Debunking 10 common ukulele myths
The more you delve into any topic, the more you realize just how many myths and misconceptions there are. This could do with the sheer volume of information we have today. Anyone can throw something out there on YouTube, social media, and even mainstream TV and it can be treated as fact. Even if it’s not.
This misinformation isn’t always intentional. It could be from antiquated beliefs passed down overtime, even though they’ve been debunked. It could be from opinion treated as fact. It could just be that the person you hear it from is mistaken. It’s OK, it happens to us all.
But before these myths and misconceptions get too far out of hand, let’s tackle a few of them and set the record straight.
Myth: There Is Such A Thing As a ‘Beginner Ukulele’
Right off the bat I want to dispel this big myth. There is no such thing as a “beginner ukulele”. Most of the time when someone calls a ukulele a beginner model, they really mean that it’s cheap.
These are a step away from being toys. They're the $30-50 jobbers. They may be good for your 4 year old niece or nephew, but that’s about where it stops. They’re miserable to play, don’t stay in tune, and if the player is even somewhat serious about playing the ukulele, they’ll need a new one in about 2 months.
Now, an inexpensive ukulele is absolutely worth your time. These are well built ukuleles that don’t cost a lot of money. I’d say anywhere between $100 and even up to $300 is ideal for a beginner.
I would never call these beginner ukuleles though. But I will say they’re excellent for beginners. They’re an easy and cost effective foot in the door. They let you dip your toes in the proverbial water, without a big financial commitment. They’ll last a very, very long time if cared for. They’re a perfect launching point.
Myth: Bigger Ukuleles Are Better Than Smaller Ones
The size of the ukulele has nothing to do with quality, skill level, or age groups. The different sizes are all about tonal options.
In the perfect world you might have several of each kind of ukulele! They all offer different things. If you’re playing in a group with a couple ukuleles, no one should have the same size. It’s good to mix things up tonally. If you’re playing a Soprano, a Tenor could be used by another player to cover more of the lower end of the ukulele’s register.
And likewise, a Baritone ukulele can add more sonic interest no matter what other ukulele sizes are in the band.
Think of the different sizes as different tools. You might need a socket wrench for one thing, and a screwdriver for another. But you still need both. And duct tape for good measure.
Myth: Bigger Ukuleles Are Easier To Play
It is true that if you have really big hands, a Soprano ukulele might be more difficult to play. Difficult, but not impossible.
One thing I always tell people when they start playing an instrument, is that everything is going to feel weird at first. You're using muscles in ways you’ve never had to use them. You're trying to be dexterous is ways you haven’t been before.
With this in mind, fretting any ukulele is going to be a challenge at first. True, if you’re the size of Shaq a Soprano ukulele is going to be a massive challenge. But if you’re of “average” height and size you can play any uke.
Myth: You Can Only Play Hawaiian Music On Ukuleles
Ukuleles are synonymous with the islands. I mean, they were created there after all. (Technically modeled after, or evolved from, other instruments like the Lisbon guitar and Lute, but that’s another article). And it’s hard to think about island music without immediately thinking about the ukulele.
This is the case with a lot of instruments actually. If you see someone playing a banjo or mandolin, you probably think they’re playing Bluegrass. Flutes are classical instruments. Harmonicas are for Blues. A drummer in a tuxedo is probably playing Jazz or Swing.
And looking quite dapper while doing so, Buddy.
Genre sounds and voices are generally formed by a specific instrument or tone. Like Hawaiian music and the ukulele. But it doesn’t mean that other instruments can’t be used in the genre. Or that those traditional instruments can’t be used for something else.
You can go on YouTube right now and search for “ukulele cover” and find that the covers run the gamut. They sound unique for sure, but I wouldn’t classify them as “traditional ukulele music”.
One of my favorite things is seeing people be creative outside of what’s expected. Play The Beatles on your uke, or Eric Clapton. Or throw an overdrive pedal in front of it and play AC/DC.
Myth: Learning To Play The Ukulele Is Easy
I touched on this earlier, but this deserves its own couple of paragraphs. This is closely linked, in my opinion, to the fact that people either don’t view them as real instruments, or view them as toys. Which I guess is kind of the same thing. They may see the size and assume “Well it’s small so it must be easy/a toy/for kids”.
But we know better!
It’s a hard instrument to learn. Any instrument is hard to learn. You have to practice a ton. When you first pick up a ukulele and try to form your first chord, it sounds awful. It feels awful. Everything about it is so unnatural.
But you keep at it. You spend the time to practice. You learn new chords. You put chords together to make songs. You learn new tricks and techniques. But none of your talent just magically appears. It’s due to all of the hard work you put in. It’s anything but easy!
Myth: Koa Ukuleles Sound The Best
I have a confession. I love Koa. I love the way it looks. I love the way it sounds.
BUT, the quality of the wood isn’t any better or worse than a quality piece of Maple, or Mahogany, or Spruce. What makes any wood quality is the age of the tree when it’s harvested, the specific slabs and the way they’re cut, how long they’re aged or kilned, and how they’re treated by the luthiers.
