Category: Graded Music Exams

Rockschool Face to Face is Back!

July 20th, 2020 by

It seems like only yesterday that many countries across the world were in strict lockdown. However, as restrictions ease and our life gains a sense of normality again, we’re delighted to say that face to face Rockschool graded music exams have resumed not only in the UK, but also internationally!

Throughout lockdown our video exams have been readily available worldwide which has been positively received by schools, teachers, and students alike. Now, our exam venues are reopening for business across many countries too so that students can sit their face to face Rockschool exams! Carefully following government guidelines to ensure that your safety is utterly paramount, students have started to sit their face to face exams to ensure that they can continue their musical journey this summer and progress on their instrument.

Outside the UK, we are really pleased to see that Spain have been leading the way with getting students back in exam venues. We recently caught up with two of our Rockschool examiners, Kostka García and Angela Gomes, who are currently welcoming back candidates to the exam room after this long period of time away. We also spoke to Vanessa Blanco from TAF Escuela Oficial de Música Moderna and David Zarandón from DZetta Music Center to hear how their students and venues have been adjusting to the ‘new normal’ in their Rockschool exams. Don’t just take our word for how much of a success these exams have been though – read on to hear their thoughts!

Kostka García, Rockschool Examiner: “It’s been great being here again after so many months. There are lots of changes but it’s all very good. I can see that lots of people have used the time to rethink how they work, and I think it’s really good news going forward.

Vanessa Blanco, TAF Escuela Oficial de Música Moderna: “It’s a great honour to be the first school to have exams after the period that’s passed with Covid. We’re very thankful for this and…to all the people that have made this possible. Step by step we are able to go back to a little bit of normality, which I think we all need.”

English version

Angela Gomes, Rockschool Examiner: “I’m very pleased to say to you that all the students are very happy to have music around them. A very huge thank you to Rockschool for the evolution throughout this pandemic era. It’s very difficult for us to be away from you!”

David Zarandón, DZetta Music Center: “[This year’s exams] have a very special meaning for us as we’re the first in the world to offer face to face exams again outside the UK. These exams show the hard work done by the teachers and students completed in these complicated months where we’ve had to reinvent ourselves.”

Spanish version

As you can see, face to face Rockschool exams are back! Students can now capitalise on the months stuck indoors practising and progress to the next grade this summer. Enter for your exam TODAY.

The pandemic has forced many businesses to become proactive in order to keep their customers’ needs met, and at RSL Awards we’ve been no exception, leading the way with a number of innovative new assessment models to help students reach the next step on their musical journey.

Free Choice Pieces

Students can now use pieces from other exam boards, including those in classical genres as Free Choice Pieces in their Rockschool exam. Learn more about our Free Choice Piece extension policy here.

Video Exams

Not ready for a face to face exam just yet? No problem! Our video exams are available worldwide for entry now. Simply enter online and you will have up to three months to submit one continuous recording of you performing your exam. There’s never been an easier way to get that next grade under your belt from the comfort of your own home.

Rockschool Graded Music Exams – Brand New Summer Exam Period!

June 29th, 2020 by

Your Rockschool summer is served! Brand new summer window for Rockschool graded music exams 2020…

We’ve taken onboard a plethora of feedback from our teachers, students, parents and partners asking us to accommodate a summer exam period, and as such, for the first time ever in Rockschool history, we’re opening another examination window from 17th August – 30th September for you to earn your Rockschool qualification this summer.

Restrictions on travelling abroad for holidays has freed-up more time for candidates to prepare and take their exam during the summer holidays. Don’t forget, a summer jaunt to your local exam centre won’t result in a two-week mandatory quarantine!

Even though lockdown measures in the UK and Ireland continue to ease, your safety is our number one priority. We’ve introduced a number of safety protocols and procedures, working closely with all our examiners and exam centres so you can enter for and complete your Rockschool exam with the confidence that everyone’s safety is paramount.

Summer exams dates for your diary:

  • Entry Window: 1st – 31st July 2020
  • Exam Period: 17th August – 30th September


What types of exams are available? The inside scoop:

Face-to-face exams:

The safety of our candidates, examiners and centre partners is paramount and we will be implementing strict safety guidelines (download here) to ensure a safe examination experience and so candidates can enter for their exam with confidence before midnight on Friday 31st July 2020.


