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The ukulele is smaller, the strings are made of nylon and there are 4 strings instead of 6--but is it actually an easier instrument to play? Or is that a myth?
The ukulele is easier to play than guitar due to its comparatively lower string complexity and its ease of pushing down the strings. The tenor ukulele is much smaller than a guitar and is easier to hold, as well.
But, the story doesn’t end there. There are some difficulties particular to the ukulele that are stumbling blocks for anyone trying to learn it. You may find that the difficulties are frustrating--so before you switch from guitar to ukulele, you should take a peak at the rest of this article.
Reasons Why Ukulele Is Easier Than the Guitar
I’m going to go over all the reasons why the ukulele is easier than the guitar. There may be things that surprise you that you haven’t thought about. I’d make sure and also stick around for the next section where I talk about why the Ukulele can be tricky to play in comparison.
Less Strings = Less Complex
All three major types of ukulele, soprano (smallest), tenor, and baritone (largest), only have 4 strings. A standard electric or acoustic guitar has 6 strings.
This is one of the more obvious differences between the guitar and the ukulele--but does less strings always mean its easier? Violin players would probably argue this point (since they have less strings).
Comparing apples to apples, though. If you are trying to play the open C chord on the guitar you have to hold down three strings.
I’ll show you what that looks like on the guitar:
The green squares in this picture show the places where your fingers would have to put pressure on the strings to make a chord. In this case, you would use your ring finger on the bottom left green square, your middle finger on the square in the middle, and then your pointer finger on the top left green square in the picture.
Now for the ukulele, the C Chord looks like this:
For the same chord you have only have to push down one string as opposed to 3. Many of the open chords on the ukulele are like this--much simpler to play than their acoustic/electric guitar cousins.
Less strings means less strings you have to play. To be fair, most guitar chords you are pressing 4 or less strings, but with the guitar there are 6 strings, and so that means you are pressing some strings down and not pressing others, so there is definitely more complexity, there. The ukulele is simpler to play than an acoustic or electric guitar.
One really fun part of the ukulele is that the strings are not steel-string, but are often nylon or some other variant of string that is soft-to-play.
These soft strings gives the ukulele its mellow feel, removing some of the treble (higher pitched overtones) that the steel-string guitar has.
One huge benefit is that it makes it much easier to press the strings down on a ukulele than on a steel-string guitar.
The thing is that your fingers do get used to playing a steel-string guitar, but it means that beginners have to struggle with painful fingers for a long time before they can enjoy the guitar, but with ukulele they can play very quickly.
Does that meant the beginner won’t feel any pain from playing? No, actually, you are still pushing a small diameter string into your finger pads, which is painful if your fingers aren’t accustomed to it. But in comparison to the steel-string guitar, the ukulele has easier to play strings.
It’s worth noting that classical guitars also use nylon strings. In my post here I talk about whether classical guitars are easier to play than acoustic steel-string or electric guitars, check it out here if you want to consider the classical guitar (you might be surprised to see the results).
Thinner Neck, Thinner Frets
This isn’t often talked about, but one reason why the ukulele is easier to play than the guitar is that the neck of the guitar (the long skinny end where you fret the strings) is wider than a ukulele’s neck. Furthermore, the ukulele’s frets are much thinner than the frets of a guitar.
Well, one of the biggest roadblocks for a new guitarist is being able to stretch their fingers across the fretboard to press down all the strings necessary for a particular chord.
Hand cramps are a real problem for beginner and even intermediate guitar players because it can be super hard to stretch your hand horizontally and vertically at the same time to reach all the strings.
The ukulele is much nicer and gentler to play in this respect, because the ukulele’s neck is thinner and the frets are thinner, your fingers don’t have to stretch nearly as far.
Is It Easier To Hold the Ukulele?
The answer is yes and no. See the next section where I talk about how a smaller ukulele isn’t always easier to hold.
