First Step – Let’s look at the types and variety of ukuleles. There are four basic sizes of ukulele but the variety of types within those sizes are almost endless. The numerous variations include the basic acoustic ukulele, the acoustic-electric that can be played by itself or through an amplifier, and the solid-body electric that must be played through an amplifier. There are different shapes from pineapples to those that mimic the shape and details of their bigger cousins the electric guitar such as the fender telecaster or Gibson Les Paul. Whether it’s a Guitarlele, Banjolele, Resonator, Bass and U-Bass, Super Tenor, or Sopranissimo they are all part of the ukulele family.
Choosing your ukulele – Perhaps you have access to a ukulele or you’re thinking of trying out the ukulele in a store. Let’s consider how to fit the ukulele to you. Pick up the ukulele. Ukuleles can be adapted for right- or left-handed players! I’m right-handed so I’m going to explain from that perspective. The neck, the long skinny part with bars going perpendicular to the strings goes to the left side and your left hand will cradle the ukulele neck between your thumb and finger. With your right reach around the body so that your forearm is pressing lightly across the body of the ukulele. You want to gently press the ukulele against your chest with the left-hand cradling and balancing the ukulele and the fingers are free to press the strings. Your right hand should be just past the soundhole over the strings where the neck and body are joined. You’ll be using your left hand to press the strings down one at a time or in combinations, while your right hand plucks individual strings or strums multiple strings to play chords.
This is where size matters! There are three aspects to sizing a ukulele – thickness, overall length, and neck width.
Body Thickness, the distance from the back of the body to the front, is not the first consideration when choosing a ukulele. It makes a difference for some people and I mention it first because I want to ward off any frustration. I originally had difficulty reaching around the body of a full-sized ukulele because of the body depth. Some ukuleles are deeper than others and fortunately, some are thinner. The thin-bodied ukuleles are also referred to as travel ukuleles and often only half to one-third the depth of a thicker ukulele. Some people are unable to hold the ukulele against their chest and there are many types of straps to help hold the ukulele up.
Length – is the second aspect to consider. The modern ‘ukulele has four basic sizes based on overall length.
The four basic sizes are soprano, the smallest, which are approximately 21 inches in length. The soprano is the size most people associate with the ukulele. The slightly larger concert size is approximately 23 inches long. The even larger tenor size comes in at about 26 inches in length. And the even larger 30-inch baritone is the largest of the four basic sizes. Smaller people may feel more comfortable with a soprano or concert-sized ukulele or maybe they prefer the baritone’s size and they already play guitar. The tenor, concert, and soprano share the same reentrant tuning and fingering positions. The baritone strings share tuning and fingering positions with the guitar. That said, the baritone size may also be tuned so that it matches the other three. You’ll need the baritone restrung with different strings, but you can adapt the ukulele to your needs. The point is that you can fit the ukulele to you.
The neck’s width is the next consideration. The neck is measured at the point farthest up the neck where they start going down the neck. You’ll find a thin bar as the strings angle down the neck towards the body. This is called the nut. The wider the strings are at the nut, the wider the space for your fingers. The neck width tends to widen as you go up in size. Be careful though, I have three tenor ukuleles from the same ukulele company. One is a thin-bodied tenor ukulele, and the neck width is fairly narrow. The second is a regular-sized tenor ukulele, and the neck is the same width. The third however is an elite model that is substantially wider. It may not sound like much, but your fingers can feel the difference.
Let’s talk about what I call “Ukulele Therapy” and its’ many benefits.
I think it best if we begin with the physical act of playing the ukulele. Playing the ukulele can be done standing or on a stool or a chair, including a wheelchair. You want your core muscles to keep you upright with good posture or the best you can manage. I have an extremely bad balance problem due to a traumatic brain injury and stroke. I’ve only managed to pull off standing on two occasions. Both times I needed a little assistance holding the instrument. If you’re at risk of falling there’s no shame in sitting. If you’re in a wheelchair, you’ll find the armrests problematic. Most wheelchair armrests can be lowered or swing aside. However, the armrests may also come in handy for holding the ukulele up. The point of good posture is that you engage the core muscles while playing and hopefully improving your posture all the time. So you are already benefitting just by holding the ukulele and working some of the larger muscles but let’s be honest, the benefit may be marginal for you.
The benefits are about to become expand exponentially as you start playing. First, as the ukulele is strummed up and down you will find the ukulele may be strummed in an endless number of patterns and numerous implements including your thumb. When strumming, start with your forearm. The motions are easier and larger than using only your wrist and hand. Using your arm prevents your wrist from getting tired and overextended. There are many ways to strum and fingerpick or pluck the strings. Many players start off using their thumb and that’s okay. You may find that limiting later and it isn’t terribly difficult to use different fingers. You also use a pick in spite of what the purists say. A felt or leather pick works best because the ukulele’s strings are soft. There is even a special leather pick, called the Honu Pick, for people with carpal tunnel, arthritis, stroke, or other disability affecting the hand. It’s made from a long oval leather piece that is folded the long way and bonded together. Resembling a three-and-a-half-inch leather banana it’s very easy to hold and mimics the sound obtained from fingers. Let’s not forget your other hand as you use your fingers to press down the strings you do two things. You are exercising your arms, wrists, hands, and fingers to the delight of the occupational therapist, you’re also coordinating your movement while you work on fine motor skills.
Let’s address the cognitive benefits. These include learning and recall. You have to remember where each finger is placed, the individual notes and chords (multiple notes played simultaneously and their order in the music. You will improve your ability to communicate, especially if you sing while playing. If you’re afraid to sing for yourself. My one-year-old granddaughter is my biggest fan. So singing with intent will be a benefit to your speech.
The ukulele can be an asset for mental health. Playing the ukulele is an exercise in mindfulness. Playing requires you to focus on the task at hand. To play is to be in the moment. Mindfulness is proven to reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. Social skills improve as we can participate in groups virtually or in person. As Jake Shimabukuro says, “Everyone in the group can participate, even if you can only play percussion on the top of your ukulele.”
Starting the ukulele isn’t hard or expensive. You can shop online for new or used instruments. Perhaps you could visit a local store and try out different sizes and types. There are exceptionally good lessons on YouTube, Google, and in books. Ukuleles may owe much to the islands but they’re a serious instrument nowadays. Just listen to some of the current ukulele artists like Jake Shimabukuro, Taimane Gardner, James Hill, or pop-star Billie Eilish.