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To me do really is a deer, a female deer ...
July 23, 2009 7:22 PM   Subscribe

I just bought an ukulele, and I want to learn how to play it. Thing is, I know nothing about music in general. What should I learn?

I am guessing that learning some music theory is not necessary to learn an instrument, but I imagine that it can only help. When I say I know nothing, I really mean I know nothing beyond do re mi fa sol la si ... which apparently has been replaces by single letters of the alphabet in no particular order. Sharps, minors, majors, etc are all greek to me.

This is a question for all you musicians out there (amateur or pro): what should I learn first? What are the best sites/book for it? Is there any bit of theory that is particularly useful for guitars, ukuleles or other instruments in that family?
posted by TheyCallItPeace to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
 
You don't necessarily need to learn anything. Just start plucking and strumming and see what comes out. If you enjoy yourself, repeat over and over.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:27 PM on July 23, 2009




Find out how to play some chords, then look up the song you want to play and see what chords are in it.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 7:32 PM on July 23, 2009


... or what ian1977 said.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 7:32 PM on July 23, 2009


This website is very useful.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 7:35 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Young Master Flabdablet has been teaching himself to play the electric guitar with the assistance of a Google search much like this one.
posted by flabdablet at 7:40 PM on July 23, 2009


Thanks for the great ukelele sites! All this should be very helpful, but I think my problem is even deeper.

Is a G higher than an A? What is an A anyway? Is a G-sharp higher than a G-minor? I just bought a tuner and when I pluck the G string, the tuner says it is an F-sharp ... so ... does that mean my uke is out of tune, or that ... I somehow have the wrong strings in?

As you can tell ... it is a serious problem.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 7:41 PM on July 23, 2009


Ehh, who needs the tuner, just tune the strings to the other strings, learn some chords and start playing Rocket Man!
posted by ian1977 at 7:49 PM on July 23, 2009


Well, if you want to say forget about actually learning music theory (I tried to self-teach once, from scratch, with a keyboard. I'm not the strongest or weakest with willpower, but man, it really confounded me), you could check out Tropical Storm Hawai'i's tablature section.

You can learn a lot of songs that they play on the radio in Hawai'i (100.3 KCCN, 105.1 KINE, 98.5 whatever it is) here, and they break down the picking for you in simple form, no music theory required. Now, this won't solve your problem about understanding how to play, etc., but give it some time and you'll be able to play some pretty cool sounding (and mostly contemporary) stuff. If you go to the section with songs and chords, you can look up the chords at one of the other websites and play simple songs.

Ps. I hope you're using a REAL ukulele (Kamaka, Koaloha, or something similar) and not one of those $10 tourist shop ones with flowers and cheap varnish. I hope... I hope.
posted by the NATURAL at 8:01 PM on July 23, 2009


Well, I really wish I was using a real ukulele, but I guess it is not as bad as one with flowers and cheap varnish. I am in a small town in Quebec, though, so my options are limited.

I bought a Mahalo ukulele (like this one), because I figured since I never really played anything, maybe I should go for an entry level one, in case I find I am completely musically challenged. In Ottawa I saw some fancier more expensive ones which looked really nice, but $200 on an instrument when I can't even tell if mine is tuned yet would be a waste ...

Thanks for the tabs, though! I was planning on just trying to pick up some Beirut songs, some Jack Johnson, but now I see how the options are limitless ...
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 8:10 PM on July 23, 2009


About the tuning issue:

If the tuner says F#, your uke is out of tune. You need to turn the peg attached to that string so that the string gets tighter until the tuner starts saying G and then until it's centered on G or the green light is on or however it tells you it's locked on. The note should get higher. If the tuner says F, you're going the wrong way. You probably won't have to turn the peg all that much to get it to G.

Then do the same thing with the C, E, and A strings. Higher letters are higher pitches-- you have to make the string tighter to raise the pitch, if that helps figure out which way to turn the pegs.

You will have to tune a lot at first; new strings go out of tune like crazy until they stretch out.
posted by bink at 8:14 PM on July 23, 2009


There's some very good instructional videos on Ukulele Underground. And there are guys like MusicTeacher2009 on youtube who have some really excellent instructions per song.
posted by cazoo at 8:17 PM on July 23, 2009


And learning Over the Rainbow on the ukulele is mandatory. Kinda like Stairway to Heaven on guitar.
posted by cazoo at 8:18 PM on July 23, 2009


Ach. I should clarify. Higher letters aren't always higher pitches. But for the sake of tuning, higher = higher. Note: the letters go from A up to G and start over again at A.

