Can We Stop With The Easy Ukulele Myth? | GOT A UKULELE - Learn Ukulele, beginners tips and reviews

14 Jun 2015

Can We Stop With The Easy Ukulele Myth?

You probably have noted something of a common theme in my rants on Got A Ukulele. They tend to react to the tripe that is touted around on social media mainly, the naysayers, the rule makers, the opinionated. Yet there is one myth that beats all the others and from which I think most of them are formed. The statement that the ukulele is 'easy'.


ukulele strings

The media are terrible culprits and in the last few months I have seen loads of news site coverage, supposedly promoting the instrument, saying that the uke is 'easy to play'. They also almost always say they are cheap, but that is a whole other rant....




But here's the thing. The ukulele is not all that easy to learn and beginners will come across all sorts of barriers, hurdles and issues when starting out. I mean, it's not astro physics, but to say it is 'easy every damn time you write about it is really not true either. And that misconception then tends to lead to a few things happening. Firstly it can cause dejection or giving up. The: 'hang on, I was told it was easy, it must just be me, I can't do this' feelings kick in. You are told endlessly that this thing is a breeze to play but you just don't find it is working. What is wrong with you? In short, probably nothing at all.

The other common result is that people tend to go for the cheats that I have talked about on here before and avoid the difficult bits. This usually results in avoiding certain chords in songs altogether, and I think that is such a shame. Would you really consider yourself a piano player (or heaven forbid a trusted voice on the subject) if you only knew how to play with the white keys? My comment on cheats recently raised some hackles, and it really wasn't meant to be disparaging. It was really a rally against those who tell other beginners not to bother trying with more difficult stuff.

I suppose there is a third result of the 'it's easy' myth. Some people do develop quite quickly on the ukulele and, unlike any other instrument I know of, then take to social media after one month of playing and put themselves forward as a master of the instrument (with quite forceful opinions to boot). I've been playing ukulele for nearly ten years, and guitars for twenty before that and I don't consider myself to be a master (or anywhere near it). With this instrument though, a little knowledge can go too far.. And the 'this is how you 'must' play it brigade are born.

So, no. The ukulele is not super easy. And if you are just starting out and facing difficulties that is TOTALLY normal. The instrument doesn't owe you anything and all good skills require some effort. Unless you are some sort of prodigy (or have been playing strings for a lifetime) you will face challenges with the plucky little instrument that you were assured was a breeze to play.

One thing I will say before we examine some of the more obvious challenges is that the ukulele IS easier to pick up than many other instruments. It can have a more forgiving learning curve than, say, the guitar does for many people. But that doesn't mean you will master it in a fortnight either.

Aside from the initial challenges that beginners may face in even holding the thing steadily, the early stage difficulties come on two main areas. Surprise surprise - they are with the strumming hand and the fretting hand. Now, this blog post doesn't aim to give you all the answers - the Beginners Tips Page on this site is there for that if you want to go browsing, but it's here to let you know these issues are normal and nothing to worry about. An antidote to the usual media blurb extolling the easiness if you will.

With the strumming hand, beginners will face challenges with things like their fingers getting tangled in the strings (really - this will go away with practice as your hand learns to attack the right strings in the right way) and with maintaining a steady tempo. The latter is often not assisted by beginners wanting to learn complex strum patterns before they have learned basic timing. (I blogged about that HERE). My advice is simple - whilst learning -  don't run before you can walk. Concentrate on clean and regular rhythms before getting more complex. Learning rhythm and tempo first is essential in most forms of music. If you don't learn to do the basics you will just end up with messy patterns further down the line. So I say, for beginners - keep this bit simple until you develop and you are totally comfortable with the strum.

With the fretting hand, the beginner will face all sorts of challenges. The sore fingertips are perhaps the first thing you have to contend with, as those strings DO dig in to fingertips of anyone who hasn't played strings before. Keep going, and it does get better. Hand cramps and aches are another common problem but this too is normal. Forming chord shapes means asking your fretting hand to form shapes that are not really natural in daily life and they can hurt. For some people they consider them impossible and try to find the cheats. Unless you have a medical condition that reduces mobility in the fretting hand (or are missing digits) they are not impossible.

And then, bear in mind that these issues and challenges have to come together. The ukulele isn't particularly useful without both the strumming / picking hand AND the fretting hand doing their thing at the same time. Add on top of that a layer of trying to hold and balance the instrument and... No, for a beginner these things are not easy.

So please, if you are trying to teach a newcomer, or encouraging someone to play, please be very careful how you throw the word 'easy' around. Most new players will have struggles and it's normal. The ukulele CAN be a serious instrument but pretending it's easy doesn't really help the cause. Like most skills in life the answers come with practice, practice, practice. A concept that seems to be alien to some would be advisors who have played for a month...

