Making that first string change can deliver some surprising improvements to your ukulele
By Nicolas Grizzle
I’m a hobbyist ukulele player. I don’t gig, but I do play
for and with friends on occasion. I have one uke, which has never been restrung
or adjusted in my three years of playing it. I’ve gotten better at playing over
the years, to the point now where it felt like getting my instrument adjusted
would make a noticeable difference. So I finally took it into my trusted music
shop for a tune-up and restring. I expected a difference in sound, but what I
didn’t expect it just how much it ended up affecting my playing.
First off, it’s important to take your instrument to a place
you trust. If you’re asking someone to make modifications, often these are
semi-permanent adjustments that may be more costly to re-fix than buying a new
instrument (as was the case with my soprano Kala
KA-S). I brought my baby to Loud And Clear in Cotati,
California, where Matt took great care of my ukulele and patiently answered all
I asked about getting it “set up,” something I knew was done to guitars but wasn’t sure about for ukuleles. Turns out this is better left for more advanced players, or at least players with more refined instruments. To do a full setup would cost more than my instrument, and I likely wouldn’t benefit much from it due to my limited skill set. So we settled on a restring and minor adjustments, which he offered to include at no extra charge.
The rundown on the work.
The restring came out to $35, including the cost of the new
Aquila soprano strings. When I picked up my uke the next day, I immediately
noticed it feel a little softer on the strum and especially the plucking. The
strings sounded a bit rounder than the old ones. Matt suggested changing
strings once every year or so. Now that I know what it feels like to have new
strings, I’ll know when it’s time to change them.
Matt also cleaned and polished the body, cleaned the frets with “000” (triple aught) steel wool, and treated the neck with fingerboard oil. This brought out the figuring of the wood in the body and made me realize how dingy the fretboard had gotten. It made my simple instrument look classier. Not every shop would take this extra effort at no extra charge, but it might be worth it for you even if it costs a little extra.
I asked if there was anything that could be done to enhance
playability, specifically to reduce the buzz and lower the action. Matt
performed a minor nut adjustment by slightly sanding down the slots, no more
than 1mm on each. He also shaved the saddle on the bridge down from about 8mm
to 6.5mm, which brought the strings closer to the fretboard. I strummed a few
chords in the shop and immediately noticed how much easier it was to play.
There was definitely less buzz as well.
After about a week of playing I noticed quite a difference. I realize how much harder I used to have to press on the strings. It used to be quite frustrating when, no matter how slowly I played or how much I practiced the hand positions, certain chords would just not sound right. Either some of the notes weren’t fully present because they weren’t hitting the frets hard enough, or they would buzz, or they would sound detuned because I was bending the notes by pressing too hard. Now everything sounds much more even, and bar chords in particular are much easier to play.
It’s a marked improvement, but it’s not perfect. The open A
string stands out more than it did before in my playing, and some of the lower
notes fall back more than they used to. But I feel like that’s largely due to
habits picked up from playing my uke pre-tune-up. Also, I find myself having to
tune after each song. But that’s to be expected when any instrument is restrung
as the strings take some time to settle in. I expect it won’t be an issue for
I’m still re-training myself how to play with a lighter
touch, but already I am sight reading songs with less trouble. Those with
jazzier, more hand-stretching chords sound better in my hands, and the songs
I’ve been working on for some time immediately feel smoother.
For a first restring, I’m glad I brought it to a trusted professional. Next time maybe I’ll try my hand at restringing it myself—unless my baby needs a little pampering, in which case I’ll take her back to get the full spa treatment.
in one sentence: The Kamloops Ukulele
Orchestra has wrapped up its fourth annual festival under the waxing spring
moon at the Sorrento Centre in British Columbia, Canada, to the delight of
about 160 campers, and have declared it a rousing success.
Want to know more, perhaps a few details about the setting? Situated beside Shuswap Lake where brave bathers (including instructor Stu Fuchs) may take a bracing swim, the Sorrento Centre is just plain lovely. The facility, run under the auspices of the Anglican Church of Canada, is a rustic retreat from the noise of the city. Accommodations include comfortable rooms and plenty of space for campers with RVs or tents to pitch their homes away from home. “We like to think of it as a destination event,” says Vic Hamm, playfully adding, “There’s nowhere else to go!” Camp food is served with pride, especially fruits and vegetables from the center’s farm located “just up the road,” and the kitchen is happy to accommodate special dietary needs. As to the when, pre-equinox is an ideal time in British Columbia, as it is not too hot, cool at night, and the summer plagues of insects, fires, and smoke have yet to materialize. However, the cherries ripening on the trees might tempt a camper to linger longer.
A fine day to learn ukulele outdoors in paradise.
Here’s more of the who-was-there: first and foremost, members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Kamloops, (who also facilitate some of the evening jams) and secondly, people who have attended previously. The camp sells out almost immediately, so if you are not in the loop, you might miss your chance to sign up. Local instructors Tina Hebner and Debbie Korn were joined by Aaron and Nicole Keim, Victoria Vox, Stu Fuchs, Jim D’Ville, Daniel Ward and (yours truly) Heidi Swedberg. Workshops were numerous and diverse, starting at 9 a.m. and going until dinner time, after which there were two nights of instructor concerts (with unusually good sound!) and/or late-night jams, open mics, and general merriment.
Jim D’Ville (white hat) works his magic.
Crossing campus, one would
think they had entered a fictional utopian paradise. Lupine, delphinium, and
peonies compete for most brilliant and fragrant. Smiling faces nod warm greetings
and sounds of people singing and strumming quietly together rise from every
quarter. How can this be? I know we are in Canada, but really…. Such relaxed
happy people, true harmony, metaphoric and literal? WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?!?
