Things I’ve learned playing Ukulele.

…that I didn’t learn playing guitar.

That’s such a loaded sentence, isn’t it? 🙂 But, it doesn’t make it any less relevant. And, it doesn’t mean you can’t – or won’t eventually – learn about these things learning guitar. It does mean – like earlier comments I’ve made about bass, that the ukulele poses some unique mental challenges that become more important, faster.

I’ve talked about how, since most bass exercises you find online are written out in music notation, it becomes important to learn music notation sooner, if you want to work through the exercises and articles on the web.  It’s not mandatory, but it’s something that your attention is drawn to earlier with bass than with guitar, because if a song exists, you CAN find guitar tab for it online. There is no shortage of resources for beginner guitarists to choose from, which – it turns out – is not something that can be assumed of all musical instruments.

That brings me to the ukulele (which has stolen my soul and refuses to give it back).  I’ve mentioned that I want to learn ‘In My Mind’ by Amanda Palmer (working on it), but as I was driving home from work a week or two ago, listening to tunes off the back wall, a certain song by the Flaming Lips came up on my ipod, and I got it in my head ‘I want to learn to play that song on the ukulele.  It sounds like it would be a really fun uke song.’  Well, that song has no uke tabs on the internet. It has guitar tabs on the internet, so that sent me on a data search.

I already knew the chords were different shapes between the two instruments. A D chord for guitar is the same shape as G chord for Ukulele. I do not have enough information in my brain yet to say if there’s a guitar chord shaped like an ukulele D chord. Different number of strings, in a different order – there’s a logic. F is evil on guitar and easy on Uke. E is borderline demonic on ukulele, but easy on guitar. It’s all a little different, is what I’m getting at. Though there’s a lot of overlap in concept and execution, the details change.

But, it got me wondering if I could use guitar tabs for ukulele, provided I know how to form those particular chord on the ukulele.  The answer, apparently, was ‘only sometimes’, because the key changes, and that doesn’t always work out well.

Ukulele players need to transpose guitar tabs in order to get them into a key that sounds right. There’s a formula for where to start (5 half steps) that sometimes works, and sometimes needs some tweaking. If you’re going to be singing along, that adds a level, as you want to transpose the song into a key that you can comfortably sing in.  These are things that make sense, but have not yet crossed my mind on guitar, and also haven’t really come up with the bass either.

So, my brain went ‘fuck. I have to learn to transpose? NOW?!’  I knew it was something I would have to learn eventually. I didn’t think it was something that was going to come up right away. And, I can keep learning songs like London Bridge, but I don’t want to. I will run through these songs a few times – it’s good exercise for learning chord shapes and transitions, but I’m sorry, I am not memorizing London Bridge. I am never going to play London Bridge in full. I want to learn songs that I’ll actually play. That’s why we learn instruments. The basic songs are good for learning new chords, for gaining some confidence, but there are plenty of FUN songs that use those same basic chords. SO, transposing it is.

It seemed a really daunting task in those first few moments. Transposing is a big, intimidating word to a newbie, and the information I need to do it I don’t really have committed to memory (I do have it taped to my desk near my computer).  But, what it amounts to is taking all the chords or notes you’re playing, and moving them each the same amount.  For lack of a better analogy, think hopscotch. You hop along from one end of the grid to the other, and even if you do it on one foot, your other foot is still coming with you. You’re not going to get to the end and look back to find your other leg at the starting line going ‘did you forget something?’.  Now, that probably just gave you a somewhat gory mental picture, and I’m sorry, but my point is it doesn’t make sense to move one thing without the other, and that is essentially the dumbed down version of what transposing means. All the parts that make up the song are moving from point A to point B, and they are doing so at the same interval so the melody remains in tact.

