Ukulele playing: pick or fingers?

Advice & Tips

One question I was asked fairly regularly by ukulele students in the past was:

Which is better for playing ukulele – fingers or pick*?

This blog post will hopefully go some way to explain why both are equally viable options. There – if you came to this article solely for reassurance on your preferred method of playing, I’ve saved you the hassle of reading any further!

[*NB – when I say ‘pick’, I of course mean a plectrum, like those used for guitar playing. If you’re here to learn about the kind if pick you dig holes with, you’re very much in the wrong place!]

If you’re looking for more information on picks, this rather informative article here from liveukulele.com may prove to be of use. But for now, let’s dive into our two options…

Pick (plectrum)

A pick is an easy option to start with, as even the nylon strings if a ukulele (as opposed to the steel strings used on a typical acoustic guitar) can have an effect on your fingers; this is particularly true of your nails and cuticles (the skin directly under your finger nails). You also get a louder, more direct sound when using a regular guitar plectrum, which are generally made of plastic or synthetic materials such as nylon & tortex (fake tortoise shell).

If you’re used to picking & strumming a guitar, you don’t have to make any changes to your right hand style at all. Although the same could be said if you’re primarily a fingerstyle player…

Fingerpicking

If you’re adept at fingerpicking guitar, you’ll be completely at home on the ukulele. In fact, it has two strings less, which should make it easier! I often find myself using my thumb for the G & C strings (the two closest to your face) and only making use of my index and middle finger for the E & A strings respectively.

I’ve also noticed that I perform finger rakes with any finger, and use my thumb in a greater variety of ways. Also, any guitar picking technique, from muting to string slapping & body tapping, all work equally well on a uke. If anything, my ukulele picking technique is more akin to how I play flamenco guitar!

Finally, you may notice that the tone of a fingerpicked uke is less harsh than when plucked with a pick. It’s certainly possible to obtain a greater range of sounds by adjusting which part of your fingers and nails pluck or strike the strings than could be managed with a plectrum.

Is there a middle way?

Well, yes. There are a few alternatives. Firstly, there’s felt plectrums. These are fairly common in ukulele playing and provide three ease of using a pick without the harsher tone. However, they’re less useful for more intricate playing, such as plucking individual strings.

There’s also a type of pick which sits on your fingers, popular in bluegrass styles.

Thumb & finger picks, popular in bluegrass banjo & guitar playing

These thumb & finger picks originated banjo playing, and offer the attack of a plectrum while still using fingerstyle hand & finger movement. Having said that, they do take a bit of getting used to! Many players use only the thumb pick in combination with their fingers. I’d recommend experimenting to see what works best for you.

But which is better?

As always in articles of this nature, I can’t give you a definitive answer, other than telling you my personal preference. For me, I don’t use picks at all in ukulele playing. I prefer the tone & versatility of using my fingers. But that’s just me – I encourage you to try both and see which one feels right for you.

Finally, don’t worry about sounding amazing if you’re new to trying a new playing style. Consider what feels most comfortable, and what has the best potential for you to continue improving in your playing. Let me know how you get on!

Reblog: Ukulele tuning problems

Advice & Tips

Another reblog, this time from early 2016. For some reason, this article has been widely read in Indonesia and the Philippines (according to my stats on WordPress). Either many people route their Internet through these countries, or they have a serious ukulele addiction (or tuning problem)! Either way, hello and thanks for reading – feel free to comment and share these articles!

So you’ve bought your first ukulele & learned a few chords. But now you’ve noticed that it’s gone out of tune. No matter, you have a tuner, you tune up. Done. But after a pretty short time, it’s out of tune again. Why?

I get this query a lot from new ukulele students. Just as they are getting started with their first steps into music-making on this instrument, they become frustrated with it’s apparent lack of tuning stability.

New ukuleles come with new strings, which haven’t been ‘played in’. Just like a new set of strings of a guitar, they need to be ‘stretched’. As ukulele strings are made from nylon, which is a very flexible material, this is even more apparent.

The quickest way to to this is following these basic steps:

  • Tune your ukulele
  • Take a hold of the strings & gently pull them up, away from the fingerboard, repeating across a few different parts of the string (see an example video here)
  • Re-tune the ukulele
  • Repeat steps 2 & 3 until re-tuning is no longer required

Hey presto! problem solved! Your ukulele should now not only remain stable after playing, but also hold it’d tuning better when travelling (though extreme changes in temperature will still cause the strings to expand and contract).

This video is one of many available online to help you better visualize what I mean by stretching the strings. It’s not as difficult as you might think!

