Recently I have been taking on students who want to study ukulele. I noticed about nine or ten years ago that the ukulele was starting to capture the attention of many young people. It was starting to show up in pop tunes, such as “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train and was being played by popular artists such as Jack Johnson. Some of my students were starting to play it in their spare time, and it was not unusual, while walking in the New York City streets to see a young person with a uke on his or her back. When I was a kid, guitar was the instrument to play; everyone knew at least a few chords and, if you were even cooler, you could play the riff for “Day Tripper”. Ukulele was not even in our purview, except as the instrument of a different culture or being played by eccentric individual like Tiny Tim. Why the sudden interest?
One of the attractions of the guitar is that it is a great social instrument. My initial reason to start playing was to be able to take a more active part in the campfire hootenannies at my summer camp. You can go to a friends house and bring your guitar and share your latest songs or discoveries on the instrument. It was an instrument that initially was fairly easy to learn, once you get past the pain that goes with pushing down the strings. One could play hundreds of songs with a few chords, and with a capo it was easy to play in any key. Guitar in the 60s was the ultimate social and utilitarian instrument.
However, there were some difficulties to surmount. First of all, as I mentioned before, the pain. Especially when we are young the skin on the tips of our fingers is pretty tender, and holding down a steel string can be uncomfortable. Furthermore, when we play a chord, sometimes we need to hold down three or four strings simultaneously, which requires a certain amount of hand and finger strength. And then, there is the arch: while playing a C chord, we have three fretting fingers, one playing a note on the 5th string, one on the 4th string and one on the 2nd string, all the while stretching across three frets! A formidable task for the beginning player, especially a seven year old with small hands. Inevitably half of the chord gets lost to blocked notes until the player develops the agility and strength to arch the fingers correctly. Needless to say, many give up before mastering those first four chords.
Here is where the ukulele can come in handy. First of all the strings are made of nylon polymer, much more forgiving to the inexperienced finger. And because of the small size of the neck, the strings lie closer to the fingerboard and are much easier to press down. Finally, because of the smaller fret size and the fact that there are only four strings, one doesn’t experience to same difficulties with stretching and arching. The instrument is small, so it can easily be carried on the back or put in and airplane overhead. Finally, for about $60 one can get a pretty good instrument that will serve your purposes and sound fine. Even the barre chord, that frustrating bug bear of the aspiring guitarist, can be accomplished with not too much difficulty.
Some of my students who have started on uke have eventually become frustrated by the lack of range and have gone on to study guitar with me. They have made a pretty easy transition, because to ukulele has taught them the basics of fretting and strumming and has give them some hand strength. For my younger, smaller students, it has been a welcome alternative to the half size or three quarter size guitar. Likewise, elderly students, who may be experiencing stiffness or even arthritis in their hands, would find it a more comfortable way of making music. Finally, I have students who have stayed with ukulele into their teen years and gone beyond strumming chords to playing melodies and even chord melodies. After all, Jake Shimabukuro has showed us melodic possibilities on the ukulele that we never would have imagined.
So whether it is an entry level introduction to fretted instruments and musical involvement or an end in itself, the ukulele has turned out to be an accessible and fun method of music making, and one which I hope will be around for many years to come. Perhaps someday we’ll live in a world where there will be a ukulele in every household!