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Grand Theft Ukulele

gta v michael

No, I did not steal my ukulele, as the title of this post may imply. I bought my uke fair and square from the magical leprechaun that lives in the hollowed out oak tree on the edge of my property. I got a great price, but unfortunately all I can play is Danny Boy and if I go thirty minutes without playing, I bray like a donkey.

What I’m finding out as I navigate the twisted paths of musical incompetence, is that there’s a lot to learn when picking up an instrument, and if one isn’t careful, one can get lost in the weeds, spending more time deciding what to work on than actually working on it. Don’t get me started on watching YouTube videos. Man, it’s great that there are so many resources available for free lessons, but when you’re in the middle of watching your tenth video on chunking, you realize that at some point, you have to just start chunking yourself.

Thank heavens I have all of this open world gaming experience to fall back on.

saints row 3

Open world games are probably my favorite kind of game, having eclipsed the RPG somewhere around inFAMOUS 2. That wasn’t even all that great of an open world game, either, which just goes to prove my point. There’s something about starting with a map full of activities, as in most open world games, and whittling down those icons, one by one, until your section of the map is clear. Then, once that is done, you pick a new section and start all over again. Sure, not all of the activities are going to be winners, but as long as most of them are enjoyable and the story and/or characters are serviceable, I’m happy to run around for hours finding lost hoozy-whatsits and taking on the occasional odd job here and there.

Unfortunately, every time I start an open world game, I’m faced with the same paralyzing indecision that follows me from game to game. Once the initial tutorial missions are done, what do I do first? Are there entire runs of activities that I can do at once or do I need a certain car or a certain friend or a certain weapon before I can do all of them? Can I go grab all of the collectibles at once or do I need more of the map unlocked? Is it worth hunting for things now or will I somehow be able to get a map of things later? It usually takes me a little while before I can come up with a plan on how to attack my various tasks and once I have a plan, I’m content to execute on the plan and start knocking down objectives.


Learning an instrument is the same way. There is so much to learn about music that if you spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to do all of it, you’ll never get anywhere. I already knew about beats and measures and I have no interest right now in learning music theory or being able to read sheet music, so that cuts out a large swath right there, but even with that gone, what should I work on every night? Should I practice nothing but chords and chord changes? Should I practice good strumming technique? Should I do scales? Should I try and learn a song? If I do pick a song, should I do a song with chords, one with finger picking, one with both?

At first it was way too much and I bounced from thing to thing before I realized that this was getting me nowhere, it was all too frantic and not the slightest bit focused. I finally decided to try and learn a song as learning songs was the whole reason I started playing and if I learned a song I’d learn chords, chord changes, proper strumming and rhythm all at once.

The song I chose was “How Far We’ve Come” by Matchbox 20. It’s not like I’m the world’s biggest Matchbox 20 fan. I mean if I hear them on the radio, I probably won’t change the channel, but they don’t play them on the stations I listen to, so that probably won’t happen. I do like this particular song and I know it fairly well from the radio stations I listen to when the kids are around. Plus, and this is the important part, the whole song can be done with the C, G, Am and F chords, which are not only pretty easy to learn and switch between but also make up a staggering number of songs. In short, if you know G, C, Am and F, you know a lot of songs, you just don’t know that you know them. Sure, the chord progression may be different and the strum patterns are different, but if you know the chords and how to easily go between them, the hard part is done.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Unfortunately, when I learned my G chord, I learned it incorrectly and I have since started relearning the chord. It’s possible that I didn’t have to relearn it, but I know so little right now that I wasn’t sure if the most common finger placement was the most common because it makes switching chords easier. I do know that’s not the case now, but muscle memory is a double edged sword. My chord changes aren’t too bad and I memorized the song’s chord progression a lot faster than I ever thought I would, so my biggest problem right now is timing. When you hear a song, you may think, hey, that’s a fast little ditty. Yeah, try and play it and it feels like the song is playing at a crawl and you’re playing at hyperspeed. I’m sure speed metal fans out there are laughing at me, but I swear, I get so ahead of the beat that it is physically uncomfortable to slow down and play it at the right speed. I tried playing with a metronome and that wasn’t working out, so instead I’d play along with the song itself. I know that eventually I’ll have to learn how to play with a metronome, but right now, I’m all about progress.

