Or more accurately, Five Ukuleles!
From my previous posts in April Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome and Barnes & Mullins UK2C Ukulele, I thought it would be worth updating my thoughts since taking up the Ukulele (or ‘Uke’) at the beginning of April, together with a few hints for others starting out on the Uke path.
Since catching the bug in April, I have learned a lot, bought a few and enjoyed the whole process immensely. I have met a whole load of new people and had wonderful new experiences.
To recap, I first bought a cheap (<£30) ukulele from a local store and quickly discovered that one of the biggest factors making this difficult to play was actually the strings. So, for another £6 or so, I replaced them with Aquila strings.
So, that’s the first thing I’d recommend. even thought the Uke itself is a cheapie, it was transformed with the new strings.
At this point, I should ‘fess up and admit that all of my Ukes have names. My first, being black was named ‘Snowy’.
Now, I learn that Ukes come in different sizes, with the ‘Soprano’ size being the most common and almost always the size of the cheapest instruments. The next size up, the ‘Concert’ is easier to play, in fact, for a beginner to stringed instruments, I’d probably suggest you start here. You’ll need to spend about £60, but you will get a decent Uke from the start, and it is more forgiving as your fingers learn to become more dextrous on the fretboard. Some chords are tricky when you start, and can put you off, so why make it difficult and discouraging? The ‘D’ chord needs three fingers all in one fret and is the first ‘Nemesis’ chord as I call them. Once you have that one licked, another appears, currently ‘B’ for me, but they all get knocked down, one by one, trust me!
I got the Barnes & Mullins UK2C (‘Woody’) – now out of production, so the link is for the Tenor size, if you find one, you are lucky, don’t hesitate, buy it. This has a sweet & bright tone and is easier to play than the Soprano by far. I wanted something electric too to satisfy the techie in me, so the Eleuke Peanut appeared (‘Snoopy’). this is a Soprano size and has quite a high action – this is the amount you need to press the strings down on the fretboard – so is my trickiest Uke so far.
June came along, as did a trip to the Southern Ukulele Store, where I bought a Honu Mango Concert (‘Alby’). This is the priciest Uke I own, but the most stunning and has a lovely mellow sound and a soft action.
I was still hankering for a better quality Soprano, so in August I bought a Brunswick BU5S, this in very light coloured maple and so is called ‘Chalky’. This would make a good starter Uke for anyone insisting on a Soprano size.
How to learn and practice? Well, books are fine, but are not very rewarding really. I’d recommend finding a local Uke ‘Jam’ or club. I used to go to one in Alton, but that closed after a few weeks, then I found a fantastic Acoustic Jam session in Ash, even nearer to my home. This had the added benefit of being every week and also has all sorts of instruments including Ukes, guitars, drums, double bass, accordian, violin, harmonicas, kazoos and even a didgeridoo! This is hosted in a local pub by a nice chap called Mike and called ‘Unplug The Wood’.
From a beginner’s point of view, it’s been great, the variety of instruments means it’s not just a load of Ukes strumming together (which can get a bit much to be honest), but a good variety of styles. The people are very tolerant of beginners, I think this is a trait you’ll find anywhere as these people realise we all had to start somewhere, and offer advice and encouragement when needed. There’s none of this snotty “I’m an expert, I know best” that you sometimes get at other clubs for other hobbies. We just have enormous fun, some songs seem to rock out, others we noisily murder, but we still have fun. Sometimes even applause from drinkers in the pub.
This particular session even has an (entirely optional) open mic section during the evening which allows anyone brave, or foolish enough to get up and play solo. I’m now in my 50th year and have NEVER played an instrument or sung in front of an audience so this was a big step to take. But, I’ve done it now. There was (probably polite!) applause. Maybe I was good… , more likely some recognition of my first ever performance, but I’ve taken the challenge and done it a couple more times since. I’ll get better. I’ve even written my own lyrics and performed those. Certainly the first performance was something to cross off of my ‘Bucket List’, and a personal achievement for me.
I even plucked up the courage to send in a little tune to a photography podcast I listen to.
I’ve learned to appreciate music a little more. Learning and hearing chord changes, creating tension in a chord change, stuff like that.
I’ve also realised how good it is as a release from my normal life. Since an early age, I’ve been into tech stuff. My day job is tech stuff, my photography passion is maybe 50% tech, 50% art – but involves a lot of staring at computer screens. Other demands on your life take their toll, but music, jam sessions are a complete release from all of that. Just 30 minutes sitting in another room, playing to Alfie the cat and I’m in a different world! (I think Alfie is too, for some reason she seems to enjoy the noise!).
One more recommendation – a good supplier you can trust. My local music shop is OK, but they have a limited range of instruments and no real specialist Ukulele knowledge. I have found two retailers to be excellent. The first is Omega Music – (the Amazon links above are supplied by them) excellent for mail order, on Twitter as @omegamusicUK. Matt there is a good humoured, honest enthusiast. He tells it like it is and has even refused to ship me a Ukulele (I bought a pink one as a present – honest) because it had a slightly loose tuning peg. Advice from him on Twitter or the phone. Woody, Snoopy and Chalky all came from Omega Music.
If you want to rummage around and browse, then the Southern Ukulele Store is good, and where Alby originated from – although its location in Bournemouth on the south coast makes it a bit remote for many. But, sometimes, you want to compare a few Ukuleles, how they feel and sound. I fancied a thin ‘travel Uke’, but after picking one up, it was just too fiddly to play. So, it’s good to go and handle them before buying anything a bit out of the ordinary (or probably the more expensive ones, say >£200).
But, a budget of £100 or even £50 will get you started on what can be a very rewarding experience. Just make sure you get out and meet other people with it, don’t just try and learn by yourself. Take a look at the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain too, inspirational stuff!
So in five months, I’ve gone from complete beginner to audaciously calling myself a “Ukulele Player”. I wouldn’t call myself a musician though, but any Ukulele Player will tell you that the Uke is all about having fun, and I’m doing just that.
That was a good read Simon, thanks very much! Really quite inspirational. You’ve come on a long way in a short time. I was one who voted “yes” on the TFTTF airing by the way ;^)
One question. I’m wondering what musical experience you’d had before picking up the Uke? From what you said to me on Twitter I’m guessing “not much” – but I might be wrong?
You lived to regret voting yes!
Not much experience at all. Did a bit of piano and guitar at school, but never got anywhere with it. Can play a few one-fingered tunes on a keyboard and can read music – well, I know that quavers are not crisps at least. Apart from that, I have a large CD collection, although it does include some criminal records (there’s a Rick Astley CD in there for a start).
Simon, fantastic blog; extremely informative! Long may you enjoy playing!…