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!
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.
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:
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
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!
Advanced Topics: Bar Chords
If you’ve been practicing on your own, chances are you’ve looked up some of your favorite songs to play and have seen some pretty rough chords out there. Luckily the internet has hundreds of different ukulele chord charts out there, my personal favorite being Ukutab’s chord poster. While that one may look a little too intimidating, there are also more concise charts such as UkuleleChord’s chart and Ukalady’s chart.
Looking at some of those chords might cause a whole other headache– some of them look like they require 5 or more fingers! Egads! Look a little closer though: many of them need “four fingers” all on one fret. This is actually a bar chord!
Bar chords are the worst– at first. But you get used to them. All you need to do is take your index finger and lay it flat against the fret, being sure to press down on each string. A great beginning example of a bar chord is the D chord! You may have seen a few examples of a D played with only three fingers, but there’s a different way to play it that gives you a little bit of an extra challenge.
Take your index finger and lay it flat against the second fret. Now take your pinky finger and reach it all the way across to the fifth fret on the A string. This D can replace the “easy D” in a lot of songs to give it that extra kick. However, some songs sound better with the “easy D” rather than this new D. You will have to listen closely to the song you’re playing in order to make a decision on which chord sounds right.
Bar chords can also be very helpful when playing something that has a lot of chord changes or already has another difficult bar chord in it. For example, there is a regular G chord and there is a bar G chord.
They sound exactly the same– but what happens when you’re playing a song that requires you to switch between a G and a D7?
When you play a regular G with three fingers and switch to a D7 which requires a bar, one finger, and a positional hand change things can get difficult quickly. Even if you’ve been playing for years and only need half a second to switch it can get really tiring. And in songs that switch constantly and quickly (Tear in My Heart by Twenty-one Pilots) between things like D, Gb, and G– not only will bar chords prevent you from tiring out too quickly, it will also make that riff in particular sound much better and smoother.
Plus, if you get really good at bar chords and hand shapes, you won’t even need a capo when we start throwing out songs like Riptide or Mario Kart Love Song. Some really fancy people in the ukulele club don’t have have capos (or straight-up lost them and refuse to buy another) and play these songs regularly!
Advanced Topics: Strum Patterns
So the Default Strum Pattern will serve you perfectly well in 80% of the songs we play in the RIT Ukulele Club. Sometimes it tries to fake you out by showing up at double speed, which just means you play it twice as fast. However, there are so many songs out there that can be improved upon by exploring different strumming patterns. For example, take Riptide by Vance Joy.
DD– UDU-DD– UDU-DD– (repeat forever) or simplified: DD– UDU
When you listen to the song it can be easy to tell that the strum pattern will be pretty different. Especially in the introduction:
So why should we play DD– UDU instead of D-DU-UDU? For one, we would want consistency when performing as a group. Two: while the Default Strum Pattern sounds perfectly fine, it also makes the song less exciting. Riptide has a riff that sort of jolts you awake– the Default Strum Pattern gives the song a much calmer, sitting-on-a-beach feeling (as ukuleles do). However, if you’re looking to perform a slow, deconstructed cover of the song then the Default Strum Pattern may be the clear winner. In the end it’s up to you which strum pattern you would prefer, be it a strong DD– UDU start or a calming D-DU-UDU flow.
There have been moments in RIT Ukulele Club history when an arrangement assigns two different strum patterns to be played at the same time. In Jim Arnold’s arrangement of On Top Of The World by Imagine Dragons, there were two overlapping strum patterns, two overlapping singing parts, two overlapping clapping-percussion patterns, and a fingerpicking part that lasted the entire song. Yes it was very confusing. But it is one of the best arrangements we’ve performed in club history. Luckily on their own, the strum patterns were not difficult to pick up.
The first would be D-D-D-DDU (or similar) and the second would be D-D-DU-D (or similar).