The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Four: My Ukulele

The ukulele, of course, not being a big thing, either physically or existentially, on the list of things I am thankful for. But not everything has to be big for you to be thankful for it, and my appreciation for the uke is genuine.

Possibly the best way to describe my appreciation for the ukulele is to make another comparison. It’s the 80s, and everyone has themselves a Rubik’s Cube. I had one myself, and I have to say I wasn’t particularly fond of it. On the surface it seems like I would be exactly the right sort of fellow to solve one of those things, and perhaps if I really put in the time to learn how to do it, I could have. But in point of fact I was both too lazy and too impatient, so in the end the way I “solved” my cube was to take it apart and reassemble it with all the colors in the right place. It was the Gordian Knot way of solving it, I would flatter myself by saying.

But! There was another one of those puzzles called the “Pyraminx,” and that one I could solve, no problem at all, probably because it had two fewer sides and was thus correspondingly at the correct level of challenge for someone who was as lazy and impatient as I was. Does this mean that I operated at a lower cognitive level than all those Rubik’s Cube solvers? Oh, probably. But, eh. The Pyraminx was fun for me, the Rubik’s Cube was not. And there it was.

Now: Take the guitar. I have a guitar, and have had one since 1990, and I can operate it at a level that is marginally above incompetent, which means I can strum out chords if I can remember where to place my fingers. But honestly, I’m not good enough to say to people, “yeah, I can play the guitar,” without feeling like a total fraud. Part of this is that I’m lazy and don’t actually put in the time required to get good, but the other part is that  suspect I’m just not at the right level of coordination. I’m bad at chording, which means I sound terrible, which disinclines me to keep at it.

But then there’s the ukulele, which is the Pyraminx to the guitar’s Rubik’s Cube. It has two fewer strings, which means a third fewer things to keep track of, and thus chording is commensurately easier. It’s also smaller, which for me seems to make a pretty big difference. And there’s the fact that as an instrument it’s pretty forgiving. You screw up a chord on a guitar and it sounds like hell. Screw one up on the uke, and it sounds cute and winsome. Basically, it’s the perfect instrument to just mess about with.

And that’s me: A guy messing about. I don’t have any illusions about my musical abilities; they are at best moderate — I can drum pretty well, and my singing voice isn’t horrible as long as I stay in my specific, limited range — and no one’s going to call me up and ask me to replace a musician in the middle of a tour. But I do like to play music, and I find having something to fiddle with is both restful and keeps me from being sucked into the computer 24 hours out of the day. For someone like me, the ukulele just plain works.

This is not to say that there are not people who can rock the uke with serious flair, mind you. It’s a serious instrument in the hands of serious musicians. But you can still enjoy it even if you’re not a serious musician. It scales to accommodate the player, is what I’m saying.

For me, I’ve been enjoying learning to play it and learning songs on it; I actually have a repertoire of songs that I can play without having to have the music in front of me, which has never happened to me before with a stringed instrument. Again, I will never play the uke professionally, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to enjoy playing it for its own sake and for mine. And I do. It’s fun to be connected with music that way. And, yes, I’m thankful for the ukulele for doing that for me.

I’m also thankful for it because the same qualities that make it enjoyable for me also make it enjoyable for Athena, whom I have given her own uke. We’re getting some nice father-daughter time out of it. Which is also something to be thankful for, as any parent knows how easily that parent-child time can get away from you. This helps keep it around. And sets it to music. I like that a lot.

(PS: Related, from Amanda Palmer)

23 thoughts on “The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Four: My Ukulele

  1. Not really. I think I can come up with 24 things to be thankful for, and if I can’t, the problem isn’t that I don’t have a lot of things to be thankful for, it’s that I’m not thinking about it hard enough.

  2. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who disassembled their rubix cubes. (I hear about removing stickers and gripe. that tears the stickers. 1/8th tur on x axis, 1.8th turn on y axis, then turn the z axis till you can pop out a corner piece.

  3. I love your thanksgiving posts, and they’re reminding me to think about the things I’m thankful for. So, thanks!

    BTW, Athena’s shirt is awesome.