Here, though, I’ll direct my discussion to the tenor ukulele (the medium-sized ukulele).
Full-sized guitars are fairly large and sometimes heavy instruments, the tenor ukulele wins a lot of points here because it fits within the crook (the elbow region) of your arm opposite the fretting hand. This gives you a good grip on the ukulele where you don’t feel like you are going to drop it.
Playing the guitar for a long period of time can be uncomfortable (especially with bad posture), especially if you aren’t used to it. Your right arm is (if you are playing a right-handed guitar) gripping the guitar, and I’ve experienced a loss of circulation after extended playing (probably due to bad posture, to be honest).
With the tenor ukulele, the uke is so light that it just nestles in the crook of your right arm so you can comfortably play for hours. I’d say this is a significant reason why the tenor ukulele is easier to play.
This is especially important for smaller people such as children. The ukulele is small enough to be held comfortably by a child for long periods of time.
It’s worth mentioning there are guitars that are quarter-sized, and half-sized which are made to overcome this difficulty.
Reasons Why the Ukulele Can Be Difficult
Now the above section gives the impression that the ukulele is a complete cakewalk to play. And when you are just starting out, the type of music that is out there for beginners is very easy and simple to play.
However, playing the ukulele is not without its challenges. In fact, there are some things that are more difficult (in my opinion) than playing the guitar (at least for a beginner).
Bottom String Confusion
The first thing that I think makes the ukulele more tricky to learn is the fact that the bottom string is not the lowest-pitched string on soprano and tenor ukuleles.
In fact, the second-to-bottom string is the lowest-pitched string!
This isn’t a big deal, the chords and tablatures are all accommodated for the ukulele’s funky string arrangement, and you’ll get used to it, quickly.
However, for a beginner, this is a bit strange. When learning the piano, or the guitar, all the notes are arranged from lowest-pitch to highest pitch. It’s a bit of a curve-ball to throw at the beginner musician that can take some getting used to. This is especially true for a beginner guitarist trying to pick up the ukulele--their first reaction will be…what?
So, it’s not hard to overcome, just a little strange and not immediately intuitive, especially if the learner is coming from guitar.
Now, if you’re learning to play the guitar, you will have to come to grips with barre chords. (ba doom psh… wow… look at what I did there). But it turns out you have to as well with the ukulele.
First question, what is a barre chord? A barre chord is simply when you have to use one finger to depress multiple strings. For example, on the ukulele, this is the chord of D:
If you notice, the green square is covering the bottom 3 frets--you have to use a single finger to SKIP the top string, and cover the rest of the strings with enough force to allow the string to play.
You can crowd three fingers in to play D, but what’s interesting about the ukulele is that the frets and neck are thinner--it is actually easier to get a decent sound if you barre these chords rather than crowd your fingers in. On a guitar, for a similar chord shape (A), the beginner can crowd three fingers in no problem since there is more space to do so.
This means that several basic chords on the ukulele, such as D, E, B, Cm and many more will (practically) require a barre chord.
What’s very fortunate is that the basic barre chords are way easier on a ukulele than a guitar. But, for a beginner, it’s a tricky technique that requires practice and getting used to.
Is There Such a Thing As Too Small?
Now, one of the things I mentioned that makes ukulele easier to play than guitar is the size of the instrument.
It turns out that it can also make it harder to play.
It’s for this reason I sold my soprano ukulele to a roommate. I enjoyed playing, but was constantly frustrated because the instrument was so small it kept on slipping from my hands, and I wasn’t able to fret the instrument.
This was frustrating! I loved the sound of the ukulele, but as an adult, I wasn’t able to play the soprano ukulele comfortably.
I bought a tenor ukulele--the Luna mahogany series (off of Amazon), and it fixed my problem, instantly. I am able to comfortably hold the ukulele and it was big enough to not constantly be slipping from my grip.