Outside of that, it’s all preference. I do love the way Koa looks and sounds, a lot. But I also love the way Maple looks and sounds. They’ve two different sounds. And since taste is subjective, you might think Mahogany looks and sounds the best.
(This is also another reason why you should experiment with woods. And ideally have several different ukes made of several different woods!)
Myth: Laminate Is Cheap And Doesn’t Sound Good
Laminate is wood. It’s made up of several layers of wood, pressed and bonded together with an adhesive. The big benefit is manipulating the wood to get a beautiful grain on the top. Since it’s such a thin layer, manufacturers can make several tops (or backs and sides) from one piece of wood. This makes the instrument less expensive to manufacture. And in turn, less expensive for the consumer.
Solid wood ukuleles are made up of a single piece for each part of the uke. The top, back, and sides. This requires connections to source the wood, a well developed eye to judge the quality based off raw stockpile, and of course a lot more money.
But that’s not to say that laminate is cheap in quality or sound! You’ve more than likely played several laminate ukuleles if you’ve played more than one. It’s actually pretty common in ukes under $1,000. They sound good too! And you also have the benefit of better durability.
If you take a solid wood ukulele from a humid climate to dry, or hot to cold, it’s going to go through changes. The wood will expand and constrict. Wood likes stability, and it freaks out when it doesn’t get it. Do you notice how some of the doors in your house close differently in Summer rather than in Winter? Same idea.
Laminate is much less likely to change based on environment though. It’s much more stable because of its construction. This is huge for people who travel a lot with their ukes.
As far as the sound quality goes, you tell me. Ukulele builders are quite crafty. I think most people would have a hard time noticing any visual or tonal difference between the two. Keep in mind that any ukulele worth your time is being built by skilled luthiers. So regardless of if it’s solid wood or laminate, it’s still a quality instrument.
Myth: You Should Never Use A Music Stand
I have to admit that I personally am in the no music stand club. I prefer to learn the songs through and through. That way when I get on stage I'm not thinking about the music. I’m just playing it.
But I’ll also admit that there are many instances where it’s not only OK to use music stands, but it’s also better.
Cover bands tend to play really long sets. The sets can be upwards of 4 hours longs. That’s a ton of music to remember. So it’s very common for all musicians to have charts or cheat sheets on a tablet. Whether they’re just using it as a fall back, or need a few reminders, it leads to them playing the songs correctly.
Short notice gigs are another place where music stands become a necessity. I’ve seen people need to learn songs in the span of a week or two. Not covers or popular songs either. Originals from a small local act. It’s hard to rely on knowing the song by ear because you haven’t heard it.
Music stands can also be good for newer players. It’s important to build up confidence playing with other musicians. When you have nerves just from playing around other players, it’s nice to not have to rely on your memory for the songs. If having the charts or music out builds your confidence, then by all means.
And lastly, it’s always better to play the music right rather than without a music stand. If it comes down to it for any reason, grab a music stand. Just try to keep it from being too obvious if you’re on a stage.
Myth: Ukuleles Are Good To Learn Before Guitar
For some reason, people see size as skill. Like the small vs bigger ukulele myth, a lot of people see the ukulele as a stepping stone to learning guitar. There are several huge reasons why that’s not the case.
The first is that it completely undermines the art and craft of playing the ukulele. Learning to play the ukulele isn’t easy. It takes dedication, intentionality, and time. Good teachers and courses make it much easier. But you’re still learning an instrument, and being proficient in any instrument is challenging.
The second is that they’re completely different instruments. Four strings vs six strings. Way different tunings. Very different places in a band (sonically and texturally speaking). Very different uses. Ukuleles have more in common with banjos and mandolins than they do guitars.
Now that would be a great trio, right? Uke, mando, and banjo. If someone’s doing that, please let me know!
Now, it’s not uncommon for ukulele players to play guitar, or vice versa. But that has more to do with both instruments being fretted instruments. A lot of things translate and it’s an easier transition than to a violin for example.
Myth: ‘X’ Ukulele Strings Are The Best
Just like I talked about in the Koa section, taste and preference is 100% subjective. It’s not measurable like volume, build quality, and so on. You can say one brand of strings is a better manufactured quality. To a certain extent this is true. But honestly if you spend more than $5 USD on a pack of strings, they’ll get the job done.
I also want to cover the different materials in this myth too. We know that there are several different types of ukulele strings. Gut, Nylon, Fluorocarbon, and Wound strings are the four most common. They all offer something different. One isn’t inherently better than the others, they're just different.
You can say that new strings are brighter than older strings. And new strings are more stable than older strings. But one player might prefer newer strings (like myself), and another might consider the brightness of new strings too harsh.
Strings, like sizes and woods, are all personal preference.
What myth or misconception was surprising to you? Let us know in the comments. Be sure to send this to all your ukulele playing friends to help bust these myths once and for all.