Has the ukulele just caught your attention? Are you considering taking lessons to learn the basic chords of the trending instrument? Do you want to be the fun friend who starts the happy-go-lucky sing-alongs at parties? First you’ll need to know which one to buy.
There are four main ukulele sizes, but the smallest, the soprano, is the most iconic. The soprano is the size that most people associate with the ukulele. A few practice strums will immediately produce that classic ukulele sound and bring a smile to your face.
Sopranos can feel very small to many adults, however, with their traditional tininess making them a bit trickier to play than concerts or tenors. A concert or tenor size uke are good middle-of-the-road sizes that work well for beginners and give off a warmer, more resonant sound than the sopranos.
Try not to obsess about choosing the right size. Chances are you’ll find yourself starting a collection and owning ukes of every size before long.
There are a ton of different woods used to craft ukuleles. The most common is koa, a type of wood from Hawaii. Thus, most ukuleles that come from their birthplace are made from koa. It has a beautiful grain and generates a very warm sound, but note that koa is used on more expensive ukuleles. If you’re not looking to break the bank, but still want a uke that will stay tuned, you’re probably going to get one made of mahogany. A mahogany ukulele sounds a little bit softer than one made of koa, but it’s still a good wood choice.
There’s a bewildering range of ukulele brands available today. The brand you choose really depends on what your local music store has to offer, and your personal preferences and budget. Some brands that come to mind are:
Ashbury—good quality, entry-level ukes from a UK company
Kala—hugely popular in the islands and elsewhere, but generally with a big price tag
Kamaka—the oldest surviving ukulele maker, family-owned and Hawaii-based
When it opened in 2008, the Barcelona branch of the Shine School of Music was the first specialised guitar school in the city, offering classes in all styles of guitar—from classic to flamenco to electric—with qualified and experienced teachers in English, Spanish and Catalan. Today, they continue to provide guitar lessons to all ages and levels, but have also begun training students on a variety of other instruments including piano, ukulele, cavaquinho, accordion, clarinet, saxophone and more. Understanding that most people study music for enjoyment, as a hobby, the school delivers a simultaneously structured, creative and fun approach to learning an instrument. At Shine, people feel comfortable socialising, collaborating with other musicians and showcasing their progress.
Shine is also one of two music schools in Barcelona that offer intensive flamenco/guitar/piano courses to tourists looking for an educational holiday, along with being one of the few music schools worldwide to give private online music classes in a coherent and organised fashion for you tech-savvy musicians out there.
When it comes to the ukulele, Shine is keeping up with that trend, too. Not only can their teachers melt your heart with a few joyous chords and teach you how to delight friends and family with some melodies of your own, but the school in Gràcia sells ukes, as well. They sell mostly sopranos because “it’s the most popular,” said Shine’s owner Miloš. “The soprano is what everyone plays, what’s all over YouTube these days.” You can also rent a dynamic ukulele from Shine for 30 euros a month.
Once you’ve bought your first (or maybe your tenth!) ukulele, go to our list of top 12 ukulele songs to play, some time-honoured classics but others you may not have previously associated with the uke.
Not long ago, the ukulele, no more than a comic prop to accompany your lei and grass skirt, was an endangered species. Now in its third heyday, the ukulele’s powerfully cheerful sound is permeating the pop charts, serenading us during TV commercial breaks and showing up in YouTube videos by the thousands. The uke can even be heard in jam sessions on Barcelona beaches and has infiltrated some of the city’s Meetup groups.
A Brief History
Based on several small members of the guitar family, the ukulele was first developed in Hawaii during the 1880s by Portuguese immigrants. Roughly translated as “jumping flea”, the ukulele’s popularity spread to the United States in the 1920s. Thanks to the production of millions of inexpensive plastic ukuleles, their presence in popular music surged from the 1940s to the 1960s, but interest began to decline after that.
Don’t worry. There’s a comeback in our story. The ukulele reclaimed centre stage due to the enthusiasm for Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow”. Since its release on the album Facing Future in 1993, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” has been heard so often on TV and in movies, young generations may not realise Israel actually redefined the beloved classic originally sung by Judy Garland.
According to the New York Times article “Ukulele Crazy” from 2011, “The trend, building for a decade and now reaching a saturation point, is being fueled by a mix of Hollywood directors, corporate advertisers, professional musicians looking for a new sound and amateurs who have discovered how easy the uke is to use”. Each group’s interest may be driven by different motivations, but they are all united in their belief that the ukulele, with its folksy sound, invokes joy and sincerity in an electronic guitar and auto-tune-obsessed age.
And why shouldn’t the ukulele be this year’s trending topic? Its dainty size makes it a great instrument to travel with. It’s easy for kids and adults alike to play. It provides players with instant satisfaction—being defined in some music circles as “idiot-proof”, anyone can learn to play in a short period of time. No matter how off tune you go, it never sounds awful because of the uke’s sweet-natured sound. Playing the uke will enlarge your circle of friends. And it makes you and those listening around you happy.
