George Harrison said, ” Everybody should have and play a uke, it’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh”.
Absolutely. My kids and I own a lot of guitars, but we have recently developed a passion for ukuleles, because you can’t help but smile when you play one.
Most people presume that because the ukulele only has four strings, it must be easier to learn to play than the guitar. But beware, the little uke has hidden depth and complexity. There are three essentials you should know before you buy one.
The ukulele comes in four standard sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The size affects both volume and tone. The soprano is the smallest and most common, followed by the concert which is slightly larger and fuller in tone. The tenor is larger again and can come in 4 and 6-string varieties. The baritone is the largest of the standard sizes and resembles a mini guitar.
You can also find sopranino and bass ukuleles at the extreme ends of the size spectrum, but these are less common.
Not only do ukuleles come in different sizes, but they can also be tuned differently. The common tuning for the soprano is G,C,E,A. The G-string is tuned an octive higher than expected – so the sequence is high, lower, higher, higher, similar in sequence to a banjo, and unlike a guitar which runs from low through to high. This type of ukulele tuning is known as reentrant tuning.
The concert uke is tuned like the soprano G,C,E,A, but some players prefer to string their instrument with a thicker G-string in sequence an octave lower.
The tenor offers even more variation. It can be tuned G,C,E,A with either a high or low G, or D,G,B,E. However, for the tenor the D,G,B,E sequence is normally reentrant – high, low, higher, higher.
The Baritone is normally tuned D,G,B,E – low to high. This follows the tuning of the last four strings on a guitar. No reentrant tuning for the baritone.
The tuners on a ukulele tend to come in two flavours: geared or friction. The image below shows both types. Friction tuners stick out of the back of the headstock while geared tuners protrude from the sides.
Friction tuners are considered more traditional but can be difficult to use. The slightest twist of the tuner makes a significant difference to the tension of the string. Hence, you must have a delicate touch to tune correctly. The screw at the end of the tuning peg allows you to adjust the level of friction in the tuner. They often need tightening to stop the tuner turning by itself under the tension of the string.
Geared tuners are significantly easier to use than friction tuners. The gear ratio means that a complete revolution of the peg may result in only a minor tightening of the string. The 1 to 1 ratio of the friction peg makes tuning much more difficult.
A new type of tuner has emerged – the peghead – which is a fusion of both the friction and geared tuner. Pegheads look like friction tuners but have a gearing inside them.
Treat yourself. Learn to play the ukulele. It’s a lot of fun.