Learning to play any instrument takes time, while the ukulele is one of the easiest instruments to learn, you still need to take the time to develop enough skill to make it sound great. There are a few basic pointers to make sure you are guaranteed to wow folks when you play the uke for them!
The Right Ukulele
I see many articles out there about how to make a cheap ukulele sound great, the best way is to not be cheap, luckily with ukuleles we aren’t talking about huge price tags. From the very beginning it is essential that you have a proper uke to play. Music is a great business these days, there are a ton of instruments to buy, supplies to get, and lessons to purchase. Unfortunately, not everyone is out to truly help you in your journey, many instrument makers out there both locally and foreign make terrible ukuleles.
Those manufacturers are unscrupulous and only need your money one time, they do not care about repeat business. The key to finding a great ukulele is research and not being cheap. There are a variety of laminates, solid bodies, specific woods, and brands out there to choose from. It is your job not to rush into buying any old ukulele, in fact if you have already made this mistake, well it is easy to fix. One of my best ukulele s is a Concert OU5 from Oscar Schmidt. I played it in person before buying it and knew right away it was the right choice, this was back in 2006 before there were so many choices in ukes.
Brands aren’t always important, but you usually want to spend more than $100. Buying online is ok, just make sure you have a good return policy (one that pays for shipping also). Before you buy read as many reviews as possible, ask questions, and once you get the ukulele make sure your action, intonation, and sound are great. Your ears will never deceive you on quality!
Holding Your Uke
Such a simple aspect is so important, way too many players smash the ukulele against their body. Like all stringed instruments the sound vibrations made by the strings need to resonate out of the sound hole and the back. I always hold it so the bottom corner is pressed against me so you can still hear the vibrations coming out the back. And I find that strumming the stings right above the sound hole are the best. Of course this can vary if you are playing a soprano, concert, tenor, or baritone. It is up to you to listen closely and try different positions, stick with whatever sounds the best. When you hit the sweet spot you will know!
I teach and play multiple stringed instruments, and I have a rule of always changing strings once I first buy an instrument. Think about it, the company selling a ukulele is all about making a profit, they will put the cheapest strings they can on. Many players have their own strings they love, but I swear by Aquila’s Nylgut strings. They don’t need to pay me for sponsorship, they have my loyalty, their strings make my ukes sing. I wish I could afford actual “gut” strings, but in the meantime Aquila is fine. Not only do I immediately change my strings, I regularly change them.
Now guitars, mandolins, basses, and lap steels need changed more often than ukuleles, but I still never go a few months without putting new strings on. Especially if I am playing often and the uke may be moving in and out of varying temperatures on a daily basis. I know musicians who will not change strings for years, and it shows. In reality strings are not that costly and new ones always sound better. However, don’t forget that new strings on a ukulele take some time to stretch, it is never wise to change right before a show, they need a couple days to settle in tune and they will make a huge difference in giving you a great sound.
The ukulele is very simple to play with an easy index finger strum, it is the most common way to play and always pleases. Over time though you will want to start adding new techniques in to spice your playing up. Fingerpicking is one example of giving the uke a beautiful sound, if you just strum up and down on the chords C, F, and G it sounds ok, fingerpick each chord with a bass alternate pattern and it will give a whole new dimension to your sound. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, slides, and trills will also give you a great sound. These are each played differently but they are all flourishes that let your audience hear that you know what you are doing.
You mean music theory is important to getting a great sound?!? Yes, undoubtedly yes! I know many musicians hate music theory, but it is a fact that the best players out there know their theory. Of course there are people out there who play simple 4 chord songs and get famous, but when you hear someone who knows their instrument, like Jake Shimabukuro, it is clear who sounds better.
I know the ukulele seems simple and easy and that is why it is popular, but in reality even a 4 stringed C6 tuned instrument has depth and beauty to it when played with a knowledge of music theory. Knowing what chords fit in what keys, a variety of chord progressions, a multitude of scales, and how to play different time signatures aren’t just good for your uke sound, they will allow you to play with almost any other musician in a variety of circumstances.
Seriously it doesn’t get more simple than this… practice. I have given many music lessons in my life, and those who do the worst are those who don’t practice. I can only provide my students with so many examples, guides, and ideas before it is truly up to them. I am sure you have heard that to become a professional at any task or skill it requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. That breaks down to a lot of practice over many years.
It can be daunting at first, when I started ukulele I was teaching myself and geez I had trouble even tuning the darn thing! However, I stuck with it even though there were times when I was insanely frustrated. Now it all comes second nature and like riding a bike you don’t forget. Playing music is all about muscle memory, the more you practice the more your muscles in your fingers remember what to do. Of course we have to remember that only great practice makes perfect, if you are studying for a test and you study the wrong info you will not do so well. Spend at least 5 nights a week learning new ukulele chords, scales, new techniques, progressions, and songs and over time your ukulele will have a great sound.