One word: Organization. (Maybe two words: Good. Organization.) Who-What-When-Where-Why-How all comes down to a pair of who’s: Nicolette Eadie and Colleen Nielsen. They are the backbone of the club, and by extension, the festival. Daniel and I were lucky to have Nicolette and her husband Vic Hamm as our chauffeurs. An artist and retired educator, Nicolette keeps her art and love of sharing alive and glowing in her everyday life. Ferrying us from the airport to the Centre and back again, we had time to stop for tea, conversation, and a sampling of native Saskatoon berries from their garden, where I got the backstory which put everything into perspective.
Nicolette and Vic toast with ice cream (and maybe a little wine). Photos by Vic Hamm.
A ukulele circle was begun in 2012 by Colleen Nielsen and Awna de Haan to fulfill their need to make music with others. Within about a year the group had expanded beyond being able to play in living-rooms. With this growth came the desire to define themselves. “We had great expectations,” Nicolette explains about their impressive moniker. When they were paid their first honorarium for playing at a senior home the check was written to the Ukulele Orchestra of Kamloops. Determined to not let their $25 windfall go to waste, Nicolette and Colleen were pressed to find a bank which would open a no-fee account with such a small deposit. They landed at the Bank of Hong Kong, which required them to have a president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, and a board. Thus, by necessity, their organization was formed.
Delegation is an art and a
gift, one that Nicolette knows how to give. She created a “Committee
Description and Sign Up” sheet that describes all the club’s needs and allows
members to step up to a well-defined plate. The wording is kindly and inviting
“Please note that by having more than one person on the committees, members are
still able to take vacations or get otherwise distracted by life. We hope you
will find committees that are a good fit for you. Consider signing up with
someone else from the outset.” Committees include song leadership
opportunities, refreshments, mentoring, even a “Sunshine Committee” to
“acknowledge members who have suffered personal loss, injury, or illness by
sending a card with condolences.” most important is the membership committee, which
creates the agenda for the Monday night meetings and posts it on the UOK blog,
where it is accessed by the members. The agenda includes any order of business
to be addressed, as well as the songs to be led and designated leaders, so
members can load up their iPads or print their song sheets in advance. These
templates are in themselves works of art, and Nicolette is happy to share them
with interested parties who contact her through the Ukulele Orchestra of
The final song we sang at the camp goodbye gathering, led Nicole Keim, encapsulated the zeitgeist. “Let the Work I Do Speak for Me.” The song, which will be the title track to Aaron and Nicole’s forthcoming album, raised goosebumps and tears. A completely personal, subjective Who-What-When-Where-Why-How: I loved the 2019 Kamloops Festival because the organization made it easy for everyone to make the most of their gifts and grow the joy that making music together brings.
Uke Tales is a regular series exploring ukuleles with an interesting story, a personal connection, or simply gorgeous instruments.
I’d previously written about my first “good” ukulele, a Martin Style 1, gifted to me by my generous college girlfriend who had purchased it for only one dollar (see Uke Tales “My First Real Uke”). I thought that her purchase was the deal of the century…until I acquired my second uke, which is what this story is about.
The story really begins when I left home in 1972, to attend college at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After my departure, my mom suffered from a fairly serious case of “empty nest” syndrome. I’d grown up as an only child, with a mother who had enough love and maternal drive to have nurtured a sizeable brood. Thank goodness, she quickly realized that it would be beneficial to redirect her energies towards new pursuits. Within a year, she and my father joined a cactus and succulent society and took a jewelry making class at a local adult-education center. Even more significantly, she decided to start her own part-time business buying and reselling antiques.
The author’s parents show off another find.
Instead of setting up a retail shop, mom spent a few hours a day visiting local antique shops, thrift stores, and flea markets searching for affordable treasures—sterling silver bowls, baskets, flatware and such, artistic porcelain figurines, fine Middle-Eastern rugs, vintage jewelry, etc. Then, she would re-sell these items to her well-to-do friends and acquaintances, earning a small profit in the process. She didn’t buy these items haphazardly; she knew exactly what her customers were interested in or collected, so she rarely bought something that wasn’t promptly purchased. Not only did this business help mom get over her empty-nest blues, but she was actually making money doing something she loved. I was very proud of her!
Now the reason I’ve delved into this bit of back story is that the subject of this tale—a rare and beautiful Martin 5K ukulele—was discovered during one of my mom’s antique-hunting expeditions. She frequented a host of small shops in the L.A. area, including a place called the White Elephant in Burbank where she regularly found good stuff. As I recall, she considered the shop to be one of her favorite “honey holes.”
Martin’s top-of-the-line 5K ukulele was originally produced from 1921-1938. Photo by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.
One sunny day afternoon mom called me out of the blue; we usually talked only once a week or so, and always in the evening. After saying little more than “hello,” she drove straight to the point and announced that she had found a Martin ukulele at the White Elephant. I could tell from the low tone of her voice (and noise in the background) that she was calling me from the shop where she’d found the instrument (as this was decades before cell phones, she was talking on the shop’s telephone). Her restrained voice made sense to me: My mom had become a seasoned bargainer who rarely tipped her hand by displaying excitement for an item before the inevitable haggling process began, where she negotiated a lower price.
Back in those days, I
knew very little about the various ukulele models that Martin produced. I just
knew that the more elaborate the instrument—purfling, decorations, etc.—the
more valuable it was likely to be. When I asked mom to describe the uke, all
she said was “fancy.” “How fancy?” I asked. “Very,” she murmured, then
whispered “I’m pretty sure I can get it for around $100.” It took me about a
nanosecond to say “BUY IT.” She said “Good,” and hung up. Later, she called me back
from home to tell me she bought the uke for $125 dollars. She went on to say:
“Funny thing, it must be really valuable, because the shop’s owner called me
about an hour ago and said that he had a regular customer who’d heard about the
uke and was ready to pay me three times what I’d just paid for it!”
The Martin 5K is a soprano-sized monument of koa and pearl inlay. Photo by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.
