Ukulele can help you make sweet music no matter your age

My granddaughter Lorelei started this. She told Grandma she wanted a guitar for her birthday coming up in September.

I am happy as a guitar-playing grandpa can be that she want to learn to make music, and I am pleased to think that I was at least a little influential in her choice of instrument. As an educator I know there are so many good reasons to make music a part of a young person’s life.

Or an old person, for that matter. And that is one reason I rationalized buying a ukulele. For me.

What was I thinking? Well, I know that one of the first hurdle aspiring guitarists must overcome is sore fingertips resulting from pressing and holding thin metal wires against the fretboard. Even nylon strings are painful in the beginning.

Although they make small student guitars, these can be difficult to maneuver if you are a Lorelei-sized person. I thought if I had a smaller instrument with more forgiving strings, a ukulele, for example, she could try it out and see if it was the type of musical instrument she would enjoy.

If so, a guitar could come later. And to be selfishly honest, I had been looking for an excuse to buy a ukulele for a good while.

David, a youth minister at our church, has played one during service a few times. After church one day he let me try it out, and I found it possible to make passable music without too much work. It certainly was easier to fret than a guitar. I knew that Beatle George Harrison had been a great promoter of the ukulele in the later years of his life which is, for this Beatles fan, an unassailable testimonial. Then Lorelei came up with a birthday wish. How many more excuses did I need?

I bought a relatively inexpensive but adequate instrument, found a chord chart on the internet and started working out some songs I knew. One of the first was a little tune that those of us who grew up watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson will remember. I played the 1968 hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” Tiny Tim-style for my wife, who laughed with approval.

We have a book with lots of children’s songs, so I practiced a few of the easier ones in anticipation of the next g-kids’ visit. It didn’t take long before Becky was trying to figure out some songs on her own. These days the new ukulele lies on our couch easily accessible for us to strum and practice our songs as the mood strikes us. You are never too old to learn, right?

The name ukulele is literally translated from Hawaiian as “little flea” which probably comes from the nickname bestowed upon the Portuguese sailor who introduced a small, lute-like instrument to the islands. Apparently he was a diminutive chap who danced around while his fingers flew across the fretboard. The islanders took to the instrument, and it became associated with the Hawaiian Islands.

Ukuleles were very popular at the beginning of the 20th century, and its popularity continued until about mid-century (Tiny Tim’s hit notwithstanding) when its appeal waned. In recent years, ukuleles have become popular again. They are relatively simple to learn, easy to carry and you can sing along while you play. What’s not to like?

I hope Lorelei will continue to be interested in making music. I hope the other g-kids do, as well. As one who has played music nearly all my life, I can attest to the pleasures music affords as well as the discipline it develops.

We will get her a guitar for her birthday, I am sure. And a ukulele, too, if she wants one.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to