At the start of the week we decided to buy two ‘family Ukeleles’. Our two year old, Jack, loves music and keeps talking about his grandad’s guitar, and the ‘little guitar’ (Ukelele) that he gets to play at their house. We figured that having the grown ups learn too would be a great way to encourage him, so here we are:
Day 1: Burning fingers when playing ukelele
We just unwrapped our brand new Ukeleles. A mahogany one for me and a shiny blue one for Jack.
While I start trying to tune my Ukelele, Jack’s sitting with his, twanging the strings.
I watched a video recommending the chords C, G, A minor and F to start. Apparently lots of songs use just those. I’m reminded of Pachabel’s rant. If you haven’t seen it watch it now. It’s awesome.
Anyway, once Jack’s in bed I give some actual practicing a go and try out my chords. Within minutes the tips of my fingers are burning and I’ve realised that strumming’s a lot harder than it looks! Hrmph. I’m going to put it away for tonight and try again tomorrow.
Day 2: Strumming a ukelele
A few YouTube videos later and I learned that I was pressing the strings too hard yesterday. You just need to press the strings hard enough to stop the buzzing sound, not make your finger’s bleed.
I found this article of top ten tips for ukelele beginners, which was very helpful. Certainly saved my burning fingers!
Ok, so I can hold the chords without splitting the skin on my fingertips, check. However, strumming is still an issue. The hubbie (who has played guitar before) picked up the uke and immediately started strumming and playing a few guitar chords, to our son’s delight. I attempted the same, but on the rare occasion that I managed to hit the top three strings (forget the A string), it sounded like a messy, unsynchronised pile of poop. Seriously, how hard can it be to pull your finger over 4 strings? Very, apparently.
Back to YouTube tutorials.
So after this very helpful Ukelele strumming tutorial I eventually managed to hit all 4 strings (well, most of the time anyway) and make something that sounded vaguely melodic.
Day 3: Looking for good beginner ukelele songs
So now that I’m not pressing the strings so hard even my newbie fingers can cope with an hour or so of practice. I’m also getting better at strumming. I think for me, the problem was a combination of not strumming hard enough and strumming ‘up’ rather than into the strings. I sort of have to aim for the A string, otherwise I tend to miss it.
Now I really want to learn to play something!
After a quick google for easy ukelele songs for beginners, I discovered that ‘You are my sunshine’ has only 3 chords. Why not, I thought. I found this tutorial for You are my sunshine on ukelele and started practicing.
Day 4: Dropping the ukelele
The little girl who’d had countless music lessons in me was shouting at me that I should be doing exercises to improve rather than just going for it and pausing between each chord. Eventually I listened to her, when my friends fled the room after just a few minutes of hearing me practice.
I was also having a bit of trouble dropping the ukelele between each chord, so back to basics it was.
I found a tutorial that recommended strumming continuously (as slowly as you need to to keep the strums regular) whilst playing a chord for 7 strums, then on the 8th playing an open chord (so not holding any strings), then on to the next chord for 7, then an open strum for 1, then back to the original chord. After doing that, you move onto 3 strums for the first chord, 1 open, then change chords, 3 strums for the new, 1 open etc. Then chord, open, chord, open, chord, open. Then you should be able to switch seamlessly between chords. Or that’s the idea anyway.
This did work for helping my left hand learn to switch between chords, but didn’t really fix my ‘dropping the uke’ problem. After a fair bit of reading and looking online I’m still not exactly sure how you switch chords without dropping the thing. I eventually just put the strap on to hold it in place and figured that as I get better/faster at chord changes it won’t be as much of a problem. Hey ho.
Day 5: Getting better at switching chords!
I’m getting better at switching between C and F (the first two chords needed for ‘You are my sunshine’ on ukelele). I’ve also started doing a warm up exercise for my left hand when you press your first finger on the first fret of the G string, then second finger on the second fret, third on the third and forth on the forth. Then you do that for all the other stings and repeat a few times. You can pluck the string too with your right had to check that you’re putting enough pressure. I like to pluck a few times, varying the pressure to try and get a clear sound with the least amount of pressure on the strings.
I’m going to do the same switching chords exercise with C and G, then I should be set to play my song.
Day 6: Chords, strumming and singing at the same time (eek!)
I’m getting there with the chords and strumming, but putting it all together with singing too is another matter. It feels a bit like rubbing your tummy while patting your head at the moment. I’m also wondering if I should’ve picked a song I like better than ‘You are my sunshine’. I’ve found out that ‘I’m the king of the swingers’ from the Jungle Book is also pretty easy. Sigh.
I’m gonna work on playing it a bit more before adding in singing. My poor brain just can’t cope with all 3 right now!
Day 7: Jamming session with Pops
Today I went to visit my Dad (Pops to my 2 year old), who has played guitar for years. We had a good little jamming session together, which I was quite proud of after only a week of playing the Uke. We started with ‘You are my sunshine’, and I found that even though I couldn’t play it, I could follow along with my dad, playing just the chords and strumming once for each one. It felt pretty good to play it, even though my dad was the one holding the tune!
He also gave me a few tips as follows:
- Whatever pattern you strum with, keep your hand moving all the time – the only difference should be whether your fingers hit the strings or not. I found that this helped me keep in rhythm better. So, for example, in a typical Uke strumming pattern of DDU UDU, (the ‘Island strum’), your hand is actually doing this: D(U)DU(D)UDU. You’re just not playing the first ‘up’ and the third ‘down’, as shown in brackets.
- Don’t take your left hand too far away from the strings when you change chords – it’s easier to get the next chord that way
- Using the chords C, F and G you can play lots of pieces, because you can chord progressions that work with the first, forth and fifth chord (C being the first, F the forth and G the fifth). If you then also learn D too, you can transpose any of these pieces by a fifth, by playing in G. G then becomes the first, C is the forth and D is the fifth. Generally if you’re finding it tough to sing a piece in C, then transposing it to G might be much easier.
Day 8: Playing ‘You are my Sunshine’ on ukelele (hurray!)
Ok, so I was going to only do a week, but I just had to put a day 8 in as this is the day that I finally managed to play ‘You are my sunshine’. I’ve been practicing my DDU UDU strum to death, and I finally managed to put it together with the chords and singing it. Very, very slowly, but hey, I’m happy!
So, there you go. 8 days for a complete beginner, who’s also never played guitar to learn a simple piece.
Now, on to bigger and better things…well, very small things as I’m playing a Uke, but you know what I mean!