Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ask Ukulala Vol. 2: Lurkers and Ukers

Welcome to Ask Ukulala Anything, Volume 2!

A lot has happened over the last few weeks. Ukulala did it's first collaboration with Ukehunt, I put out another few videos, and we got a few new instruments based on the results of the poll over on the right. If we ever figure out how to play and record them, there are even plans (described at the end of this post) for (apparently) a kazoo-heavy song!

Most importantly for this post, there have been a lot of great questions through the new question box over on the left. And some non-questions, and some questions that make me scared to answer them... but I will anyway! and Flora gets in on one too! So off we go, starting with Moollyjane from YouTube:

hello. do you think you could try to learn how to play "the Penalty" by Beirut on a ukulele, and make a how-to video for it? I don't know how, and your videos are really helpful.
Moollyjane, Portland, OR

Ah, Moollyjane, how did you know I love a good flattering? Great name, by the way. Sounds like something an old person would mutter under their breath about some whippersnapper named Jane.

And good call with The Penalty by Beirut. It's a great song and I will be doing a video of it in the not-too-distant future. After doing three Beirut songs, I decided to chill out a bit and do some others so I don't just become the one-band all-Beirut tutorial guy.

I'll send you a note when I eventually put it up.

Thanks for the tutorial and fro teh elephant gun one. I just had a few questions: What type of ukulele do you use a; concert soprano tenor one? Also, on my soprano when I play the C chord it is more of a harsh popping sound than an smooth velvety tone. Any suggestions? Thanks


I use a concert uke, so it's kind of in between. I wish I had more insight into what you are talking about with the different sounds your uke is making. Sopranos have a higher tone, but I also think the method of strumming has a lot to do with the noise you will get.

I suggest keeping your fingers very loose and experimenting with the effect. Also, I find I get completely different sounds depending on the length of my fingernails, with long nails being more harsh. ?
Famous ukulele player

Hmmmm, even with a question mark on the end, that's still not a question. But, I can forgive you, cause it's an awesome video where Joni Mitchell tells Tavis Smiley that her first real instrument was a ukulele.

Highlight: at 1:12, she describes how a teenage Joni went into a store, mouth full of bloody sutures, and bought a ukulele with the $36 she saved after her mom refused to buy her a guitar.


do you have a myspace i can lurk? i think i might be in love...or something.
Roxanne, Los Angeles

Let's not get ahead of ourselves: it's probably not love.


It goes lurking, creeping, stalking, then kissing in a tree and then love. And then marriage, and then a baby in a baby carriage.

Right now, Ukulala does not officially have a Myspace page, since we haven't made any real songs yet. And I (Paz) like to make it somewhat difficult for just anybody to find my personal info online, so my personal myspace probably isn't ever going to be directly linked from Ukulala.

...but... since this is a blog... and since people go to blogs to get "insider track" information.... I guess it does make sense to let a select few in on stuff even if it's still in progress. So yeah, if any of you stalkers and lurkers out there are highly motivated, I've included a link to the current myspace page on a single random letter hidden somewhere in this post
. I think there are some cool photos up and some fun little musical ditties we've worked on.

Someday when we actually have some songs, you motivated few can be all like
"omg! i was totally in on the ground floor, back before Paz and Flora from Ukulala were bigger than God!"

"huh? what the hell is ukulala and why would i care?"

Can you start including more photoshopped pictures of ukuleles in ridiculous situations?

Porkpie, atop the head of a gentleman

Photoshopped!? If you mean this and this from previous posts, I can assure you those are not photoshopped. I own the world's premiere collection of classic ukulele and turn-of-the-century photographs, and I'm sure I will be sharing more of them with the world as time passes.

My collection is... quite extensive. Why, I believe I've even found a photograph of you, based on the name and location you provided:

Good day, sir.

Hello there Thanks for your videos, i love beirut's song and as i am a beginner in ukulele this sis really helpful. Hard, really hard but thanks again. By the way as a beginner i still have problems with the strumming and i am not really sure of where to place my right hand and my strummed finger. I would apreciate a little comment about that or maybe a video. Same thought about the E chord who is for me really too difficult. How can i put my fingers ? Thanks man for your blog, it is really cool.
Aruno, Paris

Mmm delicious flattery, I eats it up. There are a few serious questions in there though.

