Ukulele: a port of entry to music and guitar

Ukulele Fever

Recently I have been taking on students who want to study ukulele.  About nine or ten years ago , I noticed that the ukulele was starting to get the attention of young people.  You would find it in pop tunes, such as Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister”. Pop artists, like Jack Johnson, were playing uke.  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”.  At the time, nothing was more “uncool” than playing ukulele.  We associated it with Tiny Tim or “hula girls” from Hawaii. Why the sudden interest?

A Social Instrument

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 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.

However, like all instruments, guitar has its challenges.  First of all, as I mentioned before, the discomfort. Until calluses form, holding down a steel string can be uncomfortable, especially for a very young person. 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 challenge of the “arch”. While playing a C chord, for instance, we have three fingers, that need to span three frets! This is a formidable task for the beginning player, especially a seven year old with small hands. Unless the player can arch the fingers correctly, half of the chord gets lost to blocked notes.  Needless to say, many give up before mastering those first four chords.

Advantages of Starting with a Ukulele

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 tender fingertips. 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, stretching and arching are not issues. 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.

Many of my students who have started on uke have gone on to study guitar with me. They have found the transition easy, because ukulele has prepared them with the basics. For my younger, smaller students, it has been an attractive alternative to the half 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 gone beyond strumming chords on the uke 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.

A Ukulele in Every Home

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 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!