I'm Tired of the Ukulele Versus Guitar Debates - RANT

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15 Feb 2017

I'm Tired of the Ukulele Versus Guitar Debates - RANT

It has been a while since I went off on a ukulele rant, but this one has been bubbling away for some time now. It's the endless 'the ukulele is easier than the guitar' statement that people seem to use as some sort of badge of honour in ukulele circles. And some go further than just commenting on the 'easy' thing and actually step towards being openly hostile to the guitar.

guitar vs ukulele


You may recall my earlier rants on the media endlessly calling the ukulele 'easy'. You may have been bored by those rants in fact as I did keep going back to them... The thing is though, I felt it was really important to shout against this generalisation. The simple fact is this, the word 'easy' is extremely subjective and because of that I don't find it to be a helpful 'tag' whatsoever. It excludes too many people. When you have spoken to so many beginners (as I have) who found starting out anything BUT easy, and then hear them tell you that they felt useless and talentless because THEY found it difficult but the media told them it was easy... well, you start to see why I dislike the claim. For some people the ukulele may be 'easy' to them, but please bear in mind that for some others that just doesn't hold true.

And without a doubt, one of the most common lines of 'defence' I heard in response to my rants on the 'easy myth' were those along the lines of, 'yeah, but, the ukulele is certainly easier than the guitar'. And for that matter, you could add in 'yeah, but, the ukulele is certainly easier than the piano'.. Once again though, totally subjective, totally unhelpful and very much open to debate. In fact it's as big a generalisation as saying the ukulele is 'easy', full stop. And anyway, since when was 'ease' a valid plus point for any instrument anyway? Why are you judging something being 'better' because it is 'easy'? Surely the instrument you choose to play should be based on the one that moves you most musically, not the one that gives you a fast track pass?

On the face of it, you may perhaps think you see what they are getting at. In fact you may have a number of 'reasons' that spring to mind. For example, when starting out on a steel strung guitar, most people may find that the strings hurt their fingers more than on a nylon strung ukulele. Perhaps that is true, but to me that's just a side effect and has nothing to do with 'ease'. In fact, i've seen plenty of sore fingers on new ukulele players too, so again... completely subjective. It's also temporary.

Perhaps it's down to the size of the instruments - that many beginners find the larger guitar more cumbersome to hold and fret. Yet again though, totally subjective and depends on your size as well as the size of the instrument. And of course, a very common beginners issue with the ukulele is the fact it's too small... so the same issue from the other end of the telescope. Some will find one thing diffiuclt, some will find the opposite.

Is the claim down to the fact that there are more strings on a guitar? Well, that naturally makes certain pieces of music more complicated in some, but equally, some are just as easy if not easier than on ukulele. In fact the shorter scale and fewer notes on a ukulele actually mean you have to work harder to adapt music. And are you really telling me that an E major chord on a guitar is harder for a beginner to get their head around than and E major on the ukulele? Bear in mind, that whilst a guitar has a couple of extra strings, the majority of players have only five fingers and that doesn't change with either instrument. When you take away the thumb that sits behind the neck, whether playing guitar or ukulele, the majority of chord forms are going to use three fretting fingers. Exactly the same on both. And the 'easier' angle can't be purely down to the number of strings anyway can it? I mean, are you honestly saying that a violin is easy? I don't think anyone would agree with you on that!

Yes, I suppose the guitar has more notes on the neck to play with. A piano has lots of notes too, and I just as regularly see people suggessting that learning to play the piano is one of the hardest instruments to play. But really? To master, perhaps, but to start to play? I actually don't think so. When you consider that part of the real problem here is that ukulele players assume they have 'learned' their instruent when they have only mastered 5 chords, I actually think the concept of playing five chords on a ukulele is HARDER than playing five on a piano. Think about it. Playing a chord on a piano requires only one hand to play it (not two - there is no strumming to deal with), and it doesn't hurt the fingertips either. In fact the only skill action you require to play a chord on a piano is the ability for your brain to press a combination of 'buttons' together in close proximity. Hey! they piano is easy!! The example may sound extreme, but actually it really isn't. Like so many instrument comparisons, when you break them down to the core elements you find things that are both easy and hard on most of them. The problem comes when you  pick and choose the easy ones and ignore the difficult bits to justify your argument that the ukulele is the 'easiest' of all. Or even that you think the 'easier than' argument is a particularly helpful one in the first place.

Maybe intimidation comes into play. Most of us these days are exposed to a massive number of guitars in music and perhaps new players approach it with trepidation - a fear of much to live up to. That may be true, but that again says nothing of the learning process, only of the mindset BEFORE you start learning. A common point I also see raised is along the lines of 'I know people who tried on guitar and struggled, but were good on ukulele'. But that is merely an anecdote, not evidence that fits the whole ukulele playing population.  That was simply the case for THAT person, and once again it doesn't apply to everyone.  Sure enough, the comments may come in saying 'yeah, but it's easier for kids in a classroom'. Cheaper, perhaps. Smaller, definitely (so you can fit more in a class). Easier? Dunno - there are plenty of kids learning guitar to a high level at very young ages. Are they geniuses? And anyway, using kids in a classroom as a defence to the whole population is, yes, another generalisation..

