Behold the Ukulele

Posted: September 20, 2011 in Techniques

During my internship, we had a ukulele.  No one really knew how to play, it was more there as a prop for kids, something to let them play as a substitute for a guitar.  However, we also had an instruction book, so I sat down and learned the instrument.  Not long after that, I got my own ukulele and have been enjoying using it as an alternate instrument.  I even did a presentation on how to play in one of my graduate classes.  It’s a fun instrument, but I think a lot of people view it as a novelty.  So, as a public service, I’d like to pass on a few tips for learning the mighty uke.

First of all, if you know how to play guitar, picking up the ukulele is fairly simple if you already know how to play guitar.  If you don’t know how to play guitar, the rest of this is not going to make much sense.

Ukes only have four strings, and they are tuned G-C-E-A.  As opposed to a guitar, the G is actually a fifth higher than the C.  This tuning is known as the “My dog has fleas” tuning because that’s how some people remember what the tuning sounds like – it’s a musical mnemonic device.  At the barest minimum, you could tune the A down a step and have a C major chord, then use your index finger on the different frets to change what you’re playing.  I use this method a lot when having clients play the uke, then I just play in C major so we’re at least in the same key.

So, you may have noticed that the intervals of ukulele tuning are a major 4th higher than guitar tuning: G-C-E-A instead of D-G-B-E (except for that higher G, which I guess would technically be another octave, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say a fourth).  This means that, when fingering chords, you’ll be using fingerings you already know from playing guitar, minus the lowest two strings.  You also have to use your transposition skills.  A G chord on a guitar corresponds to a C chord on the ukulele.  D on guitar equals G on uke.  C on guitar equals F on uke.  And so on  If you think about it this way, it takes away some intimidation of learning all new chords – it’s the same chords you know already, minus two strings and up a fourth.

This is the standard tuning for a soprano ukulele.  There are also baritone ukes out there, bigger and with tuning that corresponds to the guitar (D-G-B-E), as well as tenor ukes that share soprano tuning with the first G lowered an octave.  But I like my soprano uke, and I’ll keep using it.  If you don’t have one, I’d encourage you to look into getting one.  They’re not terribly expensive, but don’t go with one that’s too cheap – they’ll be impossible to keep in tune.

All that being said – expect some uke music in upcoming YouTube Fridays.  Thanks for reading!

-Jesse

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