Updated: February 16, 2021 by Bobbie Hanson
It’s hard to deny the charm of the ukulele. The enjoyable and entertaining instrument has a joyful tone that adds a little variety to everyday music. The ukulele has even seen a recent resurgence in popularity with features in songs by Ingrid Michaelson, Kate Micucci, and Eddie Vedder.
If you are not playing the ukulele, now is the perfect time to start. It is an easy instrument to learn and is cheap on any budget. Plus, there are plenty of easy ukulele songs for beginners so that you can play like the pros in no time. So, without further ado, here is everything you need to learn how to play the ukulele.
Your Ukulele and Its Parts
Understanding how to play the ukulele starts with understanding its parts. Knowing the instrument’s anatomy will allow you to tune, restring, and play it with ease. Feel free to grab your ukulele and follow along as we discuss its major components.
The headstock is the uppermost piece of the instrument. It holds the tuners, with two on each side. Typically, the headstock is composed of a robust piece of wood (or plastic) because it needs to provide tension to the strings and tuners.
You can find the tuners on the side of the headstock. These are essential when it comes to honing in on the perfect pitch for a song. You can adjust the tuners backward or forward, which changes the tension and therefore, the sound. Check out our section below for more information on how to tune your ukulele.
The nut is a small but important part that sits between the headstock and the fretboard. It has tiny notches that keep the strings evenly spaced and elevated slightly above the fretboard. If the ukulele did not have the nut, it would be unplayable.
You can locate the frets and fret markers on the neck of the ukulele. The frets are tiny bars that manufacturers have placed along the fretboard of the ukulele. When you place a finger on the fret, it stops the string in place, creating a semi-tonal sound.
The fret markers are like a cheat sheet located on the neck of the ukulele. The tiny white dots help users find their way from one note to the next. These are particularly useful if you need to move your fingers a significant distance along the fretboard from, say, the third to the tenth fret.
The soundhole, strings, bridge, and saddle are the primary elements of the ukulele body. As the name suggests, the soundhole is a cut-out portion of the body where sound reverberates inside the ukulele. When a player strums over the soundhole, it produces the loudest sound because there is more opportunity for reverberation.
The strings run along the entirety of the ukulele and are often made from nylon polymers, fluorocarbons, Nylgut, or aluminum. Of course, the type of strings you use will depend mainly on the model of ukulele that you own, as well as your preferences. For instance, if you want a fuller tone, then you may opt for metallic strings.
The saddle is the complementary half to the nut. It serves a similar function as it raises the strings of the body of the ukulele and keeps them evenly spaced. You can find the saddle a few inches below the soundhole.
The bridge is what keeps the strings attached to the ukulele, and it comes in two flavors. The first is the tie-bar bridge, which has small holes that manufacturers thread strings through before tying them off with a knot.
How to Hold Your Ukulele
Now that you are familiar with the parts of the ukulele, it is time to learn how to hold it. Proper positioning will ensure you easily move your hands without straining the rest of your body. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you need to be comfortable and relaxed when you play.
Start by holding the ukulele, with your dominant hand, where the neck meets the body. For many of you, this will be your right hand, which is what you will use to strum the strings. Then press the ukulele to your chest, so that the neck sits at a slight angle.
Take your right arm and form a 90-degree angle that cradles the body of the ukulele. The butt of the ukulele should be pressed up against your forearm for support. Keep the instrument in place by putting your non-dominant hand on the neck.
You shouldn’t have to strain to keep the ukulele in place. One analogy that might be helpful is to think of positioning it like a bird in your hands. You don’t want to squeeze so tight that you hurt the bird, but you don’t want to hold it so loosely that it flies away.
Your left hand should be near the neck top, with your thumb behind it and your fingers wrapping around to the frets. Make sure there is some space between your left arm and body, so you can slide your hand up and down the neck. Finally, for the most effective playing style, you will want to keep your wrists straight, whether you are playing chords or strumming. If your hands are not too small or too large, a ukulele strings might be the perfect fit for you.
How to Tune Your Ukulele
You can be the best ukulele player in the world, but it won’t matter if the instrument is not tuned correctly. Tuning makes sure that the pitch is not too high or too low. You can create the precise sound you want when it comes to playing a cover or composing your own tunes. Here are a couple of basic ukulele tuning tips.
The most straightforward and accurate way to tune a ukulele is with an electronic tuner. Players ranging from hobbyists to professionals use tuners. You can find a variety of them online as well as at your local music store.
