Technique: Ukuleles are cool

News flash! "Playing the ukulele can help you practice your banjo techniques". Interested? Read on.

I have a need to play music almost everyday, it's like an addiction, which has often resulted in me almost going out of my mind when I don't have a guitar or banjo to hand, especially when on vacation. Taking instruments abroad is a pain, there is the extra cost, the risk of theft and finding somewhere to make some noise. As a potential solution my missis brought me a ukulele, nothing special, just a £30 Mahalo, but small and quiet enough to travel with. I then searched YouTube for some lessons, sussed out some chords, in preparation for my first holiday with my uke. At first I found it quite unsatisfying, and after a while, just strumming it bored me (I'm not a song and dance man), so I started to pick a little, which was OK, except picking was weird because of the way the uke is tuned (this I will come back to later). When I returned from holiday my uke found its way to the attic, which is where it stayed until the following summer holiday. This cycle repeated for a couple of years, but this year I made a bit of a breakthrough, which I feel compelled to share.

This years vacation was in Indonesia, lucky me! We started our holiday in Lombok, and on the second day I decided to find somewhere quiet on the beach to play a little uke. As it turned out, it was the one day of the week that the beach was full, as many local people had gathered to socialise. I decided to have a look around, and saw some teenagers playing guitar and percussion. I decided to watch them for a while. One of them saw my uke poking out of my rucksack and called me over, I gladly accepted his invitation and played some lead over the songs they were playing. They were all very amused by the uke, and I'm pretty sure they had never seen one before. At the end of the song one of the boys passed me a guitar and asked me to play, I took it, and quickly realised that what I had in my hands was a real piece of crap, it was barely playable! They kicked off another song, and I joined in the best I could. We played for well over an hour and chatted about music and home, they showed me many traditional songs, it was a fantastic experience. Walking away it occurred to me that these guys couldn't afford decent guitars and were just making music with what they had. I am not exaggerating about how bad their guitars were, but they had really learnt how to get the most out of them, and this realisation made me look at the uke in a new way, which was that this is all I have, and I'm gonna stop focusing on its limitations and start making real music.

A simple song

I decided to start with a simple song and then learn how to embellish it. The song I chose was an old Haitian song called Yellow Bird, which a friend had shown me many years ago when I started playing guitar. The chords in the song are C | G7 | F, which you'll find examples of at

Start playing it with the down, down, up, up, down uke strum pattern (see video below).

Using banjo rolls

I started playing uke several years before I played banjo, and have always treated it like a little guitar, which has been problematic, especially when I've tried pick arpeggios. This year I've been playing lots of banjo, which has reprogrammed my fingers, and I started using banjo roles, primarily the forward reverse roll. This is actually a really obvious thing to do as the uke has a high string on the top, just like a banjo.

Here are my modified froward/reverse and forward roll picking patterns on a C chord.



Frailing or claw-hammer

If you can frail a banjo, then you can frail a uke, and it really sounds cool, have a look at my video below and I'll show you how.

My first video lesson

I've dug out my most scary shirt and videoed the basic techniques I've spoken about. Be warned, there's singing!


So there you have it, I have not only been able to practice and maybe better my banjo techniques quietly whilst on holiday, I have really enjoyed playing my uke. This year I'm not going to put the uke in the attic, and I'm sure (if it ever stops raining) I'll play it loads in the garden and maybe even at a gig :)

An excellent resource for uke players


  1. Great! I am the reverse of you; a uke player wanting to learn some banjo techniques. I will now search the net for frail and roll techniques. Any suggestions?

  2. If you wanna learn to frail, then there is no better starting point than this guy - this guy is good for picking, there's some other stuff here


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About Me

I have been playing guitar for over 20 years, at first playing in indie bands, followed by a long stint playing rockabilly on the streets of Oxford, a short excursion into dance music, followed by looking at early blues styles. Now after a few years of listening to Dylan, Guthrie, and early Americana I find myself in possession of a banjo, and I'm addicted! Currently I play Banjo and Guitar in an Oxford based group called Swindlestock, you can hear our music our myspace page.

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