Playing Ukulele With Arthritis

A few weeks back my dad mentioned that he’d been looking at some ukuleles in a shop and was considering buying one and he wanted my opinion. My dad suffers from rheumatoid arthritis quite badly, particularly in his hands and he wasn’t sure whether he’d able to play or not. Initially I wasn’t sure either if I’m completely honest.

The best idea seemed like letting my dad see how he got on with my ukulele, so I took it up to his house and showed him a few very basic chords and how to strum. He seemed to get by ok with simple one finger chords like C and Am although I’m not sure how well his fingers would deal with a G or D where your fingers have to fit into a much smaller space. He could strum a simple 4 down strums per bar pattern fine but felt like he would be better off using a pick. I personally don’t play with a pick, as I’m sure most uke players don’t but when it comes to a musical instrument I think you’ve got to do what feels natural to you. When it came down to it, even after seeing my dad get a feel for my ukulele, I still wasn’t sure whether he’d really be able to play it or not as a result of his arthritis.

A helping hand

Then something happened and the timing was perfect. I can’t even remember how I found it but I came across the Ukulele Chord Changer made by Troubadour Music (read my review of the Ukulele Chord Changer). The chord changer is a device that goes over the top 8 frets of your ukulele and it allows you to play a range of chords by simply pressing a single button. I appreciate this isn’t something for everyone but it seemed like a great option for my dad.

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With this in mind, I figured that it was worth him having a go, so I ordered him a Makala MK-SN Soprano (look out for a review soon) from those lovely folks at Southern Ukulele Store and a Ukulele Chord Changer from Troubadour Music. We’re currently awaiting delivery of the uke but I’ll definitely be posting a progress update to let you know how he gets on. I’m really hoping that it works out for him as I think there’s a lot of fun to be had and since he retired he’s got plenty of time on his hands to learn.

Historical help

While I’d been deliberating all this over, I’d started to think of other musicians that had conditions that they’d had to work around. I’m sure history is full of them, some of the names that sprang to mind were Django Reinhardt, Jeff Healey, Stevie Wonder, Tony Iommi, Rick Allen and even Beethoven. All these names overcame something in order to make music – they all found a way and sometimes that way went against the way that people are normally taught. So if it helps my dad to use a chord changer and play with a pick than I’m all for it!

Do you suffer with arthritis?

If you’re interested in playing ukulele and suffer with arthritis I’d love to hear from you. I’d really like to elaborate on this post and build it into something that is much more useful for other people interested in playing. You can get in touch with me here.

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20 thoughts on “Playing Ukulele With Arthritis

  1. Great adaptation for the left hand! I have chronic lymphedema in my right hand and arm from cancer surgery so it is hard to get a grip on a pick. I use Zero Gravity’s Orbit pick that has a loop around it to secure with my ring finger. I can play really fast strumming without fear of throwing picks all over the room! This may help him with the right hand bits.

    1. Hey Sharon, thanks for the comment. I’ve never seen the Gravity Orbit pick before – I just had a look now and yeah that looks like it could be worth a try. Thanks for showing me!

      1. Wow. So glad I found this. I started uke lessons last October and knew I had arthritis in my fingers then. It was a test. Turns out I love playing, but my left hand(fingers) grew very sore, fingers became swollen, etc. Hard to ignore that. I also think I have developed something called “trigger finger” going on, one finger started sort of sticking and clicking when it released. So, I reluctantly stopped playing two weeks ago to rest the hand.
        I will try the cord changer if it has good reviews from your dad. I am searching for a way to be able to keep playing. My right hand is fine. Any and all suggestions most welcome. I have been looking at acupuncture, natural anti inflammatory foods, creams, etc., or, an orthopedic doctor in the Bay Area who is also a musician, or treats them, and will have some good suggestions. Thanks!

        1. Hi Ana,

          I’m glad you found it helpful. My dad has said that he likes the chord changer and definitely finds it useful. I’ve not yet had chance to talk to him in any great length about it but I’m due to have a catch up with him this weekend. Following that I’ll probably do a follow up post to this with some more thoughts in it.

          I’d actually be really interested to find out how you get on and hear any tips that you might have too. I hope it works out for you. I think it will!

          1. Do you think it will be suitable for me to turn around for a left handed strung ukelele or will everything be upside down ?

          2. Hi Jackie, I’m not with my uke at the moment and my brain isn’t working today so I dropped Troubadour Music an email. Whilst the answer they gave me wasn’t 100%, I think the answer is no unfortunately. They recommended playing right handed which leads me to think that yes, everything would be upside down.

            Thinking about it now that seems to make sense (that it wouldn’t work), the only way I could see it working is to just play a right handed ukulele upside down.

  2. I am trying to learn the uke with arthritis too . Also left handed and finding all but simple chords impossible . I have to use a pick too ! This chord changer looks like it could help . Thank u

  3. Thanks for replying. I was soooo excited when I saw your video then it all went bad when I thought about it! Troubadour said the same to me. They said it should be easier for a left hander to play a right handed one! Don’t think they allow left handers in USA!! Thank you though.

  4. Hey Dave,
    Thank you so much for this info. I have arthritis in my left hand and really want to play so this is definitely going to help. Just ordered one! Woo hoo!!

      1. Thanks Dave – I will let you know. You mentioned the combinations to get more chords – can you tell me the combinations – I’m wondering if I will be able to get some minor chords in there? Thanks again,

        Trish

  5. Worth a shot, really like the sound of the tenor uke better, any chance that style will have a chord changer designed for that size of uke

  6. Could you please tell me how I can purchase a chord changer. I live in retirement village in England. I am not the only resident to have problems. Would this be a problem?

  7. Arthritic enlarged knuckles make barre chords impossible, no matter how I turn finger. Are there alternative notes to flats without barre? Esp. B flat?

    1. Absolutely! It’s a great point that barre chords may be difficult for those with arthritis. Major and minor chords only need 3 notes. A B flat for example can be played just on the top 3 strings (or the bottom). From the top strings down: Fret 3, fret 2, fret 1 (don’t play the bottom string).

      Take a look at this video on making chords easier to play, it should prove to be quite useful https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4d-qbiNSS8A

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