• 10 Tips to Help You Choose a Ukulele – by Ralph Shaw

    Photo by Chris Devlin

    Welcome!

    If you are a fairly novice player and don’t know about stringed instruments, it’s nice to have an experienced player with you to help you choose your instrument. But that may not be possible and, ultimately, it is you who will live with the choice. So if you can do the choosing yourself, it promises to be a satisfying and memorable experience. 

    Here are 10 basic things to help you be more confident with your choice.

    1. Price

    Remember you will be spending more time with this object than possibly anything else you own outside of your furniture. So don’t be cheap.

    A great-sounding instrument can uplift you, make you want to play more and will make you sound good from the first strum.

    How much are you willing to spend? Or, what is the most you can afford to part with? Think about how much you spend in other areas of your life (like your car or clothes) and figure out what an appropriate amount should be for you.

    2. Size

    There are 3 main sizes of uke:

    Small = Soprano (or the slightly larger but less available Concert)

    Medium = Tenor

    Large = Baritone

    Try all three and decide which suits you best. This could be for physical reasons (large or small hands) or it might be the sound you prefer. Soprano and Tenor have the bouncy ukulele sound whereas the Baritone uke tends to be closer to a guitar – if that’s what you want.

    3. Build

    Look closely at all the points where the various parts of the instrument have been joined. Check out the frets. Are they straight and cleanly inserted into the fingerboard or raggedy looking? If all the wooden joins are smooth and pleasing to look at, it’s a visual sign that the maker has taken care.

    4. Looks

    Does it look good on you? It’s unfortunate but true that modern audiences listen as much with their eyes as with their ears. How your instrument looks will send a message to your audience about you and the music you’re about to play. A beautifully inlaid uke will say one thing and a bright pink uke will say another. It’s not really a huge deal though and, if you play well, people will eventually listen no matter what. Generally, I would say don’t choose your instrument according to the colour, that is unless it also fulfils the other qualities you’re looking for. 

    5. Sound

    With the uke facing you on the wall or on a stand, strum across the open strings. What does the sound make you think or feel? If you like the basic tone, that is a good starting point. Once you’re holding it and pressing the wood with the sound-hole pointed away, it will sound different again. However, some instruments lose their tone when you play them. Find out if the uke holds the tone all the way up the neck by pressing a finger across all four strings at some of the higher frets. Does the tone still sound full and ringing or has it become dull?  

    6. Balance

    Does it feel good to hold while resting easily in your arms? If the neck and headstock are too heavy for the body, the instrument will be constantly tipping to one side. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker, because you can use a strap to hold the uke in place, but is that what you want?

    7. Weight

    A beautiful-sounding ukulele has great resonance. It sounds loud and full and the sound carries on without disappearing right away. This happens because a good uke is made from thin wood that is free to vibrate thanks to well-placed bracing (thin pieces of internal supporting wood). The physical light weight of your instrument is a clue that it is well-made and potentially great sounding.  

    8. Tuners

    Check that the instrument holds its tuning. The tuning pegs need to be sturdy and tight while also being easy to adjust. Planetary tuners with their hidden gearing (1:4) make tuning quick and precise while still looking like friction pegs. There is nothing wrong with good friction pegs either, so long as they stay in place and don’t slip during the middle of a song or when you accidentally brush them with your finger. Guitar-style geared pegs (they may come out sideways from the headstock) work well too if good quality.

    9. Intonation

    There are several ways to check intonation and I offer this one as a way of doing a quick and easy test:

    Tune the strings. Then play a chord like say G7, or E minor, and notice if the string that is not being pressed sounds in tune with the 3 strings that are being played as part of the chord. Does it still sound sweet?

    Next move the chord up one fret with the fourth string still open. How does that sound? Move the chord all the way up the neck one fret at a time, strumming as you go. Even the discords along the way will sound sweet if the intonation is good. If it gets nasty and jarring, it means that the build of the uke is poor and the intonation is off. You will never sound good with this instrument no matter how how much you practice.

