Can I play the ukulele without using codeine?
January 20, 2010 12:06 PM   Subscribe

Ukulele players: Is this a more finger-friendly instrument than the guitar?

I used to play the piano and guitar but fibromyalgia forced me to give them up. I need my fingers, sore as they are, for the computer keyboard where I earn my daily bread. But I miss making music and have been thinking about a traditional soprano ukulele. Is there less bite on sensitive fingers than with a guitar (even a guitar with nylon strings), or am I indulging in wishful thinking?
posted by bryon to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Absolutely. The uke is probably the most forgiving stringed instrument around. The cheap ones won't tune, so make sure you're getting a quality instrument. I spent about $250 on a mahogany soprano uke. It's super-easy to play and sounds great.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:10 PM on January 20, 2010

Totally! I'm a long-time guitar player and I've been learning banjo for about a year now. Both bother my left hand fingers if I haven't been playing in a while. I got a uke for Christmas and it's really easy to hold down the strings, much more so than guitar.

My wife and I have been taking a beginner uke class together. She's never played a stringed instrument before (other than noodling a bit on violin) and has no problem fretting chords.

The strings are nylon and the action is very low. The only time my hands get tired is when I've been playing a bunch of movable barre-type chords and even then it's more in the hands, not in the fingertips.

Most people I know who learn guitar have trouble holding down and changing chords at first. Nobody in the (beginner) uke class has had any trouble.

I think the ukulele is your instrument.
posted by bondcliff at 12:16 PM on January 20, 2010

I've got a Flea right here with me and a ruler-- the strings are exactly 3mm off the fretboard, and as far as I know, this one's never had anything done to it at the shop.

I would head down to your local guitar shop and try out a few ukes, see what you like. Since you have chronic pain, I would get your hands on both friction and geared-tuner ukes and see what's easier for you to tune without wanting to throw the instrument against a wall. The $30 ones in pretty colors need to be tuned about every half-hour-- avoid, unless you're planning on a career in punk-rock ukulele. (A friend of mine uses one of those to entertain his children with death-metal covers, but he is an exceptional case.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:26 PM on January 20, 2010

Sopranos can be very cramped on the fretboard, if joint pain is an issue. But yes, generally ukes fret easily, and the strings are quite soft.

A good fret job makes a huge difference too. I've been very impressed with the setup jobs that Musicguymic did on two cheapo ukes I've owned.
posted by scruss at 12:35 PM on January 20, 2010

Yes. I have tiny, stubborn hands, and the uke is a breeze. Seconding Musicguymic; I bought a kala kiwi from him and it's just about the sweetest thing ever, in terms of sound and appearance and ease of playing (the $25 uke from Musician's friend that I started with? not so much . . . )
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:42 PM on January 20, 2010

A soprano uke can be a bit tricky if you're all fingers. I started on a baritone uke, which has more space between the strings and so can be a bit easier to play, but YMMV.

I play a Fluke, and love it. I also play a banjolele, but it cost me half a grand and isn't a starter instrument.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:16 PM on January 20, 2010

Another flea player here. Yes, they're definitely more finger-friendly than a guitar. Go for it. If you're looking for a budget model, I've heard good things about Musicguymic's eBay store.
posted by paulg at 1:50 PM on January 20, 2010

*Raises hand* - computer serf with ulnar nerve entrapment (which affects the nerves in my ring and pinky fingers), and a soprano uke player. While I realize that my pain is very different than yours, I wanted to chime in and say that I was worried that when I took up the uke after a thirty-odd year hiatus, I would have problems. But - none at all. In fact, I think the movements necessary to uke playing have been really beneficial in strengthening my left hand, which is the one most affected by the nerve entrapment.

Two things that may help: as others have noted, do not buy a cheap instrument. Spend at least $100 or so. I play a vintage 1920s instrument, but know many who swear by Ohana, Lanikai, and Kala ukes, all of which have models in the $100 range. More good advice here. And, swap out the stock strings for Aquilas.
posted by chez shoes at 1:59 PM on January 20, 2010

I also say yes. Been playing guitar for 32 years, ukulele for about 4 months now; have had carpal tunnel-type issues in the past that impacted how obsessively I could play guitar. None of that really ever comes on uke.

Nthing buying something not-too-terribly-cheap, as well as buying from musicguymic (I also have a Kala Kiwi from him), although by all means go to your local store(s) and try some things in person first. Also, coming from guitar, you might want to consider at least concert scale; my Kiwi is a soprano, which becomes more challenging to finger the higher up the fretboard one goes on it, but I've tried out my gf's concert Flea briefly and really enjoyed the feel of it.
posted by treblemaker at 2:34 PM on January 20, 2010

Oh, and the only reason I didn't go with musicguymic-- I was seriously considering that Kala kiwi too, it's adorable and sounds nice-- is that I found a stock Flea (used but obviously never really played) at my local guitar shop for half what they usually cost. If you can get a deal like that locally, I'd go for it, assuming your shop is reputable; otherwise, go with MGM.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 3:35 PM on January 20, 2010

Fluke (concert sized) player here, with fingers that refuse to even noodle on guitar.

I had to decide whether I wanted a plastic fretboard with molded frets or the rosewood one with metal, and I chose rosewood, and it still is super-friendly to my safecracker fingertips. They also sell thick, soft felt ukulele picks -- you might like to use one rather than strum with your fingers.

The people at Fleamarket are super, and will build you a fine fine instrument. If you e-mail them, sometimes they have "factory second" Flukes (concert or tenor) and Fleas (soprano or concert) available at a lower price.
posted by Sallyfur at 5:12 PM on January 20, 2010

Response by poster: Wow! This is really encouraging. Many, many thanks to you all for your stories, your links, and your advice.
posted by bryon at 8:47 PM on January 20, 2010

I'd definitely agree that the uke is easy on the fingers. Where I'd disagree is with everyone saying "buy an expensive one!" I started playing uke a few months ago, have had a great time with it, and didn't spend much at all - the equivalent of around $55. I know people who play sub-$50 instruments too, and they enjoy themselves just as much. Yeah, the tone won't be quite as good, and it might slip out of tune a bit more often, but...well, I thrash mine around quite a lot and it's already looking battered, and I much prefer to do that and have fun playing it if I'm not worried about trying to preserve an investment. Steer clear of anything made out of plastic, but other than that, go nuts.
posted by ZsigE at 3:29 PM on January 23, 2010

Yeah, the tone won't be quite as good, and it might slip out of tune a bit more often, but...well, I thrash mine around quite a lot and it's already looking battered, and I much prefer to do that and have fun playing it if I'm not worried about trying to preserve an investment. Steer clear of anything made out of plastic, but other than that, go nuts.

My experience with my bottom-of-the-line uke was that, once I got a more expensive one, I realized that I didn't suck at playing nearly as much as I'd previously thought. Not only is the tone better, and not only does it not slip out of tune as easily, but it also is easier to finger notes and hold down strings. I wouldn't have noticed this difference had I not bought a more expensive (~$70) instrument, though.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:40 PM on January 23, 2010

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