New Learn at Home youtube series has begun!

Seeing as many of us are going to be spending a bit more time at home at the moment, we thought we would try and beat the boredom a bit with a new series of short videos with tips to help when learning the ukulele at home. 

The first in the series shows you how to look up a song you’ve been wanting to learn and how to decipher a chord and lyric sheet (as well as some tips on what to do with a chord you don’t know!!).

The first video can be found on our youtube channel here.

We hope to have more activities and songs you can try at home up very soon so don’t forget to subscribe for updates and share so that we can get the word out.

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The Rise of the Ukulele – Why Classical Instruments Have Nothing to Fear…

We all know that ukuleles are great for classroom music lessons and the popularity of the ukulele is certainly at something of a high amongst young people at the moment. However, a teacher recently pointed me to this article in The Guardian from 2018 highlighting some of the threats that classical instrumentalists may be feeling, particularly that stalwart of the primary music classroom: the recorder. Arguments about snobbery aside, here are some reasons we feel ukuleles should be welcomed and encouraged rather than feared:

The Ukulele can be a classical instrument too…

The Guardian article suggests that the reason young people are turning to the ukulele is the ability to play rock and pop tunes. Whilst this is undoubtedly true and a great reason to play ukulele, the ukulele is also capable of playing all sorts of music including classical, folk and jazz. Just because it can play Ed Sheeran covers doesn’t mean that’s all it can do. From my own experience of classical training the best way to really get under the skin of a piece of music is to play it, having seen a whole class of pupils strumming along to the Mozart Horn Concerto was certainly more inspiring than just playing it to them.

Classical instruments don’t just have to play classical music…

Of course we want our students to appreciate as much music as possible, but if your problem is that your students would rather play pop covers then where is the harm in it? A song that they know and love is likely to see a lot more practice than one they’ve never heard of. As their ability and confidence grows then you have the opportunity to start introducing them to whatever great music you can think of.

The Ukulele is a transferable skill…

One of the recorders main selling points is it’s a gateway to other woodwind instruments. Whilst some musicians do remain, most recorder players move off to a wide variety of other instruments. I would guess most see the ukulele as a small guitar and therefore only see it leading in one direction. As we explain here the ukulele is an immensely versatile instrument in its own right. For an orchestra to be worried about people playing string instruments (especially ones with four strings) just seems a bit odd. Once a student has learned to pick melodies on a ukulele, they have already learned some of the integral skills involved in violin, viola, cello and double bass.

The Ukulele is both harmonic and melodic…

Here at The Ukulele School we are huge believers in unleashing the full potential of the ukulele. Watching players like James Hill, Jake Shimabukuro or Tamaine Gardener, the first thing you notice is that they are both strumming chords and playing melodies. Unlike single line melodic instruments this means that students can slowly be introduced to more of the underlying theory that helps them to see how music really works. They can compose, improvise and perform and, with a bit of practice, include harmonic lines, counter-melodies and show an awareness of the underlying chord structure. All this as well as being able to just strum along and sing when they want.

So there we have it: why we think the classical world should be embracing the ukulele. Yes it may mean a few less recorder students but if you can instil a love of music making in your students you’ll quickly find that they are keen to try playing all sorts of different instruments.

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5 Things to Consider When Buying a Class Set of Ukuleles.

If you want any sort of ukulele scheme to take place in your school, you are going to need some instruments to play. There are a vast array of makes, models and types of ukulele to choose from, so where do you start? We’re here to give you a quick guide with some of the things to look out for, and some things not to worry about.

Soprano, Concert of Tenor?

This is probably the easiest decision to make. There are handful of different sizes/types of ukulele, the main three being soprano, concert and tenor (the baritone, and sopranino are a bit more obscure and we certainly would never recommend them).

In schools you would normally find sopranos as these are cheaper, are a good size for children’s hands, easier to store and the most common type of Ukulele anyway.

Concert ukuleles are only slightly larger and have the benefit of a few more frets at the higher end. These probably won’t be of much use to your class but for the teacher could offer a slightly louder sound and larger more comfortable frets. (Not to mention as your teachers become hooked on playing the ukulele they may even appreciate those extra frets.)

Which Brand?

