When playing music is a pain

With many people taking up ukulele later in life, fingers, hands and shoulders don’t always cooperate to make playing a comfortable experience. Determined ukulele players are unstoppable, however, and have found ways to keep those strings ringing…

photo: Hriana | dreamstime.com

Arthritis and other joint pain, injury, accident, repetitive strain and quirks you were born with can put a dampener on your efforts to always coax sweet, melodious sounds from your instrument. The most important concept to embrace is that when it comes to uke, if the sound you want isn’t happening via conventional means, there is complete, unfettered freedom to do it any which way that does make it happen!

Like any sport, mild stretching and a warm up before launching into a Bach cantata or your impersonation of Jake Shimabukuro is a good place to start. Stretching relieves tension, increases blood flow and can help prevent tendonitis. It’s important to be gentle enough not to cause pain, but committed enough to feel the effects. Below are a few of my regulars.

Arm, wrist and hand - stretch your arms straight in front of you, pushing the heels of your hands out slightly, with your fingers and hands pointing up. Use one hand to gently pull the fingers of the other towards you until you feel a stretch in your hand and wrist. Do the same with the other hand. Drop one hand the other way so the fingers are facing down, and gently put weight on the curled wrist, giving it and the hand a different stretch. Repeat with the other hand.

Wrist swivel - this can be a gentle shake to further release any tension, or balled fists given a concerted swivel followed by a shake.

Shoulder tension release - shoulder tension is very common amongst ukulele players using every ounce of concentrated energy to learn a new song or play a bunch of ornery chords. The release consists of imagining you can block your ears with your shoulders, attempting to do so, then coming to your senses by letting the shoulders give in to gravity, allowing weighty burdens to roll off and reminding yourself what relaxed shoulders actually feel like.

Easy strumming and none-too-tricky-chords are a good warm up. Then it’s time to see if any of the following methods will work for you as they have for the ukulele players I have learned them from.


The ‘B flat was designed to torture me’ crew have come up with three different ways of dealing with this seemingly innocuous major chord. People with broad enough fingers can quite often press the two strings near the nut (A and E, first fret) with one substantial digit from above, instead of putting massive pressure on the flattened index finger or bending it backwards at the first joint to achieve this. Alternatively, playing Bb like a barre chord A by putting the index finger right across the first fret and playing the rest of the chord like an A but on frets two and three can be a pressure release. Option three is to play it like a G chord on frets five and six, avoiding the top G string, or including your pinky on it at the seventh fret.


Dm can be subject to similar treatment as the first Bb option - the C and G strings can be flattened with a single, good sized digit. For Dm7, instead of a pinky being brought into play, an index finger planted across the fifth fret achieves a much simpler version.


Next cab off the rank is the Bbm hold. I’ve been calling this the Jimi Hendrix method as that largely convention-free genius sometimes did a similar thing. Try it with the base of your index finger sitting flush with the back of the neck, the rest of it curving around to flatten onto the three bottom strings on the first fret, then hooking your thumb over the top of the fretboard to take its place on the third fret of the G string. Personally I find this barely possible but several people I know use it in peace and happiness.


‘Let’s ignore the A string’ is a mostly effective way of playing D and anything resembling D (eg E, F) up the neck, with just one finger. The index finger clamps the top three strings to the fretboard at the required fret but just doesn’t quite put enough pressure onto the A string to allow it to ring. Sneaky, but faster and with generally less wrist stress than the barre chord + pinky configuration.


Whenever possible, I avoid grasping the neck with the thumb while using other fingers to fret, as placing the thumb in the middle of the back of the neck and curving the wrist and fingers onto the fretboard from above allows for greater dexterity and speed in achieving tricky chord shapes or plucked pieces. It’s a very traditional hand position, however, and if it causes pain, or is part of the problem, put your hand in whatever position allows you to play a chord or note more easily and get to the next one in time.


Stretches between songs is a good habit to relieve tension, and a few steady, deep breaths are also a wonderful relaxant. When starting out playing or trying a new, difficult song, it often seems as if you have to put a lot of strength into fretting chords so that they’ll ring properly. Most of the time this isn’t true at all, hand position and finger placement are what make the strings ring. As a demonstration of this, play a standard C chord and experiment to see how little pressure you actually need for the C note on the A string to ring clearly.


If there’s a chord or note you have trouble achieving, see if, like other ukers, you can co-opt a thumb, use fewer fingers or find a more forgiving version up the neck. Try moving your fretting hand around in ways you’d never thought probable and remember the only rule is, if it works for you, it’s right!