Ukulele & Languages

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5 thoughts on learning fingerstyle or classical ukulele

01 2010

A lot of my fingerpicking ukulele learning process has been about setting myself some challenges which were reasonably difficult for me to make some progress but not completely out of my league.

After 8 months of ukulele fingerpicking, both learning via Skype with Herman Vandecauter and working things out myself, here is a reflection on the things that worked for me.

1. Liking a piece

First and foremost, and mostly because the amount of time I can dedicate to my ukulele learning process is rather restricted, it is absolutely essential for me to work on pieces that I choose myself.
This is a crucial motivational factor : if I like a piece, I’ll be very intent on learning it.

2. Finding a piece that reflects your emotions

In addition to liking a piece, it has to be in accordance with my emotions.

Music is an important vector of emotions so if I feel melancholy, chances are I’ll be much better at playing John Dowland arrangements rather than say, a lively Spanish tune. On the contrary, if I feel joyful, I’ll be glad to work on Irish reels or other upbeat pieces.

3. How should the piece sound ?

Once I’ve chosen a piece I like that reflects my state of mind, I move on to the next step which is to figure out how the piece should sound when played properly.

If I am lucky, the piece I have chosen will have been played by a skillful ukulele player and I will find a video of it on YouTube. In this case I’ll spend some time watching the video several times until I feel that the sound of the piece is imprinted in my brain.

4. Break down the piece into several parts, figure out the fingering, work in slow motion

Now it’s time to move on to playing the piece yourself. When I know what the piece should sound like, I try to break the work into several parts.

A good idea, supported by many excellent uke players I know, is to play the piece very slowly in order to define where you will use which fingers and the smoothest move possible between the different notes.

This isn’t easy and is definitely the most laborious part of the process. At first you will have to stretch your fingers into what feels rather uncomfortable, but over time, the move will become more and more natural.

When in doubt, watching a good ukulele player play the piece will help you define the correct fingering.

5. Play the piece over and over again until you’re happy with the result!

Finally, once you are more or less comfortable with the fingering, play the piece until you are satisfied with the way it sounds. Try to improve the musicality of your playing with each new attempt.
Know when to stop as well, there is no point in playing the tune to the point that you start hating it !

My five points in application

1. I listened to Tarrega’s Study in E minor played by Al and liked the piece.

2. I felt rather contemplative at the time and Tarrega‘s study suited my state of mind. I liked the haunting quality of the piece.

3. I watched Al‘s video several times until the melody was printed in my brain.

4. I broke the piece in two parts : based on the PDF I downloaded on Uke Hunt, I split the tune until measure 12, worked until I was happy with that part, then moved on to measure 13 till the end.

I spent a lot of time on measures 13, 14 and 15 as there are some tricky finger moves up and down the neck. My little finger still hurts a bit but it has most certainly gained in strength.

I noticed that on measure 14, Al was barring at the 5th fret but I’m still not comfortable with this barre thing so I chose to have my fingers cramped together instead. However, I don’t recommend doing this because it is far from error-proof, and I end up buzzing half the time.

5. I assembled the two parts and played the whole tune until I was pleased with the way it sounded.

It’s far from perfect, but here it is. One thing I noticed immediately when I watched my video was what Herman often tells me : ‘your fingers are moving too much ! You should keep finger movement minimal in order to play fast!

I now know exactly what Herman means and I understand that the way I play can hardly be precise but I find it extremely hard to do otherwise. I wonder does this come naturally over time ?

What about you ? How do you progress on fingerstyle uke ? Do you have any tips to share ? I’d love to read your comments !


  1. Jeff aka Humble Uker on the 3rd of June 2010 @ 21:51

    Armelle, you’re beautiful. I have been working on my finger picking skills too. I thank you for putting these ideas together and stating your process so clearly. I liked it so much that I have added it to the TUTORIALS link on my Humble Uker Ramblings blog.

  2. Armelle Europe on the 4th of June 2010 @ 07:04

    Jeff Humble Uker : Jeff, thank you so much for your precious feedback and for featuring my post in your Tutorials section.
    I’m really glad you found the information useful.

