A primer on tuners

Last week we looked at getting set up on the ukulele. This week we’ll look at tuners. If there is one piece of equipment that every musician should have it is a tuner.


Why should you tune your instrument?

Ok, so you might think this is a silly question to be asked but it’s really important that you know why you tune up before playing. Firstly, much like practicing with a metronome makes it easier to play with other musicians, so too does keeping your instrument “in tune”. If it’s not in tune, even an untrained ear will know that something is amiss. If the overall sound is higher then you refer to the notes as being sharp and likewise if they are lower you would say they are flat. If the notes all match up we say that they are “in tune”.


Why do instruments go out of tune?

Almost anything can have an effect on the tuning of your instrument. Environmental factors such as the ambient temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure etc. etc. can have a significant effect on tuning. Likewise general use of the instrument will require you to re-tune after a while.


HeadstockHow do I tune?

On stringed instruments there are pegs on the head-stock of the instrument that will raise or lower the pitch of each string. On violins and similar instruments there are additional screws on the bridge side of the instrument to “fine tune” each string.


Wind instruments require you to lengthen or shorten the instrument to tune up. By lengthening the instrument it will lower the overall pitch of the instrument, likewise shortening the instrument will raise it.


What should I use?

There are a number of options available for musicians. Today we’ll be going through the main types of tuning each of which comes with their own advantages and disadvantages:


  1. Relative pitch tuning

This is where you get one of the instruments in your group to provide a reference note. This note is usually provided by an instrument that can’t easily retune e.g. a piano, accordion etc. String players playing by themselves can use the thickest string as their reference note and tune the remaining strings. This will be covered in another post at a later date.


A group of musicians can be quickly set up using this method. However each would need to be experienced at tuning their instruments.


  1. Tuning_ForkTuning Fork

By far one of the most ancient means of tuning. A tuning fork resonates at a particular when stuck. This provides your reference tone and allows a solo instrumentalist to tune up. Again the same methods of relative pitch tuning are used when using a tuning fork. So this is definitely one for the more experienced musicians.


  1. Pitch_PipesPitch Pipes

By blowing into a pitch pipe it provides a reference note for you. The most common ones made have notes which correspond to the 6 strings of a guitar but can also be found in chromatic form. While they don’t require as much skill to use as a tuning fork they do take some getting used to.


  1. gStringsSmartphone Apps

There are a lot of apps available for free to help musicians practice their craft. By searching the name of your instrument and the word “Tuner” (e.g. “Guitar Tuner”) you will be provided with a selection of apps to try out. If you like you can also look up “Chromatic Tuner” in the Play Store or App Store. Here’s how it works:


Activate the tuner and play a note into it. It will then display the note it detects and how close you are to being “In tune”. If the dial veers to the left it means the note is “flat” and you need to raise the pitch of the instrument (i.e. tighten the string on your guitar/violin etc. or shorten the length of the wind instrument). Likewise the dial will veer to the right if the note is too “sharp” and therefore needs to be lowered (i.e. loosen the string etc. etc.)


The advantage of this one is the cost and convenience. However the microphone on your phone picks up EVERYTHING. So if there’s a lot of noise you’ll find it difficult to get in tune.


  1. Chromatic_TunerElectronic Tuner

An electronic tuner (like the Korg CA-1) operates under the same principles are the app. An in-built microphone detects the note being played and reports on whether or not it is in tune and if it’s out of tune, what adjustments need to be made.


These are by far superior to a smartphone app but still encounter the same obstacles. To overcome this, a lot of electronic tuners will also have the ability for you to “plug in” your instrument for a more direct result. This however can only be done if your instrument has a pickup installed within it.


  1. Clip_On_TunerClip-on tuner

These tuners are designed more for guitars and similar instruments (i.e. instruments with a head-stock e.g. banjo, ukulele, mandolin etc.) Rather than rely on a microphone they detect vibrations within the instrument itself. As such, they are quite handy to use when in a somewhat noisy environment.


  1. Pedal_TunerPedal Tuner

Pedal tuners (like the Boss TU-3) are useful only to those whose instruments can “plug in” i.e. have a pickup installed. When activated (by pressing it with your foot) it does not feed any sound into the PA system while you are tuning up. It’s key advantage is that while your tuning your audience won’t be subjected to a near-constant “twang” as you get the guitar/ukulele/banjo etc. in tune. A quick tap with your foot brings your guitar back into action and you’re ready to go again.


What is the best tuner to use?