Video Exams:

Environmentally friendly and available worldwide, this digital solution shows our commitment to providing the most accessible exam experience possible. RSL can accept and mark two types of graded music exams: Performance Certificate (Available at all Grades) and Graded Certificate (Available at Debut – Grade 5).


Free Choice Piece Expansion:

For Piano, Keyboard, Vocals, and Acoustic Guitar, music in genres other than popular music which is set for exams of other recognised boards will be automatically accepted as free choice pieces for the equivalent grade. Pieces will be assessed through examination in exactly the same way as our standard repertoire using the published assessment criteria, thereby maintaining our rigorous academic standards.



RSL Awards are aiming to run exams at our centres across the UK and Ireland as normal, though in the current climate, some venues may be amending their availability and opening hours. Please see our list of centres here to check availability.

Should your local centre not be available to run exams, then please contact us and one of our team will be able to discuss an alternative –

Amplify your Rockschool session experience with our enhanced repertoire!

June 1st, 2020 by

We’ve added new vocals to the mix on 68 tracks across our Guitar, Bass, Drums and Keys syllabuses!

We’re regularly told how engaging our repertoire is, especially when students can play along to Rockschool tunes they love that include vocals. For this reason, we’ve added new vocal parts to the mixes on 68 tracks across our Electric Guitar, Bass, Drums and Keys syllabuses.

Amplify your Rockschool session experience

Rockschool’s “session style” audio gives each player the opportunity to replicate a recording session or live performance each time they sit down to practise. This not only allows students to develop a better sense of time and rhythm; it also presents the perfect habitat for each session to encourage the evolution of each players’ interpretation of tone and the stylistic choices their playing can navigate

The structure and notation of the updated tracks will remain exactly the same so students will be able to transition to the new audio seamlessly without any modifications to their performances.

The roster of classic and contemporary artists that feature across the syllabuses with enhanced audio includes: Ed Sheeran, Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, Nirvana, Bruno Mars, Eric Clapton, Adele, Beyoncé, Sam Smith, The Beatles, D’Angelo, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Drake, Chaka Khan, U2, James Brown, Grace Jones, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, Marvin Gaye, Coldplay, Queen, Nirvana, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson – and many, many more! You can download the full list of updated tracks below.

Rockschool Backing Vocals Enhanced Repertoire: Full List

How to re-download and when will they be used in exams?

To access the updated audio, simply log back into your RSL account and re-download your existing content at no extra cost.*


*If you have reached your download limit, please contact

The new audio tracks will be available to use in all Rockschool graded music exams moving forward, with the UK & Ire’s first Rockschool face-to-face exam period since lockdown measures were introduced re-commencing in July 2020. Please find out more about the safety protocols we’re implementing across our exam venues here…

Candidates will be able to use either the existing audio (instrumental) or new audio (including vocals) going forward in exams for the lifetime of each syllabus. The downloaded audio includes both versions, giving all Rockschool candidates the flexibility of choice so they can perform to the best of their abilities.

Updated Rockschool Audio - Re-download for free!

Introducing the RSL Awards Digital Marksheets

May 4th, 2020 by

Introducing the RSL Awards Digital Marksheets and understanding the Assessment Criteria.


RSL Awards is proud to announce that from the 4th May all Rockschool Graded Music Exams (excluding Theory and Music Production) and Performing Arts Awards Musical Theatre qualifications will be marked by examiners digitally. We wanted to highlight a few of the reasons why we have made this change and the benefits that it will give candidates.

It’s worth pointing out from the start that this work has taken over 18 months of refinement and testing to ensure that the standards we apply in exams remain unchanged. However, the processes behind the exams will enhance our customer service and the experience of the candidates.

We want to demystify the examining process so that teachers and candidates can prepare for their exam really understanding our approach to assessment.

Learning Outcomes

There are 3 learning outcomes in Rockschool graded music exams.

  • Be able to perform music in popular musical styles.
  • Be able to demonstrate technical ability on an instrument/voice through responding to set technical demands.
  • Be able to demonstrate musical understanding through a range of set tests.

Graded Examinations reference all three learning outcomes, whereas Performance Certificates only require the first outcome to be met.

What are Assessment Criteria?

  • Assessment Criteria are how we assess the learning outcomes.
  • They are applied to evidence musical outcomes at progressing grades. Each criteria is equally weighted.
  • Each is considered / marked separately.
  • The combination gives the total mark for each piece/supporting test.