About a month later, I was sitting in my parent’s living room with a vintage hard-shell case in my lap that held my mom’s score. “I hope you like it” she said. When I opened the case, I was slack-jawed speechless. The instrument inside gleamed like royal jewelry: It was a top-of-the-line 5K Martin, one of the loveliest, fanciest ukuleles ever created. The ukulele was in excellent, original condition, its body made from the highest-grade figured curly koa wood bound with ivoroid and abalone purfling, front and back and around the soundhole. Exquisite inlays adorned the ebony fingerboard and koa-overlaid headstock. I didn’t know if I should play it or wear it like a fantastically bedazzled musical broach!
The Martin 5K soprano features an elaborate torch design, carved from pearl and inlaid into the koa headstock. Photo by Sandor Nagyszalanczy
But play it I did. And that 5K sounded just as sweet as it looked. At the time, I didn’t even know how incredibly valuable it was—and what an astonishing deal my mom had gotten! I offered to reimburse her for it, but being the generous person she was, she said “well, your birthday is just a month away…” I’ve kept and cherished that uke for the past 36 years since my mom gifted it to me. But as much as I love that uke, I love the story and memory of my mom’s epic find even more.
So, you want to learn how to play a ukulele? Welcome! The first thing to notice is all the encouraging, happy people around you, cheering you on and helping you out. The ukulele is a social instrument, a song machine that magnetically draws people together to enjoy themselves. Be warned: The ukulele spirit is highly contagious. As soon as you master your first chords, strums, and songs you may find that you, too, are moved to share it with a friend.
A SIDE NOTE ON HANDS and “HANDEDNESS”
Both hands have much work to do! One is the chording hand, holding down strings, while the other hand is the strumming or “speaking” hand. Most people, even some lefties, will strum with their right hands and chord with their left. But some lefties find expressing rhythm challenging with their non-dominant hand. They have two choices: to flip it around, play upside-down-backwards, and devise their own chord shapes, or to restring their instrument. Restringing is simple and can liberate a lefty from debilitating frustration. For our purposes, I may refer to the strumming hand as the right hand and the chording as the left. Also, chord diagrams are always drawn in the standard right-handed fashion. If you are a lefty who has restrung, you probably know what to do—flip all diagrams and instructions to make them left-centric.
All players will find things are much easier when the nails of the chording hand are cut very short. The strumming hand can have longer nails, as they can serve as picks—or plectrums as they are known in British countries.
HOLDING the UKE
Start your musical journey on good footing and learn to hold your ukulele. In the Suzuki violin method, an enormous amount of time is spent learning the proper way to hold the instrument and bow. Kids begin with a box and a stick until the teacher knows they are ready for the real thing. Uke is much more forgiving, but it’s important to strive for good technique right from the start. A little mindfulness at first means you won’t have to unlearn bad habits later and may keep you from straining your tendons.
Standing or sitting, the instrument should be held close against your body. Many people use a strap to keep their instrument in an optimum position, but others prefer not to. Without a strap, the right forearm secures the instrument against the chest. For now, let your left hand hold the neck where it reaches the headstock, loosely. If you’re sitting, choose a chair without arms. Slumping back will make things harder, so until you are a confident player, sit up at the edge of your seat. Try crossing your right leg over your left and let it rest gently against your thigh. Allow your shoulders to relax. Don’t forget to breathe!
THUMB STRUM and YOUR FIRST CHORD
Place your fingers between the frets, with a gentle arch to each finger, with your thumb on the back of the neck, opposite your index finger.
The strings are numbered 4-3-2-1 from top to bottom. Gently stroke the strings with the pad of your thumb, one at a time. Anywhere you are comfortable strumming is fine, but the sweet spot is right in the area where the neck meets the body. Sing along with the numbers of the strings (4-3-2-1) and the pitches (G C E A). Now, play them again while saying the words to the classic melody associated with ukulele tuning, “My Dog Has Fleas!”
It’s a nice, soft sound. Now strum all four strings together while you count a steady rhythm: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4…. Sing the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” along with your strum. (Hint: if you’re having a tough time finding the first note, it is C. Pluck the third string to help get you started. Remember to count your strings upward from the bottom!) Over time, your strum will develop to use other fingers and patterns, but steady, rhythmic down strokes are the foundation.
When you play all the open strings together, the notes you strum make a chord called C6. The C6 chord is comprised of the notes G C E A. Sound familiar? Those are the notes we tune our ukuleles to! It’s called “C tuning” and is the most common way to tune a ukulele. (You may find old books that ask you to tune lower, to Bb tuning, and in Canada, many people tune higher, to D. The music you find online and in contemporary books will invariably call for C tuning.) This chord is made up of all “open” strings, that is, there is no chording going on with the left hand.
the CHORDING HAND and the C7 CHORD
Pretend you have a sock puppet on your hand and you are making it talk. Most likely your wrist is straight, and your four fingers are in a line, tapping on your thumb. Make that puppet look at you. That’s a great start for how your left hand should be aligned on the instrument.
Now, bring your hand around under the headstock and put the neck of your instrument in the puppet’s mouth, and locate the first string (that’s the one closest to the floor, the A string). Place the tips of your fingers in between the frets, with your index finger on fret 1, middle finger on 2, ring finger on 3, pinkie on 4. Let your fingers curve gently. Your thumb should be lined up with the index finger on the back of the neck, and your wrist should still be unbent. Remove all but your index finger. It should be on the first string, first fret. If you could make the instrument disappear, your hand would look like an “OK” sign, with the fingers gently curved, thumb touching index finger, wrist still straight. Now strum the strings. Congratulations, you are forming a C7 chord—now you can accompany yourself while you sing a one-chord song, like “Old Joe Clark.” (You can hear and learn this old favorite in the related video content.)
Chord shapes will become second nature after lots of practice, but until then, chord diagrams are handy reminders of how to finger a chord. The dark horizontal line on top represents the nut of the ukulele, and the four vertical lines are the strings, from left to right: 4 3 2 1. The thin horizontal lines are the frets. If you laid your instrument vertically next to a chord diagram they would correspond. The dots represent your finger on the string, and sometimes have a number inside to instruct your finger choice. Look at the C7 and F diagrams above and finger those chords.
