ukulele super mario

If you can play the guitar, any instrument with strings, a fretboard and a sound box holds no secrets. Right? Our editor Teo soon found out how incredibly wrong he was, when he decided to learn to play the ukulele. This weekend is play your ukulele day, are you ready for a challenge?

At Chordify HQ, we enjoy a good challenge every now and then. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a good thing. I wanted to try something new, play something different than my old friend the guitar. Ukulele, how hard could it be? 

Teo’s Ukulele Journey begins

My weapon of choice is an Ohana soprano ukulele with nylon strings. The instrument is tuned – at least according to my newly installed tuner app – in C6 tuning. I haven’t got the slightest idea what this means, except that the first string is tuned in A4, the second in E4, the third in C4 and the fourth in G4. 

Now this is where the confusion starts. Did I say the guitar is my first instrument? Well, it’s actually the bass guitar. Also four strings, but tuned the same way as the guitar. With the ukulele, I kind of hoped this also would be the case. Boy, was I wrong.

Confusion

The challenge I came up with, is actually pretty straightforward: learning to play the classic Nintendo tune of Super Mario. How difficult can it be? But when I get my hands on the soprano, strum the strings once, I realize that I have no idea how to handle this tiny instrument.

Where should I start? With a series of automatic muscle spasms, I try out some standard guitar grips. It sounds like I’m brutally strangling the poor thing and it’s trying to fight back with all its tiny might. Slight panic. Nothing feels right about this weird little guitar. And this fretboard is way – and I mean way – too small. This challenge sucks!

No pain no gain

It takes me a while before I can get a grip, both literally and emotionally. “Nobody said it was going to be fun,” a smiling colleague tells me. And she’s right. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a challenge. 

I start to laugh at my own stupidity when I think of all the blog posts I’ve written about motivation and routine, persevering and just keep on trying. I did none of these things… First, break the whole thing up into small, manageable parts. Take it step by step, says the little voice in my head. Or find a coach.

Tutorials

A brief search on Chordify leads me to a few versions of the Super Mario tune. I try playing along, but the chords are so very different from what I’m used to, and I just can’t seem to keep up, so this isn’t the right approach. After some cursing and clicking, I end up watching a tutorial.

Here, my freshly picked YouTube teacher explains how you can easily break up the song into pieces. He then slowly plays the track bit by bit and names the chords and keys. That last part, I can understand as a guitar player. After all, music theory is the same regardless of the instrument. There’s hope, I can feel it. Soon, Super Teo is going to play Super Mario like a boss.

Baby steps

The little ukulele neck is hell. I have small hands and rather thin fingers, but they’re still too big and clumsy for this instrument. Switching from chord to chord doesn’t sound pretty. Frustration strikes again, but at least I seem to have mastered the intro. That gives me hope. 

It sounds very sloppy, but almost recognizable. It’s all about baby steps, I have to remind myself. Small steps are valuable, because this emotional rollercoaster teaches me a number of things: respect for the instrument, appreciation for the song and, above all, humility.

Almost there, but not quite

A week after I picked up my new friend the ukulele for the first time, I manage to get some pretty good notes out of the small instrument. My ego slowly takes over and the idea that I should be able to nail my challenge within a day, makes me feel hyped.

Still, it becomes painfully clear that although I know the basics of the song, a lot of the parts are not yet in place. My technique is sloppy, I don’t seem to manage changing chords quickly enough and when I do, they sound like crap. On top of that, there’s a whole middle section in the tune that I try to play by ear, which of course fails every time. 

Extra tools

You can’t play the entire Super Mario tune with chords only. There’s a section in the middle that requires some plucking. I keep trying to figure it out by ear, but it’s clear from the start that I have no idea what I’m doing. Yet, my ego persists. Being stubborn results in a few more days of frustration. 

I finally decide to take a look at the tablature the YouTube teacher recommends. Well, of course I should have done that right away, because after about 15 minutes, the riff is crystal clear and I’m able to play it without any problems. In fact, I find the solution to a few other small bottlenecks too. 

End game

I’m sporadically practicing at Chordify HQ for more than two weeks in total. The process is a lot harder than I could have imagined, but it feels like the end is finally in sight. With effort, I can play the entire Super Mario tune. Barely though. And even though it sounds pretty crappy, I’m hopeful.

Dotting the “i” and crossing the “t”, is a skill in itself. You have to be able to put your pride and stubbornness aside and be honest with yourself about which parts of the song need extra attention. In my case, that’s – still –  the middle section with the small riff and the final part where you have to change chords pretty quickly.

Victory

It takes me another three days before I have mastered everything and I have the courage to play it in front of my colleagues. The night before, I dream about playing Super Mario. I see the difficult parts in front of me on the ukulele, sometimes I get stuck and other times my fingers race effortlessly through the sections of the song.

When I wake up, I just know it: it’s time for an Instagram post to share with my friends from all over the world what an incredibly useful project I’ve been working on for three weeks. Now that I have finally mastered the Super Mario tune, the whole challenge feels almost pointless. But in retrospect, I’ve learned a lot more than I thought I would.

Lessons learned

One of the most important takeaways from this quest, is that you can learn a lot, just by playing. I now know where to find the A7 chord and the G chord on the ukulele. From there, I can easily figure out the whole fretboard. Moreover, my appreciation for the instrument has definitely increased. I really love the the sound of the harmonies you can create with this tiny little devil.

As far as the learning process goes, I bumped into my ego several times. It’s difficult to surrender yourself to the idea that you have to learn a skill you thought you already had. Reminding myself that every journey starts by taking small steps, pushed me through. Loved this challenge. I can recommend it to everyone. Try it yourself. Happy jamming!

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