The Ukulele Rage
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 get the attention of many young people. We would hear it in pop tunes, such as Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister”. It was being played by popular artists such as Jack Johnson. Some of my students were starting to play uke 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”. The only times we saw ukulele was in the hands of the eccentric Tiny Tim or the “hula girls” of Hawaii. Why the sudden interest?
A Social Instrument
One of the attractions of the guitar is that it is a great social instrument. My first incentive to learn guitar was to be able to take a more active part in the campfire hootenannies at my summer camp. Guitar is portable. You can go to a friends house and bring your guitar and share your latest songs or discoveries on the instrument. It initially seemed fairly easy to learn, once you get past the discomfort 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.
The Guitar’s Challenges
However, to learn guitar there were some difficulties to surmount. First of all, as I mentioned before, the discomfort. Especially when we are young 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. This requires a certain amount of hand and finger strength. And then, there is the finger stretch and the arch. While playing a C chord, we have three fingers, stretching across three frets and 4 strings! This is 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.
Uke: A Shorter Learning Curve
Here is where the ukulele can come in handy. First of all the strings are made of nylon polymer. This is much more forgiving to the beginner’s tender fingers. And because of the small size of the neck, the strings are much easier to press down. Finally, because of the smaller scale 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 an 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 gone on to study guitar with me. The transition has been easier, because to ukulele has prepared them with the basics of fretting. For my younger, smaller students, it has been an attractive 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 instrument. Finally, I have students who have expanded the standard boundaries of ukulele to playing melodies and even chord melodies on it. After all, Jake Shimabukuro has showed us melodic possibilities on the ukulele that we never would have imagined.
A Uke in Every Home
So whether it is an entry level introduction to fretted instruments or an end in itself, the ukulele has turned out to be an accessible and fun method of music making. It is 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!