Seven years ago I accidentally started a ukulele group.

Here’s how it happened:

One day my friends Jane and Paula said, “Let’s play ukulele!” And I said, “Why not!”

That Friday evening we got together at Paula’s place. We had three chords, three ukuleles and a bottle of wine.

By the time the bottle was empty we could play three songs.

We had fun. So the following Friday we did it again. We hadn’t touched our ukuleles during the week, so we had to learn everything again from scratch.

But it was still lots of fun.

Alice Paul and Jane playing ukulele
Above: This is where it started. Me, Paula Law and Jane Carmichael.

After a few Fridays, we could remember the chords.

We all started finding more songs to play. And more people came to join us.

After six months there were nine of us regularly meeting late on Saturday afternoon to play ukulele.

Soon after that I started teaching ukulele to other people, many of whom have joined or formed groups.

I’ve taught hundreds of people to play ukulele.

This week I started a new class of beginners.

Our original group is going strong. We call ourselves The Strumbles (although the name is subject to change).

The Strumbles’ bulging music folders include songs by Talking Heads, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Burt Bacharach and the Beatles.

It’s the highlight of my week, and I know others feel the same way.

The Strumbles ukulele band at Go Eco
Above: The Strumbles having fun, one Saturday in Frankton

Why start a ukulele group

“The life I love is making music with my friends.” Willie Nelson

Making music with people I love is the most fun thing in the world for me. And I’ve been delighted to find that other people agree.

(However, some people are solo musicians by inclination. And that’s fine too.)

The ukulele is an instrument that works particularly well in groups. I discovered this after decades of playing other instruments in many kinds of music groups, from orchestras to rock bands. Here’s my post with more about this, Not Just a Tiny Guitar.

Here are some of the benefits of belonging to a ukulele group.

  1. You’ll make friends.
  2. You’ll get a regular dose of the joyful endorphins from making music. As one 80-something ukulele player said to me, “High as a kite with no need for drugs!”
  3. You’ll get to play and sing songs you love.
  4. Neuroplasticity etc – there’s a lot of research demonstrating the emotional, cognitive and physical benefits from making music and learning new skills.
  5. Community involvement: Ukulele groups play at all kinds of events. Here are a few examples from my community: The Cossie Ukes organise an annual Anzac Day singalong. The Jammies perform regularly at Waikato Hospital. HUG make music in a local dementia care unit. The Strumbles love playing at birthday parties and environmental events.
  6. Another benefit of belonging to a group is that you have accountability to practice. You’ll find your skills improve over time.

How to find a ukulele group

Ukulele groups come in all shapes and sizes, from all-comers community groups that meet in public places, to workplace groups, to friends and family jamming around the firepit on a summer evening.

You won’t know what kind of group you like best until you try.

Making music with people you already have things in common with, has a special buzz. Many famous rock bands have formed on this basis.

But when you join a ukulele group you’ll immediately gain friends. Trust me, it works.

Waikato Uke Jam
Above: The Waikato Uke Jam. When you join a ukulele group, you’ll immediately gain friends.

How to start a ukulele group

You can find a group to join that suits you. Or you can start your own group.

Here’s what you need to start a ukulele group:

Two people is okay, but more is better. The Strumbles stopped at nine members because nine people can fit in a medium-sized living room.

Some groups start by word of mouth; others advertise. Ideally people will have done a beginner ukulele course, or be able to play a few chords. Or be willing to upskill fast!

Ukuleles and tuners, or a smartphone tuning app

Song charts – enough copies so that everybody can see the music.

Music stands are useful, to hold the music

A time and place to meet

What you don’t need

Huge musical skills or experience. You just need to know the chords and the strums for the songs you’re starting with.

None of the Strumbles were current ukulele players when the group started. Some of us (including me) are musicians who can play many instruments.

Others have some musical background, e.g. Jane learned guitar at teachers’ college. Melissa started from scratch, never having played an instrument  – and discovered in her forties that she has a gift for music.

Ukulele group leadership

Most groups have a designated musical leader, who starts off the songs. This is a role that can be learned and shared around.

A group also needs leadership of other kinds – organising practice or jam times and venues; bringing in new members; handling requests for performances; co-ordinating refreshments.

Above: Village Jam, led by Rose Elsbury, performing at the Waikato Uke Jam. A ukulele group within a group.

Keeping time

Having someone who keeps a steady beat is essential. A group of musicians will tend to speed up. This might not be the same person as the designated leader. It’s another kind of musical leadership.

Keeping time is a skill that can be learned. Practicing with a metronome – either online or an electronic metronome will improve your sense of timing.

Some groups have a bass player and/or drummer, which helps people stay in time. A reasonably competent guitarist can also fill this role. (But if more than one guitarist joins, it’s no longer strictly a ukulele group!)

An upright double bass sounds particularly good with a ukulele group. The Strumbles are lucky to have Matthew playing double bass.

There’s also a bass ukulele, aka a “U-bass”. This is played through an amplifier. Some groups have a bass guitarist.

For more about bass and ukulele groups, see my post Many ukuleles, one bass.

Ukulele music

In some groups the leader supplies the music/ song charts. In other groups (e.g. the Strumbles) all members can suggest and contribute music.