We’re going to steer a little clear of recommending one particular brand, though there are certain brands that have seen a great deal of success in schools. As with anything, you get what you pay for, and what may seem like a great deal may leave you with unusable toys rather than a quality set of instruments.

There are certain things offered by some companies that aren’t by others, here are a few of the things we would look for.

  1. String quality – The strings are what are going to be making your sound. Poor quality strings will sound worse as well as leaving you spending hours of your life trying to keep them in tune. Some companies such as Octopus offer ukuleles with Aquila Nylgut strings which are incredibly popular even amongst professional players.
  2. Build quality – Are there any sharp edges particularly at the frets? Your students are going to struggle if they’re constantly scratching their hands. Watch out for the tuning mechanism: is it screwed on firmly and do the pegs feel particularly hard to turn?
  3. What are other schools using?- You probably wouldn’t buy yourself an instrument without trying it first so see if you can have a go on a few different brands to see which you prefer.

As well as offering useful things, some companies also throw in a whole lot of things you won’t need. Many beginner ukuleles come with books, CDs and chord charts. These are usually not worth it: you’re likely to be using your own (or our) resources so don’t let any of this “case candy” sway your choice.

Machine or friction tuning?

Traditional ukuleles use friction tuners (the ones that stick straight out of the back of the head). Whilst these might suit the purist player, in a classroom setting you’re just going be looking at a whole load of broken and out of tune strings. Machine heads (the geared ones) hold their tuning much better and are far more robust around children.

Plastic Fantastic…

Some companies sell plastic ukuleles. Whilst many plastic ukuleles fall very firmly into the toy category, there are a few of the higher end brands such as Kala/Makala who do sell plastic instruments. The main selling point behind these is their durability and oddly their waterproofing (in case your timetable is squeezed and you need to combine swimming and music?). We personally don’t think the trade off for sound quality is worth it. Many of the plastic instruments have a slightly annoying buzzing tone to the sound. Even if you avoid the buzz, the sound quality is usually poorer than on a wooden instrument.

High end?

Ukuleles are normally considered a cheap instrument. That doesn’t mean that all of them are. The top end brands such as Kamaka and Kanile’a can sell for thousands of pounds. My trusty Ohana is a good quality mid range instrument that has served me well for years. Whilst you would never consider giving the pupils an instrument like that, it is well worth considering using a better quality instrument yourself or at least showing the pupils videos of professional players so that they can see just how good ukuleles can sound. Check out our list of great performance videos to see some very expensive ukes in action.

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E7#, what now !?!

We have all been there, we’re playing a new song and suddenly there is a chord which looks more like a set of coordinates on a map.  The E7#9 chord is an extreme version and really isn’t that common unless you’re a certain Mr Hendrix.  In fact, the E7#9 is often referred to as the Hendrix chord, it’s used on his song Purple Haze. 

Perhaps a more common chord we might see is the Major 7 or minor 7 chord.  The problem is, how do I play these chords if I don’t want to get tangled up in the theory and just don’t know the shape on the ukulele?    

The answer is simple: we don’t play all of the extra bits of the chord so a Cmaj7 chord can be played as a simple C.  An Amin7 chord can be played as a simple Am chord. 

But what, I hear you ask about the Hendrix chord and others like it, D7#11 anyone?

These chords are what we call altered chords, essentially they have extra notes added which are then altered, so raised (#) or lowered (b) so A7b13.   These chords present a unique problem on the ukulele as the previous chords Maj7 and Minor 7 are 4 note chords and so are possible to play on the ukulele.  However, a E7#9 is technically a 5 note chord, fine if you’re a piano player with 10 fingers or a guitarist with 6 strings but not so easy on a ukulele with 4 strings. 

On the ukulele there really is only one solution and that is to simplify the chord.  An E7#9 is just an E7 chord with some garnish added for some extra colour. So if you know an E7 chord play that, if not you can just play the E chord.  This works because at their heart all chords are just triads (three note chords), this means we can boil down all these exotic sounding chords to just the basic chords we can already play.  Doing this does mean we might not get some of the interesting colours but we can still hear the song.  

So how do we play an E7#9 chord on the ukulele? The answer is, you don’t. You boil it down to a simple E7 or an even easier E triad.  In this article I have outlined a way of simplifying these chords. If however you did want to play the ‘proper’ chord you can check out our 10 second chord series on YouTube, which will cover these chords.

