Hana Hou!

Well, it’s the day after the big Spring+Summer Surprise went live and one of the patterns in there was not much of a surprise for anyone who follows my Twitter feed: a felted case for a ukulele or two. [Kudos to designer Wendy Bernard who turned a whimsical idea into a functional and fabulous pattern that I hope lots of you will make!]

One might wonder what took us so long to serve up something uke-ish. I admit that I was hesitant, because I try not to make Knitty only about what I love personally, but what I think our readers will love. Of course it doesn’t hurt if I love it too.

a little purple Mahalo started it all

But Jillian kept urging me to get a uke case pattern designed and in the magazine and I finally saw the wisdom in her idea. Because it’s not just me that loves the uke.

Ukuleles are experiencing a resurgence not seen since the 1950s, with movies like The Mighty Uke showing to packed houses, and musicians from Train to Amanda Palmer to Eddie Vedder reclaming the little 4-stringed wonder. I’ve been playing the uke since 2008, when I traded a skein of yarn for a purple Mahalo. It was this video that made me want to learn how to play the uke. [aside: yes, that's Bret of Flight of the Conchords, 2nd from the left.] I have been very fortunate to find a ukulele community that meets and plays together weekly, and thanks to these sessions, I’m getting better all the time.

But what is the point of this post? It’s to tell you that you can do it too. The ukulele is absolutely the friendliest, easiest instrument to learn on this planet. Easy to learn, hard to master, sure. But you can learn 3 or 4 chords, and be playing along with a group in less than an hour. And with a little practise, your repertoire of chords will grow, just like mine did. With the uke, I have found it’s about enjoying music, not about being a kickass performer. It’s about F.U.N.

People ask me what kind of uke to start with, so that’s really the point of this post. This is my best advice for those starting out with the uke with zero experience. There’s no way to know if you’ll like the uke until you play one for a while. So I recommend you choose one of the colored Mahalo soprano ukes, like the purple one shown above, at a cost of around $20.

First thing, replace the crappy strings it’s wearing with a set of Aquila Nylgut strings. This will make a world of difference. If you’re new to stringed instruments like I was, don’t be surprised that the strings don’t hold their tuning for long. They’re plastic and they will stretch for a while until they settle in.

Next, download a chord chart, and learn some basic chords. C, F, G will get you a long way. Add A, D and E7 and you’ve got a lot to play with. Visit Chordie and type in some song names, and you’ll find things to start playing!

I’ll skip the part about playing as much as you can, because if you like the uke, you will do that. I’ll also skip the part about googling and finding [hopefully] a uke group near you. If you don’t find one, you can always start one, right? Think of it like a musical S&B night.

I meet my Pono Tenor at the now-closed Music Guy Mic's...and fall in love at first sight.

You love the uke and are ready to upgrade? The next place to start looking is the $100-300 range. You can go up into thousands of dollars with ukes, but to get something really playable for a relative novice, you don’t need to spend more than $300ish.

Brands I recommend are Kala, Ohana, Pono. Kala is most affordable and has some fun models, if aesthetics are your thing [I like this plaid model]. Ohana is a factory-made uke with good quality control and really nice acoustics [my first really good-sounding uke was this Ohana Sopranino, which -- because it's so tiny -- often travels with me]. Pono is the factory-made (but hand-finished) offshoot of the Ko’olau brand of Hawaiian ukes, and I love their quality. I have a Pono Tenor that I play all the time lately.

thanks to ukuleletricks.com for this great image

Who should you buy from? I recommend a uke-focused seller, because they will usually check and adjust the uke before they sell it to you. This is a good thing. I have personally dealt with and would recommend the online sellers Mim’s Ukes and Uke Republic.

When in doubt, put your hands on the uke you want to buy and play it first. Does it feel good? Do you like the sound of it? That’s what matters. That’s what happened to me in the pic above. I had planned to JUST LOOK in the shop [stop laughing] and after a few strums, I was lost. I played a lot of ukes that day, most more expensive than this one, but this one felt just right in my hands and made sounds that made me happy.

image via Lamorinda Music (thanks!)

What about all the sizes? How do you choose? This is easy: play them all. Ukes come [from smallest to largest] in Sopranino, Soprano, Concert, Tenor and Baritone sizes. Baritone uses the same tuning as a guitar and has a really deep sound, but still just 4 strings. The others use either GCEA tuning [my preferred] or ADF#B tuning, and sound like you imagine: the smaller ukes have higher-pitched voices. The most important point, in my opinion, is how the fretboard feels under your fingers. Some are made wide or thick, some are thin and flat, and every model feels different. The one that feels best to you is the right one. It’s as personal a choice as the kind of knitting needle you like best.

Lamorinda Music has a great explanation of the different sizes of ukes here.

KoAloha Soprano ukulele, in solid koa. Ahhh.