Assessment Criteria

1. Command of Instrument

The quality of the sound produced from the instrument, including the consistency of sound/tone, control of sound/tone commensurate with grade.

2. Sync or Pulse

Alignment of the performance to backing track, metronome or applied to a solo performance, observing notation markings. For unaccompanied pieces candidates should maintain a secure internal pulse and adjust the pulse where instructed within the music.

3. Accuracy and Understanding

Representing the written notation accurately, except by instruction through performance notes, or interpreting the written part with equivalent skills demonstrated. Secure understanding of musical structure evidenced through transitions of phrases, bars and sections.

4. Style and Expression

An expressive and commanding performance of the notated material dictated by the demands of the performance piece.

Awarding Marks

When we award marks, we relate entirely to the assessment criteria. The mark is determined by extent to which the average is evidenced overall.

  • Criteria achieved SOME of the time: PASS (‘OK’)
  • Criteria achieved MOST of the time: MERIT (‘GOOD’)
  • Criteria achieved ALL of the time: DISTINCTION (‘EXCELLENT’)

The overall mark is determined by extent to which the average is evidenced overall.

For the updated PAA Musical Theatre Learning Outcomes, Attainment Bands, Weighting and Grading Criteria, please click here…

Assessment Criteria & Digital Marksheet Information Pack


The Benefits of Digital Marksheets

Moving to digital marksheets has a number of advantages for candidates and teachers:

Clearer and Easier to Understand

We want our exams to be as accessible as possible for all candidates. To enhance our approach, we have separated each of the elements of the exam into assessment criteria that are easy to understand – the examiner will give candidates a grade for each of these elements which will combine to create a final score.

Speed of Results

Using a digital marksheet allows our examiners to upload results directly to a candidate’s profile on the RSL Awards site, rather than posting a hard copy report form. There are still rigorous quality checks to go through, but, we are confident that candidates will see their results quicker.

Environmental Benefits

An added benefit, and something we are very committed to, is the reduction in paper use and the carbon impact of transporting marksheets. These enhancements to our process will save hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper being transported across the world.


We don’t believe that the way we examine should be kept secret. By being completely transparent about the elements of a performance we are grading, we hope that teachers and candidates will be able to focus on their preparation for examinations. In time, we hope that this will reduce any anxious or nervous feelings as candidates take exams and benchmark their learning.

No matter what the outcome, RSL Awards exams should be a positive part of the learning process, affirming the progress of a student and giving them clear goals to try and achieve.

Consistency Across Instruments

Within the Rockschool Grades, all instruments will now be marked with the same consistent use of assessment criteria, across all grades. We hope that this will help teachers or candidates who teach/ study multiple instruments.

For more information on our digital marksheets, assessment criteria, a full breakdown of how marks are awarded alongside a list of frequently asked questions, please download our information pack by hitting the button below.

Assessment Criteria & Digital Marksheet Information Pack

Free Choice Pieces | Music Exam Board and Genre Extension – Classical Music now Accepted

April 30th, 2020 by

We have extended the range of music accepted for use in our examinations, allowing students from other music exams boards to still achieve their qualifications!


Following communications received both directly and via social media, we have become aware that there are a number of students who are currently unable to take Graded Music exams with a variety of music examination boards. In some cases this has meant they are unable to gain the UCAS points awarded at Grades 6-8 and progress to their chosen higher education course.

RSL Awards are able to deliver the examination of graded exams through asynchronous recorded submission, since the successful launch of our video exams. Therefore, to ensure that as many students as possible are able to gain their expected qualification, we have extended the range of music accepted for use in our examinations.

For Piano, Keyboard, Vocals, and Acoustic Guitar, music in genres other than popular music which is set for exams of other recognised boards will be automatically accepted as free choice pieces for the equivalent grade. Candidates will also be able to check the suitability of any wider repertoire in other genres through the established Free Choice Piece checking process. Pieces will be assessed through examination in exactly the same way as our standard repertoire using the published assessment criteria, thereby maintaining our rigorous academic standards.

The inclusion of this repertoire will allow candidates to play pieces they have prepared for other graded examination boards in their RSL Awards Graded Exam. However, the number of free choice pieces allowed in RSL Graded Music exams will not change, meaning that a proportion of the music performed will continue to be in popular music styles.