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Music in the wider curriculum – How the ukulele is not just for music lessons.

Every so often an article or post appears extolling the virtue of music as a way of making our students more attentive/better listeners/better team players/more intelligent, and whilst many of these are true, music can truly be at its best when it is used as part of the every day fabric of lessons. We want to see music in the wider curriculum as a tool teachers can call upon when teaching just about any subject.

Music and Memory.

Try reciting the alphabet to yourself, think about how you learnt it. Did you, in the back of your brain, sing it to yourself? Whichever tune you used (I’m personally not a fan of using twinkle twinkle as the letters don’t fit properly) you probably learned the alphabet through song. It works for virtually any long sequence. This is because music and memory are very closely linked in our brains. As I was growing up my parents – both clergy, encouraged me to learn the books of the Bible by singing them to the tune of ‘The Ash Grove’ it hasn’t helped me much in adult life (barring the odd pub quiz where it’s amazingly useful) but it is something I can still do many years later just by singing the tune through in my head.

Singing in the classroom

Having established that singing a song is a great way to remember things, it seems obvious that teachers should be using it as quick and simple way of getting children to remember basic facts. Sadly we find ourselves in a situation currently where many non-specialist music teachers find themselves intimidated by the idea of singing in front of the children especially if it is unaccompanied. This is where the ukulele comes in. As a musician I have no personal problem with singing but also having a low bass voice (less familiar in sound to the students) I used to find that there would be giggles the first time I tried singing to pupils. The ukulele has largely changed that as it gives me an instant accompaniment as well as a physical barrier of sorts between me and the pupils. With just a few chords it is possible to play a huge range of songs and even make your own up. If your class is learning ukuleles as well you can get them to play along as well, which takes a huge amount of the attention off the teacher and onto the song itself.

Finding songs.

Youtube is a great resource for finding songs on all sorts of subjects but it still won’t have everything you need and some of the songs may not be of a suitable age bracket for your pupils (either aimed too old or to young). Song books will help in some areas, but here at The Ukulele School we would love to see teachers everywhere happy to make their own up. Try starting out by just using an existing tune to sing a list to – see the alphabet sung to twinkle twinkle. You may need to try a few different melodies before you find one that scans properly but most words will fit to most tunes with a bit of tweaking. As you become more confident you may even start to find yourself writing your own short melodies, they don’t need to be anything professional to work in the classroom as long as it’s catchy, a bit silly might even turn out more memorable. Lyrics don’t have to rhyme but it sometimes helps if they do. Remember, writing lyrics is just poetry so write a short funny rhyme and then try singing it over some C, F and G Major chords. Even better try getting the pupils to compose the songs themselves!

Ukulele Revolution

Here at The Ukulele School we want to see ukuleles being used everywhere, not just in music lessons. Wouldn’t it be great if at any given moment in a lesson the whole class or just a few pupils could grab some ukuleles, and write/sing a song to help them learn or revise? The ukulele is the perfect instrument: small, affordable and great for accompanying singing. Find out how you can join our ukulele revolution and help make our vision a reality here.

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What is a 7 chord and do we need them?

Many tutor books and beginner ukulele courses feature a G7 chord quite early on. Along with C7 they are often among the earliest chords you are encouraged to use but what is a 7 Chord and do we need them?

The difference between G and G7

An ordinary G Major chord (known as a triad) is made up of three notes from the scale. The First note G, the third note B, and the fifth note D. This 1-3-5 system is used for all major chords. A 7 chord – or to give it’s proper name, a dominant 7th chord – adds the 7th note of the scale as well, in this case F.

This 7th note doesn’t harmonise as well with the other notes and creates a slight clash, creating tension in the music. This tension can be resolved by simply returning to the major chord of whatever key you are playing in.

Why are we encouraged to learn it?

G7 is not really all that different to play than G Major, however when it comes to changing chords it can be a lot simpler. The movement of your fingers from F to G7 to C is quite a bit more logical than using a normal G Major.

There is also a cultural reason for using 7 chords. The ukulele originated in Hawaii and 7 chords help to give Hawaiian music its unique traditional sound.

Is there anywhere we shouldn’t use it?

