I’d been thinking about it for a quite a while however and last year when I saw the movie “The Descendents” with George Clooney, which features lots of Hawaiian slack key guitar and ukulele music, mind was made up and I dove into research about the uke with intentions to buy one and learn to play it.
My research immediately revealed that this would be a reasonable goal because of the way most ukuleles are tuned: A, E, C, G, 1st string to 4th. Not the same notes as a guitar, obviously, but the intervals between the first three strings are the same as on the guitar. Meaning I could play the “tops” of guitar chords and at least get something like correct chord fingerings in many cases, right off the bat. That pesky 4th string, which is lower in pitch by a whole step than the 1st string would be something of a challenge to deal with but I figured I could handle it (which proved to be more of a challenge than I’d anticipated – more on that later).
I found that there were dozens of wonderful ukulele-based web sites with plenty of chord diagrams, strum and finger patterns and also many songs. Great! Still, I researched and bought some books that I’ve found to be pretty helpful, my favorite being “Ukulele Fretboard Roadmaps” by Fred Sokolow & Jim Beloff. This book starts from “square one” so to speak and proceeds into some fairly complex material.
But the first really big decision was: which size and brand of uke to buy? Ukuleles are available in four basic sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. Most are shaped like small guitars, although some are made in the traditional “pineapple” shape and there are also ones called Fleas, which are triangular and have a small but loyal following. I opted for the much more common guitar shape. Most web sites recommended the concert size, which has the same size body as the soprano but a slightly longer and wider neck, making the playing somewhat easier. Then it came down to materials and construction and here my guitar experience helped. As with guitars, less expensive ukuleles are made of laminates and while most sound just fine, all players seem to agree that solid wood makes for better tone. So in spite of the higher cost – just like with guitars – I decided to go for an all-solid uke.
Being a traditionalist by nature, I decided early on that I wanted one made of koa, which is the traditional wood grown in Hawaii and used from the very beginning to make ukes. Other options included mahogany (used almost always by the Martin company) and recently some more exotic woods like cherry and mango have been used. I love the look of koa though, with its complex grain that varies widely from tree to tree and even from one part of a tree to another. Koa is also supposed to give the most universally appealing sound, bright and clear but not “barking,” which didn’t sound appealing to me but is actually preferred by some uke enthusiasts. Some ukes have spruce tops with mahogany or koa backs and sides; interestingly, as opposed to guitars, this wood is said to make a much mellower sound than mahogany or koa, which I didn’t think I would like.
After a solid week of research on brands I settle on a concert ukulele from Kanile’a, a small but very well respected company in Hawaii. Just as with guitars, high quality usually comes with a very high price tag and I opted for their K1 Deluxe. I purchased it from a shop in Hilo, Hawaii – Hilo Guitars and Ukuleles. They were very helpful with advice about brands and features and put me at ease spending more than I’ve spent for some very nice guitars for my first uke. I waited impatiently for it to arrive (with a great hard foam/nylon case – the store owner said he was reluctant to sell it to me without a case to protect it on its long journey from Hawaii) and when it did I tuned it up and proceeded to spend almost three hours getting to know my gorgeous new ukulele, all the time with a huge grin on my face.
And there we have a really important part of playing a ukulele. It is truly a happy sounding instrument! Regardless of whether you play some silly tune or a jazz standard or the saddest ballad, the sound is light and airy and uplifting. In short, just as I hoped it would be. I liked is so much that a couple weeks later I contacted Ken at Hilo Guitars again and ordered a Kanile’a K1 tenor! Now I bounce between the two; I do not have a favorite. The concert is brighter sounding but the tenor is wonderfully complex and sonorous, whether strummed or finger picked.
Which gets me to the challenge of that pesky 4th string. I found that usually it sounds just fine either fretted or open with what look like guitar chords. In fact, what I am doing is adding something like a 7th or a 9th to a chord or sometimes doubling the sound of the first string but that’s OK. And of course there are many fingerings that don’t relate to the guitar at all for common chords and I continue to learn more of those. Finger picking is interesting too, to say the least. After playing only low sounding notes with my thumb for all these years, usually on the beat or with a treble string, I find myself trying smaller versions of Travis style or other patterns that now begin with a high tone. This tends to throw my ear off if I don’t concentrate really, really hard – which is a good reminder for me of what my students go through when I introduce them to finger picking.
Anyway, after a few months I can play the thing pretty well I think, both finger style and strumming. So much so that I will soon be offering a limited number of good quality ukuleles for sale and will offer beginner to intermediate private lessons on the uke. I’m also working out some chord/melody arrangements of jazz and pop songs similar to what I perform on guitar. I haven’t *quite* gotten up the guts to show up with it at my regular weekend gig at the Daily Brew but soon….soon. And when that happens I guarantee you I’ll be smiling!
So if you’re a guitarist who wants a new thing, something to compliment your guitar playing I urge you to consider the ukulele. If anyone gives you grief about it, invite them to view this You Tube video:
And by the way – no, I do NOT play “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” or “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (!)
Peace & good music,