7 Popular Ways to Begin Your Ukulele Journey
So, you want to learn how to play the ukulele. Where do you start? How do you get the basics under your belt so you can choose the music you want to play and eventually teach yourself? There are loads of online videos, but maybe a book would be better? Do you need to have an instructor? Can you teach yourself?
If you are wondering about these questions then this ukulele book review is for you. We take a close look at 7 popular ways to begin your ukulele journey. We’ll give you a lot of information about what’s in each book, and explain who each of these methods is best for.
There is a lot to learn in music. In some ways learning music is like learning a language with a whole new alphabet, grammar, vocabulary and sounds. You also need to know what skills you must master in order to progress in music such as how to practice. Finally, you also have to learn how to tune your instrument and take care of it.
What to Expect in a Ukulele Beginner Book
Each author of a “how to play ukulele” book writes with a certain type of beginner in mind. The pace of the book and what comes first depends on the type of beginner the author is imagining. Authors might be writing for a person with little or no music background, or they might imagine a person who already plays several instruments and is adding ukulele to their bag of tricks. They might write their book for someone who reads music well or for someone who does not. They might also question if a beginning player wants to learn to read music or whether this skill is really necessary for a ukulele player.
You, the learner, want to find a book that fits your learning style and background, and teaches you the ukulele skills you would like to know, such as singing and strumming chords, fingerpicking melodies, reading ukulele tablature, and/or standard music notation. You also want to find an approach that you will enjoy with music that you want to play and/or sing.
In this review of popular ukulele methods I’ll describe how various method books approach the best way to learn all of this material.
Learning tends to progress faster if you master one small thing at a time. But even the simplest music contains three main elements, which are
- melody (the tune, what someone would sing)
- harmony (the chords)
- rhythm (the beat)
For the best results, it seems as if the author of a beginning music book would need to decide which of the three to focus on first. However, the choice ends up being pretty straight forward. All music has some sort of rhythm, otherwise, it sounds random. Therefore our hypothetical author needs to cover rhythm first.
In terms of ukulele music, strumming chords cover two elements – harmony and rhythm. Fingerpicking melodies one note at a time also covers two elements – melody and rhythm.
What Criteria Did We Use to Review These 7 Ukulele Beginner Books?
We will answer the following questions for each book:
- How does it teach chords?
- How does it teach reading melodies?
- How quickly does the book progress?
- Are there a lot of pictures that help the learner?
- 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 order to communicate how a song goes in a book, there needs to be some way of writing down sounds.
With that being said, on ukulele and other fretted stringed instruments such as guitar, there are shortcuts that are unique to these instruments. For example, songwriters will often write only lyrics and chord letter symbols to express a song. In fact, John Lennon and Paul McCartney worked this way. They felt that if they could not remember the melody the next day, then it must not have been a very good melody and did not deserve to be a song.
However, most of us are not as talented as they were, so we use a variety of symbols to write down the details of how a song goes:
- Chord stamps (symbols) to show where to put our fingers on the ukulele to create the desired chord.Examples of chord stamps are shown below.
- Standard 5 line music staff to show the rise and fall of the melody. The standard music staff is a widely accepted way of showing pitch in music. It can take quite a lot of time to master.
- 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, and 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.
- Tempo markings to show how fast the song should go. Sometimes the speed of the music is described with a word (“Moderate”) and sometimes it is shown with a number which is called the metronome marking. The metronome marking below is saying there should be 158 beats per minute.
The 7 Popular Methods to Begin Your Ukulele Journey
Each of these books is intended for a different type of ukulele beginner. We have ordered them 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 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 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 (but not all) of the songs. There are visuals that show how the alignment of the ukulele strings relates to the horizontal alignment of the lines on the tab staff.
Chords presented in this method are C, A Minor, F, C7 and G7. 21 Songs in 6 Days: Learn
Ukulele the Easy Way is the first book of a series which includes: Easy Ukulele Songs: Five with Five Chords, 21 Easy
Ukulele Songs for Christmas, 21 MORE Easy Ukulele Songs: Learn Intermediate Ukulele the Easy Way, and 21 Easy Ukulele Folk Songs.
These books teach the chords with both an upright and sideways presentation of the chord symbol. This visualization of the chord stamps is unique to this method.
While the upright presentation is the standard way for showing chord stamps, the sideways presentation is how the strings and fingers look when you are actually holding your ukulele. There is also a picture of a hand making the chord shape for each chord taught.
There is both a musical terms glossary and a chord glossary in each book. 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) presented in the book.
There is also a YouTube channel that teaches a lot of the information in the books.
2. Ukulele For All
This book starts with singing and strumming each song. There are four introductory pages that present how to hold the ukulele, how to put fingers on the strings to make chords, how to strum and how to read tab.
Ukulele for All also teaches chord stamps by presenting the diagram sideways and with a picture of a person’s hand.
The teaching of tab reading is also unique in that it shows how the horizontal strings of the ukulele relate to the lines of the tab staff. Students are easily able to visualize where to put their fingers on the strings of the ukulele.
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.
Tab notation is taught alongside the singing of melodies and strumming of chords. Strumming patterns are kept simple throughout the book. Finger-picking of accompaniments is presented in Chapter 8. Students are also encouraged to sing rounds to create harmonies within a one chord song.