Looing at this another way, surely the guitar would be a minority instrument if it was just SO difficult. As it is you will struggle to put music radio or TV on an NOT find a guitar in a band. How many ukuleles do you see? People sure got over that intense difficulty with guitar huh? How on earth have they done that (repeatedly) for decades in towns across the globe and in such great numbers... it must be magic.

Just like the generalisation of the ukulele being 'easy', I equally don't like the endless comparison between it and other instruments as a justification for people playing it. In fact I don't much care for one upmanship between different instruments for any reason. They are all just tools to make music and, you know, each to their own.  It's not helpful and it certainly doesn't, to my mind, put ukulele players in a very good light. In fact I think it clearly puts them in the spotlight as being a bit too evangelical about things. And with that statement I think we are getting to a couple of cores of the problem.

First up, we have an assumption, no, in fact an 'assumed right' that the ukulele has to be easy. This is something I've touched on before and I am seeing it more and more. Only a quick browse around the mass of resources on the internet will show you a real swing towards the 'easy' the 'learn in five minutes', the 'I want it NOW' kind of teaching. Those learning are to blame of course, and maybe this is deep rooted in the way society is these days. Everybody wanting things instantly, NOW, with the minimum of effort. The difference between guitar players of the pre-internet age (who didn't have a world wide web to turn to in order to get chords for their favourite song - they had to work them out themselves - yeah, imagine that!), and today's players who want, nay EXPECT every single performance to come with chords or tabs ready for them, pre-packaged and at the click of a mouse. They want others to do the work for them, and the concept of working it out themselves is completely lost. I WANT easy, it MUST be easy and I will kick back against anything that STOPS it being easy...  It's all wrapped up in the same 'but it's all about fun' tag the community has given the instrument. REALITY CHECK - music is NOT necessarily easy, and music can be fun as well as being difficult. You have to work at it to be rewarded, and no particular instrument is going to fast track that for you. Nor should it. Wanting everything to be easy is just a descent to mediocrity in music.

The second angle I think is one of ukulele tribalism. Only last week I saw yet another meme along the lines of 'guitars are bad'. In fact this one talked about 'guitars only being fit for firewood'. It was supposed to be a 'joke', but I actually find it rather sickly. Yes, ukulele players will say that they too have to put up with other instrument players sneering at them, but honestly, do you think the best form of retalliation is to do exactly the same thing back? Don't you think that actually shaking off the easy myth and showing these other musicians exactly what the ukulele is capable of may actually do more for the cause than simply perpetuating the division? But no, sadly, it continues. And because of that of course, it also becomes 'cool' or 'on message' to say that ukuleles are easier or, indeed, 'better' than those pesky guitars.  REALITY CHECK 2 - I play both. I like both. I think both have their merits. I don't think one is easier than the other and irrespective, that's not why I play both either.

Ultimately, the joy from any musical instrument comes from the music that you make on it. 'Ease' is completely subjective and not necessarily the mark of something being better.  Ease is actually an indicator of something you don't have to work as hard at and I am certainly not sure that is 'better' either. I realise this post is wide open for a flood of comments disputing it. Telling me, 'but I knew someone who'.. but it wont change my mind. I just don't like such comparisons between instruments. And dare I say it, if you are finding ANY instrument 'easy', then maybe you are not trying hard enough?

(If you liked this rant, found it resonated in any way, you might like my other shout outs for common sense on my ukulele rants page!)

22 comments :

  1. The Guitar IS easy!
    The Bert Weedon book ...'Play in a day' published in 1957 is proof.
    I say in jest of course��

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  2. Perhaps some of the perception (as well as size, which doesn't matter anyway) could be that the Uke isn't really considered a band/ensemble instrument? Like the guitar, piano etc as part of a group? Which in itself is a shame. Uke players play together but rarely with other instruments in a wider context? On the South Coast here around Brighton etc it's VERY much accepted. The guitar culture sometimes has a air of seriousness that is almost blocking but the Uke is more about instant fun. I've tried a wider spectrum of music on it than I ever did on the guitar. It's been an intro for me to Street/Gypsy Jazz music. I've found it's a lot more accessible to learn music theory on. And now I love figuring things out on both, back & forth. Perhaps I'm just weird...

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  3. I think there is something in that Keith - and I also don't think that the guitar community are free from guilt on this either. Pitting any instrument against another seems so pointless to me. Maybe because I play both is the reason I see the nonsense of it all.

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  4. Daryl - actually that is a good point. And as I say to Keith above, I don't think the guitar world is free of guilt for exactly the same thing either.

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  5. I have never understood why there is "rivalry" between guitar and ukulele "camps" (or, for that matter, why there are "camps" in the first place). Cards on the table: my first instrument is guitar - that's not "preference"; I started learning guitar first, and it's still my "native language" where musical instruments are concerned. That said, I play a few others, and think of the uke as my "second" (which should not be taken as a put-down - it's just how I came to the instrument). Why there should be any problems with guitarists also playing ukulele (and vice versa)... doesn't the world have enough issues like that as it is (man)?

