It strikes me as pretty obvious, considering the huge upsurge in uke popularity this year, that there will be quite a number of new ukuleles in the hands of beginners come this December 25th.
A lot of you new ukers will open that present with delight, stare in awe at the thing, and then wonder what to do next. I'd also wager that many will get frustrated, annoyed and sore during the next few days - but bear with it - there is no need to be scared, and the frustrations can be calmed.
I thought, therefore that I'd write a quick beginners tips post aimed directly at all those new players we are going to have! Bookmark this page!
1. Get it in tune!
Obvious huh? Well yes, but straight out the box, many ukes will need a bit of work to get them tuned properly. First off, it would be a big help if you have a clip on tuner. If you are getting a ukulele for a friend or significant other reading this, go buy one now! I recommend something like the Snark or this one from D'Addario, but there are dozens of models available at reasonable prices. If someone else is buying, drop hints, or buy one yourself just in case! Failing that, you are going to need something to give you a reference pitch such as a piano, or an online tuner or iPhone app.
Got those sorted? Good, now to tuning. Out of the box, many ukes will have the strings quite loose for transit so you need to start winding. Use a reference pitch (such as from a piano) to get the note close then fine tune with the clip on tuner (or by ear) from there. Bear in mind that you want some tension in those strings. Floppy and buzzy is bad. When getting to roughly the right note ensure you are not tuning to the note that is an octave below the one you need! Worse still, don't tune to the octave above or you will snap them! For reference see - How To Tune Your Ukulele
2. The need for stretching
When those new strings are in tune it's perfectly normal for the uke to go out of tune really quickly. Strings are made of nylon or flourocarbon and will naturally stretch quite an amount until they reach their optimum. Out a tuned uke down on Christmas day with new strings and they are likely to be flat again on Boxing Day morning. You need to allow them to stretch the natural way by playing and tuning, and bear in mind this could take days. Some people will suggest tugging and twisting at the strings to speed this up, but I would exercise caution here as it can shorten the life of the string very easily. What I tend to do is tune mine up half a step higher than normal pitch then strum it VERY hard for 5 minutes, and repeat. You may need to do this a few times, but it's certainly quicker than just looking at the instrument and waiting!
3. Get your learning materials together
Alongside your uke, there is a good chance you got a songbook or two in your Christmas stocking. Bear in mind though that the internet is your friend and a search for "Ukulele Songs" will give you all the resources you need. Have a browse and print of songs that are simple to learn and that YOU know and like the idea of playing. You should also print of a set of ukulele chord charts and keep those handy. For song ideas, have a look at my song page uke song page, but there are many others.
Now before you know it, those sheets of paper are going to get dog-eared, or have the Christmas sherry spilled over them - do what I do - get an A4 ring binder and some clear plastic wallets with the punched holes - store your song sheets and chord chart in there and you have a complete set of your learning materials at hand, in protective covers!
4. Take it easy
If you have never played a stringed instrument before you will face early frustrations and possibly pain (sorry, but it's true!). Frustration and pain will only serve to put you off and disillusion you with the instrument, therefore, take care!
Start off slowly, aiming to understand the fingering of three or four major chords first, and practice those, and then how to move between them at will. I'd suggest C, G, F, A, Em and D will get you by on most basic songs.
As for the songs theselves, again, keep it simple. Choose basic slow songs you know well with only 2 or 3 chords. You will get far more reward learning to play a song like this well in your first few days than banging your head against a wall trying to learn a fast paced song with 20 chords in it. I often tell people to try Nursery Rhymes - sounds silly but think about it - you all know the tunes, words, tempo, so all you need to concentrate on is the uke!
As for the pain, sore fingertips and in some cases, hand cramps are perfectly normal. You are asking your hands to hold shapes and do things they are not used to. Whilst only practice will get through this barrier, listen to your fingers and don't battle on to the point it becomes a chore, that will only frustrate you.
5. Concentrate on simple key techniques
In terms of fretting, ensure that in your practice you aim to keep your fretted fingers in clean positions. You want to be landing fingertips perpendicular to the fingerboard in between the two frets. If a chord buzzes, or a note sounds muffled you are fretting wrong and this will affect your sound and enjoyment.
When it comes to strumming, as I say above, keep this simple too. Concentrate first on getting a steady simple rhythm in place that you can keep up continually. Don't get bogged down following complex strum patterns if you cant master a slow steady clean up down strum!
Christmas... - houses full of guests, presents hidden under discarded wrapping paper, parties, alcohol, inquisitive children. Ukuleles can be fragile and will not stand up well to being trodden on or dropped. Avoid tears on Boxing Day by keeping the uke in a case when not playing, and if you don't have one, in a cupboard or on a shelf out of harms way!
7. It's Christmas, there's lots of other stuff to do
Hey, don't forget, it's Christmas, there is lots of fun to be had, don't get over obsessed, and enjoy yourself with friends and family. That said, try to get regular practice sessions in - the more regularly you practice the quicker you will progress!
8. Have fun, and look forward to a lifetime with a uke
What more can I say?
Have a great Christmas everyone!