Trying To Put The Myth That The Ukulele Is Easy To Bed Once And For All | GOT A UKULELE - Learn Ukulele, beginners tips and reviews

6 Feb 2016

Trying To Put The Myth That The Ukulele Is Easy To Bed Once And For All

Oh here he goes again... Barry is back with his usual rant about how he finds the suggestion that the 'ukulele is easy' to be unhelpful.. Again..... So what's new here?



Barry Maz Ukulele


Well not a lot I suppose, the media are still trotting it out.  But since I did my rant on the subject I did then get a lot of blog comments, social media comments and emails telling me I was just wrong.  You know - the usual... People saying, 'I think it is easy, so there' kind of stuff, and there was a LOT of it. Yet, something didn't sit quite right for me. You see, alongside those dismissing my post were several people who emailed me with quite heartfelt messages to say, yes, they agreed with the rant - and passionately.   That they were glad someone spoke up for them. They didn't find the ukulele easy when starting and more importantly for me, they found the endless statements that it IS easy to be off putting, counter productive and made them feel useless. I think that is a horrible way for someone to feel, but were they isolated cases? I hatched a plan.

Eagle eyed readers will note that on the left hand panel of this site for the last couple of months has been a poll asking a very simple question with a 'yes or no' answer. Nothing loaded, nothing pushy and I haven't promoted it anywhere. I just put the poll up and left it there to see what would happen (not expecting much to be honest).

The question was:

'Being honest, when starting out with the ukulele, did you find it 'easy'?'


easy ukulele


As simple as that. Then people started clicking their answers..... in their droves.

And the results were actually quite startling. Not only did over 15,000 of you spot the poll and register your vote, but the results were frankly a landslide for the NO camp - that is to say, 98% of respondents did NOT find the ukulele easy when starting out. I was wrong to have worried about the validity of the rant it would seem. (and no, I don't know why Blogger only tally up those percentages to 99% either...!)

Is The ukulele easy?



Yes, yes, I know polls can be flawed, and can't be relied on totally. And of course this is just a poll of my readers, so not the world at large. But it was a big response (equivalent to the attendance of a couple of the worlds largest ukulele festivals put together), and that is a pretty massive mandate for the NO camp.

Why does any of this matter? Well I think the media, brands and other players (driven by the brands perhaps, or the brands feeding off the media?) are sending the wrong message to new players. I know when questioned on the subject they come back with qualifications like 'ah.. but what we mean is, it's easy compared to many other instruments' or the equally lame, 'yes, but I found it easy, so there...'. The other common defence is, 'but it IS easy to get started with'. You know what though, talking to some beginners I am not sure that is the case either.  And the messages that are forever trotted out don't go into that detail. The message that goes out is simply that it IS 'easy' and doesn't come with any qualification. We are simply told that 'it just IS'. And of course that comes with an inference that if you don't find it that way, then there is something wrong with you. You've failed.

So the effect that creates is that it makes people who do struggle (and based on the poll statistics, that's an awfully big percentage of you) feel like they are doing something wrong, feeling useless and (my worst fear) actually giving up because they don't think they can do it. Think about it - everything you read about the ukulele tells you it is EASY, the dealer tells you it is easy, poor quality YouTube tutors tell you it is easy, the TV and newspapers tell you it's easy... and you try it and find that it actually, no it isn't after all.  Perhaps your hands ache, your fingertips hurt, you can't stretch to reach some chords, you can't get a steady rhythm, you tangle up in the strings, and many many more things challenge you... I think it's reasonable to expect that some people might probably ditch the instrument because they assume they cannot master it.  I mean.. everyone said it was easy, right? And I think that is a crying shame.

Is there a merit to saying it is easy? I've thought long about that argument but can't come up with a rational justification. Perhaps it encourages people to try to play the ukulele? Perhaps. But at the expense of making some people feel useless? No thanks. For me it's used far too much, and usually hand in hand with the myth that 'ukuleles are cheap'. It devalues the instrument, makes out that it isn't serious and ultimately only helps one sector, the sellers, to sell more. Aside from some trusted specialists out there who do care, the ukulele bandwagon has been well and truly jumped on by generic music stores in every country. Do you think that Guitar Center give a damn how YOU get on with your purchase? Don't kid yourselves.