Now, I barely can wrap my head around the difference between half-steps and steps. I understand how they work in terms of the fretboard, but when speaking in more musical terms, my brain implodes a little. I’m just too new at this to really understand on a deep level, because music seems to exist in a part of the brain that’s just hard to really put in words and handy little boxes that logic-brain can than label and color code and put on shelves. Logic-brain and I are old friends, so when it comes to reading about things like steps and half-steps, music-brain is like this strange interloper who comes into your house drunk, messes up your shit, flops down on your couch and says ‘I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?’  Logic-brain is too polite to kick Music-Brain out of the house, so they’re frenemies who need to learn to coexist, and that takes time and exposure that a newbie like me just doesn’t have yet.

So, I don’t wholly understand steps and half-steps on a deep level, but I do know how to count, and the good news is that’s really all I need to transpose. That, and ears. Conveniently, the ears are hard to leave behind.

The rule of ukulele is to move up five half steps, and it turns out, Ultimate Guitar has a handy little button that will transpose for you. Sweet! That’s going to save some time, and saving times means I can try a bunch of different transpositions really quickly to settle on the one that feels right.

Now, with these two bits of knowledge:

1) transposing means moving all the chords an equal amount of places.

2) the standard starting point for ukulele from guitar is up 5 half steps.

…I realized why the first song I learned never sounded quite right when I play along with youtube. I thought it was just me not being very good, but it’s a bit more involved than that.

A) I am playing in a different key. The original guitar chords are A D E.

B) Transposed with the standard +5 for ukulele makes that D G A.

C) But the lesson I’m learning didn’t transpose it +5, it transposes it +3, making the song C F G.

It doesn’t matter how good I get, playing a song progression in a totally different key than the other instruments is always going to sound off, and knowing that makes me feel better about my playing. It also means that I might actually be able to sing along without sounding like someone’s murdering a frog, if I transpose into a key that’s comfortable for me to sing. (Bob Marley and I have vocal ranges that are a LIIITTTTLLLLEEEE different. lol.)

I also figured out pretty quickly why the instructor chose to transpose 3 half steps up for the first ukulele lesson: she transposed the number of steps required to get an easy chord progression for someone who is playing ukulele for the first time.  It had boggled my mind before why she was playing it so much differently than any other tab I found. Now, I know. C, F, and G are all relatively easy chords on the ukulele. D is a little harder, E is harder than that. So, it would be hugely discouraging for a first lesson to learn a song with D and E chords right out of the gate.  The difference in chords was an unsolvable mystery until I figured out transposing was something I was going to have to learn about, and fast, if I wanted to learn the songs I wanted to learn.  Now I’m going to try that song with a +5 transposition in D G A, and compare the difference in tone. (let the mad music experiments commence!)

The next thing I’ve learned from ukulele that I haven’t noticed on guitar (but probably would have, admittedly, if it was my primary instrument):

Strumming patterns that sound good on an electric instrument, with a full band, won’t necessarily make any sense on acoustic. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out this strumming pattern yesterday. I could hear it, but I couldn’t seem to replicate it. I looked up videos on how to figure out strumming patterns, I even tried to cheat and see if there were any tabs with the strumming pattern noted (there weren’t). It was infuriating, because I could hear the strumming pattern – I could hear the difference between up strokes and down strokes. I could tap it out with my fingers…

…and then I realized there was actually a really prominent bass line that muddied up the guitar in a lot of spots and made it almost inaudible. That the guitar and bass were lending to one another in a way that often made them sound like one instrument if you weren’t listening really closely. A lot of what I thought was part of the guitar strumming pattern was actually the bass line washing it out. And that, because of that, driving myself crazy trying to find the original strumming pattern wasn’t really the best plan of attack. I know the overall flow of the song, and the strumming pattern I was hearing wasn’t working when I tried to play it. It was too busy, too muddy.  So, I threw that out the window and determined that what I really needed to do was break it down to a strumming pattern that, paired with the right chords, would sound good against the words. I needed to essentially rebuild this song in a way that made sense for the instrument playing it.  Now, that’s a hell of a realization for a beginner – that the way the song is originally played may not necessarily be the best way for the instrument playing it, and that allowances need to be made for the differences between electric and acoustic instruments.

