Why ukulele?

About eight years ago ABC Radio in Hobart interviewed me about Hobart Ukulele Group (HUG). One of the questions asked was “Why ukulele?”. I can’t remember how well…or otherwise (probably otherwise!)…I answered, nor indeed almost anything I said at all, but eight years on I think I have a handle on this question. For me the answer to “Why ukulele?” is JES…Joy, Ease and Sociability.

Joy

George Harrison wrote of the ukulele “it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh”. His use of the double negative is a bit clunky but I hope you get his drift. The ukulele really is a happy little instrument, both in itself and by reputation. The ‘cuteness’ aspect is self evident. Just like kittens and puppies it has the endearing ‘baby’ attributes that nature has ensured we respond well to.  Memories of Tiny Tim in particular and, to a lesser extent maybe, George Formby usually bring light hearted feelings to the fore. It is a rare occurrence when I tell someone that I play ukulele that the response isn’t laughter…or at least, a smile. Whether in mockery or amusement is of little consequence…a moment of happiness has occurred in a world all too often devoid of happiness. I can’t imagine any situation in which the mention of ukulele doesn’t inspire positive response. Maybe ‘Joy’ should be last as it includes both ‘Ease’ and ‘Sociability’ but for the purposes of a better acronym, mmm……

Ease

Pretty much the only things musical (omitting percussion) that are easier to play than the ukulele chords C, Cmaj7, C7, A7 and Am are the ukulele chords C6 and Am7. Seven chords (well six!) that almost anyone can learn to play in around a minute…WOW! I challenge anyone to produce anything musical that’s easier than this. I have a 10 year old friend who likes to ‘hang out’ with me after school about once a week. A few weeks ago she arrived with her school provided, full size acoustic guitar. In response to my “Show me what you can do” she tried, with much difficulty, to show me a couple of chords. Her main problem was actually reaching the strings. Her right hand simply couldn’t get over the body and reach the strings. The chords she had learnt were at the top of the neck and her left hand also couldn’t reach. To show me the chords she had to rest the body of the guitar on the sofa and just use the neck. What the school is thinking giving full sized guitars to primary school children is beyond me…lack of funding I guess…maybe they’ve been gifted. Anyway, within a few minutes I had her playing Jambalaya (C and G7) on the ukulele and she was wrapped…and very pleased with herself! Since then she’s learnt F and we can now play so many songs together. She’s asked her music teacher to introduce ukuleles at school…so fingers crossed! YouTube has many videos of toddlers and small children strumming ukuleles and singing away. Such a delight to watch…and some of them are actually quite good! I have no evidence but I’m sure playing ukulele from an early age must make the transition to guitar (if so desired!) easier as children grow. And it’s not only kids who profit from the ease. Through HUG I’ve met people “of a certain age” who have never played a musical instrument in their comparatively long lives. Within a couple of weeks they’re playing 3-chord songs in C and singing along to their heart’s content. I can’t think of any other instrument that could afford this result. And they’re so easy to transport (ukes not people!). Pop one in a backpack and you wouldn’t know it was there! George Harrison regularly travelled with two ukes so he always had someone to play with. I’ve travelled the world with one of mine and am always amazed at how easy it is to find someone, or some group, to play with. Even more important since being widowed as I now travel alone. As in the case of my 10 year old friend, learning something as fulfilling as a musical instrument so quickly brings a massive amount of enjoyment.

Sociability

I really don’t think I have to say very much about this. The proliferation of community ukulele groups world-wide over the past few years speaks volumes. When I established HUG in 2007 I could only find 8 uke groups in Australia. Eight years later I’m aware of 77 (and there’s probably more!). If not a pandemic, it’s got to be a revolution! There must be tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people around the world coming together on a regular basis to strum ukulele and sing. The idea that one little instrument can bring together and unite so many people in a common purpose is almost mind-blowing. I know of no other instrument that can bring the newest newbie and the most experienced expert, and everyone in between, together to play and sing as one. So many of my friends who, like me, have been widowed in the last few years complain of loneliness. One of the highlights of my week is the enjoyment I get by playing ukulele with such a fabulous group of people that comprise HUG…I always leave on a high. With HUG, my other activities and, of course, my cats I simply don’t have the time to be lonely. George Harrison (again!) wrote “Everybody should have and play a uke…Everyone I know who is into the ukulele is ‘crackers’ so get yourself a few and enjoy yourselves”.

I think it’s worth mentioning Paul Moore’s Ukuleles for Peace under the topic “Why ukulele?”. From their >website – “From Conflict to Coexistence: Creating opportunities for Jewish and Arab children to meet and become involved with one another in their daily lives.” In one video two little girls who are best friends, one Arab one Jewish, talk about their friendship and playing ukulele together. If ukuleles can bring peace and friendship between Arab and Jewish children, and their families and friends, what other reason for ukulele is needed? And to quote Jake Shimabukuro, “If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place”.  Maybe the acronym should be JESP.

As always, comments welcome…click on ‘LEAVE A COMMENT’ above.

smiley-uke…Ginger

Strumming

When people first take up the uke they often ask (and worry) about strumming and so I’m putting down my (and I emphasise my) personal opinions on this topic. Others may feel differently and are welcome to comment with their views.

For me, strumming is the part of music that comes from the soul, heart, or whatever you want to label ‘within’, that is, it’s a heart-, not head-action. The chords, lyrics and melody are head-actions and set by someone else. And aren’t these 3 things enough for any beginner to be grappling with without adding “do I strum up or down on this beat”?

I don’t want my head anywhere near my strumming as, for me, the strum is personal and is what allows me to put me into a piece of music for me. I would hope the strumming of others is what puts them into a piece of music for them. When I’m asked how I strum a particular piece I have no idea…and if I try to analyse I totally lose the plot!

So my advice (for what it’s worth) is to just relax about strumming and try not over think it. Just try to maintain the rhythm. If it’s too fast, strum every 2nd beat (just as Bruce Springsteen’s wife often does on stage…and he’s as proud as Punch of her!). As you progress, I’m sure you’ll find strumming comes quite naturally anyway.

Having said all this, if anyone does want strumming advice, there is a legion of websites with instruction for strumming. I just googled “how to strum a ukulele” which returned “about 454,000 results”. “About 159,000 results” came from the same search at YouTube.

Also, members can practise strumming at home by accessing the practice audio files on our Yahoo website (Files>mp3 Recordings). These are just recordings of us jamming on Monday nights…not too specky but a helpful resource when practising alone.

Like I said…my opinions only. Others are welcome to disagree…or simply ignore…but debate is good! And if you want to debate, click on ‘COMMENTS’ above.

smiley-uke…Ginger