Yes. 7 chords create slight dissonance and tension in your music which needs to resolve. If we are playing in C Major we can resolve from a G7 chord to a C major chord. However if the music we are playing is in the key of G Major we need to resolve onto a G not a G7. A simple rule to follow is that you can always play a major chord where the music tells you to play a 7, but you can’t always do the opposite.

So which is better?

There isn’t really a good answer to this. Here at The Ukulele School we teach G Major first and don’t introduce G7 until quite a bit later. This is simply because we feel that in the long term G Major is the more useful and versatile chord to know. We also want to teach some of the underlying theory that goes with these chords explaining the sound of a major, minor or 7 chord. We find that as part of an overall scheme it makes more sense to teach all major chords to begin with.

Let us know what you think

We know that this is another one of those areas where different ukulele teachers do different things. Let us know what you think…

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Improvisation – Composition in the moment.

Improviation - Composition in the moment

Improvisation is the art of playing music without it having been written down or memorised. In many ways, it is one of the most creative aspects of music as it allows for direct expression through an instrument.

When we think of improvisation, it conjures up the image of a jazz club with a saxophone wailing over a set of complex chords.  Many people have only played music from the written page and seldom need to improvise, this can cause anxiety when they have to, or if they want to incorporate improvisation into their teaching.

You improvise everyday.

We are all excellent improvisers and we do it every day – when speaking.  We think of what we want to say and then we use our system of language to express it.  Within these spoken words are vocabulary, grammatical rules and other language concepts.  What is interesting and where the creativity lies, is that each person has their own unique way of expressing themselves verbally.  Try this experiment; how many ways can you think of to to say that you are hungry or to answer the question ‘where will you be in five years time?’ As you respond to this you are improvising.

Baby steps

Improvisation, just like language, should begin with imitation. We are always asking our students to clap rhythms, or play pitches.  Early improvisation can just be selecting which learnt rhythm to play.  Consider this exercise; students learn three rhythmical patterns, which can be used as an answer to a musical question.  Each student can answer the question using one of the three rhythms.  This simple choice is a valid form of improvisation.

We can now add pitches to these rhythms from a small pool of notes (even 2 notes gives a vast number of variations). This allows each student to play their own unique music.  The next step is to vary these three rhythms. We use a simple three part rule when teaching improvisation.

  • Remove a note – in other words adding a rest.
  • Add a note – eg. making a crotchet into two quavers.
  • Move a note – leave the rhythm as it is, but change the pitch of one note.

This early improvisation is key to building confidence when composing melodies.  Who knows, with enough encouragement, you could have the next John Coltrane in your classroom…

What some more ideas?

Here is a video lesson from us, showing three quick ideas you could use in your own lessons to help teach improvisation.

This is just a short introduction to teaching improvisation, we are working on more in-depth materials on improvisation in the classroom and would love to hear your ideas.

Please feel free to comment below, subscribe and comment on youtube, or join our facebook page or group for further discussion.

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How to tune 30 ukuleles as quickly as possible

So you’ve just bought a lovely new set of ukuleles to use in your classroom… How are you going to get them in tune? How are you going to get them to stay in tune? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered…

They're new, why do they sound so bad?

Ukuleles are usually delivered with the strings loose. This helps to protect the instrument during transit, but it does mean a lot of string winding when you are faced with thirty of them. As the strings are new they still have a certain amount of elasticity to them, they are also likely to slip back through the tuning gears. This means that even with high quality strings you can expect the first string to be back out of tune by the time you have finished the last. Giving each string a little gentle tug away from the ukulele before you start can help a little but you should still expect them to go out of tune very quickly to start with.

It may be time consuming but if you can we strongly suggest tuning the whole set of ukuleles a couple of times before you hand them over to a class.

Do they need tuning every lesson?

In a word, yes! Temperature and humidity changes will affect a ukulele’s tuning. Over time the strings will naturally slip back and de-tune. Then of course there are the pupils. However hard you watch them and no matter how many times you tell them there is always one, who can’t resist fiddling with the tuning pegs!!

How to tune a ukulele:

You may already know how to tune a ukulele, in which case you might want to skip further on. If you don’t, here is a short guide.

We are going to use standard C6 tuning. There are other ways of tuning a ukulele but the vast number of resources you will find (including ours) use C6 so its probably the best place to start. C6 tuning looks like this:

If you want to remember it easily, just think: Goats Can Eat Anything.

