Level Up Your Uke Game NOW!

I wonder how many of us have learnt a couple of chords on the ukulele, bought a bunch of music books, strummed along to your favourite YouTube channels… but still feel stuck in your practice. If that’s how you feel right now, you’re not alone! A few readers reached out recently, asking pretty much the same thing: What do you do when you’ve reached a certain point and felt stagnant? What’s the next step in the learning process? How do you improve and be a better player? These are very good questions so I decided to dedicate this post to talk about the 3 things you can do in your personal journey to advance your uke skills!

It was two decades ago when I fell in love with the ukulele, and in my experience (probably also yours) it’s by far the most satisfying musical instrument to play. The humble 4 string instrument with Hawaiian roots is not rigid and intimidating like the violin or cello; far sweeter sounding than the erhu (my long-suffering neighbours would attest to that); more portable than the piano or keyboards; fun and casual like the guitar, but so much easier to play. That last point is especially true if you’ve small hands, short fingers, an old wrist injury, or suffer from arthritis. Since the ukulele is relatively easy to pick up, most folks are self taught. But how many of us use other patterns besides the classic island strum (D DU UDU)? Do you know why certain chords go well together? What about different styles of playing? We invest plenty in our beloved instrument (plural for those with UAS), so why not do the same for your personal development?

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Yours truly with the Okami brothers from KoAloha Ukulele and uke loving friends

These days, it’s a lot easier with tutorials on YouTube but you’re probably already aware that there are plenty of YouTubers who aren’t experts. All too often, these folks simply want to be YouTube famous or are merely using their channel to seek donations via Patreon. The last thing you want is to pick up wrong techniques and waste precious time and effort. So the first key in unlocking self mastery is finding the right teacher to lead you to the right (structured) path. This seems painfully obvious, but I sure wished I did this from the start. Granted, I can’t transform into a virtuoso like Feng E or Jake Shimabukuro but on hindsight, if I did that the moment I got my first uke, I’d be a more accomplished player today.

So now with the whole world in quarantine because of Covid-19, instead of staying home and complacently strumming along to random stuff on YouTube, here’s some food for thought: the word ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin word ‘amare’, which means to love. To do things for the love of it. So why not reignite your passion if you’ve reached a stalemate?

Currently, I’m really enjoying the course I’m doing at Uke Like the Pros. The online lessons are led by American musician/ singer/ songwriter/ instructor, Terry Carter. Here’s a quick clip of the knowledgable pro, who has the coolest hair and an infectious passion for music, discussing some of the most common mistakes ukulele players make and how we can fix them.

Having just completed the ULTP Music Theory Workshop, I’m happy to report that it was throughly worth the investment! Much was covered, with Terry starting the ball rolling with foundational basics like sight reading, music notation, fret board GPS, etc. before delving into major scale formulas. Terry patiently showed how major scales are used to create melodies, to improvise, to solo over, and it’s one of those things you need to know to be a better uke player because oftentimes we play patterns (e.g. do-re-mi) but we don’t actually know what notes we’re playing.

In the span of two hours, we also covered chord construction (major, minor, augmented, diminished), touched on triads, why major chords sound happy while minor chords are sad and augmented chords sound dreamy and diminished chords mysterious, and how to construct them accordingly. My favourite part was how to transpose music, i.e. playing anything in any key! And once I understood the formula, the fascinating world of music opened up to me. I gained confidence on how to play up and down the ukulele neck, like various ways of playing the C major chord (not just 0003). 

It’s obvious that Terry is a seasoned music instructor with years of teaching experience under his belt. His lessons are packed with information and nicely paced so you don’t get lost. He features diagrams and illustrations for context, and his worksheets make me feel like I’m taking a zoom workshop in a classroom setting. With full control and autonomy to check out the lessons at your own pace and schedule, learning on the ULTP platform is a breeze. The professional teaching interface is clean and sleek looking (use the free App if you prefer learning on your phone), intuitive and easy to use (I like how it automatically marks the chapter as completed once you’re done), and all accompanying files (PDFs, MP4s, etc) are easily accessible for download.