Types of Exam Available

Graded Examination

  • 3 Performance Pieces (2 of which may now be free choice pieces using any genre)
  • Technical Exercises
  • Unprepared Work

Graded Certificate – Video Exam

  • 3 Performance Pieces (2 of which may now be free choice pieces using any genre)
  • Technical Exercises

Performance Certificate – Video Exam

  • 5 Performance Pieces (3 of which may now be free choice pieces using any genre)

Teachers: Download your free sample packs!

To help you understand the content and process of Rockschool’s examination process, simply download our sample packs below!

Rockschool Acoustic Sample Pack Rockschool Piano Sample Pack Rockschool Keys Sample Pack

RSL Awards is taking this action in the context of measures proposed by the UK Government and the examinations regulators to ensure that as many students as possible are able to achieve qualifications this year, by means of adaption to normal examination processes where necessary.

Free Choice Piece genre extension is acceptable whilst the VCRF is in place. We expect this is likely to continue until at least Summer 2022, please check back on the RSL website for future information.

For any further information, please get in touch with our team by emailing

RSL Awards Launches Video Exams

March 27th, 2020 by

RSL Awards launches Video Exams!

At RSL Awards, we pride ourselves in the trust and confidence that our dedicated community has in us to deliver outstanding examination experiences. We’re taking this a step further, and we are delighted to announce the launch of our Video Exams.

Video exams mean you now have the flexibility to take your exam from a place of your convenience, entailing less travel, no waiting time, and contributing to a more environmentally friendly world. We don’t want any extenuating circumstances to stop you from achieving your goals to develop as a musician, whether that’s the COVID-19 pandemic, underlying stress or anxiety issues or location based travel barriers – we recognise all the hard work you have done towards preparing for your exam thus far and we are thrilled to offer you this digital solution.

Video Exams

We are ready to help you every step of the way to self-record and submit your video exams and will work closely with candidates, teachers and partners to provide advice and guidance to moving your exam experience online. Furthermore, recording and uploading your video exam will also meet the same fair and accurate evaluation criteria from the examiner.

What types of video exam are available?

Candidates have the option of two types of recorded exam:

  • Performance Certificate (Debut – Grade 8): Record and upload five performance pieces (up to three can be free choice pieces)
  • Graded Certificate (Debut – Grade 8): Record and upload three performance pieces (up to two free choice pieces) and ALL of the listed technical exercises stated per grade, per instrument (find out more on the video exams page).Please refer to our Technical Exercise Guidance for a comprehensive list of requirements.

Both of these exams can be taken at a time and place that suits you simply by submitting a continuous and unedited video of you performing all the appropriate prepared elements in a similar way to a standard face-to-face exam. The same exam criteria will be applied but you will not be assessed on the Unseen Tests.


RSL Awards Recorded Digital Exams – How to Guide

We are committed to making sure this is an academically-rigorous, high quality and authentic experience so you will need to make sure that:

  • The equipment you have can record you and all the relevant backing tracks effectively
  • It is in a format that can easily be submitted to our secure online portal

Our examiners will then be able to view your exam and provide an accurate assessment of your achievements, providing feedback and your final mark in line with our usual practices.

Please visit our dedicated Video Exam online resource for more information about the intricacies of each exam available, how to submit your video exam, video framing and audio capture guidance, and further supporting videos to help you capture your exam in the highest quality possible.


The team at RSL Awards will provide you with any further support and guidance you need to make sure you can prepare, record and upload your exam as smoothly as possible. Get in touch with the team here…


If you have already entered for an exam this academic year, we will continue to hold your booking and schedule your face-to-face exam as soon as we are able to, but, if you would like to amend your booking an online recorded exam, please get in touch with our friendly customer service team!


There is no question that COVID-19 is changing the world of contemporary arts and music education, and evaluating students can no longer be restricted to the four walls of the examination centre. Exams can happen anytime and anywhere with the simple aid of modern-day technology tools and the internet.

Teaching Rockschool Drums – Grade 1 | Guest Blog

March 5th, 2020 by

Welcome to the second instalment from drum tutor and guest blogger, Michael Hutchinson, on how to teach Rockschool Grade 1 Drums.