While the displays and modes can vary, each tuner is fundamentally the same. They work to pick up vibrations from the ukulele and translate them into notes. That way, you can easily see whether or not individual notes are flat, sharp, or on key.
Start by clipping the tuner to the headstock of the ukulele and turning on the device. If there are several different modes, begin the tuning process with C mode. Generally speaking, this mode is considered the standard.
Pluck the G-string, which is the first string (and the one closest to your face). If the tuner display shows a left arrow, tune-up the tuners. Conversely, if the screen has a right arrow, tune down the ukulele. Arrows that point straight up mean you are in-tune.
It is worth mentioning that all tuners do not relay this information in the same way. Some will use a series of lights where red means out of tune, and green means in tune. The key is to know what notes to tune the ukulele strings to, especially after initially purchasing the instrument.
Standard tuning, also known as relative tuning, is done in relation to the sound of the other strings. This method is ideal if you are playing alone, though it might not be accurate to the untrained ear. Therefore, standard tuning can cause dissonance if you are trying to sync up with other players.
Start the tuning process with the A-string. Place your finger behind the fifth fret on the E-string and pick. The A note should sound the same in both places. If they do not adjust the tuners until they do.
Next, place your finger behind the fourth fret on the C-string, which is an E note. When you pick the E-string, it should sound identical. If it does not, make adjustments accordingly. The idea of standard tuning is that you repeat this methodology for each note in the progression.
Players can use a keyboard or piano to lay the groundwork for their ukulele tuning. Similar to standard tuning, this style uses aural comparison to find the adequately tuned note. If you do not have a piano on hand, you can download one of the many apps, such as My Piano Phone, to your mobile device.
Begin the tuning process with middle-C, which is the first key to the left of the group of two black keys. Middle-C is a practical starting point so that you do not tune your ukulele an octave too high or too low. The idea here is that you play the piano and ukulele notes in succession, and tweak the tuning based on the discrepancy.
If you are playing a traditional piano for the tuning, feel free to hold down the pedals. This effect allows the notes to ring longer, which makes the comparison more manageable. Remember, the notes on the ukulele do not correspond to the order on the ukulele.
How to Play Your Ukulele
You’ve learned the parts of the ukulele. You have it in-tune. Now it’s time to delve into the ukulele basics when it comes to chords. As a newbie a tenor ukulele has an easier string set up and is a perfect beginner’s instrument to help you get started. You can also check out kala ukeleles which are available in a fantastic range of options, from the budget-friendly options that are ideal for beginners and casual players to deluxe, solid hardwood models for the refined and professional players.
Many people learn how to play the ukulele through musical groupings. These provide the blueprints to perform a specific song. While there is no right or wrong way to learn basic ukulele chords, it doesn’t hurt to tackle some of the most straightforward ones first, which include C major, C minor, C7, A major, A minor, and A7.
Basic Ukulele Chords
C – Cm – C7
When it comes to playing a C major chord (C or CM), place your ring finger on the A string on the third fret. The C minor chord (Cm) is on the same fret and uses fingers on the C, E, and A strings. There are other versions of the C minor chord, but we can save those for another time.
C7 is as simple as C. Place your index finger on the first fret of the A string. Easy as pie! With these finger positionings, you now have your first basic ukulele chord under your belt.
A – Am – A7
The A major chord (A or AM) involves placing your index finger on the first fret of C-string and your middle finger on the second fret of the G-string. The minor chord (Am) is similar. All you have to do is leave your middle finger where it is and remove your index finger. To play A7, place your index finger on the first fret of the C-string.
The A and C chords are the building blocks for many ukulele songs. If you are getting started with the new instrument, we highly recommend taking the time to master these chords. Once you tackle these, it is time to move on to F, D, G, and B.
These chords start to become incrementally more complicated as players must use multiple fingers across different frets. When it comes to playing the F major chord (F or FM), place your index finger on the E-string on the first fret and your middle finger on the G-string of the second fret. Leave the C and A strings open.
The F minor chord (Fm) requires some stretching. Your first two fingers will be on the G and E string of the first fret. Meanwhile, place your ring finger on the A-string of the third fret. Not so bad, right?
The D chords are going to get a tad cramped. The D major chord (D or DM) uses three fingers lined up next to each other along the G, C, and E-strings of the second fret. The D minor chord (Dm) involves a finger on the E-string of the first fret, another on the A-string of the second fret, and a third on the C-string of the second fret. The position should be similar to the F major chord.
