So You Are Getting Your First Ukulele for Christmas?

16 Dec 2011

So You Are Getting Your First Ukulele for Christmas?

It strikes me as pretty obvious, considering the huge upsurge in uke popularity, that there will be quite a number of new ukuleles in the hands of first time beginners come this December 25th.

so you got a ukulele for christmas

A lot of you new ukers will open that present with delight, stare in awe at the thing, and then wonder what on earth to do next. I'd also wager that many will get frustrated, annoyed and sore during the next few days and wonder why they asked for one of these things - but bear with it - there is no need to be scared, and the frustrations can be calmed.

I thought, therefore that I'd write a quick beginners tips post aimed directly at all those new players we are going to have! Why not bookmark this page and share it with other beginners you may know!

 1. Get it in tune!

Obvious huh? Well yes, but straight out the box, many ukes will need a bit of work to get them tuned properly. First off, it would be a big help if you have a clip on tuner. If you are getting a ukulele for a friend or significant other reading this, go buy one now! I recommend something like the Snark or this one from D'Addario, but there are dozens of models available at reasonable prices. They all do pretty much the same thing. If someone else is buying, drop hints, or buy one yourself just in case! Failing that, you are going to need something to give you a reference pitch such as a piano, or an online tuner or iPhone app.

Got those sorted? Good, now to tuning. Out of the box, many ukes will have the strings quite loose for transit so you need to start winding. Use a reference pitch to start with (such as from a piano) to get the note of each string close to where it should be, then fine tune with the clip on tuner (or by ear) from there. Many make the mistake of just clipping on the tuner and expecting it to do all the work, but you will need to get close before the tuner comes into it's own. Bear in mind that you want some tension in those strings. Floppy and buzzy is bad and probably means you are not at the right note yet. You need to ensure you are not tuning to the note that is an octave below the one you need! Worse still, don't tune to the octave above or you will snap them! For reference see - How To Tune Your Ukulele

 2. The need for stretching the strings

When those new strings are in tune it's perfectly normal for the uke to then go out of tune really quickly. Strings are made of nylon or flourocarbon and will naturally stretch quite an lot until they reach their optimum and hold the note on their own. Put a tuned uke down on Christmas day with new strings and they are likely to be flat again on Boxing Day morning, possibly even earlier. There is nothing wrong!! You need to allow them to stretch the natural way by playing and tuning, and bear in mind this could take days, maybe weeks depending on how much you play. Some people will suggest tugging and twisting at the strings to speed this process up, but I would exercise caution here as it can shorten the life of the string very easily. What I tend to do is tune mine up half a note higher than normal pitch then strum it VERY hard for 5 minutes, and repeat. You may need to do this a few times, but it's certainly quicker than just looking at the instrument and waiting! They will hold tuning eventually.

Oh, and you will find people who will say 'tighten the screw on the tuners'. That ONLY applies if you have the friction type of pegs that face backwards and don't use any gears. It is essential that sort of tuner is tightened 'just enough' to create the friction to hold. Tightening the screws on geared (side facing) tuners will do nothing.

3. Get your learning materials together

Alongside your uke, there is a good chance you got a songbook or two in your Christmas stocking. Bear in mind though that the internet is your friend and a search for "Ukulele Songs" will give you all the resources you need.  Have a browse and print of songs that are simple to learn and that YOU know and like the idea of playing.  You should also immediately print of a set of ukulele chord charts and keep those handy - probably in your case or songbook.  For song ideas, have a look at my song page uke song page, but there are many others online.

Now before you know it, those sheets of paper are going to get dog-eared, or have the Christmas sherry spilled over them - do what I do - get an A4 ring binder and some clear plastic wallets with the punched holes - store your song sheets and chord chart in there and you have a complete set of your learning materials at hand, in protective covers!

In starting out you will probably end up with a tonne of other questions that are not necessarily to do with learning the music itself, but how to live with the uke. How do I clean it, how do I hold it, how do I store it, how it should be set up, that kind of thing. Bookmark the following Beginners Ukulele Tips page for a wealth of guidance on all sorts of topics.

 4. Take it easy!

If you have never played a stringed instrument before you will face early frustrations and possibly some aches and pains (sorry, but it's true!). Frustration and pain will only serve to put you off and  the instrument if you over do it, therefore, take care!

Start off slowly, aiming to understand the fingering of three or four major chords only at first, and practice those, and then how to move between them at will. I'd suggest C, G, F, A, Em and D will get you by on most basic songs.

As for the songs themselves, again, keep it simple. Choose basic slow songs you know well with only 2 or 3 chords. You will get far more reward learning to play a song like this well in your first few days than banging your head against a wall trying to learn a fast paced song with 20 complex chords in it.  I often tell people to try Nursery Rhymes - it may sound silly but think about it - you all know the tunes, words, tempo, so all you need to concentrate on is the uke! Here's a few to get you started

Ukulele Nursery Rhymes

I know how tempting it is to learn to play your favourite song of the moment, but trust me, rushing into something complex is only going to put you off. Learn to walk before running!

As for the pain, sore fingertips and in some cases, hand cramps are perfectly normal when starting out. You are asking your hands to hold shapes and do things they are not used to. Whilst only practice will get through this barrier, listen to your fingers and don't battle on to the point it becomes a chore, that will only frustrate you too.

 5. Concentrate on simple key techniques first

In terms of fretting, ensure that in your practice sessions you aim to keep your fretted fingers in clean positions on the fretboard. You want to be landing fingertips perpendicular to the fingerboard in between the two frets and using the very tip of your fingers (not the fleshy pads). If a chord buzzes, or a note sounds muffled you are fretting wrong and this will affect your sound and enjoyment. Adjust your hands.

When it comes to strumming, as I say above, keep this simple to start with too. Concentrate first on getting a steady simple rhythm in place that you can keep up continually. Don't get bogged down following complex strum patterns if you cant master a slow steady clean up down strum! This is one of the biggest issues that sees beginners give up through frustration. You will never learn to play more complex stuff if you don't first learn to nail basic single beat rhythm.

 6. Protection!

Ahhh Christmas... - houses full of guests, friends, family, presents hidden under discarded wrapping paper, parties, alcohol, inquisitive children. Ukuleles are fragile and will not stand up well to being trodden on or dropped! Avoid tears on Boxing Day by keeping the uke in a case when not playing, and if you don't have one, in a cupboard or on a shelf out of harms way! Trust me!

 7. It's Christmas, there's lots of other stuff to do 

Hey, don't forget, it's Christmas, there is lots of fun to be had, so don't get over obsessed, and enjoy yourself with friends and family too. That said, try to get regular practice sessions in - the more regularly you practice the quicker you will progress and the quicker the issues I mention above will become a distant memory.

8. Have fun, and look forward to a lifetime with a uke

What more can I say?

Have a great Christmas everyone!


  1. Thank you so much for the information, but please note that you listed the number four twice.

  2. Uncle Rod's bootcamp is a MUST. Practice a few sheets every day!

  3. I am appreciating your instructions. Thanks.


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