READING CHORD DIAGRAMS
Many times, familiar songs are written out “campfire style,” with chord names or diagrams above the lyrics. The chords should appear directly above the syllable where they change. “Happy Birthday to You” is the epitome of a song everyone knows, and a perfect song to play with your first two chords. Bring your uke to the next birthday party you are invited to and try it out. You may witness a miracle—everyone singing together in the same key!
The starting pitch is C. Find your note on the third string and sing the beginning of the song to yourself before you start. The rhythm of this song is 1–2–3, 1–2–3. Strum that rhythm, holding down a C7 chord and counting to get a feel for it, and then begin singing “Happy…” on the third beat. When you get to “Birth…” switch to F, and so forth. It may be hesitant at first, but the goal is to keep a steady rhythm while strumming and singing and changing chords. Play and sing along with this song and check out the video above.
the F CHORD
The fingers of the fretting hand are numbered 1–4, index through pinky, but for clarity, we will call them by name. When you are playing your C7 chord, the index finger is on the first string, first fret. Shift that fingertip up one string so it is now on the second string, first fret. Now take your middle finger and put its tip on the fourth (the top) string, second fret. That’s an F chord. Give it a strum. Make sure you are on your fingertips; if your fingers are touching other strings the chord won’t ring clearly. While you are exploring, keep an eye on your wrist and thumb. Keep them relaxed and in proper position. Now is the time to develop great habits. Experiment with changing between F and C7. You will notice that the middle finger lifts off, and the index can easily shift down to the first string. Create a map between them in your mind and find an economy of movement. Once you feel fluid, strum four slow, even beats on each chord, anticipating when you are about to change. Once that is successful, speed up or reduce the number of beats.
LEARN the G7 CHORD
Position your fingers for an F chord (as always, check that rascally thumb!). To switch from F to G7, the index finger stays anchored on the 2nd string. The middle stays on the second fret but drops to the 3rd string. Now add the ring finger on to the first string, second fret. Being on your fingertips and proper thumb position will make this snug position possible. Notice that this chord shape looks like a triangle pointing towards the nut. Give a strum and adjust your fingers until it rings clear. Sometimes it will take a while to build finger strength and dexterity. Be kind to yourself as you work and know that training your body is a process. This is the most demanding chord in this lesson, so pat yourself on the back! Try switching from F to G7 in the manner you learned the transition from F to C7, and then work the G7 to C7 move.
PRACTICE with a SONG
Practicing is so much more fun when you are strumming a song, so let’s play. F, G7, and C7, in that order, are the chords you need to play and sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” By the time you get to the last bottle you will be an expert on your chord changes (and perhaps tipsy). Another fun song to sing and play is a traditional song from Hawaii with the same progression, “Popoki Make a Cat,” which comes with an d extra bonus: a Hawaiian language lesson! If you don’t yet read notes, you can learn by ear with the video.
HOME BASE: the C MAJOR CHORD
You have learned C6 and C7 chords, now let’s learn a C major chord. Make your sock puppet hand, and again position it on your ukulele, thumb on the back of the neck, and all four fingers on the first string. Release all but the thumb and ring finger, which ought to be on the third fret. Strum! C major is a chord you will be playing a lot of. Because our instruments are tuned in C tuning, the C chord is like home base.
You can hear that a C major sounds different from the C7 and C6 chords. Without diving into music theory, an explanation: The “C” in the chord name tells us that these are all chords based on the note C. The number or word after the “C” tells us what flavor, or qualities they have, like a musical adjective. Major chords, because they are the most frequently used, and have a neutral “flavor” are usually written without an adjective, that is, we simply say “C” for C major.
RHYTHM DRIVES MUSIC
Bob Marley Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is a fun, perennial favorite. It uses chords from our starter pack and is easy to play and sing, especially because you may already be familiar with the tune and catchy, repetitive lyrics. This song is enlivened by a strong backbeat, and a good chance to try out some easy strum variations.
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and … This rhythm is the bones of most of the songs we know. The numbers are the beats and are when we strum down the strings, or downstrokes. They are arranged in groups of four, and as this is the most common rhythm in music, we call it “common time.” The ands are the upstrokes. It’s hard to strum up with the thumb, so this is where we introduce the right-hand fingers.
Relax and pretend you are standing over the kitchen sink, shaking off water off your hand without making a mess. There is probably a small movement from the elbow, a little twist of the wrist, and a flick of the fingers. That’s what a good strum should look like. You can use just the index finger, or a combination of several fingers. Use what is comfortable. Everyone develops his or her own style; the most important thing is to keep steady and relaxed.
We bring variety to our playing by leaving beats out or giving them emphasis (accent). For a simple backbeat strum, play only the even beats: that is, beats 2 and 4. Another backbeat can be achieved by leaving all the downbeats out and only playing the upstrokes, or ands.
A little more complicated is the “doo wack-a do” strum. On beats 1 and 3 you do a light, partial down strum, just brushing the fourth string, then you give a solid accented down strum on the even beats, and play the up beat afterwards. If you were counting it out, it would go like this: one two and three four and one two and three four and. Or down down up down down up, or do wack-a do wack-a do…
Three Little Birds Words and Music by Bob Marley. Copyright (c) 1977 Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Ltd. and Odnil Music Ltd. Copyright Renewed. All Rights in North America Administered by Blue Mountain Music Ltd./Irish Town Songs (ASCAP) and throughout the rest of the world by Blue Mountain Music Ltd. (PRS). All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard LLC.
Using the chords in our starter pack, you can play thousands of songs. Really! Ask friends in your newfound ukulele community for their favorites, or search for your own online. You are hooked! Spread the joy and share this lesson with someone you love. Play along to the video above, because music is always more fun when you play with friends!