  3. Brad on the 7th of June 2010 @ 03:04

    Thanks so much for introducing me to this piece. I’ve been wanting something classical to learn and play for my uke group–especially that I don’t have to sing–and this one is beautiful and even lends itself to some interpretation. The other videos on youtube were interesting, too.

  4. Armelle Europe on the 7th of June 2010 @ 19:04

    Brad: Glad you liked the piece. It’s really nice and not too difficult to learn off by heart, which makes its interpretation easier.
    Have fun playing it and maybe post your own version on YouTube!

  5. Greg H. on the 22nd of June 2010 @ 18:25

    A beautiful song and performance! I just discovered this site, your mission and the tremendous international flavor it brings to an instrument often regarded as “just Hawaiian” (at least here in the USA).

    I also see that you appreciate the innovative design of a FLUKE uke. I feature their FLEA counterpart in a new program that I launched to hopefully build interest and ability among many ukulele beginners. Just type True Joy Acoustics into Google and there are a variety of sites to see/learn more. I am definitely going to visit this site often!

  6. Armelle Europe on the 22nd of June 2010 @ 20:34

    Greg H. : Welcome here and thanks for the feedback. Glad you enjoy the international feel of this blog!
    I certainly like my Fluke, its design and sound and the fact that it can stand up.
    The Flea is a good choice for beginners too.

  7. pamela on the 17th of July 2010 @ 17:10

    love this piece, it looks somewhat achievable for me and I thank you for showcasing it. Your fingers have amazing reach, i hope that with practise I’ll get this kind of flexiblity too, Thanks for all the great tutorials here, love this site.

  8. Armelle Europe on the 17th of July 2010 @ 21:09

    Pamela : It’s a really nice piece and I don’t grow tired of playing it.
    The tricky part is to get smooth transitions when there are jumps up and down the neck.
    It is a great piece to improve finger flexibility too.
    Good luck with it!

  9. Jibjoyce on the 5th of June 2011 @ 12:51

    I’m a new ukulele player, just start playing for 3 months. I found Wilfried on Youtube and fall in love with his finger style. I always wonder how to get start playing finger style like him and you light up my way. You did a great performance. You also inspire me to get start and keep practice. Thank you so much :D

  10. Armelle Europe on the 5th of June 2011 @ 20:55

    Jibjoyce: I’m really glad you found my post helpful. Good luck with your fingerstyle practice.
    Wilfried has a very sensitive and delicate way of playing fingerstyle ukulele and he definitely makes people wish they could play like him.

  11. Judith on the 4th of April 2012 @ 21:12

    I’ve just started the ukulele. I have no problem learning chords and having played banjo years ago, it was quite easy for me to get used to.
    I would love to learn classical pieces. What I need to do is learn the notes on the fretboard, but I was wondering whether there was a great 1st book introduction to classical for the ukulele which allows me to learn and also has classical pieces that I can practice at the same time. I know I need to learn scales and all that, but wondering whether there is something less tedious.
    Regards Judith

  12. Armelle Europe on the 7th of April 2012 @ 06:02

    There are several ukulele players who have written ebooks for classical ukulele playing:

    – Jamie Holding has quite a few arrangements with explanations about the pieces. I really like his ebooks as there are different levels and different lengths depending on what you feel like doing. Check out this post:

    Ken Middleton also has a neat ebook with Celtic pieces that are lovely. Find out more in this post:

    The PDF minstrel site has lots of tabs as well:

    This ebook by Rob MacKillop seems to cover what you’re looking for:

    Scales will be really useful to gain virtuosity but as you said that can be a bit tedious. To learn notes on the fretboard, check out Herman Vandecauter’s tips here :

    I hope this helps!

  13. 3 Questions Interview: Armelle Europe - Play Ukulele By Ear on the 9th of December 2013 @ 19:59

    […] on the rhythm much more when playing with him and this has been a considerable help. As far as finger-picking is concerned, I find it rather difficult, when reading tabs of arrangements I have never played […]

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