1) Strumming.
Strumming is not easy. I've been trying to learn ukulele for six months, and before that guitar for over a year, and I have so far to go in my strumming. It takes time, it takes relentless practice, and I would be lying to you if I said I was in a position to give you real advice about technique. I'm basically still a beginner, and I don't really know any advanced strumming techniques (and there are some I'd love to learn).

Having said that, I can tell you what I feel like I've learned so far. In terms of which finger or fingers to use: it doesn't matter. Each way you do it will get a different sound, and it just depends what kind of sound you are going for.

If you use one finger, you'll hear each string a bit separately, and you'll get a softer, more clear sound. If you have long fingernails, it will be sharper and louder. If you use all your fingers at once it will be a more full, louder noise. If you strum slowly you'll hear each note, like a harp. Keep your fingers loose, unless you're trying to play it hard and loud.

The most important thing is to experiment! Try it every way you can think of, and practice it until it actually feels comfortable. At first your fingers will get caught in the strings, and it will feel awkward and clumsy and you'll think 'what the hell!? this sucks and it sounds terrible!'. And it will be true.

But that will pass, after many many hours. Eventually your fingers will glide over the strings at just the right amount of pressure, and if you have been practicing all the different ways you can think of, you'll be able to get some very different, very cool sounds from just changing your strumming technique.

I may do a video about this still, if I can compose these thoughts into something teachable.

2) The E Chord. Ok, you've got a few options for doing the E chord, and yes, it is a pain the ass.

If you ever want to see ALL your options for a chord, check out this awesome tool, and don't forget to change the tuning to C over on the right before you go searching for your chord. Really, I use this site all the time: just click on the same chord multiple times and it will loop through every possible way to play that chord on a ukulele. Very very useful.

The best option, I think, is to put your pointer finger on the second fret, bottom string, then put your ring finger over the fourth fret and let the whole curved joint push down the top three strings, like so:

You gotta push down pretty hard, but at least on the uke you can do 75% of the strings with one finger. It might take a while to get used to, and it won't sound as tight, but it's a lot faster and better than some of your other options (I think).

The other big option, that I use a lot actually, is a retuning of the ukulele. If you tune the entire ukulele on half-note down (so G-C-E-A becomes F#-B-D#-G#), then all your chords are shifted (or "transposed") down by one half-note as well. This may sound a bit advanced, but if you get comfortable with the idea of changing the key with a capo or by retuning, chords will really become demystified to some degree. So if you transpose your ukulele down one half-note, then what was once your F chord (easy) is now your E chord (easy!).

All your other chords are different now too, so the best time to do this trick is when you have a song that has E along with the other chords that creates, like B which is also normally hard. A LOT of blues songs (and Johnny Cash) use E, B, and A, which are a hard combo with normal tuning but become the easier F, C, and A# positions if you tune the uke down a half-note.

If that doesn't make sense and anyone has more questions about that, I can go into more detail in another question.

Who is Flora?

Paz: Take it away, Flora!

You know, I am not sure, but I hear she is a mermaid with Alzheimer's. She plays the ukulele but only on 32nd of every month when the tide is low. So not very often.

She could also be known as Paz's little sister. Hope that answers everything for you.

I am having a really hard time learning how to do the hit down chord in Nantes. any suggestions? Also your videos are great. definitely helping my ukulele skills improve!

First off, thank you for the kind words.

Yes, that "hit" is one part I try to talk a little bit about in my videos but I haven't done anything definitive on yet. It's something that I've worked on now, first on guitar and now on uke, for over a year now.

I think the best way I can describe starting out is to do a fast strum with your index finger pretty hard, then finish the strum by pushing down on the strings (muting them) with your palm. It's a bit difficult to describe, and it's hard to feel comfortable with at first. Your fingers will feel awkward and maybe get caught in the strings a bit, and the hit won't be a clear and distinct noise for a long time. But don't let that discourage you, it will sound awesome eventually!

This might be worth a video on. It's no easy move because it takes a balance of hitting the strings and hitting the body of the ukulele. If you get it right though, it opens up a whole world of extra rhythm with a snare kind of noise, great for rock beats or harder songs.

awesome. i really want to get a ukelele. how much would a decently cheap one be?
JMo93 , US

Ukuleles are one of those instruments you can spend any amount of money on, from $25 on up to thousands.