It all depends on the context. A smartphone app is great when you’re in a quiet environment e.g. practicing at home but electronic tuners would be better again. For ease of access and more noisy environments a clip-on tuner would be better than an app or an electronic tuner. When doing a gig the best by far is a pedal tuner, but a clip-on tuner would be just as functional.

Getting started on the ukulele

imagesThe ukulele (pronounced “oo – koo – lay – lay”) is one of the world’s most popular instruments for three reasons:

  1. It is one of the cheapest instruments to buy
  2. It is easy to learn to play it
  3. It is easily one of the most portable instruments out there

Today we’re going to get you set up on the ukulele with a quick primer on the ukulele. To do so I’ll answer the most frequently asked questions that new ukulele players have asked me.



What is a good starter ukulele?

Most people when they ask this are quite baffled to find out that you can get set up with a decent ukulele for between €20 and €30.

I would recommend starting off with a soprano ukulele. Here are a few examples:


How do I hold it?

The neck of the ukulele should be held by your non-dominant hand (i.e. if you write with your right hand then this would be your left hand). You strum or pluck the strings using your left hand.


What should I strum with?

Traditionally ukulele players would brush the strings using their index finger of your dominant hand (i.e. the hand you write with). However if you prefer you can use a plectrum (like what you use on a guitar). If you do use a plectrum the lighter the plectrum the better. Ideally you should get a felt plectrum. The ones I recommend can be bought from Charles Byrne Music, Dublin 2 (Click to go to their online store)


Courtesy of Ukuguides

Courtesy of Ukuguides

Where on the ukulele should I strum?

There is a hole in the body of the ukulele called the “sound hole”. You should aim for somewhere between the edge of the sound hole and the start of the fingerboard.


How do I tune it?

From top to bottom the strings are tuned to the notes G, C, E and A. To remember this remember the phrase “Gruesome Cats Eat Animals”. You can download apps onto your smartphone like gStrings (for android devices) and Guitar Tuna (for apple devices). However I would recommend buying a clip-on tuner which you can get from any music store.


Click for a full guide

What chords can I learn?

Firstly lets go over how to reads a chord diagram (See example to the left). Chords are normally written on a grid like the nearby example. The name of the chord is written above this grid. The topmost horizontal line represents the nut of the ukulele (which the strings go over the fingerboard from). The remaining horizontal line represent the bars separating each fret. The vertical lines represent the strings (remember that the topmost string is G). The dots represent where your fingers go.

You can see an expanded guide by clicking here.



Your fingers on your chord making hand are numbered 1 to 4. Your index is number 1, middle is number 2 and so on. Generally speaking each finger will look after its own fret i.e. finger 1 will go to fret 1, finger two to fret two and so on.


Every ukulele player should start off by learning the 4 chord trick. These chords are the most commonly used chords in songs you would hear on the radio. As you will see the animation shows each chord and how to move from one to the next. I have also provided a little counter so you can practice moving between them in order.

Animation of chord changes

Animation of chord changes

Start out by doing each chord by itself.

Once you have mastered this, try following the counter. Play each chord on beat one and use two, three and four to change to the next chord.

Then try strumming every beat and changing to the next chord following the animation as closely as possible.


What songs can I play now?

If you have mastered these 4 chords, have a go of the following songs:

  1. Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues
  2. Train – Hey Soul Sister
  3. Vance Joy – Riptide

You can also check out the other tunes available on the ukulele songs page


Where can I learn more?

If you live in the Arklow, Co. Wicklow area there are two options available. You can come to The Breffni, Main Street, Arklow on a Tuesday night (6:30pm for beginners, 8pm for the main session – €5 per person) or alternatively you can get private lessons (for more information, click here)

Top 5 Android Apps For Musicians

So last week we talked about the world’s most frequently used excuse, “I didn’t have the time”. This week we are going to look at how you can use your smartphone to help yourself improve as a musician. So without further ado, let’s have a look at the top 5 free android apps for musicians:

  1. gStringsgStrings – Free

This app uses your android phone’s in-built microphone to figure out whether or not you are in tune. This is a chromatic tuner so it can be used to tune any instrument not just a guitar. This is unbelievably handy when you need to get an instrument in tune quickly.


  1. Mobile_MetronomeMobile Metronome

Put simply, a metronome is something that makes a noise (usually a click or a beep) at regular intervals and that is exactly what this app does. Whether you are just running through a few scales or practicing your latest piece you should always have a metronome running and to follow it down to the last click.


  1. Audio_RecorderAudio Recorder

In my previous post about practicing we talked about how recording yourself playing is the best way to hear how well you are doing. This app is easy to use and records in multiple formats too.  It’s my favourite app!



