthier if there is one in your area.
Swivel That Wrist!
And hand…and elbow!
One big mistake that new players make is to approach chord positions with a rigid, stiff wrist and Rigor Mortis fingers. Often they freeze their hand for all future chords in the very first position they ever attempt. Loosen up! If you find a particular chord position hard to manage, rotate your wrist a bit. Move your elbow forward and back a few inches. There is no exact angle you need to achieve.
Sure, you will see guidelines mentioned in books for your left hand fretting positions…thumb in the middle of the back of the neck…fingers at a nice arch, etc. But the main objective is to succeed in cleanly fingering the chord positions without your hand cramping up. Everyone’s hands are different. Find the most comfortable position for you that works!
Do you need a chord book?
Well, they’re not a bad idea, but 99% of the chords in the super popular, 365 song book at left fit on the card below. Click on the card to enlarge.
And if you want a sturdy, water resistant, 5×7″ card of your own, they’re only $1.50. CLICK HERE TO GET ONE!.
Your Strumming Hand's Evolution
As you get comfortable with all kinds of strumming patterns, you’ll want to enhance your abilities with new techniques. Here are my top five:
1) Learn to strum fewer than 4 strings: Much like what was covered in the 3/4 cheat lesson, there will be times when you want to not strum certain strings. Practice your regular strumming but try to stop short of the 1st string, hitting only the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings. Next, hit only the 4th and 3rd strings. The ability to control which strings you hit when strumming will be a must when you’re playing for 15,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl. It’ll come in handy at other times, too!
2) Learn to “pinch” pairs of strings: The goal is to hear the tones from each string simultaneously and at the same volume level. Once you’ve mastered the physicality required to achieve those two goals, learn to selectively pinch different pairs. There are only six combinations: 1&4, 2&4, 3&4, 2&3, 1&2, 1&3. Master these and you’ll open a world of two note melodies to add to your playing
3) Pick individual strings in place of a strum: You will eventually want to add individual notes and runs in between chords. To do this you must be able to selectively hit any of the four individual strings. Just like the pinching exercise above, practice picking individual strings while strumming. Keep the beat going, just substitute a pick for a strum now and then. Add more as you get comfortable!
4: Strum over different areas of your ukulele. Strum over the neck for a traditional ukulele sound, over the sound hole for a deeper, more mellow tone, back by the bridge for a clunky, harpsichordy sound. Experiment! Have fun!
5: Set a goal of learning basic finger picking or clawhammer style. The truth is, most of the best players got that way because of their right hands. Paired with the most rudimentary chords, a dynamic right hand can do wonders.