There are instances in which a specific chord progression or a riff can be recognized as a familiar tune, but it is a single-note melody that creates a true song. In the world of ukulele clubs and jams, much of the time is spent strumming chords and singing, while letting our voices carry the melody. Learning to play single notes can open a brand-new door to musical adventure and is well worth turning the knob to take a look. The simple technique of playing one note at a time will give you access to playing popular songs as instrumentals, classical duets, jazz arrangements, melody breaks within a song, and taking a solo over chord changes.
In this lesson, we’ll look at this single-note melody “Home,” which when played above an accompaniment, creates a duet. The accompaniment for this duet is “Arpeggio Meditation,” which is also available at Ukulele magazine online as a video lesson. This new melody is not difficult but does require moving up and down the neck with some light stretches, as well as some careful execution of the rhythm.
Single notes on the ukulele are plucked on one string at a time, fretting each note or leaving a string unfretted as needed. Lining both right and left hands up to strike the correct string and fret in time can be challenging at first, so here are some helpful tips regardless of your experience level.
Use your thumb, or alternate middle and index fingers in a “walking” motion.
Practice by playing several notes in a row on each open string to get a good feel for repeating your stroke. The next step is to pick groups of four notes on a string before moving to the next. As your technique improves, decrease to three notes per string, and then just two.
With your fretting hand, put your first finger (index) on the first string, first fret. Keep the first finger down and add your second finger to the second fret, and so on, until all four fingers are on a fret. This will help with your alignment and requires that you put your thumb behind the neck and behind your index and middle fingers. Keeping that thumb down and behind the neck will be helpful as the melodic content becomes more challenging.
Playing a simple C major scale up and down is a terrific way to start lining up both hands. Starting on the third string, play open, then second fret (Example 1). On the second string, play open, then first fret, then third fret. On the first string, play open, then second and finally third fret. Start on the first string, third fret, and just follow the scale back down. Repeat this up and down until it becomes familiar and easy.
Look at the music!
Follow the tab closely to make sure you are on the correct string and fret at all times. The first measure starts on the first string and goes from the third fret to the fifth to the seventh fret. This stretches the left hand over two frets each time, so use the suggested fingering indicated next to the notes on the top staff. In this instance the fingers used are: index, middle, and pinky, which are numbered 1, 2, and 4. Open, unfretted notes have no number. Work slowly until you can get through the whole melody with all the correct fret numbers on the indicated strings and the left-hand fingerings as well. It’s a short melody, so it won’t take long to get it under your fingers.
Take your time and start with using just your right-hand thumb as you learn the notes. Make sure you watch the rhythm carefully as well. A few of the eighth notes move in different places to fit with the original arpeggio, and there is one spot with a dotted quarter to eighth figure (Bar 5). If you don’t read music rhythm yet, you can learn this piece’s rhythm by ear from the video lesson. Once you have learned the melody using your thumb, try playing it with alternating middle and index fingers. After a quick review of “Arpeggio Meditation” you’ll be ready to find a partner. The score contains a small third stave with the arpeggio part so you both can keep your place when rehearsing.
Playing the Duet
A few simple things will help make playing this duet easy and fun. Learn each part carefully and pay close attention to how the two parts fit together rhythmically. The arpeggio part will be the pulse of the music, and the melody floats on top. A good count-in is key to starting together, but you can also loop a couple of bars at the beginning of the arpeggio part until the melody comes in. Another great intro is to play the last four bars (bars 13–16) and then bring the melody in at the top. If each player knows both parts, it’s fun to switch parts each time they repeat.
If you can’t find a partner right away, you can always make a recording of the arpeggio on your phone or other recording device and play along with yourself.
Do you tune your instrument with the aid of an electronic tuner? One of the benefits of using an electronic tuner is you can tune your ukulele to correct pitch in seconds. But at the same time, you are wasting a wonderful ear-training opportunity.
“Ear training,” you say? Ugh!
Yes, ear training. Two seemingly harmless words that, when put together, conjure up thoughts of other equally undesirable tortures like playing scales and studying music theory. In the rush to play songs on the ukulele, we often overlook the most essential element of playing music—listening.
Electronic tuners tune the eyes, not the ears. While you are looking at your tuner and turning the pegs, bringing the strings up to pitch, your eyes are taking in the bulk of the tuning information. You stare at the tuner, while your ears hang idle on each side of your head. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad idea to use an electronic tuner at first (especially if the ukulele is your first musical instrument) to familiarize your ears with the correct sound of each in-tune string. But once that task is completed, it’s time to start weaning yourself off “tuning by eye” and start tuning by ear. To do this you’ll need an A-440 tuning fork.
When you first attempt to tune with a tuning fork, you may experience uncertainty as to whether your A string is indeed in tune with the tone of the fork. Never fear, there is a little trick you can use to make sure your A string is in perfect tune. It’s called “sympathetic vibration.” Try this: strike the tines of tuning fork on your knee and place the base of the fork on the soundboard of your ukulele, near the bridge. If your A string is in tune with the tuning fork’s pitch, the string will begin to resonate in response to the vibrations emitted by the tuning fork.
Touch the A string lightly and you’ll feel it vibrating. None of the other three strings will be vibrating because they are not tuned to A. It may seem like magic, but it’s just physics turning sound energy of the resonating fork into mechanical energy of the string.
Tuning With A Tuning Fork
Holding the tuning fork by its base, strike the tines of the fork sharply on your knee and immediately place the base of the tuning fork on the body of the ukulele near the bridge. The vibration of the tuning fork will transfer to the ukulele and an A tone will be emitted. Hum the A tone and put it in your ears and mind. Now pick the A string on your ukulele and bring it into tune with the A tone you are humming.
Once you have tuned your A string to the tuning fork, find and fret the other A notes on the other three strings and tune those A notes to match the already in-tune A string. In standard G C E A tuning, next tune on the fourth string, the A is at the second fret. On the third string, the A is at the ninth fret, and on the second string, the A is at the fifth fret.