The point I keep trying to make is connected to an assumption that I really don't understand. The assumption that the ukulele owes you some sort of 'right' to be easy. That the 'easy thing' is guaranteed and part of the deal. That's a crazy assumption.  It really doesn't. And I do find the assumption that it has to be easy is one of the things that drives people to avoid difficult chords, or to cheat or not develop their playing - almost like they don't want to play anything challenging because it would disprove their view that it is easy! See my point?

So please, please, please media, brands, dealers, players - stop telling people the ukulele is easy with your lazy journalism that simply reaches for the last ukulele article you saw (the one with a picture of Tiny Tim and / or George Formby) and just trots out the same garbage EVERY time. Try actually speaking to a ukulele player, in particular, a beginner - ask them what they thought! It's what I did.  In fact, try remembering how it was for you. You know what? Saying that you became accomplished on the ukulele with no trouble at all is NOT a badge of honour that impresses me.

And if you are a beginner reading this and struggling with your ukulele in the early days and weeks. Remember - you are not alone - most other people felt the same way.  Stick with it. It can be a challenge for many reasons, but that's nothing unusual, you are NOT failing and it's totally worth persevering.

Have fun!

Be sure to read all my other ukulele rants here - a refuge of sanity in the ukulele madness!



40 comments :

  1. Well now Barry - you are hardly a dispassionate, neutral researcher in this scenario -I believe what we have here is a clear case of "formative causation"; having spoken to lots of beginners ( I'm choosing to assume that your readership is biased towards the beginners side of things) and asked them the completely unbiased question in the article, is it a huge surprise that you got the response you did.

    What was hard/easy about it (the uke, I mean)? Speaking as a guitarist of 40 plus years experience, I found the transition from six strings to four rather relaxing and much easier on the old fingertips: and I'm sure there are plenty more like me. I'm sure what you are aiming at is the lazy British press ( you intimated as much) - but sadly, the heading of this article fell foul of the same lax journalistic rules.

    Please try harder next time! - and excuse the tongue in my cheek.

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  2. I found it easier to get started than any other instrument. So that is very encouraging. To get really good at it, I think it is the same as any other.

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  3. Nearly 15,000 of my readers would disagree Shirley!

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  4. Ive been teaching my 9yo. son for about 5 lessons now. He picked up most chords I threw at him within the first couple of lessons, however his strumming and pausing between chords is something hes struggling with and looks as though thats gonna be his struggle for a long while yet. Same for other high school aged kids Ive taught. The survey seems correct in my personal experience. For a non musical person to pick up and play, it would not typically be a quick and easy learning process.

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  5. I've played for two years and found it hard to play for about 4 months. Still now I find it difficult, singing and playing, using different strumming patterns (I was stuck on dduudu for months). Ukulele is difficult, it looks easy because there's four strings and it has a small fretboard. Everyone says it looks easy when I play on stage but in reality I'm concentrating on chords, strumming patterns and keeping in time. I love my uke but when I first started I was put off by how difficult I found it.

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  6. I think the word-processor analogy works, using a word processor is easy if you use it like a type writer, (and with only two fingers) but if you use it "correctly" to do real work it is very difficult.

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  7. I think perhaps it's a relative question. Early chords such as C, Am and F are relatively within reach for beginners, and as such, many people can reach the point of being able to play something pleasant-sounding in a short period of time. You could, if you so chose, define 'easy' that way.

    That doesn't mean that anyone is becoming an overnight virtuoso, though. It still requires practice, effort, and time. Playing scales and licks isn't really substantially 'easier' on a uke than a guitar, switching quickly between chords still takes a long time to get used to, and some of the chord shapes still require hand movements which are unusual and challenging to some.

    So... easiER than some instruments? Maybe. Easy? Not necessarily.

    Source: I teach ukulele.

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  8. Perfectly on the mark. Anything you can do well with no investment of time and effort is worth exactly what you had to put into it.

    I purchased a "first uke" setup for each of two grandchildren this year. First, I played and sang to them, showing how the uke sounded on suitable songs for their ages and played more complicated stuff to show them how much I enjoyed playing. I let them sit on my lap and stroke the strings and fret their first chord. Then, I waited until they begged their parents to learn to play.

    I got them a solid entry level uke (my choice confirmed by Baz' fine comparison review), ensured a proper setup,added a gig bag (to show respect for the instrument) and a tuner plus an age appropriate beginner song book. I am supporting professional lessons to get started correctly. (My job now will be encouragement and playing together, showing the odd extra technique. Professional tutelage, from a teacher skilled in teaching children, will be the best inveatment possible on what I hope will be a lifetime of enjoyment.