I spent all day picking that song apart. ALL. DAY. I finally cracked at 2 am when my eyes started drooping and my fingers no longer wanted to play ball (or ukulele, or anything else). But, I’ve got a very solid start on reconstructing the song for the instrument I want to play it on, and that’s a huge step.

…and I learned that even a nylon stringed instrument can make your fingertips tender if you play it long enough.

And, that what I am playing on the ukulele actually sounds like music, if the roomie is any indication. He walked by my door and said “That’s the instrument you’re going to perfect first.”  I didn’t argue that there’s no such thing as perfecting an instrument, but with a sense of pride that I was making something that sounded good, I said “well, yeah, it’s the easiest to play.”

But, not necessarily the easiest to learn. If I’ve learned anything from deciding to learn multiple instruments simultaneously, it’s that each one presents its own unique challenges to overcome. With ukulele the challenge is mental and creatively stimulating. With bass, the challenge is not getting frustrated that every lesson I read is drilling the four fingers per fret rule, which, since I can only span 3, means I have to find ways to modify every exercise I come across, and that often defeats the original purpose of the exercise. With guitar…well, don’t even get me started on guitar. lol.  Sufficed to say, six strings is apparently more than my brain is ready to process, but I’m working on it.

All instruments present unique challenges, and working on three at once (with different levels of priority, admittedly) means I’m looking at music with a very broad scope that helps me big picture things pretty quickly. The smaller details will come with time.

Until Next Time, it seems for the time being, the ukulele has stolen my soul, and is not going to give it back until it can play the Flaming Lips. 🙂

9 thoughts on “Things I’ve learned playing Ukulele.

  1. Picking apart songs like you’re doing is one of the best ways to learn. You’ll get a lot more out of it than just finding tab on the net and counting frets. That said, if you can find a chord chart/chord sheet for the songs you like, even if they’re guitar-based, it will help your transcribing.

    Basically the chord sheet will show lyrics for the song, usually going left-to-right like if all of the lyrics were a single paragraph or a story. Above the line for each lyric, it’ll show a chord and will only show another when the chord changes. You can use that to map out how the chords progress in a song, and that’ll also give you the chords that you want to transpose for the uke.

    And with steps and 1/2 steps, there’s really nothing more to them than they’re used for counting. A step is 2 frets and a 1/2 step is 1 fret. They’re also called Tones and Semitones. I often use Whole step and Half step. I think you know all that you need to for steps.

    If memory serves, there’s another name for one that spans 3 frets, but that only starts to come into play when you’re talking about intervals. I think then you start to hear things like “minor 2nd,” “major 3rd,” “minor 3rd” and so on. Its more of a theory-based way of naming a specific interval vs. the purely physical way of saying “move 1 fret” or “move 2 frets”.


    1. Oh, that’s what I’m doing, basically. I can’t pick out chords by ear for transcribing yet. I think I need to learn more songs and play the chords more just to get my ear used to hearing the differences really.
      Basically, since there aren’t ukulele charts for most songs I’d want to learn for it. I instead take a guitar tab, and then translate it to ukulele. It’s additionally complicated by being on a different instrument, and without a full band, so I’m learning the way you’d strum it is not necessarily the way it was done in the original under those circumstances, so it’s a really solid mental exercise – like translating a document into a different language, really.

      And I know that much about steps and half steps, but I don’t know what makes it a half versus a whole. More like, I can’t quite yet process the theory behind what makes a half step a half step and not a whole step, acoustically. In terms of practical application I understand how they work on the fretboard, but I think until my ears really process the difference, it’s something that I’m never going to feel quite solid on in terms of the more theoretical aspect of it. So far, a lot of the theory stuff makes my brain hurt, but I’m understanding the broader concept of where they are on the fretboard and such. My eyes are just glazing over on a lot of the theory yet. I think until I can really get my head and my ears on the same page, the more theoretical aspect of it is going to be a struggle to grasp, since I can’t connect the dots between theory and application well yet. Theory that I can see has a practical application I can grasp, but the stuff that I can’t quite draw those connections with are a bit harder to hold onto for now, and the theoretical difference between a half step and a whole step is one of those things – until I understand why they’re not all whole steps, what makes the difference between a half and whole in terms of sound, I won’t feel like I understand it properly.