Depending on the stature of the player, you may find that the ukulele is not an easy size to play. For children, a soprano ukulele may work just fine. Of course, any adult can learn to hold the soprano ukulele properly (I just never figured it out), but it’s something to keep in mind.
Is Ukulele Easy for Guitar Players?
The ukulele is very similar in concept to the guitar--more similar than to bass (even though they have the same amount of strings).
Does that mean it’s easier for a guitar player to learn the ukulele than someone who has never played guitar?
From personal experience, I will say absolutely yes. There are many skills that are shared that make the journey easier--however there are some differences that make the transition tricky for guitarists as well.
I’ll list what’s similar to give you an idea of what skills cross over.
Guitar and ukulele players do the following:
- Pluck the strings individually by simultaneously pressing down a single string on the fret board with one hand and pulling that same individual string with the other using their hands or a plectrum (pick)
- Strum multiple strings together by simultaneously pressing down on multiple strings in specific patterns with one hand and then brushing against those strings with the other.
- Hammer-ons are done by instead of plucking a string to play it with the right hand (or the left hand for a left-handed guitar or ukulele), to instead play the string by quickly pressing down on an already vibrating string--this allows the string to continue playing and creates a smoother transition between notes (legato).
- Pull-offs are done by simultaneously removing the fret hand from a string with enough downward or upward force to pluck the string at the same time.
- Tuning the instrument is accomplished by twisting pegs on the headstock which tighten or loosen the strings
- Barre chords are accomplished by pressing down multiple strings with one finger. Barre chords often involve fretting additional strings with the other fingers of the same hand--more advanced barre chords involve curving the finger to skip some strings and barre others.
TL;DR There are a lot of playing skills that cross over from ukulele to guitar. However, there are still many differences.
- Chord shapes are different: This is especially true of soprano and tenor ukuleles as their tunings are completely different than what you are used to on the guitar. Because of this, all of the chords you learned on guitar will have to be relearned on the ukulele.
- Bottom string is not the lowest note: As I mentioned before, guitar notes are sequential from lowest pitch to highest pitch from the bottom of the guitar to the top. Soprano and tenor ukuleles’ lowest-pitched string is the second from the bottom. This is a tricky thing to get over because a guitar player is accustomed to specific note patterns and intervals and this breaks that pattern up.
There are subtle differences as well, such as the weight and shape of the instrument that take practice to overcome. It’s like riding a bicycle and riding a motorcycle – while some skills transfer over quickly and easily, some skills will have to be learned from the ground up.
Is Ukulele The Easiest Instrument?
You might be here as an aspiring ukulele player, or you may be searching on behalf of your child. If you’re like many people you may be wondering, is ukulele the easiest instrument?
I’ve read many articles saying that ukulele is one of the easiest instruments to play.
I personally only agree in part. It completely depends on your music goals. The ukulele is easier than guitar in many respects for the reasons I listed at the top of the article, but many of the skills necessary to excel at the ukulele are actually complex!
Why Ukulele Is Not the Easiest Instrument To Learn Music
The arrangement of notes on a ukulele is not immediately obvious to a beginner. Is one string higher than another? How can you know which note a particular fret is?
If you’re trying to learn music theory and musical notation, the easiest instrument to learn these concepts is piano. The piano has its notes arranged sequentially from highest note to lowest note. With a few stickers you can even make it obvious which note is which. The patterns are completely consistent from key to key--while the ukulele has patterns of notes that are a bit more complex from string to string.
To make it really clear why I say that learning notes is more difficult with the ukulele than the piano, I’ll say that the ukulele has two playing dimensions--horizontally along the fretboard will raise or lower the string note by a half step per fret, but then you can also go up and down in pitch by going from string to string, vertically.
So, if your goal is to learn music and music theory, then the ukulele is not the easiest instrument to learn these.
Why Ukulele Is One Of the Easiest Instruments to Learn Songs
If, however, the goal is to learn how to play songs, then ukulele is definitely a strong contender for the easiest instrument.