  1. Perfect_EarPerfect Ear 2

If you fancy learning some music theory or just brushing up on it; this is the app for you. It goes through rhythm, scales, melodic dictation etc. Everything a growing musician needs!



  1. KeepGoogle Keep

Whether it’s noting down some lyrics you suddenly thought of, making a list of songs you want to learn or just keeping a couple of notes to remind you of something this is a really good app. I use it to keep track of lyrics personally but also to remember what pieces I’ve done with each of my students.


The worst excuse: “I didn’t have the time!”

Last week we discussed 5 tips to improve how you practice. Today we are going to discuss the most frequently used excuse out there. Today, I plan on showing why this is the lamest excuse to give:
“I didn’t have the time!”



What time is it?

Arnold Bennett wrote a book back in 1910 called “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day” (You can find a copy at Project Gutenberg – Click Here). In this book, he goes about showing how much time is actually wasted in our day-to-day lives that that if indeed we wanted to do something, we could.


The bit that convinced me involves a little bit of maths:

There are 168 hours in a week.

The average person sleeps 8 hours a day. So in a week they would sleep 56 hours. This leaves 112 hours.

The average person eats 3 meals a day. Assuming that we allow 1 hour for each meal this would mean that 21 hours are taken up eating. This leaves 91 hours.

The average adult works 8 hours per day for 5 days a week (Your lunch break is accounted for under “meals”). Taking these 40 hours away we still have 51 hours remaining.

According to the Central Statistics Office (Ireland) the average commute to work is just under 30 minutes. Assuming it takes the same time coming back that is 1 hour per day. So 5 hours from 51 hours leaves 46 hours.


Is this the best use of my time?

Is this the best use of my time?

This means we have 46 hours remaining in the week to call spare time. That is a full time job, with lunch breaks and an hour to spare!


The big question to ask yourself now is,
“What are you doing with those 46 hours?”

Why don’t we take a look?


According to The Irish Times we spend just under 3.5 hours a day watching TV. That’s 25.5 hours per week.

According to this article on breakingnews.ie the average time spent on Social Media is 13 hours per week.

That’s 38.5 hours a week spent on Social Media or watching TV! This is why your teacher, boss, co-workers, friends etc. etc. etc. let out a loud sigh when they hear you say,
“I didn’t have the time!”


We spend 25.5 hours watching TV per week

We spend 25.5 hours watching TV per week

Instead of using their spare time productively the average person wastes it. So when you pick up your TV remote or unlock your phone, ask yourself:

“Is this the best use of my time?”

Obviously these figures are based entirely on averages and we cannot deny that sometimes life happens and we genuinely run out of time. However, no one can deny that an awful lot of our time is wasted. If you are one of those people who has successfully managed to spend every moment of their lives productively and without wasting any time, please contact me immediately; I’d love to know the secret to your success!

5 tips to improve how you practice

Guitar_NatureFor some musicians the word “practice” brings with it a feeling of dread. The notion of spending hours on end running through scales, arpeggios and piece after piece does not appeal to a lot of musicians. It was the same for me when I started out until I heard a wonderful phrase:
“Work smarter, not harder”

You see it’s a matter of productivity. You can spend all day doing a task or complete it in an hour. It’s all about how you use your time. Here are 5 tips to make your practice sessions more productive:

53H1. Set a time limit and stick to it

It’s a simple fact that if we have all day to do something it will take all day to do it. To counteract this, set a boundary. Decide on a time-frame to do your practice; start on time and finish on time.

2. Start with the end in mind

We have all heard the phrase “Practice makes perfect” but what exactly are you trying to get better at? Without a goal you’re simply sitting in a room making noises. Set yourself an objective for the session and your session will suddenly have structure.

3. Warm up

Much like the marathon runner will stretch and run slowly to “get into the game” a musician should also have a warm up routine. Run through some scales or even a few simple songs before you kick into the heavy stuff.

Reflection4. Play in front of a mirror

Q. Why do dance studios have a mirrored wall?
A. So the dancers can see what they are doing.

Practicing in front of a mirror makes you conscious of what others will see when you perform. As well as giving you an impression of the overall “look” of your performance it also increases your awareness of your posture, how you position your fingers, hands, arms etc. etc. etc.

IMG_38945. Record yourself

One of my teachers once said, “You’re on the wrong side of the guitar to know truly know how you sound”. He was right! Most smartphones come with a voice recorder app so load it up, place your phone a few feet away, play and then listen back. You will be amazed about how much you miss while you’re playing. If you do not have a voice recorder app, start up the camera. If you don’t feel like filming yourself, simply place the smartphone with the camera facing down and it will pick up the audio.