Even George Harrison was a ukulele lover, quoted as saying, “I love them—the more the merrier…So get yourself a few and enjoy yourselves”.
More recently, stars like Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnson have taken up the ukulele, and its featured prominently on the TV show Glee. It’s become a habit for Zooey Deschanel to strum one while crooning sweetly with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tony Blair disrupts Labour Party conventions with one. The ukulele creates intimacy to scenes in Her and How I Met Your Mother. There’s even an eight-member Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain—originally formed as a bit of fun—that has given thousands of sold-out concerts across the world. We’ve come a long way from mocking the uke after Tiny Tim used it in his 1968 novelty song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”.
Despite its higher profile, the ukulele still plays its role as an everyman instrument quite convincingly. “The ukulele has always fascinated me because it doesn’t intimidate other people,” said Hawaiian artist Jake Shimabukuro, whose career skyrocketed when his elaborate, introspective variation of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on a ukulele went viral on YouTube with more than 13 million views.
There’s no right or wrong way to play the ukulele, only your way. So get out there and start strumming!
Even if you’ve never picked up an instrument before, getting started on the ukulele is fun, easy and, if you want, inexpensive. Once you’re acquainted, don’t think you have to stick to playing typical uke songs, though.
What Makes a Good Ukulele Song?
There’s no rulebook that says only certain songs can be played on a ukulele. In general, what makes a good ukulele song is a distinct and consistent rhythm maintained throughout the song. That being said, anything can sound good on the uke – it’s how you play it that counts.
This brings us to the first song we suggest for beginning ukulele players.
#1 SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW/WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole’s beautiful melody brings out the joyfulness in the ukulele. Movies like Meet Joe Black, 50 First Dates and Finding Forrester, and popular TV shows like Scrubs and So You Think You Can Dance have helped draw attention to this song in the past. Today, it’s a must-know for ukulele players.
#2 I’M YOURS
This mellow favourite by Jason Mraz has just 4 chords—C, G, Am and F. Get familiar with this chord progression early on in your ukulele endeavour because you will use it to play tons of songs in the future.
Shine School of Music teachers Gaspar Muller (ukulele) and Sebastian Pan (acoustic guitar, vocals) play a mash-up of our top 2 songs.
#3 HEY SOUL SISTER
This Train single is another example of how pop music has been drawing attention to the ukulele over the past few years.
#4 STAND BY ME
Ben E. King changed the world with “Stand By Me”, which the Library of Congress inducted into the National Recording Registry in early 2015. It has a very distinct rhythm, and to make the song recognisable you really need to imitate that as closely as you can.
Remember when learning a new song, take it one step at a time. Break down a song by chords, strum and vocals. Don’t try to do everything at once.
If you want to get a bit more creative with your uke, the second part of our list has some songs you might not have thought to play.
#5 NO WOMAN NO CRY
Bob Marley & The Wailers’ reggae song is a super easy solo for the uke that will prompt a favourable reaction from any audience.
#6 HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN
The Animals’ take on “House of the Rising Sun” was arguably the first folk-rock tune, as if they took the ancient ditty from some obscure folk-inspired corner of the United States and connected it to a live wire.
Written by Australian singer-songwriter Vance Joy, this song has all the metaphors and pop culture references to partner with the latest ukulele fashion.
“Something” was written by George Harrison and released on the Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road. The song drew high praise from the other band members, with Lennon declaring it the best song on Abbey Road and McCartney considering it the best song Harrison had ever written.
#9 SPEAK SOFTLY, LOVE
The main theme music for The Godfather, with its intensity and distinction, is not your average ukulele song. Playing it will certainly set you apart from the crowd and earn you some street cred, if nothing else.
#10 IS THIS LOVE
When Bob Marley & the Wailers’ roots reggae album Kaya came out in 1978, several reviewers said they had gone soft. But the songs on the album simply reflect how Marley was feeling at the time, which was great, and the summery, carefree feel specific to “Is This Love” works well with the uke’s similar sound.
“Amélie” is the soundtrack to the 2001 French film Amélie, set in Paris, about a young woman aspiring to help and improve the lives of those around her. Just like you, as a ukulele player, can add merriment to the lives of those listening around you.
#12 YOU ALWAYS HURT THE ONES YOU LOVE
Even the heartthrob Ryan Gosling, whose smouldering gaze and perfect torso have recently inspired a plethora of playful memes on social media sites, has taken up the ukulele. In Blue Valentine (2010), Gosling gives an impromptu performance of “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love”, while his onscreen counterpart Michelle Williams dances. This lovely old tune is very well suited for the uke.
The most important thing is to start playing. Now! So pick one of our cool ukulele song suggestions or find one of your own, and serenade us.
For information on what type of ukulele best suits you and your style, as well as where to buy a uke in Barcelona, click here.