Hum and strum: The nimble ukulele is a trendy favourite

The little instrument has gone from becoming an exotic import to a viral trends all because it’s small, light, inexpensive and so easy to play, that most Uke-players are self-taught.
A Ukulele session by musician Gladson Peter conducted in Mumbai.(UKExperience)
A Ukulele session by musician Gladson Peter conducted in Mumbai.(UKExperience)
Updated on Jan 04, 2020 06:27 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByVanessa Viegas

The ukulele is suddenly everywhere. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has said he plays it in his spare time; so do Neil Armstrong, Tom Hanks, Ryan Gosling, Taylor Swift, Warren Buffett and former British prime minister Tony Blair.  


Two things are driving its popularity: the fact that it’s small, light, inexpensive and easy to move around and maintain (prices start at 1,800); and it’s very easy to learn to play.

So easy, that most uke players are self-taught, and sessions online and offline promise to have you plucking along in as little as 15 minutes.

“The most lovable thing about the ukulele is that its timbre makes it impossible to play a sad song on it,” says Ryan Bangera, academic head at Furtados School of Music. And so it’s turning up at singalongs, talent shows, picnics and beach parties. On airplanes, people are using it to calm in-flight jitters.


* The ukulele — a small, nimble, four-string plucked instrument — has been around for 140 years. It reportedly has roots in Portugal, where it evolved from versions of the machete de braga, a small four-stringed plucked instrument from Madeira.

* It comes in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The soprano is the smallest and most popular, at 20 inches. It also sounds most typical of the ukulele as laypeople know it—trilling and light. It is the one best suited to beginners.

* The concert ukulele is bigger, at 23 inches, with a longer neck and louder, deeper sound.

* Most professionals use the tenor, a 26-inch ukulele that sounds like a guitar.

* The largest, at 30 inches, is the baritone uke. It has the deepest tone and is the least popular because you might as well have a guitar.

Its unique tropical sound makes it sweeter than a banjo, softer than a mandolin and much easier to play than the guitar. “You can really learn to play the ukulele in just two hours,” says Gladson Peter, who conducts workshops in and around Mumbai. With just three simple chords, you can play multiple melodies. Its whispery nylon strings are suited for the soft hands of beginners, making it easy for even kids and seniors to hum and strum with, as well as those who’ve had no background in music at all.


Around the world, ukulele playing is being paired with yoga classes. “Its vibrations are believed to be very calming,” says Peter.

Because people usually sing along as they play, they are taking deeper breaths, adds Laurie Kallevig, a counsellor who runs the Survivor Girl Ukulele Band Project in Kolkata, working with survivors of human trafficking. “It’s a great instrument to boost self-confidence and has psychological benefits,” she says.


You can play most any song on the ukulele, even metal or music with complex chords, because of the instrument’s four strings. “Blues, reggae… it’s all possible,” says Peter. “It’s a small wonder.”


If you’re looking to learn, there are tutorials on YouTube, and self-taught enthusiasts who now conduct online sessions too. Sayali Tank, 27, a vlogger from Nashik, posts a new song tutorial every Wednesday. And on Saturdays, offers tips on how to read chord charts and tabular notations and answers questions from viewers. “Most of the people watching are beginners who’ve never played an instrument,” she says. Her tip if you’re planning to buy a ukulele: Avoid the new plastic models; they can’t produce the bright, trilling sound you get from mahogany or koa wood.


* Store your ukulele in a case and use silica bags or a case humidifier to protect the wood from humidity.

* Never use a damp cloth to clean a ukulele. Instead, drop a little lemon oil on a microfiber cloth and wipe gently.

* If your uke starts to sound out of tune, or if any of the strings breaks, it’s time to restring the instrument.

(Courtesy Sayali Tank)

Vipin Sharma, 31, a musician from Delhi, runs the channel UkeGuide on YouTube. “People would ask Western ukulele players for help with chords in Hindi songs, so I started something for the Indian uke player,” he says. His most watched videos are his 10 song series, where he teaches a person to play 10 songs in less than two hours. “For students who don’t know what instrument they want to play, the uke is the best option,” he says.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2021