Life in TransitA Digital Nomad in Asia

Ukulele - Beginner's Guide

RJ demonstrates some ukulele techniques to Joey and Paul at the Ukulele Groove festival at Sentosa's Merlion Park in Singapore.

Sam, my friend from Canada, expressed her interest in playing the ukulele. This inspired a blog post about the topic.

Why would I want to learn to play the ukulele?

Please share your answer in the comments below

Before you purchase your first ukulele, before you learn your first chord, you are probably asking yourself:

“Why would I want to learn to play the ukulele?”

I started on the ukulele journey when I purchased my ukulele a year ago with my cousin. However, it sat around until February 2013 when I found some awesome people to jam with. These are some of the reasons I bought the ukulele in the first place, as well as some I discovered along the way.

The ukulele is a portable instrument that can travel with you almost everywhere. A soprano ukulele can fit in a backpack so if you don’t mind being a little rough with your instrument in lieu of convenience, it can be your loyal, ever present, companion.

As a traveller with a ukulele, people are often curious about the instrument you are carrying and it’s a great way to break the ice and meet people.

The ukulele cradles nicely in your arms, and has a relaxing feel to it when you play. It feels way more comfortable and laid back than the guitar I used to play briefly.

The four nylon strings generate a bright tone that make even the gloomiest day feel like it had a dash of sunlight.

Last but not least, you meet a lot of ukulele players! It’s a growing trend these days.

Without further ado, let’s get you started on this same journey!

Purchasing your first ukulele

Ukuleles come, mostly, in four sizes. Soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The quality of your ukulele depends mostly on your budget.

As a beginner, you have the option to sacrifice sound quality and go with a cheap ukulele just to try it out. As you progress, you might decide on the least expensive upgrade: the strings.

I have an inexpensive Kohala KO-S soprano ukulele upgraded with the popular Aquila Nylgut strings.

I would go for the soprano, concert or tenor and not the baritone as your first ukulele. The reason for this, is that the baritone has a different tuning from the other three (gCEA). Your chord formations would be the same across the soprano, concert or tenor ukuleles but not the baritone.

Of the three, I have a soprano, but I feel like I would prefer a concert. The longer strings on the concert would reverberate more and the larger box gives your strum a little more volume. Furthermore, I do have slightly wide fingers and trying to cram three of them on a single fret on my soprano is challenging.

Girls with smaller hands and kids might like the soprano ukulele though.

The tenor, though I feel it produces a fuller sound, would be a little bulky to carry around if you are travelling and the concert sits nicely between the very portable soprano and larger tenor.

Play around with the ukulele and see what feels comfortable. I find people tend to invest in many ukuleles, maybe even one each of soprano, concert and tenor. Though as a traveller, I could probably do with just one – or two if I upgrade to a concert.

Strumming your first chord

Chords in the key of C - easy set of chords that will let you play almost any song!

There are lots of great chord charts out there, so you can Google the chords and find your favourite chart. I like to transpose everything down to the key of C, even though my larynx prefers a D when I want to sing along.

Learn the chords C, F, G, Am and Em – I created the chart above just for you – and you can play many songs out there.

Other resources

I use the app U-Chord on Android to find my chords. It shows you variations of the chord and even plays the sound of the chord to make sure you get it right. There probably exists an equivalent for iOS.

The site Ukulele Tabs allows you to search for the most popular tabs on that site – monthly or overall. This offers you an easy way to find popular ukulele songs along with current hits you can play with your friends.

Over at Ukulele Hunt, there is an awesome post with 13 strumming patterns accompanied by audio so you can hear how it should sound, not just look at the characters D and U for down and up.

Amazon has a great selection of ukuleles if you can’t wait to get one!

Staying motivated

Ukulele jamming with Paul, Angela and Joey at the Ukulele Groove festival at Merlion Plaza in Singapore.

As I travel around Asia, I attempt to find ukulele interest groups and get to meet a lot of people through the groups. This comradery keeps me motivated to improve my skills.

Besides learning from YouTube, you will also inevitably find an experienced player with a wealth of ukulele knowledge they are willing to share. Ukulele players are not rock stars. If anything, I feel they are warm, welcoming people who spread peace and love – of ukulele – around the globe. I’m just kidding. We’re not hippies, but we love our instrument.

Travelling with my ukulele has allowed me to meet some really awesome people. Have fun on your ukulele journey and I hope we’ll get to jam together one day!

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