What do you think of when you see a uke? I’m pretty sure the only association people have is George Formby, the dead music hall tradition and by extension, northerners, flat caps, whippets and long eradicated working class diseases like TB, silicosis and ricketts. There are and have been precious few mainstream acts using ukes to make music. The fact that has so little use and associated ‘baggage’ make it an interesting instrument to play.
I play both a soprano ukulele and a concert scale banjo ukulele, we all know the old joke, ‘a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo and doesn’t’. I have played almost exclusively in the pub with mates, both gigging and practicing every week (downstairs at the Artillery Arms Ramsgate, 8pm, Wednesday nights if you fancy it). In the whole time I have been playing I have never heard a negative comment, a sigh of annoyance that a bunch of beer drinkers are plink-plonking away in the corner. All I have ever had is enthusiastic enquiries into what instrument I’m playing, requests for tunes or a story of how an ancient, long dead uncle or grandfather played a ukulele.
The real beauty of the uke is threefold. Firstly, it is devastatingly easy to play. It only has four strings which are nylon and not particularly taught. This means it won’t mangle your fingers into mushy, bloody pulp like a steel strung guitar will when you first pick it up. The fact that it has four stings means chords are a whole heap easier than the guitar too, C major for example requires placing a single finger on the fretboard. The other great thing about the tuning of a uke is that it lends to playing songs in the keys of G and C. If you learn the chords G, C, D, F and A there are quite literally hundreds of songs you can learn that will be at a reasonable pitch for most people to sing along to.
Secondly the best bit about a uke is that it’s comedic, diminutive size along with the quite frankly ridiculous noise it makes mean people don’t take it seriously. You can be rubbish at playing, hit bum notes, lose your timing and people will still smile, clap and ask for more when you finish. The thing is the sheer silliness of seeing 20 fully grown adults playing ‘Ring Of Fire’ on ukuleles with kazoo accompaniment is enough to make people enjoy what you are doing.
Finally, unlike a decent, playable starter guitar that will set you back at least £200, your first uke needn’t cost more than about £30. I mean, like everything, the sky is the limit and there are ukes that sell for hundreds of pounds but it needn’t be a massive outlay. This, their easy chords and small size make them great as a starter instrument for kids as well.
Locally to me more and more schools are setting up ukulele clubs and teaching how to play them rather than the dreaded recorder. Whilst the recorder is probably better for learning about musical notation and such, the uke opens more doors musically speaking. Guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin, viola, cello, double bass all become dead easy to learn. In fact pretty much any stringed instrument is no quantum leap. New tunings, chord and note positions are easy to learn, it is the coordination of left and right hands that is the tricky bit. Not only that but pull out a stringed instrument and you can join a band with mates, gig, perform music you enjoy. I’m going to go out on a limb and say very few people have successfully joined a band and gigged as a recorder player. I’d love to see more schools getting on board, investing in some ukes and teaching kids to play.
If you have kids, encourage them to play the ukulele. If you are a big kid like me, fork out £30, buy a uke, head down to your local uke night (usually in pubs on a Wednesday night), stamp your feet, drink your wages and smile like a loon.
Some useful ukulele links:
Ukejam– A Guildford based ukulele ‘commune’ led by kind, funny and talented benevolent dictators Adam and Penny.
Gaddzukes– Thanet based ukulele group and committed beer consumption team I play with.
Ukulele Wednesdays– London based jam nights.
Get Tuned-The best online tuner for your uke
Mahalo Ukuleles– Found in decent music shops everywhere. Affordable, decent quality starter ukuleles.