Using a Tuner:

There are three main types of tuner, lets go through them quickly:

Clip on Tuner

These cheap and simple tuners clip on to the top of your ukulele. Using sensors within the tuner they can work out what note your ukulele is playing. Because they don’t rely on conventional microphones these tuners are great for use in a noisy classroom as they won’t be put off by background noise. Usually a simple display will show you which note you are closest to and if you need to tighten or loosen the string. (Make sure you have it set to ukulele or chromatic, otherwise it won’t display the right notes.) 

Regular Microphone based tuner

This type uses a microphone (sometimes there is an input if your ukulele has a built in pickup) to listen and analyse the sound of your ukulele. They are more likely to be confused by background noise, but they will work well in a quiet environment.


Smartphones and tablets can easily be adapted into a tuner using apps. These just use your device’s own microphone. Apps can be incredibly accurate as well as having several other useful features such as playing the desired pitch out loud or built in metronomes. As with any other type of app these are available for free but you will only get the more advanced features from paid versions.

But tuning all those ukuleles takes ages, right?

Not nessecarily, here are a few tips to help speed things up:

1. You don’t need a tuner for every ukulele.

If you have one ukulele in tune and a fairly good ear you can use your first ukulele as a reference for all of the others.

2.  Get them out of the cases.

I find that by far the most time consuming bit of the tuning process is getting all of the ukuleles out of the cases first, if you can store your ukuleles on hooks or on shelving out of the cases you have already saved yourself a huge amount of time.

3. Use your pupils.

Tuning a ukulele is not that easy. Depending on the age of your pupils you may be able to train a few of them to tune the set for you. With younger pupils you can at least set them tasks such as taking them out of cases.

4. Don’t worry if they’re not all perfect.

When in a real rush I usually give all thirty ukuleles a quick strum just to find the worst. If they sound close enough then they won’t get tuned every lesson. As long as you sort out those with a string really out of tune, over time you should be able to keep the whole set within reasonable limits.

You'll be thankful you put the effort in.

A whole class of ukuleles can sound great really quickly, with our whole year course your pupils will be playing both melodies and chords within the first lesson. If your ukuleles are in tune then you’re on to a winner.

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5 must watch ukulele videos for your music lessons.

A good music lesson should always try to focus on learning through playing music, but we shouldn’t ignore the importance of listening to music as well. The national curriculum in England states that pupils should:

“appreciate and understand a wide range of high-quality live and recorded music drawn from different traditions and from great composers and musicians”

Department for Education -Music programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2 National curriculum in England -2013 Reference: DFE-00175-2013

With streaming services and youtube we are now spoilt for choice when it comes to high quality music and top quality orchestral and band music is just a click away. Listening to music is about more than just passive listening though. By showing young people performances of the instrument that they are about to learn you have a unique opportunity to inspire them and get them actively discussing music. You may even find that some of them spontaneously start practicing at home! So here is a selection of our favourites both to use in your class and enjoy yourself. We have even included a few discussion questions you could try…

∗Please note The Ukulele School is not responsible for 3rd party video content.

James Hill and Anne Janelle - Ode to a frozen boot

An original bluegrass style composition by James Hill (Ukulele) and Anne Janelle(Cello).

Useful for: lessons on tempo, fast playing/picking

Discussion Questions:

– How does this make you feel as you listen to it?

-It is called “Ode to a frozen boot”. Can you think of reasons why?

-Does this music feel like it could be associated with a particular country?

-James Hill is playing extremely fast can you see any special techniques he may be using to help him play so fast?

Taimane Gardner - Water

An original composition by Taimane Gardner.

Useful for: composition,  developing imagination, dynamics.

Dicussion Questions:

-This piece is called “Water”. What watery images does this piece of music bring to mind?

-Can you hear a story being told by this music?

– How does Taimane Gardner use dynamics to help her tell this story?

This video forms part of a set with “Fire”try having a listen to that as well.

Kalei Gamiao - Funky Tango

Funky Tango performed by Kalei Gamiao.

Useful for: Extended techniques (slides/string bends/musted strumming) World Music, Soloing.

Discussion Questions:

-This piece blends two style of music together. Where do you think tango music comes from?

-The music is described as funky. What do you think this means?

-Can you think of setting where this piece of music could be used, e.g. TV or film?

