Thinking Of Getting a Child Interested in Guitar and Music? Consider the Ukulele.
Most people know of the Ukulele as a little Hawaiian guitar like instrument that has one foot in the world of music and the other in the world of toys, or at best tourist souvenirs. Tiny Tim and his goofy version of “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” from the late 60s did little to change this impression. The ukulele is thought to be a 19th century Hawaiian adaptation of a Portuguese machete, a small four string guitar-like instrument that made its way to Hawaii in the hands of Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and the Azores in the 1800s.
The instrument was actually quite popular in the United States and taken quite seriously in the earlier part of the 20th century and quite a few famous ukulele players emerged. Here is Roy Smeck from a bygone Hollywood era playing his uke in a one take performance on a movie shoot. Pay close attention to the video at around 1:30, yes, that’s two hand tapping, a technique which will be “invented” by Eddie Van Halen in about 3o years’ time.
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder Has An Entire Ukulele Album
The ukulele seems to have fallen into a bit of obscurity in the latter half of the 20th century with most people thinking of it as little more than a toy or novelty. Thankfully the 21st century has reversed this trend and the ukulele has become more popular than ever before. A whole roster of famous musicians have used the instrument over the past 15 years and a whole generation of younger musicians have become quite popular playing the instrument. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder has an entire Ukulele album, and many “hit” songs from newer artists of the past decade feature the instrument prominently.
Along with popular hit songs the ukulele has also spawned a whole new generation of players who exclusively play the instrument as opposed to guitar players who have realized they already know how to play this instrument, more on that in a moment though.
Here are a couple of gals named Honoka and Azita who play ukulele exclusively and have done much of the heavy lifting on making this instrument seem “cool” again for young people.
And of course if you know anything at all about ukulele there is this fellow named Jake Shimabukuro who is simply amazing.
So why is this article’s title about getting kids into guitar?
As I briefly mentioned above, many ukulele players are guitar players who have come to realize they already know how to play the instrument, which is why going the other direction and beginning on the ukulele is such a great way to get children on their way to becoming guitar players, or just exclusive ukulele players as well.
The ukulele is simply a guitar minus its lowest two strings and capo-ed at the fifth fret. It’s generally tuned to GCEA but like all stringed instruments there is some variation and it can be tuned to whatever the player desires.
When it comes to children the ukulele really is in my opinion one of the best introductions to music generally, and to the guitar specifically.
The instrument traditionally features a 4th string which would be an octave higher than on a capo-ed guitar and this difference is what gives the ukulele it’s traditional sound. This is technically known as re-entrant tuning which is when a higher string breaks the pattern of descending pitches on a stringed instrument. Many people like to change this string for a lower octave string which makes the ukulele even more of a mini guitar. Each string selection has its advantages and disadvantages and I always let students decide for themselves which they like best.
What makes the ukulele so great for younger people is its play-ability. Most students, no matter how young, can learn to play some chords in their very first lesson. The nylon strings make fretting easier than a steel string guitar, and the extra wide spaces between the four strings make playing chords much easier too -without having to deal with a nylon string guitar’s very wide neck. The small body size of the ukulele is also ideal for kids as one of the hardest aspects of learning the guitar is its larger size.
The ukulele’s chords and scale patterns can be transferred right onto a guitar when the time comes verbatim. I’ve watched quite a few students immediately play D major, A minor, and even F in their first few minutes with a full size guitar after playing ukulele for even a short period of time.
Ukuleles come in various sizes soprano, tenor, concert and baritone and good instruments can be had pretty cheaply. The one area you really want to focus on when choosing an instrument however, is the tuners. The easiest place for cost cutting when making a Ukulele is the tuners and substandard tuners mean endless tuning problems – you don’t want that. So make sure whatever you choose has adequate tuners that can keep the instrument in tune when playing.
When it comes to children the ukulele really is in my opinion one of the best introductions to music generally, and to the guitar specifically. It walks the line perfectly between being fun and engaging while at the same time providing a very real musical foundation from which to grow.
Lastly, I have focused on kids in this article but it should be said at least once that I have many adult students who really enjoy playing this instrument as well so in no way should anyone think the ukulele isn’t an appropriate choice for an adult looking to music for either some light fun or in a more serious way.