Back in December, I bought a ukulele. I’m not fully sure why I made that choice at the time. I don’t recall being specifically frustrated with my fiddle or anything. Maybe it was because after being in the violin world, ukes seem to be far less expensive and easier to pick up in the long run.
Also, the community built around the ukes seem to be super friendly and encouraging. Uke is an instrument that you can pick up and learn on your own, and the folks who play it encourage you to do so. There are good brand ukes and probably poor quality ukes, but despite what price-point you start with, you can still learn on a cheapie uke until you’re sure you want to invest in a better one.
In contrast, I’ve seen time and time again where a person new to violin on the Internet gets a less than warm welcome when they have questions about learning on their own and what type of violin to buy. Violin is much harder to get into, and I know that the players are trying to be helpful when the answers are “Get a teacher.” “Don’t buy a violin online.” “Have a teacher help you buy a violin.” “The violin you bought is too cheap.” that kind of thing.
But when you’re stuck in a place without access to a teacher or a good violin shop (like me), that’s fairly discouraging. Or if you just want to try it out to see if violin is your thing, and these are the answers you get, that turns folks away. There are some places online where the violin community can be downright… well… stuffy. Fiddle communities are a bit more lax and welcoming, I find.
Now, this wasn’t a post meant to get into the differences in the musical atmosphere between violin and uke – even if I perceive this to be a pretty vast contrast. But it is one thing that encouraged me to buy a uke last year.
To be perfectly honest, my little blue uke hasn’t seen a whole lot of action. I don’t think it’s a bad uke by any means. But, for some reason, I ended up picking up a tenor-sized Kala travel uke – mostly because it was on a half-off sale, generally thought to be a good brand, and I wanted to see the differences in size.
After getting some birthday gifts that not just encouraged but also set the stage for me to start practicing uke, I find this is the instrument that I pick up most. I really love how thin the body is, for one. It makes the uke easier for me to play.
I did have to ask for a hook-strap for my birthday — which I got — and this has also gone a long way towards making it easier to hold and support the uke. My little blue uke came with a strap, so I knew that I preferred having one — it’s probably a hold-over from playing guitar.
I love that, like the violin, uke has only four strings to keep up with. The neck is generally thin enough for my short fingers to struggle with chords — something that felt nearly impossible on guitar back in the day.
In fact, most learning “methods” – I hesitate to call them methods because learning uke feels a lot less structured – start with teaching chords. C, G7 and F seem to be the staple chords that open up many songs to you… once you get your fingers to transition properly.
For me, chord switching has been the challenge. I understand where my fingers need to be (and unlike my fiddle, the frets are there to guide me), but switching smoothly in time is really the major thing I have to practice. That and learning how to strum with the proper fingers (which isn’t the thumb).
Another major hurdle to overcome with playing uke is sore fingers. The strings on a uke aren’t steel, so it’s not as bad as when I was learning to play guitar, but the pain is still there. For some reason, violin strings don’t cause this kind of pain for me. I didn’t want to get to a place where I hurt my fingers so badly practicing uke that it would hurt too much to play violin.
Thankfully, after a week of careful uke practice, I already feel my fingertips starting to toughen up. I know it takes time and consistent work to develop fingers that go unscathed by strings. But if it wasn’t for the pain, I know I could spend a lot more time practicing than I do.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with my first week of uke. I fiddled around with it back when I got my first uke, so I already knew how to tune it. I also already had an idea of what it meant to strum and that chords would be the main focus. What I like a LOT about the EE book is that it does go into reading notation and playing songs based on notes.
Eventually, I really want to go into fingerstyle more than just learning chords. I’m not sure how much Irish/Celtic music is adapted to the uke, but I know some uke players make just about everything sound nice! It really is a cheerful little instrument, and I’m having fun developing new music skills with it!