At the moment, my master list of Ukulele Video Play Alongs is a catalog of 718 songs, not counting the baritone ukulele videos I have been making since this summer.
My personal approach is to teach ukulele as an accompaniment, as most players use the instrument in this way, and I have ukulele embedded into choir in my own program as a way for students to accompany themselves. I’m not opposed to teaching ukulele as a solo instrument, and I do introduce my students to playing a C scale, reading notes on a ukulele, and reading tablature–but I do not spend most of my time there. In truth, I try to get them to play chords successfully (greatly helped by the Ukulele Skill Drills) and to play ukulele in context of songs–and to get them to songs they know and love.
Last year, I reflected on my database of Ukulele Video Play Alongs, where I track not only the name, key, number of chords, and location (e.g. link) of a video, but what chords are used. My thought has always been this: why not teach ukulele in the order of chords that students will be called on to use those chords?
I do make some exceptions…the two most friendly chords for ukulele are C and G (and their relative minor keys). As a result, C and G are the most common chords that are called for, and they are used in each other’s keys. Even so, I don’t suggest teaching C then G…there is a learning curve where going from one finger to three fingers is going to be unsuccessful.
Likewise, I don’t want to encourage teachers to teach only one-finger chords. I know why this happens–it helps young students to play ukulele. In reality, however, a very small small number of songs exist that actually use a combination of those one finger chords–and your students are going to want to play more than songs that those that alternate between C, C7, CMaj, Am, and F9.
In my own teaching, I teach C, F, and G, followed by G7 and Am, because songs exist that can be played with those chords. The first part of my video ukulele method is currently available as a “thank you” to Patreon subscribers, where I do the work of collecting videos and placing them in a Google Slides presentation in instructional order, in increasing levels of difficulty–along with “how to” videos and Ukulele Skill Drills. If your students try, they WILL learn how to play, and they WILL be successful. Yes, you can organize/search for these resources yourself (the Google Slide collection), but I am hoping my work is worth a donation of a minimum of $1 per month to the cause.
A year ago (November 8, 2017), I found this order of chords with 304 songs in the collection:
Here is the latest (November 24, 2018) frequency of chord chart with 718 songs in the collection:
In both cases, I included chords used more than 10 times in the database, although the latest data total number of songs lists far more chords with 718 in the database!
While there is some motion between the chords, in the top 10 chords, only A changes position significantly (up “two places” in frequency)–and Em & G7; Dm & HI D7 (Hawaiian D7, 2020); and C7 & E7 swap places.
In my own method, the G7 swap isn’t significant as I choose to teach G7 before Am, resulting in a very large number of video play alongs that can be played, particularly once Am is added (close to 100 songs).
It is important to note that this frequency of chord use is not going to hold true to all songs on the Internet, particularly considering the popularity of the guitar and how many songs are written in the “open” key of E on guitar (as you can see from the charts, E is not a common chord choice when choosing ukulele friendly keys). Hopefully, ukulele players that are learning on their own are not trying to play things in the keys that are friendly for other instruments, but in keys that are friendly to ukulele (C, G, and relative minors of Am, Em). There are other good keys for ukulele, but they can contain chords that can (overly) challenge new players.
I also included the list of most commonly used chords from the Ukulele Hunt website, which appears below. I’ll re-post the most current chart from the ukulele play along videos below that chart…
The comparison simply tells me that the video play alongs that we create–with students in mind–tend to avoid the key of F where Bb would be used more frequently. Meanwhile, as a website, Ukulele Hunt can provide materials in any key, without worrying about the skill of the player. While some of our videos do go to the “Land of Bb,” I have read articles that indicate that a majority of guitar players (80%!) give up when reaching the F chord, which is the Bb chord on GCEA ukulele. It makes sense that we go out of our way to provide music that avoids barre chords (full or partial) as well as the “dreaded E chord.” Please note: I’m not saying to avoid learning to play barre chords (please note: my warm-up video starts with barre chords on Day 1) or to avoid learning the E chord in its various forms…but it does make sense to provide songs that are accessible for students. When I reach the point that students can play barre chords…Bb or full D7, I can then teach any song in any key, because they have the skill to decode and perform just about any chord. Not every student reaches that point, but that is the goal!
For those of you reading this post, hopefully this data helps you understand how the ukulele video play alongs work in terms of chords that are expected, how the ukulele video play alongs interact with different keys, and perhaps this data will help you as you make your own (pedagogical) choices as it comes to your own playing or teaching others how to play ukulele!
This summer I managed to get a hold of a SmartTuner, and the company was willing to sell me two for the price of one. I posted about that device, and also created a video. I was contacted by the company shortly thereafter, and was sent yet a third device which had been updated to tune faster, as they felt their product didn’t compare well in speed to the Roadie 2. The tuner works as they hoped; it has all the benefits of the existing device but comes to pitch even faster.
While I have been using that updated version at home, I took both of the “old” Smart Tuners to school and have been using them with our new ukuleles, for which there is still no storage system, and the KIDS strings are still stretching like crazy. In other words, students have not used them yet, and I try to go through and tune all of them in a storage area about once a week. I have been using the Smart Tuners exclusively for this over the past eight weeks of school, and while I am tuning at least 71 ukuleles in a row (sometimes as many as 90), I have not had to recharge the tuners this year. That’s pretty amazing, particularly considering how far the C and E strings go out of tune every day (they take the longest to settle, and what these ukuleles need is to simply be played and to put the strings into played and stretched condition). On a rare occasion a C string has stretched so much that I need to use the “up arrow” to move the pitch up before the Smart Tuner can lock on to the closest note…but this is NOT a big deal.
