Guest post by Jenny Peters of the Ukulele Sisters
So, you want to learn how to play the ukulele. Great! In this article, I’ll take a close look at 7 popular ways to begin your ukulele journey and explain who each of these methods is best for.
You, the learner, need a book that fits your learning style and background knowledge. You want a book that teaches you the ukulele skills you would like to know, such as singing and strumming chords, fingerpicking melodies, reading ukulele tablature, and/or learning to read standard music notation. You also want to find an approach you will enjoy.
In some ways learning music is like learning a whole new language. You also need to know what skills you must master in order to progress in music such as how to practice. Finally, you have to learn how to tune your instrument and take care of it.
What to Expect
Each author of a “how to play ukulele” book writes with a certain type of beginner in mind: someone with little or no music background, or someone who already plays several instruments and is adding ukulele to their bag of tricks. They might write for someone who reads standard music notation well or for someone who does not. They might even question if a beginning player needs to read music at all!
We will answer the following questions for each book in our beginning ukulele book reviews:
- How does it teach chords?
- How does it teach reading melodies?
- How quickly does the book progress?
- Are there online lessons or a video course? Are there audio tracks?
- Who is this book best suited for?
How Do We Write Down Music in a Beginning Ukulele Book
In order to communicate how a song goes in a book, there needs to be some way of writing down sounds. With fretted instruments such as ukulele and guitar, there are some unique shorthand ways we can write down music:
- Chord stamps (symbols) show where to put our fingers on the ukulele to create the desired chord.
- Standard 5 line music staff to show the rise and fall of the melody. It can take quite a lot of time to master reading the music staff.
- Ukulele tablature is sometimes used instead of or in addition to the standard music staff to show the melody. Tab can be helpful for beginners because it shows you where to put your left-hand fingers on your ukulele in order to play the pitches of the song. Tab is a lot simpler to learn to read than standard music notation. Once you get the idea of it you can improve quickly.
- Standard rhythmic notation to show how fast or slow notes or strums should be in relation to each other.
The 7 Beginning Ukulele Book Reviews
We have ordered the book reviews from easiest to hardest.
- 21 Songs in 6 Days: Learn Ukulele the Easy Way
- Ukulele for All
- Alfred’s Basic Ukulele Method
- Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book 1
- Essential Elements for Ukulele
- Ukulele Primer by Bert Casey
- Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Tips and Tunes
1. 21 Songs in 6 Days: Learn Ukulele the Easy Way
This method is encouraging to the learner. There are online videos to teach the songs and all the concepts presented.
It begins with one-chord songs and simple strumming patterns. The authors delay the changing of chords until students can sing and strum a steady beat at the same time. When two-chord songs are introduced, there are thirteen two-chord songs, so students can really get the hang of the change from F to C7.
The reading of melodies using ukulele tablature is taught alongside the singing and strumming of songs for some of the songs. The chords in this method are C, A Minor, F, C7 and G7.
There are both a musical term and a chord glossary with pictures. Strumming patterns remain simple with only four basic strums covered.
This book is best for someone who is new to playing an instrument, and who does not read music. Its progression is slow and steady. There are online video lessons for each song and for the concepts (including tuning) in the book.
The authors also have a YouTube channel that teaches a lot of the information in the book.
This book starts with singing and strumming each song. Ukulele for All teaches chord stamps by presenting the diagram sideways with a picture of a person’s hand.
The teaching of tab reading is also unique because it shows how the horizontal strings of the ukulele relate to the lines of the tab staff. Students can easily visualize where to put their fingers on the strings of the ukulele. Tab notation is taught alongside the singing of melodies and strumming of chords.
The book starts with one-chord songs and has a chapter for each of three beginning chords (C, A Minor, and F.) Songs that change chords are delayed until the fourth chapter. Students are encouraged to sing rounds to create harmonies within a one chord song.
Strumming patterns are kept simple throughout the book. Finger-picking of accompaniments is presented in Chapter 8. There is also a chapter on the 12-bar blues that encourages students to improvise their own solos over a bass line.
The book comes with proprietary software that includes video lessons for each song and for the concepts (including tuning) presented in the book. The software also includes audio for the songs that can be slowed down for practicing. Students can also record themselves and submit recordings to their teacher.
The book is intended for either classroom use or for private instruction. If a student prefers melodies, the student can work on that. If a student likes to sing and strum chords, the student can work on that, since both versions are presented with each song. There is a Teachers’ Edition of the book available with detailed suggestions on how to work with groups of students at different levels.
Chords presented in this method are C, A Minor, F, C7 and G7.
This book is best for someone who is new to playing an instrument and doesn’t read music. Its progression is slow and steady. It includes video lessons.
Strumming and singing songs is delayed 16 pages until the basic reading of single notes on the tab staff is solid. There is a tab staff underneath the standard musical notation to help you find the melody notes more easily.
The first song with chord changes is “Good Night Ladies.” This song uses two chords F and C7 which is an easy 2 chord pattern. The book progresses slowly and steadily, eventually teaching the student seven chords (C, F, C7, G, D7, and G7.)