So if you are struggling, do keep at it. Things do get easier and before long you will look back at the advice you heard that it was all plain sailing and laugh. Just don't expect that to happen overnight...

Good luck!



15 comments :

  1. Barry, it takes a beginner, like me perhaps, to realise that you are talking to me/us. I did try to learn guitar once some time back, my instructor would demonstrate something and even when he carefully slowed down the instruction he would nearly always end up with the phrase "piece of cake" There can be few things so discouraging when learning 'anything' than to hear what you are working at so hard to be described as easy!
    Blogs like yours do more to encourage learners than a hundred 'experts' telling us it's easy as if just saying it makes it so. Keep up the great work and from this beginner, thank you.. because each time I get to achieve some advance I don't think it took me a long time for something that is easy I think "hey I just did something musical after a lifetime of wishing I could play!"

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  2. Well said, Barry. Every word a truth.

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  3. This is an excellent article.

    When I first picked up the ukulele, a bit over two years ago, I also heard everywhere how easy an instrument it would be. Having had no exposure to string instruments before at all, and just having hit forty, it was anything but easy for me. Nothing about learning some of the first basic chords, like G or G7 felt easy or natural. Those weren't movements or positions my hands and fingers were used to.

    Strumming also wasn't straight forward. My fingers would get tangled up in the strings, or I'd hit only three, or it sounded muted, or I hit the body. Using the thumb? Didn't work! And when none of those things happened, it still didn't sound like in the videos that made it seem to trivial.

    Even holding the thing was tricky. It kept slipping off, I was confused about where to exactly put my thumb and still support the slippery instrument, and how could I hold it with my right arm without cramping up? (Getting rid of the idea I need to learn how to play without a strap fixed this -- Lori's Uke Leash was a blessing!) I started to wonder if somehow I had hands that were completely different from everyone else's, because I sure couldn't rest the neck in the web between index finger and thumb while still forming chords properly.

    Meanwhile, everyone said it's so easy and anybody can play songs after a few hours! I couldn't. So not only did I feel clumsy and unmusical, but also inept and hopeless. I failed at something that was supposedly so easy everyone could get decent at it within a brief time. (And let's not talk about the nerve wrecking adventure of changing strings for the first time!)

    A direct result of that was that I lost interest for a while. Actually, no, I didn't lose interest in the ukulele.

    I lost interest in feeling stupid.

    It took me a while to crawl out of that hole and pick up the instrument again, this time with more determination to deal with the beginner troubles, and certainly with more realistic expectations to myself. (Reading Gary Marcus's "Guitar Zero" book helped greatly with motivation. Anyone feeling hopeless or "too old" or "too unmusical" should read this.) Approaching it with the mindset of learning ukulele being pretty challenging, and it requiring steady practice just like any other new skill, made this a much more enjoyable and rewarding activity.

    At least in my case, the myth of the ukulele being easy nearly drove me away and caused me to give up. I'm glad I didn't! It's a fantastic hobby, just not an easy one. :)

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  4. Mivo, Lesley, Ray - thank you. Comments like yours make this blog worthwhile. you would not believe the backlash this post has created - so many people coming out of the woodwork and claiming to is totally wrong. Quite unbelievable.

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  5. I came very close to giving up on ukulele after only a few weeks because whilst it's relatively easy to fret and strum chords, to me that's not really playing the ukulele. I was trying to play it like a guitar and I wasn't really satisfied with that (some are and that's fine for them).

    There are so many little intricacies that I like about the ukulele and it's those intricacies that I think give it a unique sound. As 'easy' as it is, or supposed to be, I doubt I'll ever be as good as I want to be but I'm ok with that. It's all about progress.

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  6. I think EASY is relative! I have played guitar and banjo with many bands for years, but never tried a uke, so when I was first given one to try I found the chord shapes to be the same as I had been using all my life but without cutting into my fingers, it was so light to hold and sorry to say it, for me EASY to play. Unlike the banjo which after two gigs on the same day would cripple me. I think the term easy to learn and play means compared to other stringed instruments and in that case I would agree.

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  7. You are right! it isn't easy, but it is a lot of fun. I've joined a group of "any skill will do" uke enthusiasts and it's done wonders. I recommend it. (and I'm not usually a joiner.)

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  8. Play and master are two very different things. We work with our newbies so they can play along with the group; we even use one finger chords to get them started along with any number of cheats.

    It’s about playing to succeed.

    Mastery of an instrument is something entirely different and very few ever do this.

    So, I’m a player and happy to help others play along.

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  9. Spot on article, sir!
    (And you're right about the "cheap" aspect, too. That's truly worth a rant of it's own...)