    Also... I don't think of the ukulele as an "easy option" (how anyone can listen to/watch some of the uke virtuosos on YouTube and think that, I have no idea). As a guitarist, I don't usually have a problem transposing up a fourth when I switch to the uke. What I DO get caught out by: the missing bottom two strings! I've got so used to relating the fretboard notes to each other, with the bottom two strings as the lowest reference point, that when they're "missing" on the uke, I have to "recalculate" on the fly! I just need to practice more, I suppose :-)

    In short: Baz, as a fellow guitar/uke "doubler", for what it's worth, I stand foursquare with you on this one...

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  6. Ditto transposing. I have a low G on one of my Tenors which helps a wee bit. A couple more lower notes. Also make the Uke a bit Mini Classical, which can be nice.

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  7. Some really good points. Thanks Baz for airing this debate. I am no natural musician but play both guitar and ukulele and love them both equally. They do different things. They have different qualities. There is no competition between them. Why should music be competitive? I find the theory learned on each helps me play the other. Keep up the good work Baz. Your articles and reviews are always a good and useful read.

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  8. Funny, I don't see being easy as a badge of honour, but rather a way to put down the uke by some guitar players. "It only has 4 strings". I also think calling it easy minimizes the time put in to actually go from strumming basic chords to playing more obscure chords, finger picking, melodies, etc.

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  9. I found starting to play the Ukulele was easier purely because I found getting my head around 4 strings was easier than 6 strings, but certainly not easy. However, at the time I probably didn't apply myself sufficiently to guitar practice, and the guitar was always hidden away in a case, but the Uke was always to hand. Now I am looking at giving the guitar another go. Who knows, maybe I'll find the guitar easy this time!

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  10. It is used that way Nick, but on that basis, it makes the ukulele community buying into that concept even worse.

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  11. I went through two bouts of attempting to learn guitar, and gave up easily. I'll never give up learning the ukulele. I wouldn't say one is easier than the other for anyone else but me.

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  12. As a dual hobbyist, I hear the same arguments around fishing. At the end of the day, only 3 things matter :-
    1) You enjoy what you're doing. It's all music, whether or not you are playing a kazoo or the Boardwalk Auditorium in New Jersey.
    2) Be kind to one another. We're all on our own journey. You just have to start it.
    3) When in doubt, check yourself against points 1 and 2.

    Steve the FishinUker

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  13. As an ex semi pro guitar player and after playing the Uke for 2 years I don't see any difference in ease of play or learning . Yes c is a doddle but it ends there. No musical instrument is easy
    to play. It takes practise and more practise. The difference in playing the ukulele is that its just so much fun ( controversial )

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  14. Learning the ukulele got me back into playing guitar after a long hiatus. And frequently I "convert" my electric guitar to a ukulele (capo at 5th fret, play first 4 strings only), as the mood strikes me. Acoustic ukulele, electric guitar, electric ukulele, acoustic guitar - all are different, each can make interesting music, none should be pigeonholed or thought of as having moral limitations. Play, experiment, enjoy.

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  15. Having worked through the Bert Weddonn Play in a Day book, lasted about a week on that, eventually went on to classical guitar lasted about twenty plus years on that the only things I would say make the ukulele easier is the size and the great music you can play on the ukulele. The learning process is just as hard especially if you want to tackle some of the John King pieces or some jazz. Oh and you don't need a silly footstool. Strangely I had the same sort of problem with other instrument players who looked down on the guitar. I've found the ukulele no easier but much more fun.

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  16. The ukulele is easier than the guitar. It requires less pull. it requires less stretch. It has only 4 strings so the number of chord combinations is smaller. That's why you're playing it. Otherwise you would be playing the guitar, which has more sonic possibilities because of its frequency range. Get over it.
    (I speak as a ukulele player who is too arthritic to play the guitar these days)

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  17. I play both actually - it's just a totally unhelpful comparison that is also kind of pointless. Like saying apples are nicer than oranges.

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  18. And the sonic possibilities angle completely misses the point of what I think the ukulele is all about. It's not meant to have bigger frequency range or more sonic possibilities - it is, at heart, more a rhythmical instrument whereas the guitar isn't.

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  19. Hi Baz. Just stumbled upon this. I do believe that E major is harder on the ukulele than the guitar - 4 fingers rather than 3 for a start. However, I have a theory that ukuleles have unnecessarily narrow necks which contributes to the difficulty of squeeing in fingers 2,3 and 4. Anything in your extensive range of reviews back this up? Apologies if you have another rant on this subject.

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  20. It depends you you are playing the E Steve (on uke) - I play it 4442, so with a barre that's just two fingers. Get your point though, but it's still all relative and I just don't think comparisons between the two mean very much and only serve to create unnecessary divsion

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  21. This 83-year old has tried to play a guitar at least 3 times in the past 50 years. Each time ended in failure. I have stubby fingers and poor finger dexterity - bad news for both instruments. But I now have 5 ukes of different sizes and though I still can't finger pick, I can strum with anybody. Since I can't read music, the four tabs are duck soup for me. I also play piano by ear and the ukes are a fun change. Finally, I have two groups I play with which is fun.

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