Langley Ukulele Ensemble - Flight of the bumblebee (music starts at 0.44)

Flight of the bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov performed for ukulele by the Langley Ukulele Ensemble.

Useful for: fast playing, ensemble playing. 

Discussion Questions:

-This music describes a bumblebee flying around. What is it in the music that makes you think of a bumblebee?

-This is one of the most performed pieces of music in the world and has been arranged for hundreds of different instruments. What instruments might work well playing this music?

-If this music was used on TV or film, what do you think might be happening on screen?

Jake Shimabukuro - Galloping Seahorses

Galloping Seahorses, an original composition by Jake Shimabukuro.

Useful for: jazz, improvising, different time signatures.

Discussion Questions:

-Listen closely to the beginning of the piece, it doesn’t have a strong 4 beat feel. Can you work out how many beats there are in a bar?

-This piece features lots of improvisation. Can you work out which parts of the music are composed and which are being improvised?

-This piece is called Galloping Seahorses, is there anything about the music that suggests galloping?

Bonus extra - The Ukulele School/Adam Cowburn - Soldiers Joy

Soldiers Joy a traditional tune arranged for Ukulele.

Useful for: folk music, melody and backing.

Discussion Questions:

– This is a piece of folk music, how old do you think this tune might be?

-The piece is called “Soldiers Joy what about the music makes it feel joyful?

-Would this piece feel different if it was played slower or faster?

Here at The Ukulele School, we are constantly adding new performance videos to our youtube channel as well as other great free resources. Whilst you are there why not subscribe to keep up to date with new content?

Obviously this is just a small selection of the videos available, there are a few good places to go to help you find useful ukulele videos. Hi Sessions (both the Taimane Gardner and The Kalei Gamiao videos) is a Hawaiian specialist music channel that frequently features top ukulele performers. Every two weeks present a list of their favourite new ukulele videos. Whilst these five videos are perfectly safe, it is worth being careful,  as many performance videos are aimed at an adult audience so may be inappropriate for children. Always watch videos carefully yourself first.

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Why the ukulele is so much more than a toy guitar.

It might look like a little guitar, but there is so much more to the ukulele; it is an instrument in it’s own right and here’s why…

Uke, I am your father…

We’ve stolen this line off a t-shirt but it’s actually a bit of a misconception to think that the ukulele developed from the acoustic guitar. In reality the ukulele is descended from the Portuguese Machete, a similar looking four stringed instrument which was brought to Hawaii by sailors in the 19th Century. Over time ukulele makers have borrowed features from the guitar, but they’re more like distant cousins really.

It doesn’t have as many strings…

No it doesn’t and even worse they’re not in the right order. The ukulele has re-entrant tuning, where the strings aren’t in pitch order. This quirky tuning is a feature it shares with the five string banjo and makes the ukulele perfectly suited to several banjo style playing techniques and, as a result, great for folk music. Check out our own Adam playing a banjo style tune here…

As for having only four strings, the violin, viola, cello and double bass have four strings each and it doesn’t make them any less of an instrument.

It’s easier?

To be honest we mostly hear this one from people who can strum a few chords on the guitar. Unsurprisingly, these same people find it reasonably easy to strum a few chords on the ukulele. We do find though that new learners struggle with all the same issues you find on any other instrument from changing chord shape quickly enough to playing with the correct technique. Here at The Ukulele School we have been careful when writing our complete course to ensure that we introduce new ideas at a steady pace with enough exercises and pieces to consolidate new learning before moving on.

It’s smaller…

Okay so you’ve got us here. Of course it’s smaller but that’s all part of its charm, portability, easier storage and it’s own unique sound, what’s not to love?

IMG_3426 22

It can’t play everything the guitar can…

The guitar has a wider range meaning it can play both higher and lower notes. The lack of bass notes is particularly noticeable to guitarists picking up a ukulele for the first time. However compared to a double bass, a violin is lacking in bass notes it just means that they sound great when you play them together. The ukulele is a sociable instrument; put it with other instruments or voice or even just more ukuleles and you have great playing experience.

It’s fun…

The ukulele hasn’t always been the most serious of instruments (yes, we mean George Formby) but fun isn’t a bad thing and it is versatile enough to play anything from Mozart to Miley Cyrus.

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