A G major chord (G or GM) also requires the fingers to be close together. With some time and practice, though, your muscles will be able to adapt to the position. Hitting a G major chord involves placing the index finger on the C-string of the second fret, the middle finger on the A-string of the second fret, and the ring finger on the E-string of the third fret.
The G minor seventh chord (Gm7) is where things get tricky. It involves playing a partial barre choerd, which means pressing a single finger of two strings on a fret. When you do this, your wrist should be slightly lower, so your remaining fingers have the flexibility to move across the fretboard.
Players start a Gm7 by laying their index finger over the E and A-strings on the second fret. When both strings are down, add the ring finger to the C-string of the third fret.
The B chord (B or BM) is also a barre chord. It requires the index finger to go over the E and A-strings of the second fret, the next finger to go on the C string of the third fret, and the ring finger to go on the G-string of the fourth fret. The B chord can be tough to master, so don’t get discouraged if you cannot learn it immediately.
The Bb flat is almost identical to the B chord. The difference is that all your fingers move up a single fret. For instance, the index finger straddling the E, and A-strings moves from the second fret to the first.
This list is not exhaustive when it comes to basic ukulele chords. Still, it should provide you with a sturdy foundation to start learning and playing the instrument. Some of the other options that are worth learning after these introductory chords include the E’s, F major, and F minor.
If you need any additional information about ukulele chord diagrams, check out this handy resource. People can see the fingering for every note as well as variations for right and left-handed players. That includes pictures for triads, sevenths, added, extended, and suspended finger positions.
10 Easy Ukulele Songs For Beginners
“Let It Be” – The Beatles
“Let is Be” is one of the most iconic songs in The Beatles’ discography. It is also one of their most straightforward tunes. When playing it on the ukulele, all you need is C, Am, F, and G. Then you can jam to what Rolling Stone called the eighth greatest song of all time.
“Counting Stars” – OneRepublic
OneRepublic reached the mainstream in 2013 thanks to the success of “Counting Stars.” The song reached number one on 12 different charts across the world and has sold more than five million copies in the United States alone. To start playing “Counting Stars” for yourself, you will need Am, C, G, and F.
“Riptide” – Vance Joy
Australian singer-songwriter Vance Joy caught the world by storm with his indie folk hit “Riptide.” The song is a modern coming of age love story that ended up being the longest-charting song in ARIA Chart history. Chords include Am, C, G, and F, though we don’t recommend that you “sing the words wrong.”
“Whistle” – Flo Rida
The only song on this list to feature a whistle song, “Whistle” is arguably the most well-known song by Flo Rida. To make this electro-pop anthem come alive on the ukulele, you will need Am, F, C, and G. Whistle sounds are optional.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” – Bob Dylan
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is one of the most iconic protest songs in music history. The song poses a series of rhetorical questions that evoke wonder and contemplation. Yet, despite the power of the lyrics, the song itself is made up of C, D, and G.
“Someone Like You” – Adele
Everyone loves “Someone Like You.” The pop anthem is a striking combination of Adele’s singing off sober piano play. If you want to replicate this tune, which helped Adele win a Grammy Award for Best Pop Solo Performance, familiarize yourself with C, F, Am, and F.
“Just the Way You Are” – Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars is a master of combining R&B, pop, funk, and soul into his songs. “Just the Way You Are” is no exception. The song reached number one on 16 music charts worldwide and earned Mars the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. C, Am, and F are what you need to recreate the magic for yourself.
“Stay With Me” – Sam Smith
The odds are if you know a single tune from Sam Smith it is “Stay with Me.” The deep yearning of the track struck the world in 2013 and was later featured in everything from Lip Sync Battle to The Mindy Project to Bad Education. Channel your inner Sam Smith with Am, F, C, and G.
“One Day” – Matisyahu
Matisyahu occupies a small niche in the music industry as his songs crossover between reggae and hip-hop. His song “One Day,” however, was anything but small. The tune helped put Matisyahu in the mainstream as well as in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, NBA 2K10, and the 2010 Winter Olympics. You can start playing this song in a single day with C, F, Am, and F.
“Otherside” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are challenging to describe. They mix funk, rock, alternative, rap, and metal in a way unlike any other band or artist out there. “Otherside,” though, is easy to love. If you want to start playing “Otherside,” you will need Am, F, C, G, and Em.