Learn to Play Ukulele by Ear with Jim D’Ville

Today, it’s very easy to search on YouTube for popular songs played on Ukulele. Many of them are instructional videos. Some are even pretty good. Learning to play Ukulele by ear, now that’s something different. 

It’s nice, therefor, to find an instructor who is willing and able to teach this way. In the case of the Ukulele, that instructor is Jim D’Ville. 


Check out our list of 15 easy ukulele songs! 

Jim runs the popular site over at PlayUkuleleByEar when he’s not touring the United States doing live workshops. The videos, posts, and information on this site also landed him a spot on the StringVibe “Top 50 Ukulele Sites” list (a well deserved honor in our opinion. Then again, it is our list!). 

We thought Jim would have some very interesting answers for us and so we asked him for an interview. He accepted and we are excited to bring you the results. Check out Jim talk about his “ear based” approach, why beginners spend to much time in songbooks, and more, in the interview below! 


Interview with Jim D’Ville

StringVibe: Why do you prefer an “Ear based” approach to learning Ukulele vs a chord or tab based style?

Jim: Reading from paper while playing a musical instrument, I think, hinders the entire musical process of hearing something in your head and playing it back. That’s why most of the ukulele groups I’ve heard, and I’ve heard hundreds, all sound the same. They all have their noses stuck in a songbook and robotically play, and I use the word ‘play’ loosely, one song after another with the same down-up-down-up strum. I call this Incessant Strum Syndrome. Playing without paper frees up the ear to actually listen to what you are hearing. The result of this approach to playing is that the rhythm and spirit of the music is able to be communicated by the player.

What is the biggest mistake you see beginners making when learning to play ukulele? What should they do instead?

Depending too much on the songbooks. I would suggest getting rid of the letters and learning the number system. This way you are learning repeating patterns that occur over and over again in music and the ear will begin to recognize them. Plus, by learning songs using the number system you are immediately able to transpose the song into the key that best fits your voice.

What bad habits or mistakes do you see most often with professional, or very experienced players?

Poor stage patter. There is no better way to kill the momentum of a set then by talking too much. I’m not saying don’t talk to the audience, but let your music do most of the talking.

Do you have a few songs you like to start new players off with to build fundamentals?

Yes. I-V7-I, I-IV-V7-I and I-V7-IV-I.  Thousands of popular songs we are all familiar with can be played using these three basic chord progressions.

Is there a piece of advice that is commonly given to beginners that you feel is bad? What would you say instead?

It’s what the teachers don’t tell new students that is the worst. They don’t tell them to listen to the sounds they are making. Listening is what it’s all about. For instance, strumming sounds better above the sound-hole, not over it. When a student is listening to what they are playing instead of trying to remember how to play the song they are less apt to get lost since they know the chord progression by ear. Finally, there is an unsurpassed enjoyment in playing when the music overtakes the thinking. That’s when you are really playing music.

“Finally, there is an unsurpassed enjoyment in playing when the music overtakes the thinking. That’s when you are really playing music.”  – Jim D’Ville

I hope you read that entire interview. If not, I hope you pay attention to that quote. ​

Everyone who picks up an instrument does so because they enjoy music. For many of us, it’s interwoven in the story of our lives. Make sure you enjoy your practice and playing time. Try spending less time buried in a songbook or imitating some face on YouTube, and more listening to the sound of the strings.

Check out more of Jim’s teachings, his upcoming events, and his tour schedule at PlayUkuleleByEar.​