Where to Begin: Ukulele 101

So you’ve got your hands on a ukulele, what do you do now? Luckily, the ukulele is actually a pretty easy instrument to pick up, especially if you already have experience with other string instruments.

First, look down at the ukulele. If you’re right-handed, the fingerboard should be under your left-hand fingers and the sound hole should be under your right palm. (Switch those for left-handed folks.) The order of strings, starting from the one closest to your face, is C G E A. Take your middle or index finger and press it down between the second and third fret on the A string. Now you’re playing a C major chord!

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This is a chord diagram. When reading one, you should know from left to right the strings are C G E and A. Therefore, you know that the leftmost string is the string closest to you, and this is a rotated image of your own fretboard. If there are numbers inside of the diagram, they will represent which finger should go where. Four of the most basic chords are C major, G major, F major, and A minor. These will typically be written in shorthand as C, G, F, and Am.

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You may be wondering how to play these chords. Fingerpicking is one option, but it can get kind of advanced so we’ll save it for later. The most common way of playing a ukulele is strumming! There are a few different ways to strum, but in general once you get the motion down you can pretty much strum with anything. The two most common ways in the RIT Ukulele Club are index and thumb strum. For the first option, point a finger gun at your heart. Take that hand shape and move it to the top of your C string, while still pointing it at your heart. Brush your index finger against each string from top to bottom, and you’re strumming! Your second option is making a loose thumbs-up hand shape, which is kind of the way your hand rests when you’re not using it. If you’re right-handed, brush the left tip of your thumb against each string from top to bottom, and you’re thumb strumming!

If you’ve been to RIT Ukulele Club meetings, you may have heard us discuss strum patterns. Strum patterns help you build a rhythm when playing a song by telling you whether to strum upwards (from A to C) or downwards (from C to A). The most common strum pattern that we call the Default Strum Pattern (where D means down, U means up, and a dash means pause) goes in this order:

D-DU-UDU

If you’re having trouble playing this, I recommend you first try playing it very, very slowly. If you’re familiar with reading music, this pattern follows 4/4 time, where the upstrums are eighth notes. If you aren’t familiar with reading music, that means when you count the beats 1 .. 2 .. 3 .. 4 the upstrums aren’t played on the beat, but between beats.

1 – 2u-3u4u
D- DU-UDU

I know– it can get complicated. If you are having trouble playing a strum pattern over a song, it’s a great idea to help you build up your skills by first practicing with only downstrums. This way, you’re still following the foundation of the Default Strum Pattern but everything just gets a lot easier. Just play one downstrum for every beat.

1 – 2 – 3 – 4
D – D – D – D

Once you’ve got your strum pattern down, try using your left hand to play a C chord. Once you can play a C chord using the Default Strum Pattern, you’re already playing the introduction to the RIT Ukulele Club’s alumni song: You and I by Ingrid Michaelson!

Now that you’ve hit that milestone, try playing the other chords I’ve written here: G, F, and Am. Beginners tend to find G to be the most difficult of the four, but the G chord is found in almost every piece of music we’ve played so you’ll definitely get it down eventually. Try switching between these chords from C to G to F to Am. Now try switching between them while strumming! Again, if you have trouble following the Default Strum Pattern while playing these chords it’s always a great idea to first try the one-downstrum-per-beat pattern.

Congratulations! You can now play a multitude of songs that use those four chords. One of the most popular beginner songs that uses only these four chords in that order is I’m Yours by Jason Mraz. Once you’ve mastered these basic chords and the Default Strum Pattern, you’re ready for more advanced topics!

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