a little purple Mahalo started it all

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 $30.

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 $100-350 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. 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.

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. There are more expensive ukes, but I don’t like them as well as I do the KoAlohas, and I’m not alone.

Gift ideas for your uke-obsessed friends:

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. Some of my favorites:

Ukulele Hunt | Ukulele in the Classroom | Uke groups of North America |

Hana Hou!

What should you carry it in? Well, we’ve got a great pattern for a knitted/felted ukulele case, designed by the awesome Wendy Bernard!

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

43 Responses to You want a uke?

  1. Marsha says:

    inspiring. on my bucket list now…

  2. tracy van wormer says:

    I have been thinking about at UKE for about 4 years now…on and off. I started after my adult daughter was in a car accident, and had aphasia from a brain injury. She used to play guitar, I used to play guitar…but I needed something smaller to haul back and forth to the hospital 2 states away….unfortunately, I opted for a “backpack” guitar…and was really disappointed. Music has helped my daughter…although she had problems speaking, she could still sing. It is how we got through 4 months in the hospital, and how we could cope with the paraplegia and the brain injury. I am glad I saw your article. I have to start looking for one again. (PS: daughter is doing great…and we still sing all the time!) Thanks for the info. –tracy

  3. Hans Boldt says:

    Good advice!

    One good thing about starting with an inexpensive uke is that if you still love playing a cheap sounding instrument after a few months, you know you’re hooked, and you know you won’t be wasting $400 when you move up to a better sounding instrument.

    As for me, when I bought my Kala, I made 3 visits to the 12th Fret before I made my decision.

    Oh, BTW, my favorite chord chart is at http://www.stefansukulele.com/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=18&Itemid=50

    Cheers! Hans

  4. Melissa says:

    I love this! We live on Kauai, where most of us play because it is tradition— a beautiful tradition that gives so much to you. It is awesome to see super small kine kids playing their hearts out and older Uncles relaxing as they strum absentmindedly in a conversation.
    Anyway, you nailed it with string choice!
    Aloha,
    Melissa

  5. tracy van wormer says:

    I did it…..bought one. It was 35 bucks at Hastings. Comes with an instruction book and a DVD. Made by Hal Leonard. I looked around on the internet, and didn’t realize that Fender and Gibson, and Martin all made ukes….along with others. Mine did not come with a case….but I rememeber seeing a pattern for one….
    knit on….and um..play on!

  6. Great post! I’m so in love with the sound of the ukulele and you make it sound so easy to pick up! I’ve tried to learn to play the guitar but I always end up wishing my fingers were longer.

  7. There is a uke shop about 30 minutes from my house. They make some cool ukes. My fave is the Flea. http://www.magicfluke.com/

  8. Louise T says:

    Thought about you when I saw this ukulele app for the ipad that’s coming.

    http://amidio.com/2012/03/introducing-futulele-the-ukulele-for-ipad-and-iphone/

    • Cate says:

      I was researching Mele Ukuleles this mnnriog to confirm that Mele Ukuleles are made on Hawaii when I noticed all the bad press about cracks and nasty service. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but my experience is so different I had to comment: I have 7 Mele ukuleles soprano, concert, tenor acoustic and acoustic/electric. I’ve spoken with Cheryl a number of times by phone from my home in NE Connecticut where we heat with wood in the cold months. My experience is this: If you want an excellent ukulele wonderful tone, stunning looks, great playability, good value and friendly service check out Mele ukuleles. I play out with a Mele Koa Tenor A/E and each time someone will come up to marvel at the beauty of the instrument and the amazing sound it produces. I own over 40 ukuleles Martin, Gibson, Gretsch, Favilla, Tangi, Kamaka, Kelii and Mele is always my go to’ uke for reliability and sound. I wonder about the negativity expressed by those few folks. Certainly not my experience. Not by a long shot.OverallSoundPlayabilityValue forLooksConstruction

  9. Kimberly says:

    Just stumbled over this post. I started playing the uke 3 months ago, after a trip to Kauai and a visit to Larry’s Music where I bought a pineapple-shaped Kamoa uke. I LOVE THE UKE. If you have never tried it, you must, must, must. You get such a sense of fun and accomplishment because it is easy and bright and it’s just hard to be sad while playing a uke! I highly recommend my little pineapple Kamoa – it was just over $100 and The Ukulele Underground folks have a great video where Aldrine reviews it and is impressed with its tones. GO UKES! Is there a link, perhaps, between knitting and and ukulele playing?