Sharps and flats are the pitches in between the other ones. On a piano they are the black keys, but on the uke there's no visual distinction. You just have to get to know where they are.
posted by bink at 8:20 PM on July 23, 2009


bink: Ah, bizarre ... do = C, re = D, mi = E, fa = F, sol = G, la = A, si = B ... strange that the two system would start at different places. After playing with the uke and the tuner a little bit I started seeing which way things moved, so I guess just messing around a bit helps a lot.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 8:34 PM on July 23, 2009


Here are some basics. Hopefully some of it will be useful to you.

Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do = C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. That's a major scale in the key of C, and it continues upwards and downwards with the same letters repeated. Each repetition is another octave higher (or lower) The letters are the white notes on a keyboard, if you have one of those handy it's a good reference. But the scale can start (Do) on any note; it doesn't have to start on C. That's where sharps and flats come in. Sharp (#) is a half-step higher, flat (b) is a half-step lower. On a uke, a half-step is one fret. A whole step is two frets.

The intervals of a major scale whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half, or Do (can be any note), whole-step (2 frets) to Re, whole-step (2 frets) to Mi, half-step (1 fret) to Fa, whole step (2 frets) to Sol, whole-step (2 frets) to La, whole-step (2 frets) to Ti, half-step (1 fret) to Do. You can't play an entire scale on one string, though, unless you start with an open string, and it gets even more complicated switching between strings.

So, a major scale in the key of A would be A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A.

It's confusing, yes, and probably not very helpful to you at this point.

As for your specific questions:
1) G is a whole step (2 frets) lower than A. (or it's ten half-steps higher, in the next octave up).
2) An A is a single note, usually approximated at 440mhz. Double the frequency for an octave higher, halve it for an octave lower. Repeat as necessary.
3)A G-sharp is a note, and a G-minor is a chord (or a scale), so it's apples to oranges and one isn't higher than the other. A G-sharp, however, is a whole step (2 frets) higher than a G-flat.
4) If you play a G and your tuner says F#, your string is tuned a half step low. F sharp is for practical purposes the same as a G flat -- a half step lower than a G and a half-step higher than an F.

If I were you I'd learn some chords first, get used to playing them and switching between them, get the tabs for some songs, learn to play them, then mess around with mixing the chords up and just playing what sounds good to you. Before long you'll be writing songs!
posted by Balonious Assault at 8:58 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Go to musictheory.net and go through the lessons there to learn the basics. As folks have said, you don't need to know any of this stuff to play songs, but it helps and I would certainly recommend it. To answer your specific questions:

Is a G higher than an A?

Yes and no. G and A are pitch classes. There are only 12 different notes, or pitch classes, in the western musical scale. Most instruments contain multiple octaves, which means they'll have more than one G and A and B and C and so on. Some will be low and some will be high. There are different conventions for specifying exactly which G or which A you mean, which I won't lay out here.

What is an A anyway?

See above.

Is a G-sharp higher than a G-minor?

These are two different types of things. G# (G sharp) is a pitch class, Gm (G minor) is a chord. A chord is three or more notes played at the same time. Gm consists of G, Bb, and D.

I just bought a tuner and when I pluck the G string, the tuner says it is an F-sharp ... so ... does that mean my uke is out of tune

Yes, it probably means that your string is flat, or too low. Turn the peg so the pitch gets higher.

Ah, bizarre ... do = C, re = D, mi = E, fa = F, sol = G, la = A, si = B ... strange that the two system would start at different places.

I think you're confused again here. It may help you to read about solfege.

On preview:

Note that Balonious Assault's explanation uses the movable do system, as opposed to fixed do. You can find an explanation at the solfege link above.

You can't play an entire scale on one string, though, unless you start with an open string

This is not true. You can play any scale on one string, as long as you have at least an octave's worth of frets.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:01 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is not true. You can play any scale on one string, as long as you have at least an octave's worth of frets.

You are correct. What I meant is that on a uke, at least the one in TCIP's picture, there are only just enough frets to play one octave on a string, so to play a Do-to-Do scale consecutively, you would have to start with an open string. There are an entire octave's worth of frets on each string, so you can play every note in any scale on one string, you just have to start with an open string if you want to play the familiar ascending Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do on the same string. So basically, yeah, exactly what you said.
posted by Balonious Assault at 9:13 PM on July 23, 2009


Tune it. Learn one chord, something that requires holding down very few strings. Practice strumming on that for a while. Re-tune often (because initially it will drift.) Eventually get bored with this, and learn a second chord, close to the first, and practice that one. Get bored, and practice switching between the two. Realize you kind of already have a song there, if you just add one more chord. Do so. Write the song. Play it. Record it. Win on SongFight with it. Never look back.