Your student has moved forward from Rockschool Drums Debut to Rockschool Drums Grade 1… let us celebrate! Grade 1 is a significant achievement for them and you. They can successfully read music and play their instrument, and as their teacher you now need to focus attention onto the more delicate movements and technicality of playing the drums.

What to teach in Grade 1?

Grade 1 is about building speed and acquiring the skills to move around the drum kit.

It would be best if you were focusing teaching technique on:

  • Hi-hat openings – open the hi-hat on all the quarter notes, and then on all the eighth notes and then freely when improvising
  • Bass drum independence – placing the bass drum on all the quarter notes, all eighth
    notes, and then doubles in eighth notes, once comfortable then freely while improvising
  • Cymbal crashes – with the lead hand and non-lead hand
  • Ride cymbal – including ride line embellishments and playing on the bell of the ride in quarter notes
  • Drum fills – eighth note fills, and sixteenth note fills in single strokes, double strokes and paradiddles, using the full drum kit and make use of exploring drum sounds. The student will be able to identify musical notation from debut grade, so allow them to navigate through the chosen piece by themselves, with guidance from you, if needed, however, there is some new notation within grade 1 you need to explain.
  • Repeat signs within the piece
  • Ride cymbal
  • Bell of the ride notation
  • Hi-hat opening and closing
  • Crash cymbal
  • Ties – e.g. allowing a cymbal to ring on

Music theory to reiterate

  • Time signature – what does the top number mean (Numerator – Beats per bar) and what does the bottom number mean (Denominator – Note value)?
  • BPM – beats per minute

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Practice plan

It’s now an excellent time to start getting that practice plan in place, starting with time management. How long should a student practise? Intrinsic practice is what you aim for, and the student needs to want to practise rather than forced to practise.

Fifteen minutes is a good start, starting with a warmup and ending with a cool down, preferably playing a song that they want to play, with the middle section focusing on lesson content, a section of the piece, or a technique the student struggles on which was identified in the lesson. Practice should be aimed at feeling comfortable with the rehearsal set out and not aimed at speed, unless this is what is lacking.

A good practice plan should involve some or all of the below:

  • Listening to the piece that the student is learning – familiarising the student with listening to the piece they are learning allows them to prepare mental strategies and performance cues when they play the song live
  • Repetition practice – going over the bar or exercises including rudiments over and over to place into long term memory will allow them to access this information in performance using implicit (unconscious) memory
  • Counting out loud – note value, the rhythm of the piece, allows the student to hear what they are trying to play, which allows the processing of this information to sit within auditory memory and can be used as a performance cue
  • Reading music – This allows the student to become aware of reading notes and identifying patterns but also allows visual memory of the piece they are playing which, again, can be used in mental strategies to prepare for performance
  • Implicit practice – I would say that this is the most important variant of any practice. The student needs to want to practise, without feeling that it is “homework” or a chore.

  • About the Author:

    Michael Hutchinson is a drummer, educator, and music psychologist from the North East of England. He runs Triple-T Drumming school of drums and has been teaching privately for 12 years. He is currently researching drumming from a psychological point of view studying with Sheffield University, music psychology in education performance and wellbeing and his main interest is drumming and its effects on working memory.

Rockschool Stories | Phil Harris

February 12th, 2020 by

With decades of experience in guitar teaching and working within the wider creative industries, Phil Harris is an impressive musical entrepreneur. Phil has also qualified with a distinction as Licentiate Teacher of Music, LRSL in 2009, before gaining a First Class BA (Hons) in Creative Music Performance in 2019.

Dip-in: Rockschool’s brand-new Diplomas for Teaching were released in 2019

During his time managing a music department, Phil became an assessor for the government’s ‘New Deal for Musicians’. At this time, Phil successfully obtained funding from Youth Music London, which offered music opportunities to young people in deprived communities across South Wales (where he is based).

Made-the-grade: Some of Phil’s students celebrate passing their latest Rockschool exams

Can you give us a brief explanation of your teaching business?

I have been teaching electric and acoustic guitar for over thirty years. Alongside this, I have worked within the creative industries in a variety of ways: I was an assessor/verifier for the governments ‘New Deal for Musicians’ programme. I’ve worked as a guitar teacher for Sony records. I have secured funding from Youth Music UK for under privileged areas in Wales. I have written guitar units for the CQFW and QCF; and I have qualified – with a distinction – as Licentiate Teacher of Music in 2009 and a First-Class BA (Hons) in Creative Music Performance, as recently as 2019.