  10. Susan says:

    Now I’m inspired… I was just *given* a 1950s Vega baritone that my stepson found at the dump. Score! My DH plays the guitar and isn’t inclined to take up the uke, so it’s mine, all mine!

    Thanks for all the helpful links here too. Sweet.

  11. James says:

    I really really love to learn to play the ukelele. I’m a guitar player and I am having a hard time looking for the perfect ukelele to buy.

  12. HelenK says:

    I fell in love with my tenor Kamoa while visiting Kauai, but have been too busy knitting and working to really learn how to play it. I got the tenor because I played guitar for years tne the bigger uke was more comfortable — and you can still carry it on the plane.
    Just carrying it on the plane I learned about the very active uke community in my town and met a couple of other uke players.
    You’re an inspiration. Thanks for this post.

  13. Kurt Siegel says:

    I started playing the uke about 18 months ago, after an arm injury made it too painful to play guitar anymore. I also discovered Ukulele Underground, and have since become a regular presence. I also currently have 12 ukes, the pinnacle of which is a KoAloha Sceptre.

    I remember reading on UU about a uke designed with a convex back, designed to make it more comfortable for women to play, called the “Amy”, made by Luthier Bradford Donaldson, who lives up near Seattle. Coincidentally, Brad was compelled to design this ukulele after some comments on UU by a user named “Amy”… guess who that was?

    I found all that information AFTER I had ordered a custom made Concert Sized uke from Brad, which should be ready by March 2013.

    Oh yeah – I started spinning as an activity to keep me busy when I’d be unable to play the Uke while recovering from arm surgery (that may or may not happen…)

    So Thanks, Amy!

    Now I need to download the uke case pattern, ’cause my wife wants to make one for me.

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  22. Crystal says:

    Hello, So funny that I stumbled upon this post. I am also a knitter and I just decided to pick up a uke and start playing this past weekend. I’ve figured out how to fingerpick and played my first dong Happy Birthday yesterday! It’s so fun to play and I can’t wait to start learning the chords and playing more challenging songs! Thanks for the great post.

  23. Laurinda says:

    I hope you’re happy/ashamed of yourself! I read this post last night & I now have a little soprano on my lap. But I really want a baritone!
    I didn’t need another addiction, but I’ve ALWAYS wanted to play an instrument & failed each time. So how could I resist “absolutely the friendliest, easiest instrument to learn on this planet”?
    So I hope your satisfied. & OOO! I just tuned it with an app on my ph-SQUEE!!

    • Sara in WI says:

      Laurinda, I have a baritone that I would trade even for your little soprano. It has a soft case and brand new strings. I have very small hands and the baritone, though I love it so much, is just too much strain on my wrists. (I have Fibro, too.) (Message me on Ravelry. I’m Survivor.)

  24. I have been sighed. Your blog really is too attractive.

  25. Jess says:

    Thank you so much for tweeting this today! My dad bought my daughter a uke for Christmas (I have no idea what kind) and since she and I will both be flying somewhat blind as she learns to use it, this list of resources should prove VERY useful! :)

  26. Ellen says:

    Thanks for this post! One of my friends produced the documentary called The Ukes Down Under and after seeing that I asked for a uke for Christmas. My sister has promised to give me one, as well as some quick lessons. I am VERY EXCITED!

  27. Amy says:

    What a great post, Amy! I “accidentally” ended up with a KoAloha koa soprano on my last trip to The Big Island. I knew I wanted a Hawaiian-made uke, but didn’t think I could afford it. The KoAloha sounded better than many more expensive ones I played, I love it. I’d like to put a little plug in for the Cordova 15CM concert uke. I’ve played it a bunch at jams and for a $100 uke, it sounds amazing and has some pretty shell inlay around the sound hole. Yay for ukuleles!