      1. Learning to pick out chords, or even individual notes, by ear is called ear training. There are a lot of different resources online and also commercially available for help with that.

        Personally, I’d learn the major scale before learning ear training, because the major scale is fundamental to you knowing WHAT you’re hearing, so that you can name it. You should really just dig up the major scale pattern from Bass Guitar for Dummies and run that a few times every day. Concentrate on the sound of it, so that you know what a major scale sounds like in your head. The ear training will come after that… basically, you’ll do something like play a root note and then play another note in the scale and then name the interval – like you’ve just heard a major 3rd or a perfect 4th, or whatever. When you have enough of a grasp of how 2 individual notes sound in relation to each other (usually its the root note and then another note from the scale) then you move onto chords. But those aren’t hard – its really just are you hearing a major or minor chord, and It is a triad, 7th or something else.

        All I’ve ever worked on, chord-wise, were triads and 7ths. The higher stuff gets used more in jazz than anything else – although a lot of technical metal incorporates insane chords and stuff, but I’m not ready for that.


      2. If you want to look at some light theory for half-steps and whole steps, do this: write out all of the notes in music, from A to G#. Remember that B/C and E/F don’t have a sharp between them, so it’ll look like this – A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#. Those are the 12 notes In the Western musical language.

        A 1/2 step is moving from any note to the next one, so A – A# or E – F. They wrap around when you get to the end, so G# – A is a 1/2 step.

        A whole step is moving 2 notes. So, A – B, B – C#. That’s all there is to it.

        I usually only look at the physical application, so its basically move 1 fret or move 2 frets. I’ve been trying to be cognizant of the name of the note I’m moving from and to, which is actually being aided a lot by learning to read, because when reading music, you’re explicitly seeing things like A, A#, or whatever, but in notation. Its absolutely non-ambiguous.

        Because I know basic theory (the structure of the major and minor scale and how to construct basic chords – triads and 7ths) I can somewhat understand some of the theoretical structure that I’m looking at. Basically, is what I’m seeing part of a scale, part of a chord, or chromatic (which just means notes moving in 1/2 steps or semitones, instead of following a scale-derived sequence).

        But, for now, if you want to understand where steps and 1/2 steps are taking you, write out those notes, like a number line and just remember whole step = move 2 spaces and 1/2 step = move one step.


      3. It’s not that I don’t understand it in terms of structure, that’s not really a problem (though as yet it’s information I have no practical application for, so don’t care about that much), but marrying all this theoretical stuff to actual SOUND. That’s where I get hung up. It’s music, so sound is what matters. My ears don’t know why they decided that this is only half a step, instead of a step. My ears don’t know the difference in sound, and until they do, any further depth on theory is meaningless because I can’t apply it to anything, is what I mean.
        It’s a difference of approach. What I need to learn now isn’t ten thousand pounds of theory that I can’t apply to anything. What I need to learn first is the theory that I CAN apply, that I can see in action, that I’m using. That’s going to create a more cohesive learning. All that you said, I mean it’s great information, but I just can’t process it. I have nothing to connect it to yet, and without that connection, my head can’t hold onto it long enough to really get a grip on it.
        We can talk theory all day, but if it’s not helping me with my current stage of learning, then it’s not something I need to know yet. When I need to know it, I’ll understand it, and my eyes won’t glaze over reading it. I’m just not there yet. What I’m working at is getting my brain, my eyes, my hands, and my ears, to all mutually understand concepts. If my brain understands it, but my hands can’t execute it, or if my hands can execute it, but my ears don’t know what they’re hearing, all the book learning in the world isn’t going to do me any good.