I have not pulled out our Roadie 2 tuners at all, because dealing with selecting the instrument is a pain. It is such a joy to simply turn on the Smart Tuner, put it on a string, and let it tune. You have to be somewhat near the right pitch for it to work–but that’s it. At this point, I can simply let the device tune all of the strings without having to worry about what pitch each string is going to. It’s brilliant, and a time saver. And if you remember, I have been experiencing rear button failures on Roadie 2 models. That won’t happen with the Smart Tuner.
Jowoom wanted me to demonstrate the semi-auto mode that is similar to the Roadie 2, where you tell the device what string is to be tuned…but to be honest, the automatic mode is much better. I will show this in a future video, but I prefer the automatic tuning.
And at home, I realized a past statement of mine was flawed. I said that I couldn’t use the SmartTuner for my eight string ukuleles. This was wrong. There is a chromatic mode on the SmartTuner (pretty easy to get to–just hit the power key to change the mode from guitar to ukulele to chromatic) which tunes your instrument to the closest pitch. This has been working flawlessly for me on my Baton Rouge eight string tenor and my Ohana taropatch.
The only instruments I cannot use the SmartTuner on are those instruments with friction tuners or Gotoh tuners. All the other geared tuners work great.
The other day, someone asked about buying a string changing tool, and at one point I bought an Ernie Ball Pro Winder for school and home. The battery died on my home Ernie Ball, and I don’t think I’d buy another one. The SmartTuner, while more expensive, serves as a fast winder for string changes, as well as a great tuner for all of my geared instruments. It’s brilliant, and I highly recommend it–and yes, over the Roadie 2. The only two advantages the Roadie 2 has over the SmartTuner are customized tunings and firmware updates. I also like the Roadie 2’s flashing light and vibration that let you know the string is in tune (useful in noisy environments). Sadly, the SmartTuner is not upgradeable–but it is cheaper, and in a classroom setting, so much better with the automatic feature.
Again, I bought one SmartTuner and received two models free of charge, and bought two Roadie 2 models which were replaced under warranty for faulty buttons, and one of the replacements has already started to fail.
This summer, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Ukester Brown, a local ukulele teacher/performer/enthusiast. He loves the the songs of the 1920s, and has an extensive collection of Maccaferri ukuleles (the styrene ukuleles that were everywhere in the 1950s). I had a chance to see his collection this summer (probably one of the best on the planet) and to see his two cigar box ukulele builds. This encouraged me to try building one myself.
I took some time off from making ukulele play alongs, and decided to build my own cigar box ukulele. My wife and I took a trip to Memphis this summer, partly as a vacation, but partly to visit the Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob. One day, we traveled from the Civil Rights Museum towards the center of the city, and came across a cigar shop along the route—which had a lot of boxes in the windows for sale. I went through the boxes, and my wife encouraged me to buy one box (I was going to buy a few), so I picked out a big mahogany box (laminate), and then dragged it along with me the rest of the day.
We went back to the hotel room and I ordered parts…and there was a neck/fretboard/tuner/bridge/nut/saddle combination that was for sale (concert scale), so I ordered it from eBay. Sadly, the company contacted me 24 hours later and let me know they no longer had the item, so they refunded my money and I had to order everything separately.
I did so, and when we got back from Memphis, I ordered parts and started working on the ukulele. I made a video of every step in the process, and that video appears below. I share my thoughts—having no experience building a ukulele—along the way. I made a lot of mistakes with the ukulele. Examples?
The sound holes cut with a dremel tool faster than I thought, and I made mistakes. I did my best to make the sound holes look okay…but close inspection shows the flaws.
I glued the bridge in the wrong space originally, even though I took a long time to measure and remeasure. I think I measured at the top of the 12th fret (i.e. the 11th fret) originally, rather than at the bottom of the 12th fret…but I caught the mistake before the glue had completely set. As a result, there is a sanded patch above the bridge that is visible…right now I am thinking of it as part of the charm rather than a major flaw. I might stain it later…but probably not.
I cut the fretboard as it didn’t measure the same as other fretboards that I have. That was a mistake, and I was able to glue it back together.
I knew—as soon as I saw the box—how I wanted to cut sound holes (f-holes), and many other details worked out as I built the ukulele.
If you are curious about parts, here is what I bought for this project…just under $90:
Concert Neck & Fretboard: $15.00
Bridge, Nut, and Saddle: $2.50
Box Corners: $7.00
Martin M600 Strings: $7.00
Interior Bracing: $5.00
Music Nomad Octopus: $15
Small wood planer: $10
If you are going to buy tuners from China (eBay), be sure to buy 2 sets. I would have been short tuners (there are left/right tuners) had I bought one set. Some of these are tools that will be used for other projects, but I still bought them for this build.
The greatest surprise of all was how good the ukulele sounds, even though it is made of really thick laminate. I was sure it would be a dead sounding box—as many cigar box ukuleles are. I was okay with just hanging the ukulele on the wall as a conversation piece. I think the giant box has a lot to do with its nice sound—I’m not sure a smaller build would sound better. Cigar box ukuleles and guitars come from the depression, in a time period where many people couldn’t afford a real instrument—even an instrument as cheap as a ukulele—but they could fashion them out of other items.
I don’t consider myself an expert in the construction of cigar box ukuleles. If I were to do this again, I might want to try using a CNC to create a neck/headstock and bridge. I do want to look at starting a club at our school where students will paint and build their own ukulele (looking at Ohana kits), but that’s a different focus altogher (MUCH easier). I would simply say that if you are interested in building your own cigar box ukulele, you can.
My First Cigar Box Ukulele Build: The Lunatic Cigar Box Ukulele - YouTube