There is also a chapter on the 12-Bar blues where students are encouraged 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 who does not read music. Its progression is slow and steady. It includes video lessons.
3. Alfred’s Basic Ukulele Method
This method book claims to be the most popular standard ukulele method and upon looking through it, I can see why. There are 8 introductory pages showing the parts of the ukulele, how to hold the ukulele, how to strum and how to place your left-hand fingers on the strings to make chords.
Strumming and singing songs is delayed 16 pages until the basic reading of single notes on the tab staff is solid for the student. There is a tab staff underneath the standard musical notation to help you find the melody notes more easily.
The pictures are large and well-spaced. The presentation on tab reading has good visuals.
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 from basic to more complicated. The strumming patterns remain pretty simple.
The book ends with “Over the Rainbow” in a slightly simplified version using the chords that have been taught in this book.
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, and it includes both a DVD and online video lessons.
4. Hal Leonard Ukulele Book 1
This book by Lil’ Rev is a solid beginning ukulele method. It starts with reading tab melodies. When chords are introduced, several pages in, 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.
There are lots of wonderful pictures on how to hold the ukulele and how to strum. 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. He has workshops and YouTube videos and is a great teacher! (I’m planning on learning some of these techniques now that I’ve been playing for many years.)
When I was first learning ukulele I worked through this book. I didn’t have trouble with the left-hand chord changes, but found the many different strumming patterns difficult. This book might be best for someone with fretted instrument background such as the guitar or mandolin.
5. Essential Elements for the Ukulele
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 notes 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, La Bamba, The Rainbow Connection and Marianne. There are audio demonstration tracks on an audio CD, which is probably helpful because not all the songs have suggested strumming patterns printed. 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.
The book comes with an audio CD.
6. Ukulele Primer For Beginners: Book and DVD
Bert Casey does a great job at teaching singing and strumming the ukulele. The book is nicely laid out. There are great pictures showing how to hold your ukulele, how to strum and how to place your left-hand fingers on the strings. He has a unique way of showing the songs by having two staves: one for the melody line and one for the strumming pattern. This is really helpful when the strumming patterns get more complicated and don’t easily 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 will either know the songs, watch the videos to learn them or that you can read music so you can “hear” the songs in your head before you add the strumming pattern. 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. Bert shows the student a lot of muted strums, a technique called “chunking.” His presentation is clear, so it is easy to figure out how to go about learning this technique. In my experience, a student can sound quite polished when they learn these kinds of strumming patterns. I will probably go back and practice all of these and the patterns in Lil’ Rev’s book to add to my own repertoire of strumming techniques.
Finally, there is great 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 is going to be difficult if you are a complete ukulele beginner. The strumming patterns, while cool, are going to be difficult to coordinate with the songs until you have more experience singing and strumming.
The book does come with both a DVD and online videos. The online videos are good with close-ups on the player’s hands so you can see and hear what to do.
7. Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Tips and Tunes
This was the book I used to teach myself the ukulele. It is recommended by Dr. Uke. The book is nicely laid out and is small, so it can easily fit into a ukulele case. It has a folksy feeling.
As with all of Jim Beloff’s materials, it gets right into playing the songs after only a couple of pages of introductory material. He covers a lot of music theory in two pages, which a beginner might or might not understand depending on their background.
The first song uses a C to the G7 chord progression, which can be a difficult one 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. Tab can be helpful for beginners because it shows you where to put your left-hand fingers on your ukulele in order to get the pitch of the song. The strumming patterns are shown above the notes, so it is not too difficult to figure out how to do them.
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. (This book had more chords than any of the others I reviewed.) Jim does give you the option of leaving chords out by putting them in parentheses. This was helpful because I found keeping the flow of the singing, strumming and so many chord changes difficult as a beginner. Also, there are no video lessons.
I was able to learn a lot with this book, but I did not become a fluent strummer until I worked with simpler material. This book is probably best for someone with a lot of music background, but not necessarily fretted string instruments.
I have played piano and violin most of my life, so I found the left-hand coordination and music theory in this book straight-forward. I found the right hand strumming more difficult at first. I play about 10 stringed instruments in my job as an orchestra teacher and I find that the right hand’s job (bowing, strumming, picking) differs more from instrument to instrument than the left hand’s does.
I needed to work more with the kinds of things Bert Casey and Lil’ Rev teach before I became fluent with my ukulele skills. I also knew that my students who are new to instruments generally would need a slower and more gradual approach which is why I wrote my books the way I did.
All of these ukulele books have their strengths. They are all well thought out and sequential. The best course of action for you,t the ukulele beginner, is to discover what kind of learner you are and then use the books that suit you best.
Of course I am biased, but I think if you are a complete beginner with music 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.
If you have experience with guitar, you might prefer one of the more difficult books such as Essential Elements, Bert Casey’s Ukulele Primer, or Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Tips and Tunes.
Here are links to purchase each of the books on Amazon. (full disclosure: I’m paid a small commission when you click these links but it does not affect the price you pay.)
In my own musical journey, I have often worked through several books at once to work on different kinds of skills. I hope that you will be able to find the book or books that work best for you!