BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SPRING 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
One of the true joys of learning the ukulele is that all you need is a little box with four strings, a heartbeat, and the desire to play. If you can get that little rascal in tune, the fun can begin immediately. But it’s often not long before even the thriftiest beginners start looking for ways to expand the playing experience. There are many familiar accessories and gewgaws available to ukulele players that can add to the fun, and some may even be essential to keep in your gig bag or next to your favorite comfy chair at home (I’m looking at you, new strings and clip-on tuners). Not as familiar are the many mobile applications that offer today’s players numerous digital ways to enrich the very analog activity of playing the ukulele.
From tuning to sheet music to shopping, and much more, a clutch of apps for smartphones and tablets puts power and learning right at your fingertips. Although obviously not required to have a rich and fulfilling time playing ukulele, any one of the apps below can inflame your passion for the instrument while improving your groove, teaching you new techniques, or connecting you with the global community of uke players.
Before we dive in, it’s worth mentioning that many apps are free to download, but often have in-app options that expand the number of features. For a price. Keep an eye out for what each app supplies in the free download. A few dollars can make all the difference in an app’s usefulness, so you may want to consider spending a little to add a lot up front. Though dropping a few bucks on features that expand the usability of an app may make some people grumble, many find that paid apps make their screen time more enjoyable.
Tuners: The A440 Club
Sooner or later you’re going to need a tuner, and there are many tuner apps choose from, from basic to elaborately featured ones. Some are uke-specific and focus only on the standard uke pitches, G C E A, which may be helpful for players whose only concern is getting the four strings of their uke in tune. Even if you never plan on venturing outside of normal tuning, the features on some tuning apps make them very appealing, from chromatic notes to an interface and experience that appeals to your personal sense of style.
One big favorite of many players I’ve spoken to is Cleartune ($3.99). Its ease of use and smart design, combined with a huge amount of adjustability that may come in handy if you play other instruments or want to save special settings, makes it one of the most popular tuning apps. For players who want maximum features and flexibility, iStroboSoft ($9.99) from tuner specialists Peterson is a tuning-tweaker’s paradise. In addition to a simple interface, it features a level of adjustment and customization that extends to oscilloscopes and frequency analyzers, which is probably beyond the need of any typical musician, even though it’s fun and eye-opening to see what frequencies your uke emphasizes and lacks.
Tuning in noisy rooms can be tricky and it’s one area that clip-on tuners have an edge on the mic in your smartphone or tablet. But luckily some apps offer features or accessories that can help reduce the ambient room noise that might clutter your device’s microphone. Some, such as iStroboSoft, have a switchable noise filter that samples the room sound when turned on, eliminating much of the background noise. Another option is a clip-on accessory that gently clamps onto your uke’s headstock, exactly like a clip-on tuner, and connects to your device’s headphone jack so you can use your device’s tuning app in any environment. However, as headphone jacks are being eliminated in favor of Bluetooth devices on many new phones, the days of this option may be numbered.
Metronomes: Right on Time
The relentless click of a metronome can be a cruel master. Metronomes are non-judgmental yet they reveal your rhythmic flaws and there is nothing better for dialing in your groove and increasing your playing precision. As with tuners, there are many metronome apps to choose from, and since they all are the same timekeepers at their core, the usability of an app’s interface can be a major deciding factor in choosing a metronome that you click with. Some have pulsating colors and several different click sounds, while others offer not much more than a bland screen with a tempo number. Look for a metronome that gives you options for not only tempo, but also time signatures to cover your basics. After that, you can find all sorts of extra features on some of the available metronome apps, including flashing lights, the ability to accent beats, rhythm trainers for testing your groove, and subdivisions, which can be very helpful for breaking out of the rigidity of four clicks to the bar. These features can help expand what you learn and make the experience more fun.
Metronomes have been around for a long time, but a recent innovation allows users to train with a wearable metronome that uses haptics to transmit tempo directly to you. These are available for Apple Watches, among others, in addition to others that can clip on a shirt or tuck into a pocket.
Recording: The Crucible of Truth
As teacher and performer Daniel Ward wrote in his “Smartphone Blues” lesson in the Winter 2018 issue of Ukulele, recording yourself playing is the fastest way to become a better player. Recordings are on par with the unflinching honesty of metronomes, and hearing back what you just played can help shape your playing, tune your ears, and help you grow as a musician—or show you how far you’ve progressed. Using Voice Memos (iOS) or Voice Recorder (Android), or any similar basic onboard recording app is all you need to tap into that boundary-expanding technique, and it’s even easier to use than an old cassette recorder. (Check out Daniel’s lesson for more advice on how to make the most out of a practice session using your smartphone.)
