I’ve been playing the ukulele (and posting silly cover songs online) for more than a decade.
Occasionally, someone asks for tips about learning how to play. But this year, as the coronavirus pandemic has worn on, I’ve seen a dramatic uptick in these requests.
I came to the ukulele in a time of trauma, too. A time when I was advised to wear a surgical mask when interacting with other people. A time when I was afraid to leave the safety of my apartment.
Though tests showed I was in remission from lymphoma, I did not feel like myself.
My oncologist told me some of his patients had regained brain function through learning a new language or instrument.
I was already struggling to find words in my native English. More words were the opposite of what I needed.
So, I began investigating my instrument options and landed on the ukulele.
There are many sizes, shapes and styles, but I suggest starting with the traditional (and most economical) soprano.
My dad, however, finds the roomier fretboard of the slightly larger tenor to be more comfortable for arthritic fingers.
You needn’t spend a ton of money. Many brands offer low-price starter options. Just don’t buy a toy.
My first ukulele was a used Mahalo I bought on Etsy — a soprano hand-painted by a muralist in Detroit.
I named him Herbert.
The Internet taught me how to tune Herbert properly, and I borrowed an old pitch pipe.
They have apps for that now.
And many starter ukulele kits include chromatic tuners.
Once you have a tuned instrument, you’re ready to tackle chords. You don’t need to read sheet music, but you will need to learn to follow chord progressions.
This is the first song I learned to play.
This is a finger chart or chord diagram. The lines represent the ukulele’s strings and frets. The filled circles represent your fingers. No. 1 is your pointer finger, No. 2 is your middle finger, etc. Empty circles represent open strings.
This diagram represents a G chord.
There are loads of free resources online for finding chord progressions (and lyrics!) for songs.
And if you aren’t into screens (like my tenor-playing dad), there are books and magazines for ukulele players of all levels.
Next, you’ll need to work on your strum — the speed and direction your other hand moves across the strings. These illustrations all depict a common strumming pattern: down, down, up, up, down up.
On the downward strum, use the back of your index finger — the nail, really. On the upstroke, you use the front or pad of your finger.
I practiced this so much that I started scratching mosquito bites this way.
Different styles of songs lend themselves to certain strums.
Strum is what gives your song character.
I like to think of my strum as my gait while walking. Sometimes a sprint is called for. Other times I’ll want to skip. Sometimes I’ll even imagine what a certain walk would sound like as a strum.
But I always seem to settle back into my usual, natural pace.
Learning will be uncomfortable at first. New things often are.
Eventually, you’ll become so at ease with the chords that you won’t need the corresponding charts. Your fingers will remember the shape of a D chord, then seamlessly slide to a G. Your strumming arm will move in a rhythm that feels natural.
I suspect that’s what you’re really hoping to find in a ukulele. Comfort. A safe place.
I know I was.
I still am.
Elly Lonon is an author and illustrator living in New Jersey. See more of her work here.