What is the hardest thing to do on a ukulele?
Most people would say that the hardest thing to do on a ukulele (or any instrument) is play fast. Like really fast. That seems to be the defining factor in how people perceive skill. When you look at players like Jake Shimabukuro, it isn’t his rhythm, melodic sensibilities, and style that stand out right away. It’s how fast he can play.
Whilst speed isn’t the most difficult thing to do on a ukulele, it is a big hurdle for most players. If you think about the dexterity and coordination it takes to even play slowly, it makes sense.
Whether you want to play as fast as possible, or just develop a little more speed, the concepts are the same. Through this article we’ll go over 5 easy tips to help speed up your ukulele playing that you can implement today.
And the good news is anyone can speed up their playing. I’ll give you some good (and perhaps unorthodox) tips for building speed, but first let’s talk about what speed is.
How Do You Speed Up Your Ukulele Playing?
Let’s define speed first. Playing fast doesn’t just mean shredding through songs like the Jake Shimabukuro video showed us. Though that’s absolutely part of it if that’s your jam.
When we’re talking about speeding up our playing, it can mean several other things too. You might just want to play a little faster and more confidently than you can now. Breaking through the barrier to play that one song you love. Playing cleaner as faster tempos.
And even outside of “fast playing” specifically, speed could also mean:
- Quick chord changes
- Fingerpicking proficiency
- Complex strumming rhythms
- More advanced techniques
If you’ll indulge me on a quick jazz reference (I know I know, but hear me out)….
Something jazz musicians do that astonishes me is the frequency of chord changes. Most other styles of music typically change chords every measure or two. However, an advanced technique in jazz is to change chords every beat.
That’s really difficult to do at a quicker tempo with clean changes. If you have your ukulele out you should try this. Just run through 5 or 6 major chords in any order. One per beat at a decent tempo. It’s surprisingly difficult to wrap your mind and your hands around it!
The point is that “speed" can be a lot of things. Aim for the moon if you want to play fast. But keep in mind that proficiency and speed are more than just shredding.
I’m happy to report that no matter where you want to speed up your playing, the idea is the same.
1. Slow Down To Speed Up
I know, this sounds like some philosophical idea from The Matrix (“there is no spoon” indeed). But hear me out.
The best way it’s ever been described to me is like this:
Anything you can do slow, you can do fast.
Think about that. Have you ever heard someone do something really fast, only to watch them struggle when doing it slowly?
For example, a lot of musicians have this challenge specifically with rhythm. They can play in time at an upbeat tempo. But slow it way down and many of them struggle to keep the beat.
There are a number of reasons for this. But it all comes down to control, or in this case the lack of control. Playing the ukulele with speed is the same.
If you can play something on beat, cleanly, and with complete control at a slow tempo, you can speed it up over time. The converse isn’t always the case though.
If you only go for max speed and never learn it slow, you’ll run into a lot of technique issues later. Those technique issues are much harder to work out once they’re built into your muscle memory. Not that I know anything about that...
So what’s the best way to learn something and increase the speed?
2. Practice With A Metronome
The poor, lonesome metronome is probably the most underrated and underappreciated tool we can use as musicians. Many people get one with a starter kit or when they first start taking lessons, only to have them sit in drawers. Longing to be used and appreciated. Hungry, cold, and alone. /end guilt trip
You can buy a metronome in many styles and with many features. Digital metronomes, analog pendulum metronomes, or a metronome app on your smartphone. Take a quick look on your app store, just search for “free metronome”. You’ll be able to find a free one you can use right now (after you finish reading this article of course).
Metronomes are very important to building speed. Not only do they keep your tempo honest, but they track your progress. The latter is incredibly valuable.
Let’s say you’re learning “Here Comes The Sun” by The Beatles (full lesson with tabs found here):
First, learn the song in increments. The best way to do this is to learn one measure, then the next, then put them together. Breaking the song down into manageable chunks will help you learn it quicker, and keep your motivated to learn. That’s going to help for the next part.
Once you can play through the parts you want to work on, you’re ready to bust out that metronome.
Start slow. Use the tap tempo feature on your metronome to see where you’re at now. Let’s say that’s 50bpm (Beats Per Minute). You’ll want to get at least 80% of the way there at that tempo. You want the tempo to be the main challenge, not the part itself.
Then start to move up in increments of 5bpm. Your next step will be 55bpm until you have it relatively down. Then 60bpm, and so on until you’re at your desired speed.
This progression could take a while depending on where you are in your playing, where you’re trying to get, and how much you practice.
