What is classical ukulele?
Classical ukulele is a form of fingerstyle ukulele that brings some of the greatest classical music in Western history to our small instrument from Hawai’i. The great thing about classical ukulele is that it brings a completely new voice to timeless, familiar classics. Hearing Für Elise or a Bach prelude played on the ukulele (as opposed to the piano or cello) is a completely different experience and at times can even make this great music even better.
Whether you are wanting to learn how to play Beethoven or Mozart or Bach on the ukulele, classical ukulele makes this possible. So let’s walk through some of the technique that classical ukulele features and how this can help you learn to play these great classics on ukulele.
Classical Ukulele Technique
Classical ukulele is a form of fingerstyle playing and so it introduces fingerpicking (rather than strumming) in the right hand. If you are used to playing chords and strumming on ukulele, this might take some adjustment, but here are a few guidelines to help get you started.
First, knowing the terminology for the right-hand fingers is essential. Classical ukulele borrows terminology from the classical guitar, and so if you are familiar with those, you’re good to go! But let’s review them here:
- p=thumb (pulgar)
- i=index (indice)
- m=middle (medio)
- a=ring (anular)
(The little or pinky finger, “c” for “chicito” in Spanish, is typically not used except when strumming for classical ukulele.)
Using these four fingers in the right hand gives us the most flexibility to play across the strings and to maintain multiple voices at once.
- Doing so means we can play accompaniment and melody together, like many opera arias, for instance;
- It means we can play difficult counterpoint like the music of J.S. Bach;
- And it means we can play moving arpeggios, like the beautiful Spanish Romance, a popular classical guitar song.
The left hand in classical ukulele uses numbers instead of letters:
The left-hand thumb is only used as a guide on the back of the neck and does not fret notes on classical ukulele.
One of the most challenging aspects of the left hand is, again, maintaining multiple, moving voices at the same time. When done well, this gives the effect of multiple instruments playing together on just one ukulele. To do so, we have to allow some fingers to hold on to notes in one voice, while other fingers are moving in another voice. We call this “finger independence” and this is one big distinction between traditional ukulele playing and classical ukulele.
Classical Guitar Music on Ukulele
Because so much classical music was written before the time of the ukulele, most of the music we play on classical ukulele will be arrangements. And a prime source of classical ukulele arrangements comes from classical guitar. Not only can we easily adapt classical guitar music, but we can also encounter another wonderful world of classical music written for the ukulele’s six-string cousin.
Here is just one among many examples of a classical guitar favorite brought to new life on the ukulele: