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Playing music

Outside my comfort zone: learning to play the ‘ukulele

I’ve never been a musical person, but the other night while I was listening to Iz three notions collided in my brain: 1) between Iz and Eddie Vedder, I’ve spent a lot of time enjoying ʻukulele music, 2) I’d like to learn to play the ʻukulele, and 3) it’d be good to challenge my well-established notion that I’m not a musical person.

I have two speeds, “off” and “turbo,” so I did some research — starting by confirming that the uke is a good choice for a clueless, musically illiterate doofus like me — and bought an ʻukulele.

My Kala concert ʻukulele (KA-15C)

Spelling and pronunciation

Growing up, I learned the word ʻukulele as “ukulele” (without the ʻokina), and pronounced “you-ka-lay-lee.” I had no idea I was spelling or pronouncing it wrong. But when I started watching uke videos, I kept hearing another pronunciation: “oo-koo-le-le.”

This impassioned argument for using the correct Hawaiian pronunciation and spelling taught me a lot. If you’d like to hear it spoken, this 40-second video covers pronunciation — and explains the meaning of the word, “jumping flea.”

Hawaiʻi was annexed by the US under protest. Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiian language, was banned and nearly lost for good. The culture of the kānaka maoli — the indigenous people of Hawaiʻi — was trampled, and the islands and their people were exploited by colonizers. Modern-day tourism, while a boon to the economy, causes many problems of its own.

Using the correct spelling and pronunciation of ʻukulele acknowledges and respects the history and struggles of the culture that gave the world this instrument. It’s the right thing to do.

My first ‘ukulele

I went with a Kala KA-15C (paid link), a concert ʻukulele, because my reading suggested Kala was a solid brand; this was a solid beginner uke; and while folks seem split on whether a soprano uke (the smallest size) is best for beginners, there was a consensus that concert and tenor ukes are easier for folks with larger hands to play (at least at first).

Kala also offers vegan materials — notably the strings, which are synthetic gut (quite common), and the nut and saddle. They use NuBone for the saddle and nut, which I gather is better than plastic but perhaps not as good as actual bone.

I’m cognizant of my tendency to “gear up” hard when I try a new hobby, so I pushed back against it this time. I picked up just four other essentials (all paid links): a portable stand, a padded gig bag, a clip-on tuner, and spare strings.

And then, the internet

While I waited for my uke to arrive I spent hours prowling around, gathering resources that looked beginner-friendly and useful to me. My ʻukulele came two days ago, and I’ve put in practice time on both of those days (and will again today, of course!). Here are the resources I’ve found most helpful so far, in no particular order:

  • Cynthia Lin recorded a video lesson intended to be used as literally your first time handling a uke, and it’s excellent. She teaches with a lovely calm energy that’s absolutely fantastic for learning, and she offers dozens of free lessons.
  • Alongside Cynthia Lin’s lessons, my biggest resource has been Ukulele Underground. They offer so much stuff, including video lessons, slowdowns, play-along videos, uke tabs, and more. Here are their free video lessons to Hawaiian music for beginners, all of which, I believe, are taught by Aldrine Guerrero — who is a killer teacher, all energy and enthusiasm. I like UU’s format and his teaching so much that I picked my first song to learn based on what they offered in that list.
  • Steven Espaniola wrote a cool guide to three essential Hawaiian uke strums. I heard his rendition of “I Kona” before I knew he’d written this list — and damn, is it beautiful!
  • I gleaned some good info from Ukulele Magazine’s guide for beginners, notably hand position on the neck, the need to focus on building good habits (like trimming the nails on your chord-playing hand and what to do the very first time you sit down to play).
  • Uke Like The Pros offers a single page of common chords with a really smart layout that makes a great reference. (I like to jump over to Coustii’s intro to common chords to expand on each of them.) They also have a solid list of Hawaiian uke songs for beginners, with videos. Based on my vast two-day experience, these songs are not all suitable for total noobs like me — but I still like the list.
  • And finally, I enjoyed the heck out of this charming video by mew ichigo, part review of the KA-15C and part one-month progress report from a new uke player. Mew ichigo learned to play and sing “Someone to Lava” in one month of daily practice — that’s rad, and it made me think, “Maybe I could do that!”

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”

I set learning to play Iz’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” medley as my first goal, but held the idea loosely; I had a hunch it would be too difficult for a complete beginner.

If you’ve never heard that medley, it’s staggeringly beautiful. The story behind it is part of what makes it special: in the middle of the night, in a studio where he’d never played, with an engineer he’d never worked with, Iz rolled up and, in a single take, tossed off one of the most moving, most wonderful, songs ever played.

The seed of wanting to play the ʻukulele was planted a couple of years ago, when I first heard that song. I’ve since devoured Iz’s work, listening to his music on repeat for hours at a time, but I always come back to that medley.

“Kokeʻe”

After a couple days of practicing, I’ve seen why I can’t keep “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” as my first goal: It’s well above my skill level (for now!). But I want to learn to play Hawaiian music, so I picked another a Hawaiian song for my first: “Kokeʻe,” by Dennis Kamakahi.

Ukulele Underground has an awesome video lesson for “Kokeʻe,” taught by Aldrine Guerrero, including chords, a strumming tutorial, and a play-along. Armed with that lesson and a tip from UU — learn chords first, to the point where you can read the name of the chord and instantly know how to play it — I’m going to focus on one song for a while and see how it goes.

I’m partially tone-deaf, don’t know how to read music, never enjoyed music class, and forgot what a chord was sometime around grade school. This is a baffling but exciting journey for me, and so far I’m having a blast!