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Circuit Breaker

The Populele taught me how to play ukulele in 15 minutes

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Smart instruments aren’t a dumb idea

Full confession: I've held a ukulele before, tuned one, and learned a few chords, all of which I've since forgotten. Compared to a guitar, it's a really easy instrument. There are only four strings, and they're so easy to press! But, like any stringed instrument, learning chords is a bit of a pain. If you have someone teaching you there's that awkward moment where they grab it from you and show you something and then you take it back and try to replicate their hand shape. Or they try to tell you what to do verbally:

"Okay, put your first finger on the first string, second fret. No, first string from the bottom... Now put your second finger on the second string, third fret..."

If you try to learn chords from looking at the chord shapes on your phone, you have to do the mental gymnastics of mirroring that image and translating it to finger positions. It's not impossible, and I learned guitar like this, but it's a bit of a grind.

We can solve this with technology. The Populele U1 is a smart ukulele with a light-up fret board and a companion app that pairs over Bluetooth. If you want to learn a chord, you tap that chord in the app and the finger positions light up. This doesn't just help you play the chord that one time, but gives you a mental picture of the chord that made it easier for me to remember. After learning G, C, and F, I hopped into a play-along song mode. And I was playing! The song had an Am in it I hadn't learned yet, but the chord lit up on the fret board and it was a super easy one, so now I knew Am and hardly missed a strum.

The Populele isn't an amazing ukulele. I tried out the guitar version, Poputar, and found it kind of annoyingly bad as an instrument. I typically tell anyone looking to learn an instrument not to get an ultra cheap one, because it could sound so bad and be so hard to play that it'll put you off learning. But a ukulele doesn't have to be as high quality to be playable, and I think the Populele strikes a nice balance of price and quality — it'll launch for around $150 in February.