Strumming patterns are introduced independently of reading melodies and progress gradually. The strumming patterns remain pretty simple.
This book is best for someone who is new to playing an instrument, and doesn’t read music. Its progression is slow and steady, and it includes both a DVD and online video lessons.
This book by Lil’ Rev is a solid beginning method. It starts with reading tab melodies. When chords are introduced, the student learns C, F, and G7 all at once. There is a little bit of time to learn basic strumming patterns before applying chords to a song, but the first song uses all three chords. From there, new chords are introduced fairly quickly.
Chords taught in this book are: C, F, G7, E Minor, D7, G, Bb, A Minor, B7, D Minor, A7 and A.
Lil’ Rev teaches some really cool strumming techniques, such as tremolo, single roll stroke, finger and thumb strum and the index finger strum. He explains these techniques well with pictures, arrows and counting.
The book is nicely laid out and there is a basic chord glossary at the end. There are no audio or video lessons that I could find, but Lil’ Rev has a website and YouTube channel where he teaches a lot of the strumming techniques he uses in this book.
When I was first learning ukulele I worked through this book. I didn’t have trouble with the left-hand chord changes, but I found the many different strumming patterns difficult. This book might be best for someone with fretted instrument background such as the guitar or mandolin.
Marty Gross does a great job of teaching the ukulele in this book. Students learn to read music well. They learn the following chords: C, G7, F, Am, D7 (Hawaiian style) C7, Bb, Dm, F7, A7, Em, E7 and G#+. There is even a section on movable barre chords!
From my point of view, this book progresses quickly. Students are expected to read standard music notation rather than the tab staff. Also, the first two chord song uses C to G7. G7 is a three finger chord and is hard for a lot of beginning players to master.
The songs in this book are pretty awesome, for example: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, “Octopus’s Garden”, and “La Bamba”. There is an audio CD which is helpful because not all the songs have suggested strumming patterns. There is a strumming chart and a chord glossary at the end of the book.
This book would work well in a private lesson setting or with older students in a small group setting. It would also work well with someone who has played many other instruments before.
6. Ukulele Primer by Bert Casey
Bert Casey does a great job at teaching singing and strumming the ukulele.
He has a unique way of notating the songs by having two staves: one for the melody line and one for the strumming pattern. This is helpful when the strumming patterns get complicated and don’t match up with the rhythm of the melody.
The book comes with a DVD. There is also access to online video lessons.
This book assumes you either know the songs, will watch the videos to learn them or that you can read music. There is no tab for the melodies.
There are many strumming patterns presented and they move sequentially from easier to more complicated. The patterns are easy to read and understand. When the book gets to more complicated patterns, there is a good base upon which to build.
Finally, there is information in the appendix on how the guitar relates to the ukulele, some music theory, a chord library and a strumming pattern library.
This book is probably best for someone who has background on other fretted string instruments such as guitar. The opening material will be difficult if you are a complete ukulele beginner. The strumming patterns will be difficult to coordinate with the songs until you have more experience singing and strumming.
It gets right into playing the songs after only a couple of pages of introductory material. Jim covers a lot of music theory in two pages, which a beginner might not understand depending on their background.
The first song uses the C and G7 chords which can be difficult for many beginners. There is no tab for the songs, so the author assumes you can read music to figure out how the melodies sound. The strumming patterns are shown above the notes
The book progresses through many key signatures and teaches you the following chords: C, G7, Cmaj7, C6, C7, Am, F, G#7, D7, Gdim, Gmaj7, Em7, A7, Edim, Em, etc. Jim gives you the option of leaving chords out by putting them in parentheses. This is helpful because it can be hard to keep the flow of the singing and strumming going with so many chord changes. There are no video lessons.
I was able to learn a lot with this book, but I didn’t become a fluent strummer until I worked with simpler material. This book is probably best for someone with a lot of music background.
I needed to work more with the material Bert Casey and Lil’ Rev teach before I became a fluent player. I knew that my students who are new to music would need a slower and more gradual approach which is why I wrote my books the way I did.
All of these books have their strengths. The best course of action is for you to discover what kind of learner you are. Then choose the book that suits you best after reading our reviews.
Of course I am biased, but if you are a complete music beginner I think your best bet would be to buy one of my books, either 21 Songs in 6 Days: Learn Ukulele the Easy Way or Ukulele for All. Alfred’s Basic Ukulele Method would also work well for you.
In my own musical journey, I have often worked with several books to learn different skills. I hope this article will help find the book or books that work best for you!
Jenny Peters is one part of the Ukulele Sisters team. She stumbled upon the ukulele after finding 45 of them in one of her elementary school classrooms. Convinced she could turn her finding into more than a whole lot of noise, she designed a program to teach all of her students to play successfully with only 30 minutes of class time a week. No one was more grateful than the teacher in the next classroom.
A former private piano teacher in Chicago with a Masters in Piano Performance from the University of Illinois, Jenny now lives in Highland Park. Married with three kids, she shares her home with three cats and more musical instruments than she would care to name.