So you want to join the ukulele resurgence? Here’s a crash course.
If you’re sure you want to play the uke, avoid the very cheapest colourful ones. Even if you replace the strings, they’re too hard to keep in tune. In New Zealand, the Makalas with a dolphin bridge are actually a not-bad uke at about NZ$40, but make sure the music shop sets them up properly for you. I especially like the Flukes and Fleas (pictured) from Flea Market Music, which you can get for about US$200 and US$170 respectively. They have a plastic back and fretboard, and an excellent tone for the price. You could order online (Flea Market ship to New Zealand for about USA$45, and there's no customs duty, though you'll have to pay GST), but support your local independent music store if at all possible. A soprano is a good size for beginners, or a tenor if you want a more guitar-like sound. Many people, like me, get one of each.
You really need to get a tuner, preferably an electronic one—I've recently become a fan of clip-on tuners—and maybe a capo. A strap is also useful, especially for a larger uke—mandolin straps work. That’s about it for accessories.
Most ukes are tuned in C, strung GCEA with a re-entrant (high) G. I string my tenor with a low G, and the only low G strings I like are made by Worth. It’s not a bad idea to get a new set of strings (Aquila are also good) and replace the generic ones your uke comes with (here’s how). I like the sound of unwound nylon strings better.
I started playing by printing out a chord chart (get mine from the Free Stuff page) and reading various suggestions for technique. You don’t need to learn how to fingerpick at the beginning, but it’s good to memorise the names of the notes on the fretboard eventually. I’d also recommend learning to read music, and some music theory so you can understand how chords are constructed (this book is dry but good). Maybe a DVD course (many people like Ralph Shaw’s course). And, well, there’s always my book too. Sing, even if you can’t really. Play for your friends, so long as you don’t become a ukulele bore.
Where to find music? There’s some music with chords at Ukulele Boogaloo, Brook Adams’ site, and Ukulele Hunt. You can find plenty just by searching on guitar chord sites like Chordie or Ultimate Guitar; the chord names are the same, even though uke fingering is different. I love this excellent interactive ukulele chord finder, which gives multiple versions of every chord; you can download it too. If you get familiar with the guitar fretboard it’s even possible to convert guitar tabs for the uke.
What to play? If you like old-timey standards or Hawaiian music, go for it, but I don’t. Play what you normally listen to; most bands have one or two songs that work well for the ukulele. I regularly play at least a couple of songs by the Magnetic Fields (Stephin Merritt, right, loves his uke), the White Stripes, Death Cab for Cutie, Belle & Sebastian, Jonathan Coulton, the Mountain Goats, and They Might Be Giants. It’s fun to be ironic and play Nirvana or the Sex Pistols on the ukulele, but the gag wears thin unless you have the knack of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
To learn more, keep track of some of the uke sites, like the Flea Market Forum or Ukulelia; see my links page for others. Find local players, on the web or through your music store, and jam. If they’re all middle-aged guys who only play the Beatles and vaudeville tunes, well, form your own group.
Have fun. With a ukulele, it’s hard not to.