And I’m adding this in as an afterthought [December 2011], but not an unimportant one: if I had an unlimited budget, what ukulele brand would I buy? KoAloha, hands down. The sound these beautiful hand-made Hawaiian ukes produce is warm, like a tropical hug. I have a Noah [their sopranino, aka smaller than the soprano], and have watched my uke friends fall in love with the KoAloha sound as well. We now have a Soprano and a long-necked Concert sitting next to me at the uke jam, and across the aisle, a Tenor or two. There are more expensive ukes, but I don’t like them as well as I do the KoAlohas, and I’m not alone. 

One more thing: there are tons of online ukulele resources to help you along on your journey. I’ve spent a lot of time at the Ukulele Underground forums, reading back posts and asking questions when a google wouldn’t suffice. Lots of helpful people there. There are tons more places to explore. Google away!

Remember: ukes are happier in bunches. If you find you love the uke, teach someone else. Pass it on. Don’t be shy.

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34 Responses to How to choose your first ukulele: an essay by your uke-obsessed Editor.

  1. Jayne Rulis says:

    THANK YOU!!

    Ive been looking at a Hilo or a Mahalo for a bit, going back and forth weather to buy one or not. I wanted to learn to play guitar when I was younger, but my hands were not big enough hold chords down on the neck. And Ive loved the sound from IZ & Amanda Palmer (and now Eddie Vedder — OMG heard his new album LOVE IT)

    I was waffling again if I should get one, and the Felted Case Pattern showed up and Its a total sign. So today for my birthday Im going to the music store and see what they have. You’ve helped make my decision!

    Jayne
    @Lady__Jayne on twitter

  2. Thanks! I’ve got my first uke and have been pondering (with any spare brain cells) making it a case. Ha.

  3. Heather O'Connell says:

    I loved this post! I have a mandolin, but gave up on it years ago.

    Off I go to buy a Mahalo! They carry them in Canada for about $29.

    Thanks again :)

  4. Linda says:

    When looking at secondary schools for our daughter, we walked into the music room and discovered ukes all around the outside of the classroom. The music teacher had just bought them and thought he’d start the next year with them because of all the reasons you note. I wanted to go to the school! But I may eventually have to buy one for my own fun. Thanks for egging me on!

  5. L.bo Marie says:

    YAY!
    you’re the cutest.

  6. Terri says:

    Have you seen Jake Shimabukuro play “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the ukelele? I kid you not. It’s at TED dot com.

  7. Aloha, friend! Nice work demystifying the jumping off point for new ukers!
    One more tip for the newcomers regarding tuning: some ukes’ tuning machines (the gears or pegs) are a little loose, which allows it to slip out of tune faster, so you can gingerly do a little minor surgery by gently tightening up the screws.
    I had to do it with both my starter Hilo ($50 – geared), and my current dreamy Koaloha (much more than $50 – pegs) and it worked a treat.
    Jayne: I was very happy with my Hilo and for a starter uke, I think it had a better sound than a Mahalo, but it’s so subjective.
    Love the gigbag pattern, Amy. Nice summery project. I also love that plaid Kala…

  8. Courtney says:

    When on vacation in Kauai, my husband, who also plays ukulele, and I found a great place called “Strings and Things.” It’s a combination ukulele and yarn store – amazing. Both of our nerdy hobbies in one place.

  9. Meredith says:

    I *almost* bought a uke years ago when I lived in Virginia and saw one for $40 at my favorite local music store. Now that they’ve become so popular, I wish I had!! Hmm…might have to hit up some local music stores around here and see if I can find a cheap one…I can play the guitar, but a little uke would be so fun to take to camp this summer for singing songs around the campfire!

  10. Kris says:

    Sounds like you may want to get together with Stuart McLean of the Vinyl Cafe on CBC, Amy! Did you know that the ukelele is the Vinyl Cafe’s official musical instrument?

  11. LizAndrsn says:

    Replace the strings — why didn’t I think of that? I would never touch a guitar with plastic strings, so why have I put up with all that stretch for so long? You’re brilliant. And thank you :)

  12. Marna says:

    A friend of mine and her partner had a baby and when she was born, she was very, very ill and required many months in the hospital. So my friend bought a uke and learned how to play it so she could sit and play and sing for the baby!

  13. As long as you’re crafty enough to make an ‘uke case, why not also make your own ‘uke?!? My husband and I put one together – the “Grizzly H3125 ukulele kit” – and I painted it for inclusion in an art exhibit featuring local (Hawai’i) artists transforming ‘uke kits into an array of creative items. I got another kit to put together and paint with my 9yo niece. Consider the possibilities available when making your own instrument – you’ll be glad you did!

  14. turtle says:

    thank you for the uke pattern for felting! We lived in hawaii for 13 years and daughter grew up, still plays! But a felted case i can personalize to her would be perfect… and she has a birthday next week and has asked for nothing!.

  15. Geraldine says:

    Did you know that ‘ukulele’ means ‘jumping fleas’? It’s because when one plays the hand looks like a jumping flea! Also, ukuleles were brought to Hawaii from Portugal.