Tuning With A Pitch Pipe
For those more inclined to tune with a wind instrument, the pitch pipe is just your thing. Starting with the fourth string, blow the G note on the pitch pipe to put the sound of the in-tune G note in your head. Hum the G tone to further lodge the sound in your musical mind. Tune the fourth string on your uke down below the in-tune G in your head then tune up to the note. Always tune up to pitch as it tightens the string—if you tune sharp, drop the note down and tune back up until you land at the correct pitch. Using your voice is an important part of tuning by ear regardless of your preferred tuning device. Repeat the procedure with the other three strings.
Tuning with A Piano
Who wants to carry around a piano simply as a tuning aid? Also, most pianos you may encounter are probably not in perfect tune, but if you do meet up with an in-tune piano you can tune your ukulele to it.
Start at middle C on the piano and tune your third string to that pitch. Next, move up two white keys to E and tune your second string to match. Move up two more white keys and you’ll be able to tune your fourth string to G. Finally, move up to the next white key and tune your first string to A.
So, buy yourself a tuning fork or pitch pipe and practice tuning-by-ear each time you pick up your ukulele. Before long you’ll intimately know the sound of each in-tune string and be able to recognize them on command. After a while, you won’t even need the tuning fork or pitch pipe. All you’ll have to do is think “A” and you’ll hear the tone in your head thus allowing you to tune to yourself. How cool is that?
Music educator Jim D’Ville is on a mission to get ukulele players off the paper and into playing music by ear. Jim hosts the popular Play Ukulele By Ear website playukulelebyear.com.
When we were in New Zealand last summer (their winter) for the Geraldine Ukulele Festival, we stayed in a lovely parish house that was heated only by a wood stove. My four-year-old son and I spent a lot of time splitting and hauling wood from a little shed to keep ourselves warm. I relished the daily rhythm of physical work that had an immediate benefit to our family holed up in a far corner of the world. That sort of repetitive work can be almost meditative, and it inspired me to write a piece with droning accompaniment and a sweet, simple melody.
This piece, the “Woodpile Waltz,” is written for the baritone ukulele in the key of C, with the D string tuned down one step to C. It is taken from my recent book 10 Old Time Tunes for Baritone Ukulele and is for intermediate to advanced players who can read tab and have experience with right-hand techniques beyond strumming. This tuning, C G B E, facilitates the open-string drones that I love. The picking-hand thumb plays the third and fourth strings for the whole piece, providing the accompaniment, while your fingers pluck the first and second strings to make the melody. It’s a waltz with three quarter notes to the bar, so the notes you see are generally half notes or quarter notes.
The chords listed above the tab will be helpful if you want to have a friend play along with you, but if you are just reading the tab, you don’t have to concern yourself with the chord names. Also, when you arrive at the D.S. al Coda instruction at the end of bar 39, return to the segno (the sign at bar 5) and play until the indication To Coda (end of bar 24). Then, jump ahead to the coda (bar 40) to close out the piece. But you don’t have to limit yourself to just one time through. The tune’s entire form can be repeated again and again—just like chopping and hauling wood.
This type of music is generally learned through oral tradition, so viewing the video links are vital is you want to learn these pieces. Not only will they quickly show you how the notes and chords sound, but they will also give you a sense of the feel and style of the tune.
The Woodpile Waltz - YouTube
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments (thebeansprout.com) and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American. quietamericanmusic.com
The metronome is not only an incredible tool for playing in a solid rhythm, but also for building speed and to “looping” small sections of music you are working on.
I was in the studio producing an album by one of my favorite musicians. He had a strong sense of timing but had not worked with a metronome before. Because we were going to add other musicians at a later date, I decided to utilize the metronome, or click track, to keep everyone at the same tempo. After his first few rounds of playing with the click, he said, “Do you think this thing could be speeding up or slowing down?” Answer—no.
First step is to think of the click as your friend. I frequently practice with a metronome both to keep my timing tight and to add focus to the rehearsal. I often use a metronome in my smartphone (get a free one). I put one earbud in to clearly hear the metronome, and one earbud out so I can clearly hear my instrument.
Using the earbud method described above, simply play a rhythm along with the click. When you hear yourself get off-tempo, stop, regroup, listen, and start again. Soon, you’ll find you can keep much closer to the click for longer periods of time. Change tempos and see how you do.
40, 80, or 160 BPM?
BPM are the number of beats per minute. 40 beats per minute is a very slow tempo. But if you need to play something that slow, you can choose 80 and play one note for each two clicks. Or you can jump to 160 for 4 clicks per note. Experiment with what works best for you. Slow tempos leave a lot of time between clicks that are often hard to measure. And, very fast tempos often need to be divided in half, so you don’t hear nothing but click!
This is a tried and true method to gradually bring the speed of your playing up to where you want it. Start by playing something at a moderate tempo, like 75 BPM. When you feel you are consistent with that, bump it up to 78, regroup, listen, and play again. Keep increasing by 3 BPM until you feel you can’t stay with the click. Then back up and that’s your progress for the day. Next time start at 75, or 80 and continue bumping up gradually, increase tempo, regroup, listen, play, and bump up again.
This works well for rhythm playing or for practicing a whole instrumental tune or song. It also works really well for looping a small section of music and drilling it over and over again, first at an easy tempo, then gradually building the tempo until that small section of music comes easily at your final tempo.
Of course, this all takes focus, patience, and a desire to have your music play in time. It also requires that you be honest with yourself about the timing and adherence to the click. If you find that part difficult, you might want to work with a teacher, or music pal who can help you know when you have nailed it and when you are straying. I find that using the metronome really helps me perfect instrumental pieces. And I am one of those folks who loves the Zen of practice repetition. I don’t get bored. I consider it to be a great exercise in improving my music. Rather than think of practice as a chore, I use the word “play.” Oh yeah, I want to be doing this at the best level I can.
Last, but not least, to make the most of your practice time, practice what you don’t know rather than practice what you already play well. When you go through a song or tune and find there’s a “bump” in fluidity, pull that little section out, practice it with a metronome at a tempo you can manage, bump up the tempo gradually, and then put it back into the song or tune to see if it’s now a fluid part of the music.
