Updated: May 7, 2021
Every professional ukulele player starts a session the same way, by warming up. So if it’s important for the pros, its important for everybody! Here are some technique and warm up exercises that can help you to gain fluency, speed and accuracy on the ukulele fingerboard. It's a good idea to do these exercises every day. If you are totally new to the ukulele, please don’t get discouraged when you start these drills. Your fingers will probably strain, fingertips burn, and your hand may freeze up like a mummy.
But that’s okay! You gotta start somewhere. But I promise over time your skills level will increase and these drills will become effortless.
Below are 3 drills that everyone can learn. I’ve given them names that will help you differentiate them.
First... ladder drills.
Drill #1 “Ladders”
“Ladders” is just like it sounds. We are going to move from one end of the fingerboard to the other, nut to 12th fret. Starting with your index finger on the first fret, G String, you are going to continue moving up to the 12th fret note to note. You are going to do this using your index, middle, ring, and pinky finger just on the G-String. When you get to the 5th fret you are going to restart the sequence by playing it with your index finger... followed by playing the 6th fret with the middle finger, 7th fret with your ring finger, and 8th fret with your pinky. It then restarts with the index finger on the 9th fret and so on, until you get to the 12th fret. Then you’re all the way up the ladder. Then you repeat this pattern again on the C, E, and A string.
If you want to make this drill more challenging, you can “climb” down the ladder from the 12th fret. Starting with your pinky on the 12th fret, you begin to move backwards back to the 1st fret.
Drill #2 “Stairs”
This drill is similar to ”Ladders”. But with “Stairs” we are gonna move vertically on the fingerboard. Starting on the 1st fret G String, we are going start like we did with ”Ladders” and move up the fingerboard to the 4th fret. But instead of restarting the sequence on the 5th fret on the G String, we are gonna move down to the 1st fret, C String. And then continuing the sequence up the C String, stopping on the 4th fret, and dropping down to the 1st fret E String. Then finishing the sequence on the A string.
Remember that we are not playing up the fingerboard with a single finger, but are using a consecutive finger for each note. So index finger for 1st fret, middle finger for the 2nd, ring finger on the 3rd, and pinky for the 4th fret. After finishing the sequence on the A String, you are gonna restart the “Stairs” on the G String 5th fret. Then doing the final sequence on the 9th-12th frets.
If you want to add another level of challenge, reverse the order back up the stairs from the bottom starting with you pinky finger on the 4th fret, A String. So your gonna go down the stairs and come back up. Then redo this sequence on the 5th and 9th frets.
Drill #3 “The Caterpillar”
This is a fun one! When I first saw this in my classical guitar class, I was amazed. My teacher’s fingers literally looked like a caterpillar crawling up the fingerboard. Though it was fun to look at, it was difficult to emulate. This is because your fingers can trip over themselves!
So here’s how to do “The Caterpillar”.
Starting on 1st fret G String, your gonna play this note with your index finger. Following the same sequence as “Ladders” and “Stairs”, you will move up the fret board to the 4th fret using consecutive fingers. This is where things are different. After playing the G String on the 4th fret with your pinky finger, your gonna restart the sequence but on the 2nd fret, G String. The sequence begins again and ends now on the 5th fret. It then restarts again on the 3rd fret. If you do this, you will see your moving fingers resemble a crawling caterpillar. Its so awesome! Continue the sequence till your pinky reaches the 12th fret. Repeat “The Caterpillar” on the C, E, and A Strings.
If you want to take to the next level. Have the caterpillar come back down the fingerboard in reverse. This is a little tricky so take your time.
There you have have it! Three drills you should practice everyday before you jam on your ukulele. Start s...l...o...w...l...y. It’s not a race (at least at the beginning, haha). Focus on your finger placement, and and finger pressure. You want to be able to hear each note played clearly. If you need to take a break due to your fingers straining, no problem. Take a quick break and start where you left off.
An interesting feature of these drills is that they move up, (and down), the fingerboard. As you move from the nut toward the saddle the frets get closer together. This adds a challenge that your fingers have to navigate as you now have to deal with fret spacing. This same issue will come up when you learn songs so practicing these drills will help you with spatial awareness on the fingerboard. I hope these drills help you along your on ukulele journey. Deliberate practice makes perfect!
Keep jamming and aloha!