    Lastly, you MUST look up Jake Shimabukuro on youtube. You will not believe what he can do with the ukulele!!!

    Enjoy!!!

  16. LoriAngela says:

    My introduction to ukes was teaching them to a grade 2 and 3 class. After reading your posts last year, I bought a concert Lanikai of sweet Koa wood in Hawaii. Now I’m playing with the Sunday School, it’s great fun when the guitar is just too serious.

  17. suzalele says:

    Oh DAmn how I love my uke. Bought it for my birthday 2 years ago and havent been seen without it since. I never played a stringed instrument before, but it is SOOO easy to learn. Much like knitting it is totally addictive! Check out YouTube.com for tons of tutorials. And, http://mightyukemovie.com. Happy strummin’.

  18. suzalele says:

    Amy, How about a felted uke strap?

  19. Cathy Johnston says:

    My husband, former bass player for Ukesperience, built ukes, including a lap uke, for his band. You can check them out at http://www.ukesperience.com

  20. Emily says:

    I got a ukulele for Christmas in 2009 (a Lanikai LU-21) and I love playing it! Ukuleles are so fun and cute. :)

  21. Linda says:

    I love Jake Shimabukuro! We just saw him at the Canyon Club, he is excellent in person!

    Now I’m thinking of buying a ukelele! Thanks for the tips.

  22. Viki says:

    Thanks so much, it isn’t like I needed a new obsession. I just bought another spinning wheel. If you had been a week earlier with this post I might have saved several hundred dollars! LOL. Now my husband thinks I’m nuts for watching all these Uke videos and crusing the sites for info. He thinks I should just pull out my dulcimer or strumstick, penny whistle or flute. I think it is lure of learning something New.

  23. Jean says:

    My dh has really gotten into ukes, and he’s teaching our daughter. So I made sure to send him the link for the case pattern. We’re big fans of Julia Nunes and her uke, if anyone needs any more inspiration on YouTube.

  24. Anne B. says:

    Here’s a ukelele that is made out of legos and can be tunes and played.

    http://www.br-eng.info/words/index.php/2011/05/21/ukulele-out-of-lego-bricks/

  25. Diana says:

    You convinced me, Amy! I just ordered my very first ukulele, a Mahalo. I used to play guitar and keyboards and I miss having music in my life. I’m so excited to get it and try it out!

  26. DebbieC says:

    Amy, you did it! I had a uke as a kid–your post brought back all the good memories. Yesterday I bought a Kala Mahogany Tenor with Aquila strings.

    Now to knit the Hana Hou for it.
    Thanks!!

  27. Elizabeth M. says:

    I forwarded your blog post to my husband who loves all stringed instruments.He suggested I send it to one of our sons who told him last weekend, as they were on a long road trip, that he would like a ukulele. You inspired a 19 year old man to order his first Mahalo uke. Who knows what will occur after reading a knittyblog?

  28. Bridget says:

    That does it. When I visit my parents next month, I am going to try and dig out Mom’s old uke from upstairs and see if she’ll let me take it home for a bit.

  29. IT’S YOUR FAULT! My ukulele should be delivered Wednesday. Heh!

    I started to follow your recommendation, then discovered concert ukes (better for my hand size than soprano or guitar). Then I found Ukulele Mike’s You Tube tutorials – oh, my! He recommends Oscar Schmidt OU2′s for his students, and that is what I bought. Happy, happy dance!

    P.S. Grandson, age 5, is fascinated. Think he’ll get a soprano dolphin for Christmas. It will be just his size.

  30. Annetta says:

    Hi Amy,

    Thank you so much for this truly fun pattern! Not so much for myself, admittedly, but one of my closest friends has recently joined a uke group & bought her first uke. So this was perfect. I taught her to knit last year, & the project was a tea cosy that was then felted. She may never knit anything without felting it first now… She was delighted, & immediately put all the knitty.com info into her uke music book, so that she could share your site with her entire group.

    Have a great day.

  31. Bethany says:

    I just ordered a Kala Spruce Top Concert ukulele from Hawaiian Music Supply. They should not have given me a tracking number. I’m checking all the time, and it’s only been a day. And now I’m freaking out about the postal strike! “No! Not until my uke gets here!”

  32. thank you so much for this amazing and informative post! Firstly, my husband built me a ukulele for Christmas from a wooden cigar box and I’ve been without a case so I’m very excited for the pattern and secondly, just an awesome amount of knowledge here that I so appreciate as I’ve been intimidated learning it still!

  33. Sarah says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience and thank you for recommending the $20 uke for a first-timer, and following up with the string advice. So many times I read a stern lecture, admonishing the curious to spend hundreds of dollars, chasing away many more than it could bring to the fold.

  34. Rebecca says:

    I just bought my sister a Mahalo ukulele for her b-day and whipped up a felted case in just a few hours! Thanks for the inspiration, pattern and advice.

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