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Tips for Improving Your Ukulele Playing

The number-one tip, and the only sure-fire way, to improve your ukulele playing is to practice. Put in the hours on your ukulele. To get the most from your practice time, keep yourself motivated, and build your musical chops, use these tips:

  • Play slowly. You may be tempted to practice pieces at full speed and hope that if you play them enough you can smooth out the mistakes. But that’s not how your body learns to play.

    While practicing, you’re building muscle memory. The more your fingers make a certain movement, the better and quicker they can do it in the future. Don’t practice your mistakes: Play slowly enough to get the piece right. When you’ve built up the muscle memory, gradually increase the tempo.

  • Keep a steady tempo. As a beginner, you may be tempted to strum a chord, stop, change chords and then start strumming again. But this approach creates a jerky, unpleasant sound. Instead, try practicing at a tempo slow enough that you can change chords without stopping the flow of music.

  • Record yourself. Your recording of your playing doesn’t have to be great quality, just good enough that you can listen to yourself. Through recordings, you can

    • Keep track of your progress. Forgetting how you used to sound is all too easy, which can mean that you fail to realize the progress you’ve made and become disillusioned.

    • Hear where you can improve. Playing and listening carefully and objectively at the same time is difficult. When you record yourself, you can listen more intently and pick up any weaknesses. Are you speeding up? Are you creating buzzes by misfretting? Are the notes you want to emphasize standing out?

  • Play with and for people. Nothing gets you practicing harder than the threat of public humiliation! When you join a ukulele group, a few pieces are usually given to all the members to learn prior to the next meeting. If you’re at all prone to blowing off practicing, this gives you some accountability as well as a focus and reason for your practice.

    On a friendlier note, ukulele clubs have experienced players who can see when you’re going wrong and offer you tips and guidance. And, of course, people are always around to inspire you with new techniques, ideas, and music.

  • Practice one section at a time. If you can play most of a song perfectly except for one single phrase, practice just that section. Slow down and play the tricky bits over and over until you get them right every time.

  • Know when to stop practicing. You may be tempted to push through the pain in your hands. But if the pain is internal (for example, sore muscles or cramps), you can do permanent damage. If your hand is feeling sore, let it rest. It’ll have more strength and stamina the next time you play.

    If pain in your hand persists, visit your doctor.

  • Steal from everyone. Paul McCartney said that good artists borrow and great artists steal (and he should know, he stole that quote from Picasso!). You can discover a huge amount from watching and imitating ukulele masters.

    Don’t imitate just one person; cast your net as wide as you can. Whatever sort of music you enjoy (even if no uke is used), listen closely and pick out chord progressions or single-note runs that appeal to you. Try to recreate them on the ukulele. The wider the range of influences you can steal from, the more you develop your own style.

  • Play by ear. If you come across a song you want to play, don’t immediately go to the Internet and try to find tabs for it. Have a go at working out the song yourself first.

  • Enjoy yourself! Virtuoso musician and ukulelist Bob Brozman noted that wherever he went in the world, in every language you “play” music, you never “work” music. And that’s true for the ukulele more than most instruments.

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