Let’s Play Ukulele: A Great Use of Dynamic Website Design

What does the Leisurely Historian do in his leisure time?

Well, given that I’m a grad student, there’s not a whole lot leisure time, to be honest. I spend most of it feeling guilty that I’m not working or reading.

But over winter break, I finally broke down and did something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I bought a ukulele. I love the sound, it’s easy to play, it’s compact, the small neck is easy for my somewhat stubby and ungraceful fingers.

Playing the ukulele isn’t like playing guitar, though. There’s not as many people who play it. I have two friends who even own one– one lives over an hour away, in Baltimore, and the other lives in Texas. Lessons are out, too. When was the last time you looked at a bulletin board and saw someone advertising uke lessons?

So, being the nerd that I am, I turned to the internet. And let me tell you, the net is the friendliest place in the world for a fledgling ukulele player. The ukulele lessons on the newly-launched Ukulele Underground are amazingly well-done. Sheep Entertainment’s Ukulele Chord Finder was a godsend. I especially enjoy that the flash program itself can be downloaded onto your computer, so you don’t have to be online to remember what a D# 7sus4 looks like when you come across it in tablature.

There’s the rub, though– tablature. Most tabs you find online are for guitar, which has a different tuning. So my only recourse has been, when I’m not using the (limited, but still quite impressive in their variety) uke tabs on Ukulele Boogalloo, has been to find the guitar tabs, open up the chord finder, and figure it out from there.

Tom Smith, the author of The Let’s Play Ukulele Songbook, has done ukulele novices everywhere a serious solid, though, with his new site Let’s Play Ukulele. This is an inspired use of dynamic website design.

I haven’t bothered to look under the hood, but from what I can tell, the site mostly works to compile things found elsewhere. Guitar tab sheets– which can be found all over the web– are brought in, and (again, from what I can tell) metadata as to the artist, title, and chords used in each song are attached. Image files of the appropriate ukulele fingering for each chord are appended to the top of the file. One can search by song or artist, of course, but that’s too basic.

The really exciting search ability is to search based on the chords you know, so you can find songs that you can play immediately. The results are then ordered by the number of chords per song, so that the simplest songs come first. It’s rather brilliant, a great tool for people who are trying to learn the instrument.

However, the most exciting part is where Tom goes one step further. On the logic that the easiest songs to play are the ones you know, and know well, the site gives you the ability to put in your last.fm username, and provide you automatically with songs you actually listen to– again, in order of ease of play!

To give you some idea how this works, here’s my results page.

It’s certainly not “scholarly,” but I think this is an excellent example of what digital pedagogy is really capable of. Even getting personalized lessons, I wouldn’t be able to find a teacher who would be able to teach exclusively songs that are to my taste. The ability to search, to remix, to deal with large amounts of data, and to do so in a user-friendly, simple interface– this is really an indication of how digital media can be used to individualize, to tailor what we learn and how, to engage students…

It’s still in alpha, and it can be a little buggy, but this site is great, and really instructive. Even if you have no interest in playing the ukulele (though I’d argue you should reconsider that, as well) you should check it out, and play around with it a bit.