    Hopefully, one day, they may fight over splitting up my uke collection.

    But, "easy"? None of that. Anything worthwhile is won by hard work and practice until it appears easy.

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  9. Barry you make some good points for ukuleke enthusiasts to remember when promoting our beloved instrument.Surely it is not easy to be a skilled player. Yet the ukulele is easy on the ears. The soft tone and open chord tuning makes it sound pleasant even when a toddler strums it for the first time. The ukulele easily brings smiles even when beginners get together at ukulele jams. The uke is easier on fingers than an acoustic guitar so I think it is good to encourage parents of young children to get a ukulele rather than a guitar when interested in learning a stringed instrument.It will be easier to have success.

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  10. I'm sorry, Percy, but I don't think your comment is valid for the real question at hand. Transitioning from guitar (a similar instrument) to ukulele will be a much different experience for someone than a student who has never touched an instrument before. What's easier, making a good sound on ukulele, or making a good sound on piano?

    As a teacher, I have grown to hate two words: "Talent" and "Easy." Go ahead and tell my student with Down Syndrome or Muscular Dystrophy that the ukulele is easy.

    Too many who put out the "Easy" word to describe the ukulele do so from the perspective of musicians who already play an instrument and have a lot more background that is more applicable than they sometimes think. I have a lot of students who struggle with the basic concept of keeping a steady beat while strumming a chord, let alone the coordination of the fingers on the fretboard. It isn't easy for all of them.

    If it was easy for you, good for you. Your experience is not universal, and by proclaiming it so, you only discourage a lot of people who would like to make music, but have been convinced that if they have a little difficulty with an instrument that is "easy," than they must not have "talent," and therefor should not try to make music.

    And what a shame that would be.

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  11. hey man it's all relative. some people will struggle and some people will zip through the first couple of milestones in their learning adventure. The whole "easy" label is in reference to learning Ukulele in comparison to some other string instrument I would think and especially Guitar. Only 4 strings, nylon instead of steel, and a smaller scale on the neck... yeah Ukulele is easy(er) in comparison to alternative string instruments, but hell the guitar probably seems a cinch if you started on a sitar ;)

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  12. yes, I get that - but the media marketing of the uke doesn't specify - it just says 'it's easy', Many many people don't find that it is. Some come to ukulele with no musical experience and don't find any of it easy. Simply tired with the media only ever describing the ukulele as 'easy' and 'cheap' - its not representative of the actual playing population.

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  13. Music instructor here. Any able bodied person can sit at a drumset, piano, trumpet, flute, ukulele or guitar and play SOMETHING that sounds like music within a couple of minutes. As that is true then all musical instrument manufacturers should market their instruments as "easy". I hate the word "Easy" and "Hard" when it comes to learning musical instruments. I prefer to use the word "Challenging" because that is what they are.

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  14. I teach a lot of people (literally hundreds over the years) to play ukulele in a group setting locally. Some of my students breeze through what I consider the 'level one' chords, strumming, fingerpicking that I teach and are eager to move on to other things. To be honest, most of these students are high school aged teens (that have enough concentration to be dedicated to something and have enough discretionary time to practice a lot). Far more among my students struggle with one thing or another: chord transitions, timing, singing and playing at the same time (a big part of most people's ukulele experience). Anecdotally, my experience with a wide range of players in all age groups would support the poll results.

    That said, when I first started out on the ukulele I found aspects of it to be easy, but I've been in music for most of my life (my dad was a band director and I majored in music in college). Other aspects were more difficult (I still can't make a clean root position E chord, so I mostly use the barred version, but I'm still practicing!).

    I never tell my students it is going to be easy, but I do appreciate how a group of students that have been playing together for a few months can sound nice/pleasant (like my new ukulele youth choir I started in September) as opposed to the cacophony heard in most middle-school band classrooms or the endless screeching made for years by beginning violin students. :-)

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  15. What Jim Hickey said. I came to ukulele with a bunch of years playing guitar. So chord shapes were familiar and it wasn't hard for me to catch on to it.

    Perhaps some of the "easy" idea comes from the tendency of people to play in large groups, where fumbles and stumbles get hidden by the other 30 or 40 people, and where arrangements tend to be simple and similar.

    It CAN be easy to play. But a car CAN be easy to drive, if you never get out of first gear and stay in the driveway. It's when you get on the racetrack and start moving towards the limits that things get hard.