A good place to start is with three and four chord songs. There are plenty of these. Here’s my post about great three-chord songs.

Mike Dickison, author of Kiwi Ukulele: The New Zealand Ukulele Companion, (sadly, it’s out of print) claims the one song that’s common to all ukulele groups is “Folsom Prison Blues”. I can confirm that the Strumbles do play this song occasionally.

How to find music

The internet is brimming with free ukulele song charts. Some are much better than others.

Some community ukulele groups, and some online teachers, have great songbooks with well-designed song sheets. Reliable sites include the Bytown Ukulele Group in Ontario (BUG); Richard G’s; and Stewart Greenhill.

In my region of New Zealand, the Waikato Uke Jam has songbooks that can be accessed by anyone who signs up to the mailing list.

You can also buy published books of ukulele music, e.g. the Daily Ukulele, and The Big Book of Ukulele Songs.

When you pay for a book of music the songwriters will receive a small publishing royalty from the parts you are using. I think this is great.

Songwriters deserve to be compensated for their work.

However, books are no guarantee of accuracy. I’ve found mistakes in almost every ukulele song chart ever written – including Beatles books!

Song chart design – some points

  1. Ukulele parts are easier to use if they can fit on one page. When a song chart goes over two or three pages, then it becomes fiddly.
  2. The font size should be big enough for several people to read from one page, if necessary. Verdana is a good readable font, and 14 point is a good size.
  3. A ukulele song chart doesn’t need the melody in notation. I think that’s a waste of space on the page. Most ukulele players don’t read music. And it’s easy to learn the melody of a song from Youtube or Spotify.
  4. Most song charts (including published books) don’t specify the strum. As a teacher, I’ve found that it’s actually quite hard to explain a strum in words or notation. It’s a lot easier to demonstrate it in a Youtube video. Here’s a link to my Youtube channel.

Performing or jamming

Some ukulele groups enjoy public performances; others just love playing for the sake of it. The Strumbles perform occasionally, but what we especially love is jamming informally at parties.

If your group performs in public, you’ll need to consider whether to use microphones, and whether to play ukuleles with pickups, etc.

Many ukulele groups just play acoustically. That can work well in places (indoors and outdoors) with hard surfaces under and behind the players.

Above: An informal group of ukulele players outside Waimarie-Hamilton East Community House. No microphones necessary for a neighbourhood jam.

Amplifying an amateur ukulele group is not totally straightforward, in my experience. I’ll write more about this in a future blog post.  

It’s especially valuable to include a bass player (only one) and/or rhythm player in your group when you’re performing.

More about starting ukulele groups

When I was researching this post, I came across How to Start and Grow a Ukulele Group, by Joshua Waldman. It’s pretty interesting, and I don’t disagree with most of what he says.

But I could write a completely different book. Maybe I will!

Every single ukulele group leader will do things differently. It’s like everything else about the ukulele – no one size fits all. I love the diversity!

Ukestra is another kind of ukulele group, where everyone plays in parts. A ukulele orchestra. It’s fun and awesomely effective in performance.

Ukestra has been developed and taught by Australian community musicians Jane Jelbart and Mark Jackson, also known as The Sum of the Parts. Here’s a link to my post about them.

Leading and teaching a Ukestra takes specific musical skills on the part of the leaders – it’s beyond the scope of most small community groups.

My colleague Tony Hansen leads Ukestras, in New Plymouth and occasionally further afield.

Waikato ukulele groups

Ukulele groups are flourishing in my local region. Here are some of the groups I know of:

In Hamilton there’s the Cossie Ukes, based at Hamilton Cosmopolitan Club, the Village Jam, and the Pukete ukulele group, which meets at the Pukete Community House.

Smaller Hamilton-based ukulele groups include the Strumbles, HUG, led by Keith Glover; and the Jammies.

For the older demographic, there’s a U3A ukulele group led by Judith Hickman.

The Waikato Uke Jam is a big all-comers ukulele event. I’m on the committee – here’s a link to sign up to the email list.

At Te Pahu there’s the Big Muffin Serious Band and Sylvia’s Toaster – world-famous ukulele bands who are also professional entertainers.

In Morrinsville, John Howlett leads the Mookeleles; in Cambridge there are the Riverside Ukes and the Ukes of Cambridge.

There are ukulele groups in Kihikihi and in Raglan. And I’m sure I’ve missed some local groups out.  

The best way to get in touch with any of these groups (and find out what groups are active in your part of New Zealand) is via the New Zealand Ukulele Network Facebook page.

Want some help starting a ukulele group?

I teach ukulele to groups and individuals in Hamilton, New Zealand, and also online.

I’d love to help you get your ukulele group off the ground.

I can help you find the music you love to play, and show you how to play the right strums. And other things you want to know.

If you’re interested, drop me a line via the contact page of this website, and let’s talk about how I can help you.

Hi, I’m Alice

I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.

I teach ukulele to adult learners all over the world via Zoom and Skype. If you happen to live in Hamilton, New Zealand, I also teach in-person classes.

Click this link to book online ukulele lessons with me. $US160 for six half-hour lessons.

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Alice Bulmer ukulele teacher
Photographed by Brooke Baker

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