If so, congrats! If not, do it some more.
Cathy Fink is a Grammy award winner and half of the Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer duo. She plays ukulele in many styles, including clawhammer, and teaches/performs worldwide in concert and at festivals. She and Marcy are artistic directors of UKEFEST at the Music Center at Strathmore. cathymarcy.com
Ohana Music founder Louis Wu never seems afraid of trying different things. In addition to selling many garden-variety ukuleles at player-friendly prices, he’s been willing to stoke players’ imaginations with designs that offer slightly oddball variations of basic ukulele formats at the same affordable pricing philosophy. This is great for curious players (I count myself among them), who never tire of playing standard ukuleles, but also revel in variety and new opportunities to love the sounds, looks, and feels of the ukulele and what it’s capable of.
While the company continues to introduce conventional instruments, it was a few of the Ohana’s other new instruments that really caught my eye, and after playing them over a few weeks, my ears really appreciated what these ukes offer players. While I love and celebrate novelty and zany ukuleles, as many of us do, I found two of these instruments, the concert 6-string and the tenor/baritone, to be novel in the sense of unusual, not odd for the sake of being odd. Each caused sparks to start flying in my mind when I thought about how I could use them in a group setting or for my own enjoyment. The other, the Marcy Marxer signature baritone, is a very solid take on a standard baritone, but with a cutaway.
A “BARI” NICE TENOR
Ohana describes the BKT-70G as an instrument with “baritone voice and tenor tuning.” That’s accurate, but after a few weeks of playing this ukulele, I’d like to twist that description around a bit. With an unusually full-bodied voice matched to the tenor’s wonderful tuning and fretting-hand-friendly scale, I began to feel like the BKT-70G does a lot to unlock the possibilities of what a tenor ukulele could be.
What this Ohana is showing me is that the tenor can be an instrument with a fuller tone, plump with ripe fundamentals of your plucked notes and the darling overtones that that tickle our ears. It’s these fundamentals that often get lost, especially on an instrument’s low-end, because most stringed instruments lack bodies large enough to resonate the full range of the lower-pitched notes. Stepping away from the physics of string vibrations, what this meant to me was that the notes flying from the BKT-70G had a roundness that I found irresistible, especially for fingerpicking classical pieces, like Lágrima (Winter 2016), or playing through some of the exercises in Daniel Ward’s books. Its full tone seemed to enrich the composers work, not just for the player, but also for the audience. As a strummer in a group setting, this Ohana was good at fitting in with other instruments, rather than jumping to the front with a blazing tone.
The solid spruce top has a tight grain, which helped deliver quick-speaking sounds and looked great with the simple binding. The neck’s large-ish D-shaped profile was very comfortable to my hands and made fretting easy for long sessions, and the open headstock just looks right on this uke. I very rarely use a strap and I found the baritone-sized body was also easy to hold sitting or standing. Even smaller players felt the same, as evidenced by my 11-year- old, who passed by a dozen other ukes to favor this one, saying that it was “really easy to play.”
This tenor-neck-on-a-baritone-body is a format I wish to see more of in the future. As it is, the BKT-70G is a great solution for players looking for a warm sound in a comfortable size. I’d be really interested to see what can be done with solid woods for the back and sides, like rosewood or mahogany, which would make a slightly lighter and more resonant ukulele. But that’s just a wish for the future; for now, the BKT-70G is a welcome addition to the party.
SIGNED BY MARCY
Some signature ukes stand out for their unique shapes or fanciful features, while others make a mark by personalizing an already good thing to the tastes of a marquee musician. The new BK-35CG Marcy Marxer Signature baritone is a prime case of the latter, taking the BK-35, the company’s all-solid mahogany baritone, and adding a cutaway on the BK-35CG seen here, and the BK-35CGE with a pickup and onboard electronics.
Grammy-winner Marcy Marxer is a regular contributor to this magazine, a valued teacher, and a top-notch musician on ukulele and guitar. Back in the day, she sought out and studied with Roy Smeck, a fiery vaudeville goofball whose hyperkinetic and hyper-inventive playing inspired many. Marxer’s playing is considerably less histrionic than Smeck’s, but she is no less talented as a player. And for her, the cutaway is an important addition to the baritone, which she says, “blends so well with other ukuleles. If you have a ukulele group or jam session—if you have a baritone uke it adds a nice lower warmth to the session.”
Indeed, the Marxer baritone is a warm instrument that invites both solo playing and added depth to a group strum session. I’ve played a few baritones that are louder than my tester, but the Marcy bari delivered the warm, deep tone that any of us could hope for in a baritone. It’s why they exist, and this ukulele delivers. While earthy depth is a part of playing a baritone, few other baritones I’ve played have been able to deliver the low-end clarity and definition that this Ohana did during our time together. The sound of some baritones can get a little mushy on the lower strings, but this uke’s clearly defined low end really helps to pull together not only the sound of this ukulele, but also the group you’re playing with. Everyone wants a solid foundation, and the Marxer has it for strummers and fingerpickers alike.
The body’s warm (there’s that word again) mahogany stain and simple purfling and binding won’t dazzle you with glitzy appointments the way some others might. This uke has a different goal—to sound good and to look elegant while doing it. The neck width is nicely spaced for fingerpicking and its shape is a modest C profile, neither too skinny nor too chunky.
The Marcy Marxer is an instrument for those baritone players ready to step up to an all-solid uke with professional-grade tone and playability. Its graceful looks and depth of sound make it an appealing choice for players looking for a fine-yet-affordable baritone.
Almost as long as there has been an instrument known as the ukulele, there have been versions of it with added strings. Usually, some or all the strings are doubled with strings tuned in unison, or occasionally paired with strings tuned an octave higher or lower than its partner in pitch. These pairs, or courses, were first used to increase the instrument’s volume as Hawaiian music ensembles became more popular 100 years ago. Twice as many strings not only made a louder uke, they also changed its fundamental tone, adding harmonic richness. It can also be a little too much (sound, clutter, and tuning). The 6-string is a hybrid of this idea and uses two pairs of strings matched with two single strings. Most 6-strings use octave pairs on the 1st and 3rd strings and have been especially popular with singers who are drawn to the richness of tone not available with a 4-string, but with a less cluttered sound than an 8-string.