My plan was to get one that looked and felt good (so I wanted to pick it up), would stay in tune, and had a pleasant tone. Mine was a couple hundred dollars, but you can definitely get them for cheaper. Mine is the concert Hamano H-100C, and Flora's is the Soprano Hamano H-100 (both shown here), mainly because I loved the mahogany look and the sizes and tone when we tried them in the store.

The most important thing is that you like it, for whatever reason. Maybe you like it more if you get a deal at a garage sale for $20, or if it's shaped like a cool triangle, or if it's made of a really nice wood, it doesn't matter why.

Anything to help motivate you to pick it up and play, and if you have to spend a bit more to get one that you really like the look and feel of, I say go for it. It's a one-time investment and if it helps you play more often I guarantee it's worth it.

How did you learn to play the uke and do you play other instruments?
Kate, Detroit

I've never been able to play another instrument. I tried half-heartedly on the piano, but it went terribly and nearly ruined my high school GPA.

I'm still learning how to play the uke, and I have a loooooong way to go. I can't finger-pick, I have trouble with complicated rhythms, I can't switch chords quickly, and I haven't memorized enough chords to switch without thinking about it.

What I've learned I've basically put on this blog and on youtube, but there was a period of time before I got the uke (as I call it, B.U.) when I was trying to learn guitar. I mostly just messed around with strumming on the guitar and tried to get some cool drum-like rhythm out of it.

One of the reasons this site exists is because of the void I found while trying to learn. I thought I would be able to go online and find videos of how to play all the songs I loved, but instead I just found hundreds of billions upon billions of covers--which were fun, but they didn't really help much beyond trying to watch their fingers moving around and trying to discern a pattern from the blur of their strumming hand.

So this site, and my youtube tutorials, are an attempt to fill that void for other people starting out on this fun adventure, like I am.

thank you, brother

Arromblorlete, USA

This is hardly a question, but dammit, brother, I like it! You are welcome.

I had no idea my brother was even interested in the ukulele. Or that he goes by "Arromblorlete" any more.

Hi there. I have no musical talent and have never played an instrument in my life. But lately I've been interested in trying to play the ukulele, and your little blog here has sort of inspired me to just go for it. However, I don't have many (any?) ukulele stores where I live, so I'll probably have to get one online. And I don't know jack about what I should be looking for. So, can you recommend a somewhat inexpensive uke to start with? Thanks,
Sean McDonald, Student

Ah, see, you are exactly who I am hoping to reach with this site, as I mentioned in the answer to Kate's question above. You are like me a few years ago, completely unable to play an instrument and worried I might not have any talent for it. I thought I may have missed the formative years of my musical life and I was doomed to listen to other people play the music I loved while I plucked out off-key cacophony every time I picked something up.

Then I dug in and decided that was NOT my fate. I still have no ear for it, but I made up for it by learning theory and practicing a lot. Some people can HEAR when chords go together (I'm looking at you, little sis), but I can't. Now if someone gives me a key for a song, I know which chords I can play to sound good along with it. My strengths are not music by ear, but that doesn't mean I can't learn how to play the songs I love! And the ukulele is an amazing, versatile, portable tool to help dudes and dudettes like us learn.

As for which ukulele to get, I think I kind of described my theory on that above in answering Jmo93's question. To summarize: the key is finding one you like and one you'll play. Whatever your methodology for deciding is, that's what's most important.

If you like to check out reviews and other such informational forums, there are lots of good resources out there. Here are a few to get started:

Cheap vs. Expensive ukes
Some instrument reviews and discussion here and here and here
Some tips for buying

Also: You took the initiative to include your email address in the question, and I think that was a great idea. As soon as I add this post I'm going to alert you with an email to let you know your question has been answered (or at least, attempted). Thanks to you, I am also going to add a new section in the "Ask Ukulala Anything" where people can put in their email address if they want to be alerted when I put an answer up.

I will NOT use the emails for anything except to let you know the answer is up, they will never show up on this site, and it will still be completely anonymous. It's just for your own personal knowledge, so you don't forget you ever asked a question and never see the answer.....


Well, if you made it reading this far, congratulations! You are one of maybe two people. If you are left wanting more, more, more--like the sick, salivating dogs that you are--then for God's sake send in a question.

In the meantime, keep on ukeing, ukeheads, crackheads, porkpies, alcoholics, people from France, kazoo marketers, and everyone else too drunk to press the back button on your browser!

Peace out!
-and also Flora

1 Comment:

maxidus sex shop said...

Hey, there is really much worthwhile material in this post!