Now if finding the right teacher is the first step, what is the next thing?

Answer: Learn to play the Blues! That’s right… Learning the Blues will make us better musicians, better ukulele players. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you already got this insightful piece of advice from a shrewd music teacher or an enlightened musician friend. A solid foundation and a keen understanding of the Blues (credited as the root source of various genres of modern music like rock and roll, pop, etc) is one of the most important things you can do for your musicianship and playing. You will see and hear markable growth in your playing. It will transform the way you play and understand music.

The ULTP Ukulele Blues Mastery course came out a few weeks ago, and I cannot recommend it enough. Besides the awesome content, a particular highlight I appreciate is the backing tracks provided. They’re so much nicer than a metronome, in helping you keep time and rhythm when playing. It makes practise more enjoyable and fun. I found Terry’s lessons (in addition to the edited videos, he has ‘live’ online Q&As from time to time) to be far more engaging than instructional books I’ve studied on the subject. I’ve collected plenty of reference material over the years (all very highly recommended publications) but I wonder if there are others like me, who get lost somewhere within the pages either because we got bored or confused. Or maybe somewhere in between LOL

So in contrast, Terry’s style of teaching really works for me. It’s evident that much thought and careful consideration went into his planning of the course. Creating a good balance between challenging and fun is really important since most of us (okay, maybe it’s just me) have a rather short attention span these days. Here’s a little teaser of Terry explaining why the Blues is important if you want to step up your game, along with a quick tutorial of a nifty 12 bar Blues rift you can play on your uke.

The learning process is made much easier when you enjoy the experience, and with ULTP, I believe anyone can master the Blues. With due diligence, you’ll be playing an awesome improv solo in no time. What you learn becomes a great compliment to your daily practise, beyond playing music you strum along to on YouTube. So having said that, my final bit of advice on how to level up your uke game is this…

If you can play Jazz, you can play ANYTHING!

It’s true that jazz is a complex art form but once you’ve got it down, the world is your oyster. Christopher Davis-Shannon (quite possibly one of the most famous modern day Jazz ukulele artists) recently teamed up with ULTP to offer a specialised Jazz Swing Mastery ukulele course.

Bringing together influence ranging from Fats Waller to Chet Baker, Christopher Davis-Shannon’s unique brand of music is known to create an atmosphere that transports you back to jazz clubs and speakeasies of the early 20th century. The multi-instrumentalist/ songwriter/ educator is one of the best teachers for this very subject IMHO as you can see from the teaser video with Terry. He’s highly skilled and knowledgeable but despite his impressive track record, comes across as humble and easy-going.

His jazz ukulele course is currently the priciest on ULTP, but it has over 20 lessons and lots of bonuses. And if you don’t wish to purchase it (or the Blues course) individually, a really good idea would be to sign up for the Uke Like The Pros premium membership. You can choose either the monthly or yearly option, and you gain full access to EVERYTHING on the ULTP platform for free. Like the Circle of Fifths workshop, which I highly encourage anyone interested in songwriting and music composing to check out.

ULTP also has complete mastery courses for the baritone uke and guitalele, for those who are more adventurous and plan on venturing beyond. Terry also organises an epic giveaway every month, where members get a chance to win a brand new KoAloha ukulele. Yep. I don’t know how Terry and his team does it… the value is unbelievable. It’s crazy. I can’t recommend this enough.

Anyway, to make it even sweeter, Uke Like The Pros is having a very generous sale right now. Click here to get everything at 20% off. So if you’re thinking of signing up, this is a perfect time to check out their awesome benefits. Feel free to shoot me an email if you’ve got any questions. I’m more than happy to help 😀 Here’s wishing you the very best in your music journey.


Ning Cai is a Singapore Literature Prize nominated author, who was also long listed for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016. A bestselling writer, she is also recognised for her illusionist/ escapologist stage character Magic Babe Ning, and recognised by Channel News Asia as South East Asia's first professional female magician.

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