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  16. I would say the Uke is more accessible for a beginner, but easier..no

    NeilA

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  17. I wouldn't say easy. But rewarding, fun, and encouraging. I've tried learning the guitar, and I spent two years trying to learn the mandolin. I gave up on that frustrated after an unrelated finger injury. I gave it to my dad who has been playing guitar, flute, uke, and piano for 50 years. He is at the point where new instruments come fairly quickly for him. He gave the mando back after a few weeks saying that's the first time he got disgusted with a new instrument in he can't remember how long.

    Last year he suggested the Ukulele to me because the nylon strings would be easier on the scar tissue on my hands, and this Christmas he bought one for me.

    He was right. The nylon strings don't cause pain like steel does. The 4 strings are a little more straight forward than a guitar and the way it's tuned makes chords a world easier than the mandolin. I also abandoned all the old Hal Leonard books because nothing bores me more than playing Hot Cross Buns endlessly or any of the other insanely ancient public domain songs that end up in the HL books.

    I'm seeing steady improvement with practice, things are making more sense, and I'm at an age where I'm patient enough to put the time in. Practice is actually fun on the Uke, where it wasn't on other attempts. I think that makes a big difference. It's made a big enough difference I've started noodling with the guitar and it feels like if I put the time in there I might be able to make that work for me. But I'm sticking with the ukulele.

    So... is it "easy"? Nah. Is it easier than some other options? I'm going to say "sure" there. Is it easier than the guitar? Not necessarily. You're working within tighter constraints from my limited perspective and that makes a big difference.

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  18. @The Flatline - I get all of that too - but equally I have had messages from people who would still beg to differ. One of the biggest subjects I get mailed about asking for advice from beginners is fingertip pain - I know nylon is MUCH easier (I play guitar!) - but still - for many beginners - that is a major hurdle.

    As with all I have said - I am not saying the poll I conducted is 100% for everyone - that is clearly ludicrous - and I am sure there are plenty of people who disagree - just that in my poll (which actually bears out the many, many emails I get from beginners) - the 98% is probably about right - doesn't make the 2% wrong of course!

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  19. Ok Paul-let's get real here. Give a dozen kids a ukulele each, and then let them loose with a recorder ( just to make it like real life eh?) Let's see who produces a satisfying musical experience first.

    Please bear in mind, I was, to a large extent, playing on Barry's "obsession" with the publishing press' "obsession" over the relative "ease" of playing our Instrument. We're ALL right here people; it is at the same time, both an easy AND a difficult instrument to play.

    Why do we get so wound up about it? I don't want to upset people who do great work with new players-I just don't want to see those same players put off because the bloody thing is suddenly classed as "HARD"!

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  20. Easy to learn, hard to master.

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  21. Good grief once again Percy. So it was Trolling then...

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  22. Not to say that it is easy, but The learning curve for the ukulele is way more appealing than other instruments. There are less strings than the guitar, and 5 year olds can be taught to play. However, to get really good at it, and to master the instrument isn’t easy. No instrument truly is. But is is an easy beginner instrument. Not to make people feel like they aren't doing well, but it's a lot easier to play actual music as a beginner on the uke than the piano or guitar etc.

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  23. The thing is though Emily - people I speak to disagree - the 'it's easier than other things' issue is not really the point when they don't find it easy full stop. All that means is the 'other things' they would probably find even harder - doesn't make the ukulele easy for them!

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  24. Is it not a bit harsh/unfair to accuse Percy of trolling, Barry? Is it because he used the expression "playing on"? I don't think it was meant to be at all malicious. But I guess he can defend himself...

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  25. Resent ebay add'. "Melody uke...don't know much about this but apparently they were played by George Formby, it plays and stays in tune sounds really nice OK its old and looks it, but its so easy to play"

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  26. I have read these comments with great interest. Two years ago, I joined my local U.3.A., which had just started a beginners ukulele group. I am 70 years old, and we all had great fun that first meeting trying to learn a simple song using the three popular chords, C, F, and G7. It was not easy but it was fun, and two years on, we have grown from 9 people to 28 at the last count. We also get asked to play gigs which are very much appreciated. I don't feel that I can give an opinion on the difficulties of learning, as we are all of varying abilities.

