Going Beyond The Vanilla Chords With Bryan Tolentino.

Updated: Feb 27


‘Ukulele Friends Hawai’i

Photo Credit: Bryan Tolentino


A few months ago, I caught a live stream on Facebook that resonated with me. During the stream, Bryan Tolentino, a member of ‘Ukulele Friends Hawai’i, spoke about learning the ‘ukulele by watching and emulating the teacher rather than depending on sheet music. He believes it makes for a better player. This struck a chord with me (no pun intended) because another instrument I play taught how Bryan described it. His statement intrigued me to want to find out more. I had the opportunity to sit down with the award-winning musician for a short interview. I had expected our time together to be more of a Q&A. Instead, it turned into a conversation about our love of music, tradition, and a quick lesson to move past the “vanilla” chords.

The inspiration to play.

When asked who inspired him to play, he replied that his family had a ‘ukulele in the home while growing up and remembered the instrument always being present at family gatherings. Both his parents played a little; however, his biggest influences came from watching his uncles and friends, who played better. Additionally, he considers himself a life-long student and continues to learn and find inspiration from his peers.


NUE (left to right- Kama Hopkins, Halehaku Seabury, and Bryan Tolentino)

Photo credit: Bryan Tolentino


Teaching styles of ‘ukulele.

Bryan shared his wisdom about the various learning methods‘ ukulele. Just as there are different perspectives in teaching it, there are different learning ways. We all speak our own musical language, but we eventually reach the same destination no matter how we learn. His teaching method revealed that his Kūpuna (grandparents/ancestors) were always telling stories and handing down their knowledge. Therefore, he describes his teaching style as different in the respect it comes from a position of culture and tradition and uses the technical when needed.

Connecting with music.

During another ‘Ukulele Friends Hawai’i live stream, Bryan used the analogy of family recipes to describe people’s different playing styles. He infers everyone can make the same dish but, it may differ in the ingredients and cooking techniques. This is also true of how people play. ‘Ukulele is not meant to be a cookie-cutter instrument and played the same by everyone. The joy of ‘ukulele comes from listening and connecting with the sound it creates. When you connect, it allows the player to feel the music, giving off energy to the listener. This is often missed when players are dependent or too focused on sheet music. To overcome this, he recommends learning the first and last lines of the song and eventually memorizing it completely for performance.


Photo credit: Bryan Tolentino


Stepping outside your comfort zone.

We spoke a bit about kanikapila and the importance of putting yourself out there to become a successful ‘ukulele player during our conversation. Those unfamiliar with kanikapila are jam sessions that usually occur at gatherings with friends and family. In Hawaiian, kanikapila translates to the sound of a stringed instrument. Bryan expressed the value a player gains by putting themselves in a kanikapila situation. ‘Ukulele is an applied skill. When you use it in this environment, you learn the art of improvisation and accompaniment. The experience also gives the player a real-time situation to make mistakes and overcome them.

Going beyond the first three frets.

Bryan refers to chords within the first three frets as vanilla chords. They are the basic chords you can play but, what about the rest of the fretboard? Bryan wittily adds, you paid for it so, why not use it? Bryan gave a quick impromptu chord lesson which had me contemplating my skillset. Wanting a challenge, I attended Bryan’s workshop covering his grip-chord system. During the class, Bryan was very encouraging, opened my mind to the possibilities, and leveled-up my playing. If you ever have the opportunity to attend one of his workshops, I highly recommend it!


Photo credit: Bryan Tolentino


Bryan’s advice to new uke players and learners.

When buying a ‘ukulele, make sure it is one you are going to play for a while. The instrument is an extension of who you are and what you want to portray. The ‘ukulele should speak to you and feel comfortable in your hands. Regarding learning, Bryan advised discovering how to hold chords in two or three different ways, apply 4-note chords, and be able to move up and down the fretboard. This will help with chord efficiency, transition, and overall playing ability. Also, be willing to make and accept mistakes; this is how we learn. Lastly, when learning a new song, do not get ahead of yourself. Break the song down into small sections, slow down the tempo as needed, and master it. Practice to remember. Once you have all the sections mastered, put it all together for one cohesive song. ‘Ukulele playing isn’t perfect. Make the mistakes and have fun!


You can find Bryan on Instagram @agent_4string, Facebook 'Ukulele Friends Hawai'i, or through his website, bryantolentino.com. Until next time, happy strumming!

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