The reason for this is that songs can be approximated by playing chords. In other words, rather than learning the solos and dozens of necessary to learn a song like Sweet Home Alabama, you can just play the chords, and you can get by with only playing 3 different chords.
If someone sings along, you have the song without having to learn all the notes!
The ukulele is perfect for this, but it’s not the only instrument that is easy to learn songs with.
When the Ukulele Is Not Easy At All
This is true for virtually all instruments. Learning the basics of any instrument takes time and effort, some more than others, but there comes a point where learning advanced techniques and skills requires hundreds of hours of practice before achieving mastery of the instrument.
I remember watching this video 6 years ago on YouTube--it is a comparison of 9 tenor ukuleles (I was contemplating the Luna ukulele) and I was blown away with the beauty of the instrument--the player in this video is really good. The level of practice required for this kind of performance is not measured in days, but most likely years.
Ukulele is a fantastic real instrument that can be a primary instrument and can stand on its own. Just know that to take it to these levels will require long periods of time to practice.
Other Easy Instruments To Learn Songs
I’ll list a couple of other instruments that can be categorized as easy to learn songs.
- The Guitar: The guitar has many of the same concepts as the ukulele, and both of them can be learned in such a way so you don’t have to play difficult chords or learn sheet music. If you approach guitar (and ukulele) from this perspective, they are both relatively easy instruments
- The Tin Whistle: The tin whistle is designed for only playing 7 notes (as opposed to all 12 with the recorder), you can only play one note at a time, and there is no special mouth shape required to get started (you just blow through the instrument). Read more here if you’re interested in learning more about if the tin whistle is easy or not to play.
Lastly, I’ll mention that the piano is actually a very instrument to play if you just want to play songs. Typically the piano is regarded as a difficult instrument and we think of those genius high school kids who can play difficult and complex pieces. However, there are two ways to learn the piano.
You can learn the notes and music theory as is traditional
You can learn chords and focus on playing songs.
I started a piano course called piano4all that focuses on learning chords--I found that it was way easier to pick up than the piano lessons I took when I was younger. I documented what I learned in just a month of time in my video, here:
Is It Better To Learn Ukulele First and Then Guitar?
You might be here because you’re wondering if the ukulele is a good instrument to transition to the guitar, one day.
As I mention in this section, there are lots of skills that transfer between the ukulele and the guitar. In my opinion, I think the transition between guitar to ukulele would be easier than from ukulele to guitar, but there are certainly some skills you can learn on the ukulele that will transfer to the guitar.
If you’re worried about whether the ukulele is a serious enough instrument for extended playing, or whether your heart is totally set on learning guitar, I recommend to just go with the guitar. The ukulele is easier to play, but the best preparation for playing guitar is to play guitar itself. The guitar is an incredibly flexible instrument and you can start with very simple concepts and move on from there.
Guitar is often considered a difficult instrument to learn, and beginners are often frustrated by the painfulness of pressing down the strings. I talk about this as well as what type of strings to choose to make it less painful--check out my article here on that subject.
Should I Get a Guitar or a Ukulele For My Child?
This is a great question.
You have two options: Getting a quarter-size/half-size guitar, or getting a ukulele.
The smaller body makes it easier to hold and play for a child, and that’s super important for the success of a child’s interest. If it’s too challenging, you risk spending money on something they’ll never use.
Ukulele is slightly less complicated, though, as it only has 4 strings, and many chord shapes are simple. For all the reasons I mentioned in the top of this article, the ukulele is overall, easier than the guitar to play.
Every child is different, but if you’re basing the decision on which instrument is easiest to pick up and play than I’d say that ukulele is a better choice for a child than a guitar. Unless your child has a serious interest in guitar.
Lastly, one aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is price. Ukuleles, especially soprano ukuleles are really inexpensive. Small guitars can be inexpensive (anywhere from $50 to $150), but you can get a decent quality ukulele for under $100.