Once I’ve mastered playing, I’ll throw in trying to sing, which will require an entirely new skill set and once I’ve learned that, I’ll move on to another song and start the process all over again, just like moving on to a new section of Liberty City or Hong Kong or wherever. I’ve already started a bunch of other songs, so I have jumped ahead of myself, but the point is that learning a new song will require the same process of breaking down the song to learn when to change chords, learning how to change chords, how to strum and finally, how to keep time, just as I did with the first song. If I keep on repeating that, eventually I’ll have a nice little library of tunes I can bust out at the drop of a hat. Just the thing I need for my upcoming career change to street musician.

I’m hoping that once I hit the eventual plateau that I’ll remember the long, grindy sections of my favorite open world games and just grit my teeth and get through it to get to the rewards on the other side. An exciting cavalcade of musical pleasure awaits, so I’ll just have to keep that in mind. Just to be safe though, I’m going to wire my uke to play the achievement unlocked sound every time I make a successful chord change.

Ukulele Hero


On Friday night I finished Assassin’s Creed III, hands down, the worst of the non-handheld Assassin’s Creed games and an absolute bucket of horse piss of a game, series pedigree notwithstanding. On Saturday I bought a ukulele. The two events are not unrelated but not in a “AC III was so bad that it drove me to renounce earthly possessions and go live in a hut” kind of way, more in a rethinking the hobby kind of way.

skylanders swap force

Before I go further, I need to say that I still love games. I still love playing them and reading about them and anticipating them. I’m excited to hear about the new consoles, less so if this “always connected, no used games” rumor about the next Xbox turns into a reality, but hey, I hear this PC thing is pretty cool, so I can always fall back on that. I got all excited about the new Skylanders game dropping this fall, I’m looking forward to seeing what Sony has to say in February and I’m disappointed that I won’t be attending this year’s E3.

That being said, I’m also tired of playing games simply to have something to play. For a long time, I’ve been the guy who is always playing something, even when what I’m playing is being played simply to fill a void and not because I have anything better to do. When I was editing this week’s show, and I heard myself say that I’d be playing certain games because “I’d be playing something any way”, or however I said it, I stopped and asked myself why that was. I’m not talking about when I’m working out, because that’s a different beast altogether, but I’m talking about at night when I’m hanging out and have some down time.

Part of my constant level of game playing activity is left over from when I was getting paid to write about games. Freelancing is like being a shark in that if you don’t keep moving, you die. Stop taking gigs and people will stop offering them and then you’ve got nothing. Plus, if you’re not writing, you’re not earning, so it meant nothing to me to take crappy review assignments because at least it meant I was earning. Now that I’m not getting paid for it, if I don’t want to play anything, I don’t have to. I still have a responsibility to this site and to the podcast to play stuff, but as I’m not giving up games altogether, I don’t see that as being an issue.

eddie ukulele

So why the ukulele? I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, and even tried back when Linda and I were living in Seattle, but learning the guitar is hard with very little progress to show early on other than being able to plink out children’s songs. At least it was back when I was learning it, in the pre-internet days of yore when we communicated via smoke signals and carrier pigeons. I’d been reading about the ukulele for a while, ever since John Scalzi started playing it, and it seemed to fit what I wanted out of an instrument namely it’s small, inexpensive and easy to learn. Small means that I can bring it to work and practice on my lunch hour rather than driving around looking for toys, inexpensive means that if I don’t like it, I’m not out much and easy to learn means that I can start seeing progress early, which in turn keeps me practicing. The fact that Eddie Vedder plays one may have had something to do with it as well.

So far, my experience has shown that all of those things hold true. I’ve been playing every day since Saturday and I know enough chords and can manage chord changes and a vaguely competent strum pattern to the point where my kids are impressed and my wife has gone so far as to say that what I’m playing sounds like music. This is a far cry from when she used to banish me to the bedroom for my Seattle practice sessions.

It certainly helps that there are so many learning resources available online for no charge. that the hardest part when starting is narrowing down which sites you’re going to use. The same thing goes for sites that offer up tablature and chord diagrams for popular songs. If you can think of a song, someone has probably done a uke tab diagram for it. Sure, you may have to figure out the strum pattern, but with enough experimentation, you can come up with something that works in no time.

I mean, let’s be honest here. I’m 40 years old. I’m not going to be in a band. I don’t give a crap about music theory at this point, although I’m open to learning it down the line, and outside of my family, no one is ever going to hear me torture my uke in the hopes of learning “Pumped Up Kicks”. All I want is something I can play around with, something that challenges my brain and my dexterity, and something that I can do that doesn’t require a power outlet and/or a television. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been puttering around the house without anything to do, unwilling to let my kids see the latest game that I’m playing, and unable to sequester myself away. Now, when I have these times, I can practice playing, most likely my kids will leave on account of me being terrible and I can play my violent game in peace. Everybody wins!