Review: How to Play Ukulele, a complete guide for beginners

Hot off the press, Dan “Cool Hand Uke” Scanlan’s new book, lightweight paperback and nicely designed, is full of tips and advice gleaned from the author’s sixty years of playing and teaching the ukulele. In that time period, the author has undoubtedly encountered all sorts of questions, for playing an instrument isn’t just about playing. Adults like to ask questions. It takes an experienced teacher to explain the answers without taxing the brain and intimidating the beginner.

danscanlanbookTo answer such questions, he dips into music theory, much of it written in Chapter 4 (Melody). Unlike classical pianists, most ukulele players first learn harmony (Chapter 3), through fingering chords and strumming, before next learning melody which requires knowing the names and locations of individual pitches (notes) on the fretboard. This is reverse of the traditional way of teaching piano and other pitched instruments where melody comes before harmony.

For ukulele players who learn to accompany themselves, the voice executes the melody. The ukulele, however, can be used to teach the representation of melody as well as note recognition needed to compose and improvise. I think this is the reason Scanlan devoted an entire chapter to introducing the different kinds of scales and intervals, for these are the building blocks of chords. It would be nice to see a one-to-one correspondence between the names of notes on the fretboard, western notation, and tablature at this point.

It’s obvious where his expertise lies: the chapter on doo-dads covers all sorts of fun things you can do with your right-hand and some with the left, from the muffle to the glissando. Earlier in the second chapter on rhythm, he introduces different kinds of strums.

For the adult who already knows music theory and plays another instrument, the ukulele is easy to learn. Scanlan’s book is easy to read. I find myself looking forward to the UKE TIP sections for anecdotal breaks from the more serious body of text. His sense of humour shines through.

As usual, it’s a challenge to choose songs for an unknown audience, because it is defined by age, generation, and geography. The 14 songs in Chapter 6 are not arranged in alphabetical order by title or by difficulty. As beginners need to be led from easy to difficult, some indicator of skill level would be helpful. For instance, the easiest song is most likely his two-chorded “Fog Dog Blues” in F and C7. Next are the three-chorded “Annie Laurie” and “Hymn Song” in C, F, and G7. Scanlan wrote six of the songs.

Chapter 8 Chords contains a handy dictionary of chords, alphabetically ordered from A to G, a transposition chart (table) and useful mentions of common chord sequences (progressions), formulae for blues progressions, and the mighty Circle of Fifths. The mention of circle on the neck and sliding chords in the final two sections baits the reader to look-up video tutorials to explain just what they are and how to use them.

I like that there’s a glossary appendix devoted to defining the musical vocabulary used in the main text. The resources appendix will get you started with finding ukulele teachers, players, publications, festivals, and manufacturers online. I would be curious if anyone has made attempts to create exhaustive lists of each of these categories.

Visit Dan Scanlan’s youtube channel to get his performances, demonstrations, and strum sessions. Check out his website at CoolHandUke to get more goodies.


Where to get the book:



Author: BLOGmaiden

As one of the earliest bloggers (since 1999), I enjoy meeting people who embrace "out-of-the-box" thinking and fear not the unknown. I believe in collaboration for sustainability because it increases stakeholder value.

One thought on “Review: How to Play Ukulele, a complete guide for beginners”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s