disclaimer: this is just what I did. YMMV.
posted by davejay at 10:44 PM on July 23, 2009


Oh, and NO MUSIC THEORY REQUIRED. Go listen to my crappy little songs in MeFi Music, and know that I have almost no musical training and just kind of muddle my way through things as I need to -- but I also practice at least a few minutes every day, which goes a long way.
posted by davejay at 10:44 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


An A is a single note, usually approximated at 440mhz

That's a bloody high A :-)

I think you probably mean 440 Hz.
posted by flabdablet at 12:34 AM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


In the recent askme thread about stuff which it is not a good idea to buy on the cheap musical instruments featured quite prominently. This not to suggest you need to scrap your current instrument and go and buy a ukelele Stradivarius. Merely to say that there is a danger of your being put off what might be a great instrument for you because the one you have sounds awful and does not hold its tuning properly. By all means work on some of the fundamentals mentioned above - but in the not too distant future you might want to go along to a proper musical instrument shop where you can try out - and listen to - some more up-market models.
posted by rongorongo at 2:10 AM on July 24, 2009


If you can find someone who plays guitar, they can probably teach you some chords and songs to play. The four strings of a uke can be played like the highest four strings on a guitar (the pitches are different, but the relative pitches are the same).
posted by primer_dimer at 2:33 AM on July 24, 2009


I have no practical experience or advice to offer, but once you get past the entry-level stuff, I implore you to stick to a joyful repertoire of songs. The ukulele is a happiness machine and if you need inspiration for just how amazing an instrument it can be and what it can do to audiences, check out the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
posted by mdonley at 2:36 AM on July 24, 2009


Try Ukulele hunt, he's got posts for first timers and his e-books have some very good introductions to musical theory.
posted by itsjustanalias at 4:47 AM on July 24, 2009


Hi! I just got a uke too. I've been playing almost entirely from the songs listed on ukulele hunt's chords/tab page, mostly from the chords section. There are little diagrams on the top of each .pdf that tell you how to finger the chords. I can already play a bunch of indie songs and "Dream a Little Dream of Me"!

Oh, and I bought a uke that I suspect is crappier than yours (a rogue). I can't use alternate tunings on it, according to the internet, because the bridge might pop off entirely. That being said, at this point I'm just building up my calluses and learning chords and it only cost me thirty bucks. I plan to buy a Kala when I get better, but at this stage, there's really no need. Cheap ukes are cheap enough (cheaper than, say, eating out!) that it's not really a big deal if you start on a cruddy one.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:57 AM on July 24, 2009


Welcome to the dark side!

I reckon the combination of the Ukulele Chordfinder (mentioned by ian1977 and the rambler, but worth restating) and Chordie (which aggregates the files from a bunch of different song sites and allows you to transpose nearly every song into Ukulele (and many other) chord shapes) could move you pretty far along.

The learning curve for ukulele is pretty shallow, but it is still there - you need to work to get through the part where it is frustrating and get to the part where it is rewarding enough that you play for the fun of it, and not because you are trying to learn. It won't take long, you WILL get there, but be aware that you might only get hints that it'll be really fun the first few times you play with it and that the real joy tat is coming is much, much deeper.

Also, I have found the Roy Smeck Ukulele Method book to be fun to monkey around with. And, shit: Roy Smeck.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:13 AM on July 24, 2009


That's a bloody high A :-)

I think you probably mean 440 Hz.


Yup, my microscopic ukelele notwithstanding, it sure is and I sure do! A440/Concert A.

I couldn't agree more with the advice to not get too hung up on the theory and just pick the uke up every day and play with it. Learn the hows of making pleasing sounds, practice as often as possible, and the whys can come later.
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:36 AM on July 24, 2009


So many great answers ... thanks everyone!
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 7:42 AM on July 24, 2009


As mentioned previously by cazoo, Ukulele Underground is a great resource, particularly this thread on basic music theory.

Having never played an instrument before, I bought a ukulele about a month ago. I'm working through the music theory in bits and pieces, but it's not really necessary to enjoy playing. Find tablature for a couple of songs you like, and start playing!
posted by paulg at 8:32 AM on July 24, 2009


As mentioned by mdonley, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are awesome. I mean, who else would come up with a Modern Jazz version of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights with lead vocals by a guy who looks like a genial bank manager?

So if you enjoy the Ukulele or appreciate musical humor, and you ever get the chance to see them live, then don't even hesitate!
posted by arc at 9:28 AM on July 24, 2009


arc: I am addicted to the Wuthering Heights clip now. Thanks a lot.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 11:04 AM on July 24, 2009


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