Has anyone ever asked you, is it hard to play the ukulele? I’ve been asked that question so many times since I first picked up a ukulele just a few years ago! Before I try to answer that question, I want to give you a little of my own personal backstory.
When I started college after high school, I majored in music therapy. Part of the requirements for my degree were to take classes in guitar in addition to my performance requirements for piano. Even though I had grown up playing violin since I was 7, guitar was a struggle for me, and I was so discouraged that I eventually switched majors and graduated with a degree in the sciences.
Fast forward twenty-something years to my forty-fifth birthday when my mother-in-law gave me a gift card to a company known for their outdoor gear, boots, and clothing. I didn’t really need any more hiking boots or clothing, so I started searching the dusty darkened corners of the company’s retail website to find something that would be fun – and that’s when I saw my very first ukulele.
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Now, I don’t fully understand why I thought I could play the ukulele. I didn’t have great success with the guitar, and I always thought that the ukulele was just like playing the guitar. Up until that day when I saw the ukulele, if you had asked me, is it hard to play the ukulele, I would have answered, yes, it’s very hard.
But fate intervened, and I ordered that little soprano ukulele, and it was love at first strum. Of course, I learned quickly that there are many different pieces of the ukulele puzzle to learn and master. Answering the question, is it hard to play the ukulele becomes a little more complex when you look at all the things that go into playing the instrument.
Let’s break it down and look at a few of those techniques that go into playing the ukulele before we try to answer that question!
Strumming is where a lot of people start learning on the ukulele. When I got my first soprano ukulele, it came with a little booklet that illustrated seven or eight different chords. I played that little ukulele for over three hours the first day that I got it, and I went to sleep that night going over the different chords in my head! (I might have been the tiniest bit obsessed with learning how to play the ukulele.)
I started out by strumming the ukulele, which is where a lot of people start out. I used my thumb to strum at first, because that was where I felt like I had the most control. But then I gradually switched to using my index finger, and now I go back and forth between my index finger and thumb, depending on what I’m playing and what kind of sound I’m looking for in each song I play.
Now, if someone asked me, is it hard to play the ukulele by strumming, I’d have to say to start out with where you feel like you have the most control. It’s all about finding ease when you strum those beautiful ukulele strings!
Once you have a few chords under your belt and committed to memory (both in your head and in your hands), it’s time to learn how to move smoothly between those chords when you’re playing a song. There are all kinds of things you can learn about moving your fingers easily between chords so that you get that nice seamless sound out of your ukulele.
I struggled with the G major chord for weeks. It just wasn’t easy for my brain and my fingers to remember where to go on the fretboard. I could change from a C major to a G major chord with no problem. Then I started learning a song that had me moving between a G major chord and a D minor chord, and that took me weeks and weeks of practice before I could do that chord change without a break in the rhythm of the song.
There are lots of ways to learn how to play your chords up and down the neck of your ukulele so that you can find the chord changes that work best for your brain and your abilities.
More and more people are also learning how to play the ukulele by starting out with picking out simple melodies. There are some schools of ukulele that use the ukulele to teach music skills to kids and adults by starting out teaching music theory and how to read music using the ukulele.
For me personally, I came to ukulele with a background playing violin and classical piano so I had a lot of understanding and knowledge of music theory. But applying that knowledge to learning the notes of the ukulele fretboard so I could learn fingerpicking and fingerstyle ukulele was a big challenge! I looked at a lot of different ukulele books and spent a lot of time trying to translate simple sheet music into beautiful fingerpicking melodies.
What finally helped me understand the relationship between the musical staff and the ukulele fretboard? Teaching it to my son! When my son decided he wanted to learn ukulele for music as part of his homeschool curriculum, we worked together every day until we both understood the ukulele fretboard and could pick out some simple (and not so simple) melodies.
Once you have a good grasp of chords or a good grasp of playing fingerstyle, you can get into chord melody. Chord melody on the ukulele is a delightful combination of these two things that lets you play all the parts of a song – melody and accompaniment – at the same time. It’s quickly becoming more popular with ukulele students of all levels. There are even beautiful chord melody arrangements out there of some of my favorite pieces of classical music that bring me right back to my days in college when I performed them on the piano!
Playing chord melody means that you understand where the chord changes happen in a piece of music while you’re playing the melody at the same time. Is it hard to play the ukulele using chord melody techniques? Not if you know your chords! There are plenty of great chord melody arrangements out there that are suitable for even brand-new beginners on the ukulele!
Is It Hard to Play the Ukulele?
Now that we’ve explored some of the techniques that go into playing the ukulele, I think we can definitively say that the answer to this question is: yes and no. There might be some ukulele techniques that are more challenging than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to play the ukulele. The bottom line is that we all have different talents and strengths when it comes to playing the ukulele. Play to your strengths and don’t shy away from the challenges!