        Right now, it’s not about specifically doing this, and then this, in a specific order. That’s just not how I learn best. It’s about exploring, about giving my ears a lot of information to work through, and training them to hear differences – pick out different instruments in a band, be able to tell when a chord change happens, notice when a palm mute or slide is used, etc – not specific ear training (I know what that is. I have an app on my phone that…well, it does a lot of stuff, mostly chord diagrams and such, but also has an ear training thing on it, so I’m familiar with the concept).

        What I mean, essentially, is that until my ears can hear why half steps are different than whole steps, and understand them in a way that has nothing to do with collecting theoretical knowledge, I won’t feel like I’ve got a solid grasp on the theory, no matter how much data is crammed into my brain. If I can’t apply it, it’s useless until I can.

        I have been running through the scales on bass. I haven’t been talking about it on the blog because it’s boring and not really worth wasting a blog post on. Running through the scales, playing around with the notes within the scale to produce different progressions of sound with the same notes – that’s all stuff I’ve been fiddling with. It’s just not giving me any insights interesting enough to post about. Rest assured, just because I’m not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I’m just following the path that lends best to the way I learn, and theory is really only a very small part of how my brain processes information.


      4. Also, memorize the formula for the major scale in terms of steps. Its really easy, because its only 7 steps. Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half. When you’re ready, use the music note number line that you wrote out, put your finger on C and then follow that formula. You’ll be following the formula for the major scale and you’ll move along C major, which has only natural notes – no sharps or flats. You should basically see C-D-E-F-G, etc. When you feel confident that you understand how that moves, try a different starting point, like D. You’ll begin to see sharps added in

        For pure finger stuff, memorize this: 2-4, 1-2-4, 1-3-4. That’s all. What it means is, in a position, assuming 1-finger-per-fret (don’t worry, you can shift, you don’t need to actually hold down 1-finger-per-fret) you can play a major scale over 3 strings by playing from the lowest string to the higher ones.

        Think of your fingers like this: index = 1, middle = 2, ring = 3, pinkie = 4.

        On the E string, pick a fret, put your middle finger on it (that’s finger 2) and that’s the root of your major scale. On the E string, play the notes that fall under fingers 2 and 4 (middle & pinkie).

        Then, go up a string to A and play the notes under fingers 1, 2 and 4 (index, middle & pinkie).

        Finally, go up to the D string and play the notes under fingers 1, 3 and 4 (index, ring & pinkie).

        You’ve just played a major scale in whatever key your middle finger started with on the E string. So, if you played starting from the 5th fret of the E string, you’ve played A major. If you played starting on the 7th fret, it was B major, etc.

        The same thing works if you start on the A string. You just need 3 strings to follow the pattern. There’s a different pattern (an easier one, in my opinion) for the minor scale, but the major is what all of the other scales are based on, so practice that. It’ll help you to understand whole steps and half steps, and then you can move onto ear training.


    2. Just came in from weeding and cutting down thorn bushes that got really integrated with our hedges and gate. Not fun.

      Anyway. Its not actually 10k points of theory that you should start with. The first thing is just the major scale. I’d also do the minor scale, just to get used to the sound. If you want to apply it to music, here’s something that you might find useful:

      Pick a song that you like. Maybe that Flaming Lips one. Listen to how it starts, or to another part of the song that you like, maybe the chorus. Play a note on your bass. Listen to hear if its the same as the starting note for the riff you like. If not, go up or down one fret, depending on if it sounds like the note is higher or lower. Repeat until you find the starting note. That’s call the tonal center.

      Once you have the tonal center, play a major scale or a minor scale starting on that note. That note is the root. See what sounds occur in the riff that you listened to. You can use that – basically finding the tonal center and then the major or minor scale, to figure out how to play a song. It builds ear training at the same time.

