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.
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!)
© Barry Maz