    But keep checking the open tuning of the strings. New strings have a tendency to stretch and need to be regularly retuned for the first few days. If the strings keep going out of tune, this will confuse the above intonation technique.

    (It’s worth noting that banjo ukuleles have a moveable bridge which can be adjusted to get good intonation. That is if all the frets have been well placed to begin with.)

    10. Research

    Find out what is available in your music shop within your price range and read reviews about the instruments you’ll be handling. You might discover a fine instrument that is also a reasonable price. But try several if you can. Some companies can be inconsistent in their quality and two identical-looking ukuleles may sound and feel quite different. 

    If you really want to get into research, then the variety of tone-woods, strings and building styles will provide you with a world of interest but essentially if you are happy with the sound, the look and the feel of your new ukulele, then you’ve made a good choice.

    Ralph

    This article first appeared in Ralph Shaw’s excellent Ukulele Entertainer eNewsletter. Sign up for it here: https://ralphshaw.ca/newsletter/

  • Pro Tip: Thumbing It, By Jason Arimoto

    Growing up in Hawaii, my ukulele journey began in the fourth grade where we first learnt our basic chords – C, F, and G7. My passion for the instrument developed a few years later during a resurgence of ukulele playing in Hawaii. Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole had just released his Facing Future album, Ka’au Crater Boys came out with Valley Style and Pure Heart featuring Jake Shimabukuro and solo ukulele albums by Daniel Ho were looming on the horizon. The mid-’90s brought ukulele back to the forefront of the local airwaves in a stripped-down acoustic format where you could hear each artist hitting the strings and even breathing in the studio microphones in quieter sections. I would listen to these albums on repeat, inspired by their playing techniques, which I still use in my performances today. 

    In middle school, I was thrust into a new world on the opposite side of campus, where the cool kids were ukulele players and they were playing all the songs I loved listening to on the radio. Not only were they having fun jamming, but people were listening – more importantly, girls were listening and singing along. Now my calling was clear: I would be a ukulele player. 

    My ukulele at home was a Martin soprano passed down from my great-uncle, who had worn a thumb groove into the back of the neck in first position and had worn the frets nearly flat from playing. I set out on the daunting task of teaching myself to play, pre-internet. My cousin’s friend, who happened to be a guitar player, helped tighten up the tuning pegs so they would hold their tune. My dad showed me how to tune the instrument using the piano and taught me the Hawaiian Vamp – D7, G7, C. My family helped me set up my first ukulele, but no-one thought anything of my new-found musical interest as I’d failed miserably on other instruments from a lack of motivation and practice. 

    I would have to learn a few basics on my own before I would dare take my ukulele to school. This presented a few challenges: one, I didn’t have a chord book, and two, I was supposed to be doing my schoolwork. I quickly discovered the best way to play in secret was to use my thumb. Using the side of my thumb as opposed to the nail made for a nice fleshy surface with a rich, mellow tone that was pleasant, subtle and quiet. It was perfect for late-night practicing propped up in bed when I was supposed to be asleep or studying. 

    While practicing in secret, I surprised my parents a few months later by playing IZ’s version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World off a photocopied chart from the Roy Sakuma school that I got for trading some choice baseball cards. Soon I was asked to play the song at every family party, wedding and funeral. The core of the IZ strum to me is the use of the thumb as a different tone in the strum. 

    Many flashy techniques use the index finger as the main strumming finger – the nail on the down-strum produces a brighter, harder sound that sonically cuts through. The techniques I enjoy playing the most use both thumb and finger in the strum. The juxtaposition of tones helps to create a more sophisticated sonic landscape and in many ways is easier to keep in time. 