  28. been playing Uku for years. And yes, it’s Uku not Uke, trust me if you type in Uku into Google and not Uke you will find a ton of Uku stuff you would be missing otherwise! cheers and happy Ukuing!

  29. Kelley says:

    I just got my first Ukulele for Christmas! I’ve been saying that I wanted one for months now so my very loving husband took me to pick it out. We are lucky that we have a great local Uke shop called The Strum Shop. I’m learning about Ukes but know that it is a Kala long neck soprano. I start lessons at the shop next week and am very excited about it. They also have a great group they call Uke University that meets twice a month.

  30. Ann-Marie Meyers says:

    If you are a knitting in the La Crosse, Wi area and you want to try the Uke, look into the Cheezland Uke Band. You know you’ve heard them, especially if you’ve gone to any of the Mississippi Mayhem Roller Derby bouts.
    Anyway, the Cheezland Uke Band has beginner lessons, and even has ukes for you to try out! Look them up on Facebook, or watch for their announcements in the the La Crosse Tribune.

  31. Kat says:

    I’m determined to learn to play my uke (received last Christmas) before my next big birthday ~ however I’m a bit ambidextrous & get my hand actions in a real muddle ~ can I ever learn without proper lessons due you think as it’s taking forever and I’m still rubbish :-( How many lessons does it take to learn the basics?
    BTW, I love your blogs, always have a mosey around to cheer myself up :-)

  32. Shena Houle says:

    You put your friends information for shipping address.

  33. Toni Maloon says:

    I was so surprised when I was perusing this website about knitting when I also found this blog on the Uke. I am an avid knitter but also build Ukes for a living so you can imagine my shock at finding my two loves on one blog! I guess others have found these two past-times go together nicely.;)

  34. Where most of us play because it is a beautiful tradition that gives so much to you.I appreciated your article.

  35. Linda says:

    I am intrigued after reading your article. I am a knitter and not so good of a musician. I tried several instruments. Negligible lessons in my life so I am self taught. A bit of a novice that reads music fairly well.

  36. Janet says:

    Years ago I recall reading your article when you bought your Fluke (or Flea?). The idea of learning the ukulele resonated with me but I let it percolate until my budget was more amenable. In the meantime I discovered Julia Nunes YouTube videos of ukulele songs. She cracks me up.
    Last spring I bought my first uke: a mid-range concert (low G tuning) and really enjoy it. I was not a “natural” but putting in the hours made the difference (an encouraging spouse helps, too). I recently started thinking about the regular high G tuning and found myself purchasing a soprano uke!! Whoo hoo. My hubbie pick up the uke occasionally and noodles around also. I’ve ordered the level one set of Ukulele in the Classroom as the have songs for two or more ukes playing together/harmony. I’m hoping to inspire my hubbie to learn the uke also. Thanks for the inspiration!

  37. Betsy Bailey says:

    I’m rather “sheepish” because this is the first Knitty Blog I’ve read. I love the uke! For my eighth birthday (I think) I received enough money in my birthday cards to buy a ukelele. Oooo! How excited I was! As soon as I got home from the music store, I immediately hunkered down with the uke book — complete with tabs — and taught myself to play. Even better, my Auntie and her husband also played the uke. My Uncle had lots of instruments — a man do uke, a banjo uke and many different sizes of each. I spent much of that summer visiting them and sitting on the front steps playing so happily for hours. We moved away from our hometown the next year and many precious belongings had to be left behind, including my uke.

    A couple of years later, the schools in our new home offered music lessons on classical stringed instruments. I chose the viola. I believe that having bought my uke with my own money as well as teaching myself to play opened the door to musical aptitude and curiosity that allowed me to be successful with my viola. YAY FOR UKULELES!!! There are several uke groups where I live. I may just get another uke and join one!

  38. Paula Wright says:

    Just noticed this post about ukes and I just bought one about a month ago. I like you comment about a ‘group’. I am going to look for one now. I also like your link, ukulele underground forums and Chordie. I purchased a Kala from Amazon, but it was from a dealer – Austin Bazaar. It was 70. w/ gig bag, and tuner. Solid wood.

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