The Most Common Questions From Beginner Ukulele Players | GOT A UKULELE - Learn Ukulele, beginners tips and reviews

25 Oct 2015

The Most Common Questions From Beginner Ukulele Players

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.


ukulele questions


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?

10 comments :

  1. There's no denying though that the tenor ukulele opens up more real estate on the fretboard. Music my group plays often reaches above the 12th fret and most sopranos don't offer that higher territory.

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  2. my first uke was a cracked old 1940sREGAL for 5$..patched it up..it sounds great..this was 2003 back at the start of the uke craze..now I have 3..all cheepies..and the tenor one is my favort..big sound..and p.s. I use 2 metal strings besides the nylon ones..hey whatever works is what I say.

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  3. At the risk of sounding like a FanBoy. . . .
    'What Barry said...!'
    Barry Maz is a solid and reliable source of truth and opinion that the entire community relies upon. Heed his words, then go ahead and and play to suit your own musical self. (Barry will certainly approve of your freedom.)

    Thanks, Barry, you are deeply appreciated.

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  4. Thank you Lan - it certainly feels odd to write a post which is essentially common sense and find it resonate with so many. Sadly there are many questionable ukulele 'advisors' out there in internet land.

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  5. Great advice - as usual!

    The only one that took me by surprise, as I have only heard the exact opposite, is question No 5. The questions I get are:

    "I'm a beginner, so I would need to start on a SMALLER ukulele wouldn't I?"
    and
    "I have BIG hands so I would need a larger ukulele, wouldn't I?"

    Before I got my first uke I was recommended to get a concert rather than a soprano (my hands are big for a woman - I take glove size XL for women, equivalent to a Small glove size for men). However, I was given a soprano as my first uke as a present so that is what I started on. My next uke, 9 months later, was a tenor and the third, another 9 months later, was a concert. The concert did seem a "perfect fit" for me immediately so I think that the advice I was given at the outset was right for me at the time.

    As with many of the other questions, the answer is usually, "try it and see what suits you best at the time - there is no one right answer".

    Thank you for another really useful blog post, Barry!

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  6. Barry,

    I wonder whether I might tap on your knowledge and advice on the size of ukulele I ought to buy. I know you have written quite a lot on the subject, and I absolutely get your frequently made point about the importance of the nut width, etc.

    I intend to visit a local music shop to try out different ukuleles, and will try to remember all your invaluable advice.

    I have picked up the various sizes of ukulele and my immediate thought is that I find the tenor to be the most comfortable for me. That might well be because I am used to guitars, even though I don't play those competently. I am slightly worried, though, that the tenor might be too much of an stretch for me on some of the more difficult chords. Do you have any thoughts on how a beginner might determine that sort of thing? My fingers aren't very bendy, so I have to play a Bb with a full barre (same with F on a guitar) though part of that might be technique.

    I suppose I am wondering whether you might have any thoughts on how many frets one ought to be able to reach with the first and fourth fingers, or something like that. Or perhaps a particular chord that I might try to play to check if the scale is too long? As I can't play the thing yet, I don't really have much feel for these things.

    Does that make any sense? If you do have any ideas on how to check which scale length might be best, I would be really grateful for your thoughts.

    Many thanks.

    Simon

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  7. It's really difficult to advise as everybody has different hands - not just overall size, but length of fingers and general dexterity. Basic things to remember are

    1. Larger scales do not give more space for fingers WHERE IT COUNTS - they lengthen the fret spacing a little but do nothing for space across the neck - which is where beginners get cramped

    2. Larger scales can make stretches on some chords - particularly barres a little harder - although it's minor

    I would say if you are learning - you aare going to face challenges with cramped fingers and stretches whatever the ukulele you choose - and when you get comfortable with it you will find the transition between all sizes really simple.

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  8. Many thanks, Barry. I thought you might say something similar to that, but it's good to have that confirmed.

    If I may ask another question, any thoughts on how a beginner can come to any sensible conclusions about sound? I think I am inclined just to strum a couple of chords slowly and then do a very simple finder picking pattern on those same chords - perhaps C, F and G. If only I could go in able to play "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate"...!

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  9. You mean how to pick up a ukulele and come to a view on whether it is nice or not? I do a bit of everything - bit of finger picking, bit of strumming - fast, slow, hard and light - check intonation at 12th fret (should be same note at the nut but one octave higher). That sort of thing.

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  10. Yes, that sort of thing. I can certainly check things like the finish, the action and so on - the things you mention in your excellent video and elsewhere - but for a beginner who can't play the instrument, it's a bit daunting to part with the hard-earned cash on the basis (in part) of how it sounds played by someone who can't play it...

    My current thinking without actually playing them is that I'll probably get a Kala, with the thinline / travel and the solid mahogany models being top of my list.

    I am hoping to get to my local music shop today and hope that they have a reasonable selection and that there's one that calls my name. With any luck, it will be proved such that I will be able to clear it with the beloved treasurer.

    Many thanks again for all your help. Your site and YouTube videos are absolutely invaluable.

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