With its new concert-size CK-70-A6, Ohana remixes this layout so that the two lowest strings are doubled with octave strings and the two top strings remain single courses. This Alternate 6 (the A6 part of the name) is tuned gG cC E A, and like other 6-strings, it’s made for strumming rich-sounding chords. By moving the octave pairs to the bottom, Ohana increases the instrument’s range, pumping out a bigger and deeper sound than you might expect from a concert uke. But I also found that the single strings on the top let me play clear-sounding melodies and ornamental notes, with the added richness of the octave strings chiming below.
To accommodate the extra strings, the A6’s neck is a little wider than a normal concert ukulele and may take a little adjustment for some, but the sound is rewarding. The neck also has a nice, full profile, which I found comfortable for nesting in my palm and resting my thumb on the side of the neck. The action and setup were faultless. Combined with the long, guitar-like headstock with six tuners, the A6 was somewhat neck-heavy—not really a problem for me, but some might prefer a strap. Picked and strummed notes decayed a little more quickly than I’m used to, but the lush sounds of the many strings made it a rather pleasant experience.
Many players will find the CK-70-A6 to be a niche entry into the ukulele family—and it is—but for players looking to add something special or for a fresh voice, the A6 is worth seeking out for some quality picking time.
Farida Old Town ukuleles follow the model of Chicago-based instrument manufacturers of a century ago, who put great-sounding, solidly built, affordable ukuleles into the hands of millions of players.
At first, the only widely available ukuleles were from Hawaiian builders and Martin, the first major mainland manufacturer. But by the mid-1920s, if you wanted a ukulele, the instruments you were most likely to find and afford were built in Chicago and sold by catalogue. Harmony Company, which was acquired by Sears in 1917, dominated the U.S. instrument trade. And with a large staff of skilled German and Latino woodworkers, Harmony was able to produce enormous numbers of high-quality ukuleles under their own Supertone brand and many other names. Martin influenced its designs, but the ukuleles were often made with a close eye on purfling and binding used by Hawaiian builders. Today, the quality and value of these Chicago instruments is widely recognized on the vintage market and some of the high-end models are revered for their beautiful purfling and rope binding.
While Farida is relatively new to North America, the company has a lot in common with the prewar Harmony Company. Since 1995, the Chinese instrument manufacturer GREE has built a reputation in Asia and Europe for producing guitars in Guangdong under its own name and for other brands. The company has offered the Farida brand instruments since 2004 and with the company’s new line of Old Town ukuleles, Farida follows a recipe of sticking to what works best about vintage instruments. “Classic design meets modern playability,” is what they call it. I think what that means is that these are close reinterpretations, copies that capture the sound and feel of vintage ukuleles but using modern construction. And after playing these ukuleles over several weeks, I must agree. These instruments achieve the company’s goal of looking, feeling, and sounding like “coveted instruments of the early 20th century…”
Farida offers tenor, concert, and soprano ukuleles in simpler versions featuring friction tuners, and deluxe models featuring solid koa woods, rope binding—including a beautiful marquetry strip down the fretboard—and geared Planetary tuners. The price difference between the two versions reflects the amount of woodwork that, despite the technological advances of the century, still are mostly accomplished by the hands of skilled craftspeople. All the Farida ukes in their Old Town line have mahogany necks and an asymmetric headstock design that takes a visual cue from the Gibson open book scroll, or the haircut headstock found on the higher-end Collings ukuleles.
During my time playing all three, the size, shape, neck, and balance reminded me of my old Martin and Gibsons. And the nitrocellulose finishes feel right, minus 80–100 years of drops, dings, and scratches.
First up was the mahogany soprano with an acacia fingerboard and bridge. My first impressions were that the ukulele is light and responsive. Tuning it to C, I found that it holds tune and sounds just fine. Like all new ukes, it will take some time to open up, and maybe I’d be happier with different strings, but even out of the box the tone is woody and warm. My next trick with a soprano is to tune to D—where a soprano would have been played in the 1920s (and in 2019 in Canada, I’m told)—and here, this soprano really wakes up and delivers the bright, punchy mahogany sound from a century ago.
The star feature of this ukulele is the wooden soundhole rosette, something right out of a shop on Oahu circa 1920 (or Chicago circa 1929). This is a simply adorned soprano, but the seven-stripe rosette is first class.
Next up was the acacia concert with a mahogany neck and acacia fingerboard and bridge. It took me several tries before I got comfortable with the sound from the acacia body. With its deep, rich, mellow tone, it’s not like any vintage ukulele I’ve ever heard or played, but this ukulele sang when I fingerpicked it. The abalone rosette sets this model apart from the other models, and this nod to the modern is an excellent choice for this unique instrument.
Last but, maybe, most was the tenor. This was the only deluxe version of the three models I auditioned. I immediately fell in love with the geared planetary tuners and the rope binding on the top, rosette, and fretboard strip with light- and dark-toned wood, plus orange strips; just beautiful. The sound of the koa body is live and responsive, with a wide dynamic range—much wider that I expect from a koa body, especially one that hasn’t seen decades of playing. Unlike the other two ukuleles with tie bridges, all Farida tenors use pin bridges. Fret dots do not make sense with the rope binding stripe, but I missed seeing side dot markers telling me where I am on the fretboard. [Farida responds that all of its ukes have acrylic side dot markers and our tester was a “one-off mistake from the factory.”]
So, if you live near a Farida dealer, I recommend you go play one. If you don’t, you should know that a Farida is an awful lot like the very nicest Chicago ukuleles that Americans once ordered out of Sears catalogues—solid wood instruments built by skilled craftspeople and played with joy in every corner of America and beyond.