      There might be notes that aren’t in the scale included in a riff. Those are called passing tones. They’re chromatic notes, or notes from outside of the scale that connect notes in the scale and add flavor to a riff. Once you’ve identified some of the scalar notes in the riff, if there are others that don’t fit, play the non-scale notes that are between the scale ones to find the passing tones (like if this were C, we’d think C-D-E-F, etc. You could play a C#, D#, or whatever to see if that note was the “connective glue” between two other notes that you’re hearing but aren’t in the scale).

      If you do this consistently, you’ll build you ear – which seems like it might be a good avenue for you, because you seem to be more of a DIY’er than someone who wants to approach from a method. It’ll also get you used to the major and minor scales at the same time, which are the two scales that make up most of Western music. With those 2 scales, you can conquer most of the music that you hear.


      1. Yeah, see, about halfway through that my eyes started to glaze (no offense intended!). Once I grab a general concept, the finer details just become white noise until I’m in the right mental space for them, then they come out of the file, get dusted off and used, but not until then. It’s a difference in learning approach, as you say. I know the tried and true methods are tried and true for a reason, but I view music as more art, less science (though realistically, it’s both), and would quit really, really quickly out of boredom if I had to go from step A to B to C 100% of the time – that’s how I failed to learn guitar twice already. I’m in my 30s, so if the standard method didn’t work when I was 14, or when I was 20, it’s not going to miraculously work now. I need mental activity, and lots of it. Drilling the same thing over and over again without ever veering a little off course is just not sustainable for me. I mean, there are times I do think in that straight of a line, but most of the time I think in zig-zags and spirals. Everything is connected, even when it seems like it’s not, and I have to give myself the freedom of mental movement to form those connections. That means sometimes it’s time for exercises and reading books, and staring at scales for hours on end. And, sometimes it’s time to go ‘I want to play this, and what kind of mental acrobatics are necessary to make that happen right away?’ It doesn’t often make sense to more chronological thinkers, because you’re only seeing the external result of the internal conversation I’m having with myself, and it probably seems even more strange when you’re only seeing those things I deem relevant enough to blog about.
        It’s not like I’m not working on scales – I’ve been running through them, but I haven’t bothered memorizing the names of them. Until I hear them, or check the book, I forget which one is which, and that’s okay for me at this stage. It’s more important to be learning things than it is to learn what things are called. I majored in English Lit in college. I can grammar you to death when I’m in the mood, but 90% of the time, I can’t tell you what a preposition or a past participle is, and it doesn’t matter, because I know how to use them. It seems my approach to music is turning out to be strikingly similar. I am eventually going to have to develop a decent music vocabulary, but right now it’s much more valuable to make information something I can utilize than something I can discuss. The rest will come. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if I veer off onto ‘I need to learn this song right now’ and leave my bookmark in the same page of my study material for a few days. We’re learning music to play songs. So if I want to focus on one song and play it to death until I’ve got it down, and can’t focus on anything except that one driving thing for a little while, and if at other times I’m working on scales here and memorizing notes there, and learning to read music over there, and all over the map just collecting information, then so be it, if that’s where my brain is at at the time. Everything I hear and read gets filed, but when it comes out of the file depends a lot on when I’m in the right mental space for it. So, I am reading the books. I am doing most of the exercises, but I’m also doing more tactile things with more immediately visible results, and I don’t think either strategy is right or wrong, that there’s a time and place for both, and I have to let myself follow whichever seems most important to me at the time. Right now, that’s playing alt-rock on the ukelele, and so be it if that’s the case, because it’s the first time I’m truly making something that sounds and feels like music, and that’s a significant stepping stone that I’m not willing to let go of to worry root notes and half-steps, and technical jargon. I get it, the first note is the note around which the rest of the song forms, but that doesn’t affect whether or not I can play the song I’m working on right now, because I already know the chords, so I already have that information. It doesn’t mean that information isn’t important. Just that it’s not important to me, at this precise moment in time. It’ll get taken out of the mental file and dusted off later when I’m ready for it.


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