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  27. When I started. I knew that I was starting at the very beginning. So I bought a book designed for primary school kids. The songs in the book were all fairly simple, as were the chords. The advantage was that I knew most of the songs; which made it much easier to get to grip with them. After I was happy with my progress. I moved on to more complicated songs and chords. Some of which I did, and to an extent still do, struggle with. E being a good example. What I will say, is that finally mastering that troublesome chord is immensely satisfying.

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  28. As a person that played guitar for 20+ years and switched to the ukulele recently I get frustrated with people in similar positions saying that uke is easy. What these people are really saying is that it is easy to transfer a skill that they are knowledgable in to another instrument with a similar premise. My bet is that when they started guitar they struggled for a bit before becoming competent and that if they had chosen a uke all those years back they would have struggled with that too. I also bet that if I told them the clarinet was easy and handed them one there would be a considerable learning curve.

    It is like saying "I've been writing business proposals for 20 years so I started writing poetry and it is easy." Yes, you know English but doesn't mean you know the classical structures of rhythm and verse nor does it mean you can write GOOD poetry. Uke has a voice and a history all of it's own and while you might find it easy to bang out a G chord, just like a guitar, it may not be the best for the instrument you play.

    In the end I guess I feel like no instrument is easy because the inherent challenge of playing an instrument... any instrument. If it is easy, then you are not challenging yourself. If it is easy to make a C chord then learn an E. If it is easy to strum then try to fingerpick. If everything is easy about the uke then I'm wondering why you are not on tour with Jake right now.

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  29. I took up baritone ukulele because I've played guitar for yonks (an Einsteinian quantification of time which equates to any period exceeding 50 years) and I liked the idea of playing a smaller instrument with the shared tuning of DGBE. So for me the uke WAS easy ... but, BUT ... it means I play it very like a guitar even when I strum. Also, I hardly ever (in fact, never) see any references to baritone ukes featuring in groups or clubs. Also, I find it hard to mentally adjust the chord shapes that I know when I try to think about playing a GCEA tuned uke. So from those points of personal experience, I find the uke hard. I suppose I could use a capo at the 5th, but that would seem a bit self-defeating. On balance, my personal vote would be 40% easy. 60% hard.

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  30. Totally agree with you here, of course it is 'easy' to get your first chords down, however playing my first dong didn't come easy at all to me. I guess in hindsight it feels a lot easier then when I actually was learning, but then again everything new you learn does feel that way. I guess it's just human that we forget the struggles and only remember the good parts. When I think back on how long it took me to get the G down properly... Well, now that I have done it a thousand times it definitely seems easy. Yet the way to get there was pretty hard indeed!

    Great article Barry, keep it up!

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  31. Brave new world in which everyone seems to agree with you, Barry, isn't it? Next time you censor comments (like mine from a few days ago), at least say so.

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  32. Didn't censor anything Ludwig - not seen a comment to censor. Believe me - not everybody agrees with me on this subject - which was kind of why I did the poll in the first place. Thing is - to disagree is not to disagree with me - it's to disagree with nearly 15,000 other people. Ah well..

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  33. Only just stumbled upon this rant, Barry. Declaration: ex-guitar player (amateur).
    The point here is relative, not absolute. The ukulele is easy compared to other instruments, particularly the guitar. Easy to get into, to play accompaniments that sound satisfactory, to fit in with a group, to bond with your fellow players. Sure, mastery is a different story, but have you tried golf?

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  34. Yes, I get the relativitiy thing and agree. But the media dont bill it that way - it's the 'cheap / easy / non-serious' instrument. I think that breeds mediocrity - the sort of clubs and players who transpose songs because nobody ever wants to touch the E chord..

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  35. Disagree Barry. It's not absolute: it's relative, and the uke is relatively easy. Just like language: it is generally accepted that Italian is relatively easy while Finnish is a sonofabitch. Get over it. Personally I don't find Italian easy, but that's foreign languages for me.

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  36. Of course it's relative Steve W, but if you accept that but then refuse to accept that some other people find it hard, then that is exactly the problem. I have nothing to 'get over', sadly many beginners who email me to ask 'why do people say it's easy, but I am struggling' would disagree.

    So yes, not absolute, totally relative and if it IS relative, then you need to accept that not everybody thinks it's relatively easy.

    Personally, I don't think Italian is easy either.. But that's the same point. Some do, some don't and it isn't helpful for the 'don'ts' to suggest that it IS easy.

    (In other words, what the blog post actually says...)

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  37. Though, as an addendum - by saying 'I disagree Barry' - you are disagreeing with many beginners who have publicly said they find it difficult.

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