from Al Wood’s YouTube channel
By this point in the ukulele’s popularity-cycle you’re probably sick of hearing it in commercials, awful YouTube covers of Over the Rainbow and at subway stations. So you’d be forgiven for rejecting the possibility of getting a ukulele yourself. But you’d be missing out.
I was a confirmed guitarist in my teens when I first picked up a ukulele on a whim. Since then it gradually wheedled its way in to the point where I became obsessed. I’ve spent the last six and half years blogging about ukuleles and I wrote the for Dummies book on the subject.
I don’t expect everyone who picks up the ukulele will be quite as taken with it as I was. But I do think everyone who plays guitar will get something from picking up a ukulele.
The ukulele is wired inside out. Instead of the strings going from lowest to highest like a sensible instrument the order is: second highest, lowest, second lowest, highest.
As luck would have it, my brain is wired inside out too so I enjoy it. With the strings set up like this you can play across the strings rather than up and down them. It gives you many more options for playing any run of notes. Each passage is a puzzle and it’s very gratifying to come up with the solution.
Restrictions Force You to be Creative
Dr Seuss’s most successful book The Cat in the Hat, like every pair of trousers Steve Vai has worn, came about as the result of a bet. His editor bet him that he couldn’t write a book just using 50 different words.
Musicians also place restrictions on themselves to get the creative juices flowing. We might solo over a twelve bar blues,create a tune using a specific scale or, my personal favourite, finishing every single guitar solo with a Shave and a Haircut.
Sometimes we need those restrictions to force us out of our comfort zone and trying something new. And the ukulele with its limited range, strings and sound does that very well.
Picking up the ukulele forced me to get more creative with rhythm and harmony than I was on the guitar. I spent way too much time just chugging along with fifth chords and playing meandering solos. You can’t get away with that stuff on a ukulele.
I have ukuleles stashed in all corners of my apartment. On sofas, under tables, in the bathroom. Reach into a nook and you’re sure to pull out a ukulele.
And they’re easy to transport. Whether that’s walking around your home, on a camping trip or having one on the seat next to you in the car a ukulele makes a whole lot more sense to take with you. Although I strongly recommended against playing while you’re driving.
It gets you practicing time that would otherwise be spent staring out the window. Or peeing.
Guitar Skills Transfer Easily
Standard tuning for a ukulele is gCEA (with the lower case g indicating it being tuned higher than the C). If you’re a lot smarter than me you’ll have noticed that that is the tuning of the top four guitar strings at the fifth fret.
That means all the chord shapes and scales you know on guitar can be moved straight onto ukulele. All you have to do is adjust for the higher tuning. For example, if you take the shape of the top for strings of an open C chord on the guitar and play the same shape on ukulele you get an F chord.
There’s no denying it’s a fun instrument to play.
When I pick up a guitar I do feel like I should be playing “properly”. Like I should be working on my chops. There are so many technically flawless players that it gets intimidating.
There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s very liberating to pick up an instrument that doesn’t have that baggage. One you pick up without any expectations (on yourself or from other people). You can pick it up and just strum out some chords or you can get fancy and surprise people.
All the Best Guitarists Play
There’s a quite staggering list of great guitarists who played the ukulele.
Some started off playing the ukulele like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Dick Dale. Others continued playing it and used it on record such as Pete Townshend on Red, Blue and Grey and Brian May on Good Company.
You Can Make Great Music
Don’t take the uke’s simplicity to mean you can’t play beautiful pieces of music. Two players in particular have been expanding people’s ideas of what’s possible on the ukulele: Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill.
The definitive piece of instrumental ukulele is Shimabukuro’s version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. And you’ll be amazed what James Hill can do with a pair of chopsticks and without any chopsticks at all.
Al Wood writes about ukuleles at Ukulele Hunt and is the author of Ukulele for Dummies.