    As an example, strum swung eighth notes using your index finger with down-strums falling on downbeats and up-strums on upbeats. Now accent the backbeat (beats two and four). You’ll notice you have to strum harder in order to accent. This change in velocity of your strum creates an accent, but also adds another variable to fall out of time. Now add a downbeat/down-strum with your thumb on beats one and three while keeping the finger down-strum on beats two and four. The trick is to use the same motion for both the thumb-strum and the finger-strum and let the different ‘picks’ create the accent. 

    The brighter nail sound of the finger on a down-strum will give you a natural accent without having to use as much effort. This translates to a more laidback-sounding strum and lets you play with more dynamic range because the thumb-strum can be made very quiet due to the fleshy nature of the thumb, while the nail of the index finger adds a loud and bright strum. Changes in volume and tone create a more textured sound, producing a more nuanced strum. This type of flow in a strum is one of the most magical sounds in ukulele playing. 

    For people new to using the thumb-strum, I usually recommend two practice approaches for incorporating the thumb-strum into your repertoire. First, use your thumb on downbeats only. Start with the thumb on quarter-note down-strums, then incorporate up-strums with your finger. Next, practice alternating thumb and finger on quarter-note down-strums, then incorporate up-strums with the finger. 

    The second approach is to use your thumb to play any of your go-to strum patterns. You’ll be using the side of your thumb on both the down and up-strums for a softer tone on both strums. Keep your thumb parallel to the strings and avoid using the nail on the up-strum – think of the feeling of swiping a touchscreen with your thumb. This will also ensure your wrist is relatively straight on the strum, which will help to minimise tension and strain and give you an even, mellow tone. Using your thumb on both the down and up-strums provides a tactile movement that will help you keep time by allowing you to physically feel the off-beats when incorporating both finger and thumb-strums. 

    I always use the example of listening to two very popular songs: IZ’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World and Hey, Soul Sister by Train. One strum is nuanced with an interplay of all parts of the strumming hand, while the other has a more static feel. Both fit perfectly in their respective songs – the nuances of an IZ-style strum would be buried in a larger arrangement of a pop song like Hey, Soul Sister, but there is something beautiful and meditative about playing quietly and subtly late at night while propped up in bed using your thumb-strum on your ukulele. 

    This article first appeared in Issue 11 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store

  • Pro Tip: Triple Trouble

    By Cameron Murray

    The strumming technique I’m most often asked about is the triplet. I use it a lot in my own playing and it’s always well received. While it looks – and sounds – rather fancy, the mechanics are actually quite simple.

    As I tell my students, I can only explain the way I do it. Other players and teachers may have different ideas, which is fine – there’s usually more than one way to achieve the desired result.

    Unsurprisingly, the triplet is composed of three parts. It begins with a down stroke with the nail of the forefinger. Next, the pad (or fleshy part) of the thumb follows – also a down stroke. Finally, the nail of the thumb comes up. So, at its heart, it’s D-D-U. But there’s more to it than that. How you go about the movements is crucial to getting the sound you’re after.

    Let’s break it down even further. On the first down stroke, make sure you’re striking all four strings. Now, where is your thumb? If it’s hovering over the fretboard or, worse, below it, you’re going to have to move your entire hand back up for the second (thumb) down stroke. This will interrupt the flow of the strum and it just won’t feel right. So, how do you fix it? Simple. Just keep your thumb up and out of the way during the first down stroke. Maintain approximately a 7-10cm (3-4 inch) gap between your thumb and forefinger. Once your forefinger has completed the first stroke, your thumb should be ready to start the second.

    Onto the all-important up stroke. Many people advocate coming up with the forefinger, but I like to use the thumb. Reason being that the thumb is in the ideal position at the completion of the second down stoke to shoot back up the strings. This increases the speed and fluidity of the technique as a whole. If you go fast enough, the triplet becomes the ‘roll stroke’ with no beginning or end – a continuous motion that can add flavour to any chord progression.

    So there you have it, the triplet. No trouble at all!

    This article originally appeared in Issue 12 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store