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  10. For me the myth that the ukulele is "easy" stems from the fact it only has four strings. In very much the same way you hear people bang on that the bass guitar is "easy to play" and it very much isn't. Admittedly it depends on what your definition of easy is. Like all fretted instruments it's much easier to get an accurate C on a ukulele than say a violin. And like you mentioned the learning curve for the ukulele isn't as steep as other instruments. Although that shouldn't detract from the time, effort and skill needed to become very good at it. While like the bass guitar I feel the people who are most synonymous with the instrument inadvertently give it a bad name. Take Sid Vicious for example, it's well known that he couldn't play the bass guitar (even Lemmy tried to teach him) yet could get away with being in the Sex Pistols. But what people forget is that Sid didn't play on their records, Steve Jones did. And for entirely different reasons, the ukulele equivalent is of course George Formby. Due to his comical nature and innuendo ridden songs, people tend to look past the fact he’s playing some complicated stuff. It’s laced in intricate strumming patterns and uncommon chords. And instead perceive him as a goofy Northern man with his small goofy instrument, which brings me neatly on to my next point.

    It's something you've mentioned before but the ukulele is unfairly perceived by the outside world as a toy. Like everyone else I loved your Ready Ace review, but that instrument is the epitome of what it wrong and only helps perpetuate a lot of misconceptions. As well as possibly turning people off the instrument for life. And I have to admit I somewhat fell into that trap although thankfully the Soprano I picked up cost more than twice, holds tune while the chords are perfectly recognisable. It is however uncomfortable to play after a while so my progress was really slow. Since Christmas however I’ve been playing a Barnes and Mullins Concert, and my rate of improvement by comparison has been remarkable. And while there’s no overspray or any glue mishaps with my soprano the B&M just feels nicer to hold. It has a proper fingerboard, not something that’s been painted on, Aquila strings, a much nicer bridge while the action is exactly where I’d want it to be. As a result I could probably play the Soprano for about half an hour or three quarters of an hour tops while I could play the B&M all day long. And while I’m aware the scale of the fretboard is exactly the same, I find concerts much easier to play as my hands are in a more natural position. Thanks to that combination (as well as discovering this site) I’ve been able to learn a whole heap of new songs that I otherwise wouldn’t have done (here’s looking at you Just Like Heaven tab) to an extent that I’m learning everything on the concert now, such as fingerpicking, and transferring it to the soprano, which is now my beater instrument. Although if you were to ask the average person about Ukuleles they’ll be picturing sopranos unaware of concert, tenors and even baritones which admittedly are tuned differently although they do sound awesome!

    Apologies if part of that response sounded like an advert for Barnes and Mullins concerts, other Ukuleles are available. :) And a major thanks for making and updating this site.

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  11. "One thing I will say before we examine some of the more obvious challenges is that the ukulele IS easier to pick up than many other instruments. It can have a more forgiving learning curve than, say, the guitar does for many people. But that doesn't mean you will master it in a fortnight either." A perfect statement to include with all your rants. The ukulele is easier than most instruments, other than drums, tambourines, or kazoos (if that is an instrument in your cosmos).

    I'm glad I discovered your 'blog. I find your comments thoughtful and intelligent. I shall refer it to anyone looking for accurate ukulele information. Keep up the good work.

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  12. Right.

    It's a myth for sure. Applying the correct finger pressure, doing completely different things with left and right hand, tuning, are all steep tresholds that a piano or an organ or almost all basic percussion instruments don't have.

    I think the origin of this myth is that is was printed over and over again in the Guinness Book of World Records between 1978 and at least 1991, based on the findings of one 'American Musical Conference' in september 1977 (which also claimed that French horn and/or oboe were the hardest instruments).

    There is, and never was an American Music Conference. There is the AMIS (American Musical Instrument Society) which held it's fourth meeting in 1977 in Salem College, but focuses on odd and strange instruments and absolutely has a historical perspective. And there is the SAM (Society of American Music) which focuses more on contemporary music performance and education, and held it's third conference in 1977 in Williamsburg, Virginia. I suspect the SAM was to blame, but I have no proof.

    Thanks to the Guinness Book, people are still repeating the myth, most of the time as a sales argument for either instruments, classes or raving newspaper articles. Picking up ukulele basics isn't rocket science, but it's not child's play either, as others testify above.

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  13. That's interesting Karl - I didn't know that!

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  14. I was right handed two weeks before i took up the 'Ukulele having had no musical experience beforehand. I then lost the tip of my pinky and half my index finger in a table saw accident. I have since getting my bandages off had to learn to play left handed which makes the task of learning the Uke even harder. I'm still 18 months down the line trying to teach my brain to work with my left hand just as well as it does with my right. 'You only get out of it, what practise you put in'.

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