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How to play ukulele – so much more than just a tiny guitar

Many people know the ukulele due to clichéd depictions of Hawaii, associating this instrument with vacation and the sound of the sea. You're currently thinking about learning to play the ukulele? But you're still having questions? That's why we have compiled a list of the most common questions about the ukulele.

learn to play the ukulele
The ukulele – an underestimated instrument

How is the ukulele constructed?

Although the ukulele looks like a tiny guitar, it only has four strings, unlike its big sister, which has five. The body connects to the neck, where the frets are located, and goes over to the head of the instrument. The strings stretch along the neck to the bridge, which rests on the body.


Are there different types of ukuleles?

There are four types of ukuleles, one for each voice range: soprano, alto (concert), tenor, and baritone. In addition, there are also particularly small models and some with very long necks, which are called longneck ukuleles.


How do I find the right ukulele?

Due to its compact size, most people interested in learning the ukulele wonder if they should choose one to fit their body or hand size. When choosing a ukulele, one should focus on the instrument's sound and timbre, which is determined by its size. Therefore, your body size does not matter, and even children manage to handle larger models.

versions of ukulele

  • Soprano ukulele: This is the most famous type of ukulele that also represents its "original size". This instrument has a dainty body and is tuned backward in G-C-E-A, creating the distinctive holiday sound of the soprano ukulele. Its scale length (the length of the strings between the nut and the bridge) is only 35 centimeters. Contrary to popular belief, the soprano ukulele isn't just a children's instrument and is very popular among many players who prefer to play it exclusively.

  • Concert ukulele: It is slightly larger and enables ambitious players to play louder and more comfortably. It is also tuned in G-C-E-A but has a more substantial body with a scale length of 38 centimeters. This allows the tone to sound deeper while maintaining the typical lively sound the ukulele is known for. Many concert players find it a little easier to handle while maintaining the characteristic sound.

  • Tenor ukulele: These models are not only slightly larger but also offer more tone and volume while providing a much deeper timbre. Usually, they are tuned in G-C-E-A as well, although they do not sound as lively as the soprano or concert ukuleles. The scale length measures 43 centimeters, and the space between the frets is wider. The high G string is often replaced by a low one, achieving an even more harmonic range to make the tenor ukulele sound almost like a guitar.

  • Baritone ukulele: This model was developed in the 1940s and became famous thanks to Arthur Godfrey, an American television star of the 1950s. The scale length is between 48 and 53 centimeters, and it's tuned linearly in D-G-B-E. Its overall sound is deep and full, with a complex volume, making it sound more like a guitar than a ukulele. It's a compromise for ukulele players who want a guitar-like sound and for guitarists who look for a more compact instrument.

ukulele playing at the beach

What material is the ukulele made of?

Traditionally, the ukulele is made of koa. This is a particular species of acacia, but it is found exclusively in Hawaii. Koa provides the typical ukulele sound – balanced, warm, and mellow.

The type of wood used is not so much responsible for the sound quality of the ukulele. Even some models made of plastic can sound convincing.


What does a ukulele cost?

There are already models starting at 20 CHF, but these cannot convince in terms of sound. Of course, you can also invest a few thousand CHF in a handmade ukulele directly from Hawaii, but that might be excessive if you're just getting started. Just orientate yourself to the models between 100 and 150 CHF, as this is a convincing price-performance ratio.


Should I invest in good strings?

You should always invest in good strings. So, you should test your new instrument after buying it to find out if the sound is already convincing. In any case, it makes sense to buy a spare set of strings so that you can keep practicing whenever a string is damaged. Especially nylon strings are recommended here, such as from manufacturers like Aquila and D'Addario.


Such strings are ideal for beginners because they provide a pleasant feel and can also convince in terms of sound. More specialized string types, such as Fluorocarbon, are also well-suited. Check the strings regularly because frequent playing causes wear, and then they need to be replaced. This occurs at least once a year.

concert ukulele for beginners

Do I have to buy a ukulele right away?

Even if the initial investment of around 100 CHF is not particularly high, you can also rent a ukulele in the beginning and then decide to buy it later. In this case, you can first test the instrument. Oftentimes, the providers of such services deduct a part of the rent you paid from the purchase price if you later decide to purchase the instrument.


How can I tune my ukulele correctly?

All ukuleles – except for the baritone ukulele – are tuned according to the Hawaiian G-C-E-A tuning. This takes some getting used to for western ears because this backward tuning is not common here. In this case, a tuner can serve you well. Ignore techniques like "High G" or "Low G", especially in the beginning. With Low G, the ukulele is one octave lower, and this little trick allows for an even greater sound spectrum.


What else do I need if I want to learn to play the ukulele?

The question of whether you need a pick to play the ukulele is debated by many. However, you should avoid using plastic picks because they strain the strings and harden the sound. Instead, opt for a leather or felt pick, both of which produce a great ukulele sound. Advanced and professional players also like to use so-called thumb picks, which can be used like a fingernail and protect your hand. However, most people prefer to play with their hands.


A case for your ukulele would also be useful. A gig bag or soft case should be sufficient if you don't travel much. However, a ukulele case with a hard shell is recommended, if you travel frequently with your ukulele. These models will protect the ukulele even in winter, during dry air, or when you want to store your ukulele for a while.


Some teachers also attach great importance to a strap; for them, no lessons will occur if this strap is missing. Especially for beginners, a strap helps to keep the ukulele always at the right height. Otherwise, the small instrument can be too high or too low.


Another key element is the choice of tuning pegs. Especially in the beginning, make sure you use so-called geared tuning pegs, such as those attached to the side of the headstock. Unlike friction pegs with direct action that go to the back, geared tuning pegs are comparatively easy to operate.

Before picking a ukulele, you should play it once to test it to develop a good feeling for the instrument.

children learn to play the ukuele

What is the ideal age for learning to play the ukulele?

The ukulele is easy to handle in terms of weight and size. A good starting age for children is 6 years because children of this age can already concentrate quite well and are also in the position to operate the instrument well. Upwards there is no age limit, and even older people can have a lot of fun with this instrument.


I am unsure whether I should learn to play the ukulele - what can I do?

Feel free to arrange a trial subscription with one of our teachers. These consist of a manageable number of lessons and allow you to get a feeling for the instrument, the teacher, the practicing, the sound, etc. If you have more questions, don't hesitate to contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

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