It used to take a professional studio filled with expensive equipment to make recordings, but thanks to apps like GarageBand (iOS) and BandLab (Android), even the tech-averse can quickly and easily make multitrack recordings, add pre-programmed beats or even a string section, and share them with collaborators. Adding features to each of these apps expands what you can do, but even straight from the box, they are mighty powerful and allow you to produce nearly professional-grade recordings from the comfort of your home or wherever the inspiration hits. Any of these apps are also super for capturing a riff or song idea at the moment the inspiration is firing.
While uke club gatherings might be off the menu for the moment, you and your strum pals can still make tracks with Acapella, an app that lets you record up to ten minutes of video that you can multitrack for adding instruments or vocals to collaborations. Or, you can be a one-person band and do it all yourself.
Playing & Learning
Since its beginning in the mid-2000s, YouTube has been a major contributor to the groundswell of ukulele popularity. A pivotal moment for the third wave of ukulele popularity and for the infant video service was Jake Shimabukuro’s important (and off-the-cuff) 2006 video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” With many of the previously mentioned categories available in one place, and a seemingly endless supply of accessible video lessons, reviews, player interviews, and recordings, YouTube is sort of the 800-pound gorilla in the app store and is utterly essential to any level of player who wants to dig deeper into everything ukulele. There’s so much there to discover that it’s one of the best/worst rabbit holes ever created for learning and distraction. Several other big players in the instrument business have stepped in with their own branded lesson content and few have been more successful than Kala’s Ukulele Tuner and Songbook app or Fender Play, a subscription-based app for ukulele, guitar, and bass lessons that has soared in popularity during the COVID era. Other popular uke learning apps to check out include The Ukulele App, from John “The Ukulele Teacher” Atkins, with a tuner, chord library, reverse chord lookup, and over 400 lessons from the popular YouTube ukulele teacher; the TrueFire app (requires membership), which has a series of lessons from Ukulele magazine contributor Marcy Marxer; and Ukeoke, a “ukulele karaoke” app that displays songs in a play-along format with adjustable backing tracks and lyrics, and listens in on your playing to give you feedback on how to improve. There are over 100 free songs to play, with more available for paid members.
Ready access to tabs and sheet music on the web has helped countless players learn their favorite tunes, and now a few apps can give players a lifetime of music downloaded and ready to play, right in your back pocket. It sure beats carrying bulky songbooks to strum sessions. For chords to popular rock, country, and folk songs, it’s almost impossible to match Ultimate Guitar for the sheer volume of songs to pick for ukulele, ukulele bass, or guitar. The free version is stuffed with music to play, but you can also up the ante by going Pro ($39.99/year), which unlocks thousands of official note-for-note tabs that you can transpose into any key and share with friends. Single-page chord charts available to players in “fake book” formats have long been essential for home practice and gigs, and now many of the classics of jazz, country, Hawaiian, and bluegrass, are available in an app for those times when the basic chord chart is all you need to entertain an audience or woodshed on a standard. iReal Pro is the modern version of the fake book, and for $13.99 you get access to thousands of charts. It’s become nearly essential for anyone on who gigs, and the app makes it easy to construct a playlist that you can share with your bandmates so that everyone is on the same page, so to speak. In addition to downloading curated playlists, you can also make your own charts of originals or covers and play along with rhythm tracks to help you lock up your groove and improve your feel.
Because we can’t play or practice ukulele all of the time, some of us find comfort and thrill in shopping for ukes and uke-related things. Happily, there are several apps that make scrolling and buying easy. For instrument shopping, established sellers like Reverb and eBay are a window-shopper’s paradise. Both apps channel their respective websites and are populated with a constantly refreshed parade of new and used instruments and accessories, with much of the new stuff coming from dealers and used items coming from private sellers. Of course large retailers are not missing the game, either, and Guitar Center and its sister business Musician’s Friend, as well as large indy powerhouse Sweetwater, also have apps that make browsing for their stocks of mostly beginner and step-up instruments easy. They also have very appealing return policies, which are often not available through eBay or Reverb. Great, often lower-cost instruments also show up regularly on local sites like Craigslist or OfferUp, and you may find yourself checking them daily, just in case something sweet pops up nearby. But maybe that’s just me.
Special thanks to Daniel Ward, Taimane, and Craig Chee for their input.