(pic courtesy of ukulelemusichawaii.com)

Other things to remain mindful of:

While stretching the strings is by far the most common solution to fixing a consistently out of tune uke, you may still notice occasional tuning issues. Perhaps simple, mostly open chords sound correct, but those with three or four fretted notes, or barre chords, have one or two out of tune strings when played. More perplexing, this can happen when the open strings are still correctly tuned up.

The problem? In this case, it’s intonation.

Provided you have a decent instrument, where the frets are set up and spaced correctly (watch out for the false economy of the bottom range ‘budget models’), then this can easily be fixed by paying close attention to how you fret the notes.

You may find, on new or more interestingly shaped chords, that you are pressing down too hard on certain strings, pushing that note slightly out of tune with the rest of the chord. Some positions might require you to stretch or bend a finger in a way which means it is not sitting behind the fret as per the standard method. This too, can be fixed with a little bit of practice, and a small amount of mindfulness.

Happy Uke-ing!

Warm up & practice recommendations

Advice & Tips

This week, I’ve had the rare luxury of free time. Free time to pick up my guitar whenever I like and play. Not specifically for any particular goal, just to PLAY for the love of playing. It then occurred to me just how little I get to do this. Usually I pick up my guitars to practice or prepare for an upcoming show, or to learn new material. The rest of the time, I’m actually at a gig playing.

Using it as a great opportunity to go over my classical repertoire, I found it almost scary how much my discipline had slipped. Don’t get me wrong, I still play well and in a musically pleasing manner (in my opinion, anyway!) but there are ways of performing on guitar (with classical pieces in particular) which enhances the music and makes playing easier (not to mention lessening any strain and preventing injuries long term).

So this week, I have been delving into my old practice and warm up notes and dug out my old favourite, Pumping Nylon by Scott Tennant. For the classical guitarists out there who do not have this book, I strongly recommend you purchase it as soon as possible.

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This book focuses solely on technique improvement for both hands (including thumb for the right hand). After the initial basics and starters, it progresses into joint techniques (working exercises for both hands together) and demonstrates a closer look into flamenco techniques. These not only go to strengthen your right hand, but to widen your overall playing ability. It also includes specially written study pieces to incorporate all the techniques it has taught.

Around fifteen years ago, I suffered a broken ring finger on my right hand. This has never fully regained it’s original strength (and as a result my days of regular classical guitar recitals are mostly behind me). The exercises in this book went a long way in helping my rebuild the muscle and bring my ability back, something I feared would never happen. Because of this, the right hand techniques and exercises int his book are of particular importance to me.

That’s the basic warm ups covered, but what about actually rehearsal starters? For me, as with many classical guitar players, the studies (or ‘Etudes’) of Francisco Tarrega and Fernando Sor provide plenty of examples for rehearsal focus, especially with right hand technique. It’s absolutely amazing the depth of ground these two teacher-composers (not to mention pioneering players) covered in advancing the technical study of the guitar. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Alongside these, there are also the studies of Mauro Giuliani. Although his concert and recital pieces are widely known (in fact the staple of most player’s repertoire), his studies are often neglected. However, I would definitely suggest investing in a transcription of his complete studies. While not as technique-practice heavy as Sor (who, in contrast, is remembered historically more for his studies than his concert pieces), they present a more musically varying set and some new colour into your practice routine.

My standard practice routine (looking at my old notes from my true classical playing days) went roughly as follows:

  • 5-10 mins warm ups (both hands, featuring exercises from Pumping Nylon and scale practice
  • Selected studies from Sor, Tarrega and Giuliani (2 or 3 from each, focusing on specific improvement areas)
  • Looking at any new pieces to learn; slow play-through; focus on tricky areas; attempt to play through without stopping (I would try not to spend more than 20-25 minutes on this to prevent fatigue or frustration – the piece can be returned to on the next day)
  • A better known piece which also requires mastering. Ideally play-through should be reached far more quickly
  • Another piece (already known) to ‘refresh’ the fingers (ideally this will also be an upcoming concert piece)
  • Free playing – At this point, I could have been rehearsing for up to an hour and a half, so this should be an old favourite or two which you know well, to act as a cool down. Be careful, though, to remain watchful on technique and accuracy, as this is more likely to slip on pieces you are over familiar with.

These, of course, are my tips only. I would however be delighted to hear from other guitarists and their tips/routines for warm-ups and rehearsals. You can contact me via the  contact page on this site, or my social media (see links).

Good luck and happy practicing!