  4. When you and Athena record the uke version of Duelling Banjos I have no doubt you’ll put it on YouTube and let us know.

  5. Hey, just wanted to let you know how much I’m enjoying the thanksgiving posts. It’s nice, reading someone who’s genuinely thankful and also not drowning in treacle. Makes a nice change from the occasional Internet vortex of sadness and doom. Also, thanks for the Youtube link! That guy is insane.

  6. Man, you so absolutely just described my own feelings toward my guitar. Which I’m pretty sure is ashamed to even be thought of as “my” guitar, given the fact that after months and months of regular (if not terribly intensive) practice with it, I still totally sucked. So now it’s just sitting there over on the other side of the living room, propped up against the bookcase, staring disdainfully at me. And gathering dust. Sounds like maybe I need to try a ukulele myself.

    And yeah, I also tore apart my Rubik’s cube. I was actually more interested to learn how they managed to put the thing together (and I have to admit I wasn’t expecting that greasy stuff on the inside) than I ever was in solving the dumb thing.

  7. I hope you don’t mind that I copied your “uke thanks” on my FB gratitude post. With all credit and links due. Sulizano

    P.S. Athena is abundantly cool.

  8. John (or anyone else out there who plays the ukulele), aside from having only four strings, what makes the ukulele so easy to play? Is it the finger positions? The strum patterns? The style of music?

    I’ve played the mandolin for about a year, with weekly lessons and at least hour of practice every day. It’s small like a ukulele. It has four notes like a ukulele (although mandolins have eight strings instead of four). In fact, when I play it in public, many people assume it is an odd-shaped ukulele. But despite the similarities, I find the mandolin is really, REALLY challenging to play.

    That seems to be the consensus. None of the musicians I know think the mandolin is easy, especially for a beginner. But I hear repeatedly that the ukulele IS easy, or as you said, “it scales well.” What makes one instrument difficult and the other easy?

  9. My grandmother used to lament the radio. When she was young, everyone sang and no one expected you to be great at it. But she felt that the radio made people feel inferior if they sang because they would never sing as well as the person on the radio. They began to think of singing as an accomplishment of greatness, rather than an activity to enjoy, regardless of your level of ability.

    I’m the same way. I don’t like to do things that I’m not good at in a reasonable amount of time. I fail to enjoy the process because I’m focused on the awfulness of my output and its lack of perceived improvement.

  10. As a guitar player, I found the ukelele easier when tuned to DGBE, or a pitch-shifted alternative – the same as the top four strings of a guitar.

    It meant I could immediately play the thing without the whole “learning a new instrument” hassle, and the things I learned on one transfer trivially to the other.

    “This Charming Man” by the Smiths is fun to play on a uke, as is Purple Haze, and any Libertines tune.

    Also, I point out the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, you may already be aware of them.

  11. This is how I feel about Rock Band. I always wanted to play in a band but am simply not musically inclined. But Rock band lets me live out my fantasy in the safe confines of my living room, with my wife and friends.

  12. Awesome post John! I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m 53. I’ve had a guitar since 1974 and mediocre at best…even with a music degree. I took up the ukulele two years ago and LOVE it!
    I consider myself an ‘evangelist’ of ukulele and sometimes teach lessons on ukulele. One or two hour lessons is usually all it takes to get someone started.
    @Canyon42 – you need to give it a try. Its a blast!
    @Sign Ahead – I believe there are ‘higher expectations’ that go along with playing a mandolin than there are playing the ukulele (ex: many mandolin players play intricate picking patterns and lots of ukulele players simply strum. The ukulele ‘scales well’ because of the following:
    – most players do not use the top string when they are picking out a melody.
    – the 3rd string from the bottom is ‘middle C’. This is the lowest note that you can play unless you switch the top string to one an octave lower. Add to this the fact that the neck is not near as long as that of a guitar AND the result is that the ‘melodic range’ is the same as that of the Recorder (used in many elementary school music programs.
    Hope this helps. It REALLY is easy AND fun!
    Learn more at my ukulele class . com.

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