The Ukulele: Time for You to Learn
Have you ever played an ukulele? Have you picked one up and strummed your fingers (or fingernails) across its soft nylon strings? Have you heard the surprising rich, distinctive tones of those four silky filaments? If you haven’t, you really, really should. “What,” you say, “I’m no musician!” Guess what? It doesn’t matter.
Yes, the instrument has its share of incredible aficionados, the amazing Jake Shimabukuro leaps to mind, but the ukulele is the “open platform” of stringed instruments: it works pretty darn well in all hands, across all levels of talent (or lack thereof).
Don’t believe me? Head to your local guitar shop, pick one up and slowly strum your fingernails across those strings. Two things will happen:
One, it will sound good. You will be making music, regardless of your skill level. The ukulele’s standard tuning (what it sounds like if you’re not pressing down any strings with your fretboard hand) sounds surprisingly good. Officially, it is the chord “C6,” a variation of the happy (but not too happy) “C “chord. Pressing down one string (just one!) in the right place on the fretboard brings you to a full “C” chord – or variations of “F” if you choose a different spot. One finger on the high (top) string is a variation of an “A” chord. With just one finger, you now have the basis of four different chords, and we all know that rock and roll only uses three (joke, but often true). Obviously, adding more fingers into more complicated chord patterns creates richer and more complex tones and songs – but trust me, you’ll have a blast creating your own songs with those one finger chords.
The second thing that will happen when you strum those strings, is that upon hearing the sound, you will be transported to an Island state-of-mind. The sharp, yet distinctly mellow sound of this instrument has become synonymous with Hawaii. This is especially true for those of you with a love of all things Hawaii (like me). This association is real and earned. Brought by Portuguese immigrant to the islands in the late 1800’s and strongly promoted by King Kalakaua, the ukulele (along with the lap steel guitar) has delighted visitors to Hawaii for years.
In recent history, Hawaiian musicians, from the influential and much-loved Israel "Iz" Kaanoi Kamakawiwo?ole to the lightning-fast fingering of Jake Shimabukuro, to the gentle-as-the-trade-winds ukulele recordings by Daniel Ho and Herb Ohta, Jr., have kept the ukulele in the forefront of popular culture.
Upon returning to our mainland homes, the music becomes a wistful reminder of our time on the Islands. We hear classic songs like “Aloha Oe” (written by Queen Lili’uokalani in 1877) or “Hiilawe” and we find ourselves yearning to be back in Hawaii. The quiet and beautiful Hawaiian melodies become our own evocative, emotional connection to the places we love. Fond memories of sea, winds and friends who await our eventual return. The music calls us back, a warm smile in its voice and melody.
So, are you ready to discover the hidden Hawaiian musician inside? The next time you’re in Hawaii, and a guest of one of Outrigger’s beach hotels, stop in for one of the free-to-guests ukulele lessons taught by Matt Sproat. He will have you strumming, smiling and playing in no time at all. Yes, you…an ukulele player.
Ukulele Speaking Tip: A note to us mainlanders, let go of the common “Yoo-kuh-lay-lee” pronunciation and adopt the original Hawaiian pronunciation “oo-koo-ley-ley.” It’s way oo-kooler…’
Ukulele Buying Note: You can pick up a decent ukulele on the mainland for roughly $100. Like all new hobbies, you should start small (ukulele joke) and then, after months of constant playing (this will happen!), you will probably want to graduate to a Hawaii-made version. It is in Hawaii where you will find the best manufacturers of the instrument, the best of them often constructed from the beautiful and beautifully-toned koa wood.
I often carry my little ukulele with me all around the house, from the couch to the kitchen, inside to outside, entertaining my family (my word, not theirs) with learned or invented melodies. I have played guitar since my teens, but the lightness, the portability, and the sheer joy, of my ukulele means I can easily take it just about anywhere – something that’s trickier, and more dangerous to do with a full-size guitar.