How to play ukulele

Along with the long nails question, we often get asked other questions about how to strum on the ukulele, where to strum on the ukulele, what to strum with (do I use a pick or not?) and lots of other, more detailed questions. Thank you for asking, this blog is just for you. I hope we cover the top 5 questions associated with strumming your ukulele below:

1. Should I cut my nails?

In a word, ideally, yes*. On your chord making hand. If you have long nails on the chord making hand, it will keep your finger away from the strings. You need your fingertip to be able to press the strings down to make the chords, or they will sound ‘dead’ or ‘muted’. Chords need three or more notes sounding, so three strings ringing clearly to make a chord. If some of your strings are dead because you’re not pressing down hard enough with your fretting or chord-making hand, your chord may sound unusual and not as you want it to. Later on, when you’ve been playing for a while, if you want to pick notes out (this is sometimes known as playing fingerstyle) then it may help to have long nails or acrylic nails on the finger picking hand. (As I do at times, shown in the photo below)

Ukulele Nails

Ukulele nails – short on the fretting or chord making hand, and long (if possible) on your strumming or picking hand.

*unless you are Dolly Parton, or you are channelling Dolly, by coming in at the ‘Dolly Angle’ as seen below:

Dolly Parton's Nails Playing Guitar

Dolly Parton’s Nails Playing Guitar

2. Can I play with my thumb?

In practice, you can play with any digit you like. I prefer to play with my finger, as the nail hits on the on beat, with the flesh coming back up on the off beat. If you play with your thumb the reverse is true. That’s good if you’re looking to get a reggae or ska feel, or play gently for jazzy or gentle songs, but starting out it might be worth learning to play with your finger.

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3. Can I play with a plectrum?

If you want to be really loud, and play lead lines and single notes, then yes, do play with a plectrum. I prefer not to, I prefer finger picking both for strumming and for lead melody playing but some lead players use a plectrum in order to get a louder sound when they are playing lead lines.

4. Can I use a felt pick?

Yes, but I think it’s better to learn to use your finger to strum, as there are many percussive strums and ukulele tricks you can employ later on which use a finger, some fingers, or finger and thumb combos.

5. Where (on the ukulele) do I strum?

It sounds nicest if you strum over the fretboard. The strings are closer to the fretboard than they are to the body, so you’re less likely to catch your finger when you’re strumming there, than if you were strumming lower down towards the soundhole. Also, you are less likely to damage the body of the ukulele as you won’t bash it if your finger lands in mid air, whereas you’ll end up with a hole if your nails bash the body. A musical and a practical reason to shift your finger along!

Want to see a video to help you along? Here you go!

Leave The Tuner Alone

The first thing that I would recommend is to stop using your tuner to get your ukulele in tune. Yes, it’s fast, but it’s a shortcut that robs you of the opportunity to use and develop your ears.

Personally, I try and use a tuning fork. A tuning fork will give you a reference note, but the rest comes down to your ears. If you don’t have a tuning fork, use a reference note from another source – this could be from another ukulele or an online tool that plays you the relevant notes. Ukulele Go! gives some handy tips on how to tune your ukulele using only your ears.

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Start With A Familiar Tune

When it comes to working out songs by ear, I always recommend starting with the same song: Happy Birthday. The reasons for this are pretty obvious – it’s a song that we all know very well, we’ve all heard it many times, and we’ve sung it unaccompanied lots of times too.

Start with a single note and play it a few times to become familiar with it. Then, work out the next note: is it higher or lower than the previous note? Play the first note again and try to follow it up with the next. You might find this difficult, but it’s a process of elimination. There are a limited number of notes available to you (12 in an octave), and it has to be one of them.

It’s a slow process in the beginning, but you should find that even on a song like Happy Birthday, you will have drastically improved in working it out by ear before the end of the song.

Rinse And Repeat

Once you’ve got Happy Birthday all worked out, it’s time to move on to another song.

Nursery rhymes are good options here. Again, you’ll have a level of familiarity with the songs that will help you out. Repeat your technique from before. Take it a note at a time, and set realistic targets – maybe it’s just four notes a day to begin with, before progressing to trying to get a whole song in a day.

Here Come The Chords

Once you find yourself becoming confident working out melodies by ear, it’s time to move onto chords. Chords bring a new challenge, as they consist of multiple notes played simultaneously. It’s definitely more challenging but still well within reach.

Start out nice and simple. Pick a song with two or three chords in it – that will be plenty to begin with. If you’re just starting out, I’d also recommend looking up what those chords are. Here are a few songs that are a great starting point (plus the chords used in the song):Ukulele player strumming a chord

  • La Bamba – Ritchie Valens (C, F, G)
  • Sloop John B – The Beach Boys (C, F, G)
  • Free Falling – Tom Petty (G, C, D)
  • Barbara Ann – The Beach Boys (G, C, D)
  • Ring Of Fire – Johnny Cash (G, C, D)
  • Love Me Do – The Beatles (G, C, D)
  • Cecilia – Simon & Garfunkel (G, C, D)
  • All You Need Is Love – The Beatles (G, A, D)
  • Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd (D, C, G)
  • Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival (D, A, G)
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Find a recording of the song and listen to it. But not like you’d normally listen – I want you to focus your listening on the chord changes. When do they happen?

If you really want to get this skill down I’d grab a pen and paper and write the lyrics down. Leave a little room above each line and as you hear the chord changes, put a mark above the lyric that the change occurs over. We’re not looking for the actual chords yet, just the changes.

Once you’ve marked all the changes, the next step is to try and work out the chords. If you’ve started with a song that just contains three chords, it won’t be too difficult. What’s the first chord you hear? Listen again and again. Try playing your chords over the song, one at a time, until you find the right one. Note it down.

The good news is that it gets easier. And, when you think about it, it’s also just a process of elimination. Bob Egan provides a list of three-chord and four-chord songs that you can try to work out, for an extra challenge!

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