How to Play the Ukulele


With roots in the Portuguese braguinha and Hawaiian origins dating back to the 1870s, the ukulele is an instrument with a history as vibrant and storied as those who play it. First making its way to the islands in the hands of immigrant laborers on sugar plantations, the braguinha was gradually transformed in size, shape, and tuning, becoming the instrument we know today as the ukulele, or the “gift that came here.”

Loved by the Hawaiian royal family, the ukulele was introduced into traditional Hawaiian music—particularly hula—and it has been a staple of Hawaiian musical culture ever since. With only four strings and a uniquely manageable size, the ukulele is the ideal instrument for every occasion. It enjoys a broad musical range, and the small fretboard and re-entrant tuning make it fun to learn and simple to play. Most significantly for those looking for an instrument to learn with few limitations for beginners, it is an easy instrument to find and inexpensive to purchase.

Dive into the magical world of this traditional Hawaiian instrument with Michael Poupko, a professional musician and instructor. Let Michael’s 20-plus years of experience playing and teaching music take you from musical beginner to master of the “uke” in the 24 lessons of How to Play the Ukulele. If you are a stringed instrument novice, Michael’s patient, easy-to-follow approach will have you strumming along in no time. If the ukulele is just the latest in a long line of instruments for you, his deft knowledge of music theory and structure will have you singing his praises to your own uke accompaniment before you know it.

Musical A, B, Cs

Begin your course with a short tutorial in music theory that is designed to ground your relationship to your ukulele with an increasingly rich understanding of the practices and possibilities of music.  As your skills on the ukulele develop, so, too, will your musical knowledge. Throughout the course, Michael explains scales, major and minor chords, chord progressions and formulas, and much more. Most important, he addresses the complex topics in the context of your instrument and your growing experience playing it. By breaking down the fundamentals of music theory into manageable pieces and tying them expertly in with practical context, Michael provides a level of understanding that might otherwise take years to master.

In addition to the basics of music theory, this course begins by teaching you your way around your uke, from a review of the names and purposes of each part to an exploration of the different varieties of ukulele. Learn how to hold, tune, and care for your instrument; use an electronic tuner; and identify your strings by associated note. Although standard music notation is discussed briefly, Michael limits his notation focus on tablature, chord diagrams, and strumming charts—all designed to get you playing quickly and to give you access to the broadest possible range of songs on your ukulele.

Chords, Scales, and Melodies

After you learn the parts of your ukulele and the notes that the open strings make, you are ready to discover chords and chord progressions. Beginning slowly so that even a musical novice can experience almost immediate success, Michael leads you through the first six chords on the ukulele. He practices along with you, providing detailed information about hand shape, pressure, and placement to ensure that your notes ring clear and true. Then, he explains how tablature establishes finger placement on the frets with your left hand and which strings are played with the right.

Once you have the first six chords down, have practiced them until you are comfortable, and have used them in chord progressions to strum out your first few songs, it is time to move into the next section of the course focusing on adding more chords to your repertoire. Here, you will begin scale exercises, expand your understanding of note relationships, and try chord progressions in major and minor scales. With careful attention to your workbook, you will learn to play variations on “Amazing Grace,” “Ode to Joy,” as well as several custom compositions by your instructor. Each piece will support practice as well as enjoyment.

By just the mid-point in this impressive course, you will be playing traditional Hawaiian songs like “Aloha Oe” with increasing facility, and you will also have the needed skills to sight read ukulele tablature and take on some songs of your choice. With your workbook in hand and Michael as your guide, this musical adventure will prove so easy that you can’t help but enjoy yourself every step of the way.

Picking and Strumming

As crucial as chord forms are, they remain only half of the ukulele musical equation. In each lesson throughout the course, Michael teaches you new, increasingly complex approaches, first to strumming and eventually adding in picking patterns to up your game and even take up the melody of your chosen music. Start with strumming in time to a metronome, gradually picking up speed as you become more comfortable and adding in fretted chords as you learn them. Then try new strum patterns, up and down in various combinations, and use these to broaden your song options. Finally, learn the fine art of fingerpicking, allowing you to capture individual notes and carry the melody of the songs you love.

When you know your chords by heart and the progressions start to come quickly to your fingers, Michael explains chord formulas and offers a range of songs for practicing your advancing skills. With alternating strumming and picking, you can revisit songs like “Aloha Oe” to accompany Michael as he plays and master a solo version for yourself.

Rhythm and Blues

From the first lesson, you will enhance your understanding of the role of rhythm in music. Michael uses a metronome to start with a slow, even tempo. Over the course of these lessons, you will gradually increase the speed and complexity of your rhythms. You will learn about time signatures, note and measure length, and even the use of the ukulele as a percussive instrument with deadened strings and creative combinations to make rhythmic sounds without pitch.

If you thought the ukulele was just for Hawaiian music, think again! Learn the 12-bar blues progression, a chord progression applicable to hundreds of songs in the blues tradition. With Michael’s patient and steady instruction, you will learn the 12-bar blues in more than a half dozen keys, both major and minor. Finally, apply the C minor pentatonic scale to these soulful riffs, culminating in the song “Green Blues.” As Michael consistently reminds us, if you need to take time to practice before you return to play along with him, this course format is ideal. Stop the video, take all the time you need, and rejoin Michael when you are ready to continue. As he says, “We have goals, not expectations.”

Practice, Practice, Repeat

One of the best things about taking an instrumental video course is the ability to move at your own pace. Watch and re-watch these carefully crafted videos until you master the material in each, only moving on when you feel ready to try something new. If a particular segment, or entire lessons, seem challenging, you have the time and space you need as a learner to return repeatedly to the video until you master the skills to move on. There is no judgment, only support and encouragement. Each video ends with songs and exercises to practice on your own, using the workbook and your own developing mastery to move you forward and prepare you for the next invigorating musical tutorial.

All Together Now!

Focusing on the journey, having fun, and enjoying the experience of learning will keep you coming back for more instruction. Equally important, Michael’s patient, steady style makes practicing feel effortless. The natural challenges along the way are just part of the joy of learning an instrument. He begins with material accessible to every learner, but with added information and context for those with more musical experience. Every step of the way, Michael builds gently, but surely, on what you have already mastered. Before long, your grasp of the basics of music theory and the intricacies of ukulele proficiency are manifested in songs old and new and in creative compositions and rhythms that express your personal musical “voice.”

Music is not, as he reminds us, the notes on paper. Instead, it is the sound of music, shared from one person to another, filling the air with the magic of connection and song. Join Michael as he helps you find your musical soul and shares with you the skills you need to continue to explore the music of the ukulele for years to come. Take the plunge and begin a musical love affair with this extraordinary instrument—one likely to last a lifetime.

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