Just make sure you’re not sacrificing quality for speed! It’s ok to go back to a slower speed if you need to. If you end your practice session at 70bpm, don’t be surprised if you need to start back at 60bpm the next day when you play the song. Even the pros have to warm up.
Over time you’ll find that you:
1) May not need to warm up for that song or section, or
2) You will start at a faster BPM when you pick up your ukulele
Unless you’re working on something super complicated, a few minutes a day should be enough. Your practice routine doesn’t need to be a 2-hour woodshed session to be effective. But that’s another article.
3. Relax (Your Mind and Body)
OK, raise your hand if any project you’ve ever worked on got better when you were frustrated?
Just as I thought.
And so it is with ukulele. If you’re struggling with something and get frustrated, take a break. Either move on to something else you know, or put your instrument down and do something else for a while.
This mental reset will do wonders. I promise.
It’s also important to relax your body. Seriously. If any part of your arm is tense, you won’t be playing at your best. New things tend to confuse our muscles so we naturally want to tense up. That’s another reason starting slow is so valuable.
Find yourself a good chair to practice in, get comfortable and sit with a good posture. Don’t hunch over. Get comfortable so you don’t get fatigued just by sitting. Then try to loosen up. If you don’t mind looking a little goofy, you can limply hang your arms to the side and wiggle them like they’re spaghetti.
If you’re getting physically tired, take a break! It might feel like you’re slacking, but these breaks will let you play longer, and you’ll be much happier.
(Secret pro tip: If you’re working on something new, play it right before bed. It doesn’t have to sound good or necessarily even be in time. Playing the part right before you go to sleep helps your brain ‘reconcile’ the task. You’ll have a better grasp of the part the next day, which will help you work on the speed part.)
4. Slow And Steady
Another ‘slow’ reference in an article about speed. People don’t go from beginner to amazing overnight. I hope this emphasis is encouraging and relieving to you.
When you first start playing ukulele, it seems that you’re constantly progressing. You’re learning chords, maybe a few scales, you pick up speed along the way. You can start to play songs well. You have all of this momentum and you can’t wait to get home and practice.
But then there comes a point where you start to level off. It seems like you’re not learning as quickly as you were. And you start to get discouraged.
This is completely normal! If you were to graph out your progress of learning any skill, it would look something like this:
There are a lot of reasons for this. The biggest is that you go from knowing nothing, to knowing a lot of things you didn’t know before. Most of that curve would represent the “beginner” stage. With intermediate rounding the curve off, and advanced being that slowly climbing line.
Keep in mind that learning to play the ukulele is a journey. Progress happens over time. Over time with consistency and intentionality. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about here.
The technical side of it isn’t that complicated. It’s more of how you're approaching it and what tools you’re using to develop your skills.
5. Have The Right Tools And Resources
There’s a big sense of what’s called “bootstrapping” these days. Pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. I love the sense of self-starting with this sentiment. But it can easily leave you feeling lost and stunt your progress if you’re not careful.
We are lucky enough to be living in a time where we have easy access to almost anything we want. Online lessons, video lessons, ukulele message boards, and a ton of information to help up improve our playing.
It’s wise to use these tools and resources, no matter where you are in your journey.
So use them, and create a structured practice plan. This should really be an article in itself (#foreshadowing). The basic structure I like to use is:
- Work through warm up exercises
- Play something you know to get you in the groove
- Learn something new
- “Woodshed” something you’re working on
The reason I’m going into all of this is because improvement (and to this article’s point, speed) happen with work and intentionality. When we practice with intentionality, and use the right tools, we set ourselves up for the most success possible.
I know that’s a lot to digest, but when you reduce it down it’s pretty straightforward. Here’s the short version of all of this:
- Slow Down To Speed Up - Always practice something slow until you have it mostly down. Then work on speed.
- Practice With A Metronome - Keep yourself honest with a metronome. Track your progress and celebrate the wins.
- Relax Your Mind And Body - Tension isn’t your friend here. Be mindful of your body tension, and take breaks as you need to.
Slow And Steady - Progress happens over time. Patience is rewarded through diligence.
Have The Right Tools And Resources - Work smart. Practice mindfully. We have a ton of free resources here to keep you on track!
- Don't Forget To Smile (Bonus tip) - You started playing ukulele because you like it. The reward for the time you spend learning the ukulele is being able to play it. And what a beautiful reward that is.
That’s all for today. I hope you found this article helpful! If you did, leave a comment below with the hardest thing you’re working on right now.
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