Over the years of writing this website I get a lot of mail and messages, as you can imagine. I'm always keen to help new ukulele players, but it struck me that there are a range of common questions that crop up more often than any others.
Questions are normal and it is good to ask rather than plough on blindly. I think though that most of them can be plagued by questionable responses from people who really should know better. Thought it would be interesting to collate them here, together with the answers I usually give! Did I miss any?
1. What are the best strings I should get?
There is no 'best' string, only the string brand YOU like best. That's my usual answer and at first glance it may sound unhelpful. The thing is though, strings for ukuleles are personal things and I don't like many strings that other people swear by. Different strings can also suit different instruments. My advice is always the same - try a few sets and trust your own ears. Your decision will not be 'wrong' despite what others may tell you. Also remember that whilst Aquila brand strings appear on new ukuleles perhaps more than any other, that does not make them the best. And no string will make you a better player!
2. What is the best ukulele you can recommend me for price X?
This is also an impossible one to answer. I can give you some suggestions, and point you in the direction of my ukulele reviews to help you out, but there really is a dizzying array of instruments on the market. When I started playing the choices were pretty slim, now there a huge numbers available. All I would say is try a few if you can, and if you can't and have to rely on mail order, read as many impartial reviews as you can.
3. What is the best wood for a ukulele?
Another totally subjective question (spotting pattern here?). Wood choice boils down to a couple of things - tone and looks. The tone is the most important and they do differ, but I appreciate that looks can be important to people. Try not to be swayed by ultra fancy finishes that are really just plywood underneath (most ukuleles at the lower price end). Nothing wrong with laminates, but I see a lot of people recommending them based purely on looks when in reality most cheap laminates are the same stuff with just a different outer veneer. For me, I probably own more ukuleles made of mahogany than anything else. I am not saying that makes the best ukuleles but it is a good traditional choice with a balanced tone and good projection. Hawaiian Koa seems to be considered to be the holy grail for ukuleles and I agree that in a high end instrument it has a wonderful tone. Beware the cheaper far eastern Acacia Koa though - really not the same as Hawaiian stuff and if you are buying an instrument purely because it has the word 'Koa' in the product description then you really need to consider who you are trying to impress.. Beyond those woods there is a lot of choice out there - none of it is 'wrong' and 'best' is down to personal choice.
4. What is the best place to buy a ukulele?
There are lots of good ukulele specialist on the planet but sadly not as many as I would like there to be. Note the word 'specialist' here. Lots of general music stores have cottoned on to the fact that ukuleles sell well and have filled their walls with the instruments. Sadly I have had first hand experience with some of these big name stores and the assistants in them know very little about the instrument. If a dealer doesn't know the first thing about a ukulele, would you trust them? A good specialist dealer will not only select their range carefully, but will weed out sub standard models and ensure that the setup is checked before shipping. Big brand music stores are unlikely to do this and Amazon certainly will not. Looking to save $5 on the purchase price of a ukulele only to find you either have to work at the setup (or worse, pay someone to set it up) seems counter productive to me. My recommended ukulele stores are these
5. I'm a beginner / have small hands -would a larger ukulele be better for me?
No no no and no. What I mean is there is no correlation between ease of play and hand size or ability. In fact for a beginner a larger scale ukulele may be more cumbersome to hold and have longer stretches on some chords. All ukuleles have their place and none is any better than the other, they are just 'different' in resonance. Think about it - the soprano is the standard shape and the most common around the world. When I started most ukuleles on the market were soprano scale and that didn't stop people learning on them. Play a few, pick a scale that feels comfortable to you. You won't make a 'wrong choice'. And please, don't consider larger ukuleles a 'step up' for better abilities. Complete nonsense.
6. I only have £20 what ukulele should I get?
A touchy subject. I totally understand that many people don't have access to much money and that things are tight. I don't mean this to sound snobby, but there is no automatic right for something to be cheap just because you want it to be. Ukuleles are technical musical instruments and they require a certain level of care in their construction to play well. At the ultra low price points that can be very hard if not impossible to achieve. For that reason the ultra bargain end of the ukulele ranges are plagued with dead sounding instruments with fatal build flaws that are only ever going to work against you. Why would you buy an instrument that costs less than a ukulele lesson? Being less negative, there ARE some choices out there at the ultra cheap end, but they are few and far between. Go carefully if that is all you are prepared to spend, and if you can, try and save up a bit longer and get something a little more serious. I think an entry level spend of £50-£60 will improve things for you.
7. What is the strumming pattern for this song?
Seriously, just read this...
8. I have been playing for a couple of weeks and my fingers hurt / I can't form this chord - what am I doing wrong?
Most likely you are doing nothing wrong. The ukulele has been cursed by the media enjoying giving it the tagline of 'being easy'. The result of that is people assume that they can be playing all chords in a matter of days. The word 'easy' is relative though. It's easier than many instruments but it still requires all important practice. Sore fingers and inability to reach certain chords are perfectly normal issues facing most new players. Your hands are trying to reach positions that they are not used to and they will ache or seem impossible at first. Stick with it and I promise you that in time you will look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. Assuming you practice of course. Rome wasn't built in a day and please please please, don't immediately go for cheat chords or avoid certain chords because they are too difficult. Those difficult ones are the ones you should focus more practice on!
9. Can you recommend some good tuition videos?
YouTube is a pretty marvellous thing and there are lots of ukulele resources on there. They are though more aids to practice than true teaching tools. And like anything open to the public there are lots of people on there who call themselves teachers but really are not. Personally if you are set on tuition I would recommend going to a decent teacher (a list of ukulele teachers can be found here). If you must rely on internet videos, choose carefully and watch many. If a 'teacher' is merely showing you the chords to some songs, I would argue that is not a 'teacher'.
10. I am finding it hard to hold my ukulele. Is it ok to use a strap?
Of course it is. The last time I checked there was no law in any country stating that such a thing was unlawful. It's your ukulele, do what YOU need to do for it to be comfortable. Why struggle against something that can be improved so simply? And no, they don't affect the tone.
If you are a more seasoned player - do any of these questions resonate with you from when you were starting out?
© Barry Maz