Simply put, following the above tips will help you practice more effectively. In turn you will also find your confidence levels rise.

If you like what you read, be sure to share this article with your friends and family.

World Play Your Ukulele Day

Last Tuesday the Arklow Ukulele Players celebrated World Play Your Ukulele Day and filmed ourselves playing one of our favourite songs:

The Ukes are back!

After a fantastic Christmas break the Arklow Ukulele Players will be powering through 2016 in a new venue. We’ll be hosting each session in The Bridge Hotel, Arklow, Co. Wicklow (For directions, click here). The group itself is something for adults to enjoy. A relaxed, pressure-free group where our goal is to learn a few tunes and have a good night’s fun with good people. We meet every Tuesday (6:15pm for beginners and main session at 7:30pm) and always love to welcome in new people.

2016… I’m excited!

What a year! What a fantastic year! I moved to Arklow this day last year. As I unpacked my things I had no idea of why was ahead of me. In fact, I was a little nervous…

I’m sitting here today looking back in the last 365 days and realising that in that time I have established myself as a music teacher in a completely new town, performed with some amazing musicians, songwriters and groups, set up an adult ukulele group and even joined the steering committee of Music Generation Wicklow. I know I have left some things out, the year flew by and I’m ready to take on 2016.

I owe all these successes to the support of friends, family, colleagues, students, fans and most especially to my fiancée, Laura. Without their support I would not be where I am now! We’ve had some amazing times and I can’t wait to take on what 2016 has in store for me.

Happy New Year!

Grá gan ceist!

Ronan McCauley

New Song / News / Updates

Since my last entry so much has happened… The world around me has completely changed! In light of recent tragedies I am reminded of all that I am grateful for. I will admit, part of me is ashamed at how much I took for granted… I sit here watching the sun rise and can’t help but look back with a smile and yet be reminded of how quickly it can all be taken away.

Since moving to Arklow, Co. Wicklow I am completely taken aback at how welcome I have been made feel. To become “one of the locals” in an Irish town can take a long time. It’s not down to hostility but rather how they refer to you. I have gone from “Ronan McCauley: the guy from Dublin” to being referred to as one of Arklow‘s local musicians in a matter of months. It’s good to be made feel at home in such a short time.

Work at Arklow’s Youth Centre (The Vault) continues as the music program keeps going strong. Under the leadership of a new coordinator, Laura Dunne, a complete change of atmosphere can be seen. These days, our focus is on building confidence among our less experienced musicians. From week to week it is brilliant to see kids who would hardly say a word suddenly take centre stage. I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling proud of the kids who come to this program.Guitar_Nature

Music Generation Wicklow also brought me on board to be part of their Music Education Partnership committee. The committees duty to set down policies and guidelines on how funding should be used. Music generation has done so much to provide facilities for kids to explore their passion and interest in music. I’m overjoyed at having the opportunity to help with this!

The music school itself is going great! It’s taken a lot of hard work to get going but it’s flying along now. Lessons take up most of my time these days when I’m not helping Music Generation and The Vault. I’m arriving home after a day’s work tired beyond belief but with a smile on my face. Music has always been a passion of mine and continues to be. It’s fantastic to be able to be able to pursue this passion as a career!

Finally, recent tragedies around the world have weighed heavy on my mind. History repeats and we all get dragged along for the ride. My heart is with all those affected wherever they may be.

Grá gan ceist!



New (Old) Song – The Road

RonanThe purpose of a muse is to provide inspiration to artists. They come up with some great ideas and send them your way.


What a lot of artists have to deal with is muses with really poor timing. They’ll suddenly float by with an idea when you’re driving and unless you pull over to write/record the idea it will be lost. So I decided to combat it!

While doing some practice I decided to film it. During this time I captured every idea that floated into my head AND even managed too revise the very first song I had ever written. It’s called “The Road” and it’s about remembering someone who was close to you. I do hope you enjoy it. If you like it, please share it with the rest of the world!

Here are the lyrics:

Here I am on my own again down this long and lonesome road
Should have been going home again.
Where that is I don’t know.

Here I am I’m on show again
I’m a stealer on the street
Not sure where this road began
Or if I’ll ever rest my feet

Search me out and I’ll come to you
And we can start anew
Search me out and I’ll follow you
And we can find what’s true

On the road I still think of you and the places we have seen
All I’ve left is your photograph and the thoughts of what might have been

Stay far out and I’ll come to you
And we can start anew
Stay far out and I’ll follow you
And we can find what’s true

Here I am on my own again down this long lonesome road
Should have been going home again.
Where that is I don’t know.