RSL Teacher Registry: Advertise your own teaching business for FREE with RSL

[on the Song Records role] Was this for any artists/bands we may have heard of?

I was contracted to assist a Sony recording artist. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say due to a signed agreement!

How did the funding from Youth Music help and how do you feel about the future of music teaching in your region?

The funding was a fantastic opportunity for many underprivileged learners and their families to gain access to music education for the first time. It also facilitated many freelance teachers to increase their academic levels and professionalism in the region, whereby there was less means to do so previously.

James Banfield: We spoke to the psychotherapist and life coach in March ’19

As the years have passed, I see many more students, the young and the older generation, suffering from performance anxiety and its adverse effects. This maybe just down to the demands on society in general, but I think this area needs further research and attention. I think it will become increasingly more important that teachers should study this area in greater detail to assist their students; whether it be by studying mindfulness or relaxation techniques, or maybe just talking about anxiety more regularly.

How long have you been using Rockschool, and why has it worked for you?

Since the late 90s I do believe. It’s worked for me because of its large selection of arrangements and types of music, as well as its professional processes.

Rockschool Electric Guitar: The update to Debut – Grade 8 was released in 2018

What’s your favourite performance piece to teach, and how does it improve your learners?

From the early Debut grade book, ‘Another Dime’. This tune helps develop a students’ confidence in applying basic rhythms and rests in a great rock-styled genre. Also, I’m really fond of the grade 8 tune ‘Freightshaker’, which allows me to assist the students uderstanding of fretboards visualisation and the dominant chords in the EDCAG system, with the appropriate scales and stylistic riffs.

Freightshaker! Guitarist, Ian Devlin, plays an awesome version of the classic Rockschool track

What’s your favourite test to teach, and how does it benefit your learners?

Definitely the Improv and QSP tests. These help the student become creative, by allowing them to employ the scales they have practiced in order to develop chord harmony, rhythmical understanding, and the ability to create variations in different genres.

Improve Your Improv! Phil shows off his own improv skills here

What’s your favourite learner success story?

A parent had emailed me about their 9 year old son. He had been receiving lessons from a different teacher, who had told both the parent and student that he (the student) would never have the ability to play the guitar. I was so taken aback by this teachers comments, that I made it my aim then and there to help the student reach their goal. This student has just successfully passed his first grade, which has instilled pride and confidence in the student, as well as his parents.

What musician(s) inspired you to start playing?

I was first introduced to the guitar by a neighbour at a young age and instantly found inspiration from my older brothers’ record collections. Inspired by all the great iconic riffs from musicians such as, Jimmy Page, Rory Gallagher, Stevie Ray Vaughan and of course the great melodic phrasing of Joe Satriani, I started to play myself, and never looked back!

Communication Breakdown: Guitar-hero, Jimmy Page, plays the classic track with his band, Led Zeppelin

Do you have any favourite personal experiences as a musician?

I really enjoy attending masterclasses with well-known guitarists. I have been fortunate enough to do so with Alex Hutching, Tom Quayle, Martin Goulding and Prog Rock guitarist, Plini. And last but not least, interviewing Shaun Baxter!

Do you have any goals for the future of your teaching business?

To complete my Masters in June with AMS and UWL, and hopefully progressing on to a PhD. I believe by continually developing my learning process, it will help me deliver the best quality and most up-to-date information to my students, helping them to reach their potential, whilst making sure the journey as musical and enjoyable as possible.

What reasons would you give to encourage young musicians to teach others?

The answer to this question is an easy one. To have a key influence on someone who has a dream to become a confident, expressive musician is a unique and important experience that will only change your life for the better.

A big thank you to Phil for taking the time to speak to us. If you’d like to enquire into how you can learn Rockschool Guitar in South Wales, you can click on the image below to get started now!

If you’d like to nominate yourself, a music teacher you know, or even an entire school for a new chapter of Rockschool Stories, click on the button below and drop us a message!


RSL’s Top 10 Ukulele Songs

January 22nd, 2020 by

What are the Best Ukulele Songs? Check out RSL’s top 10 performances that are here to argue the case for the often much-maligned (wrongly!) four-stringed instrument, the Ukulele.

Before digging into our list of the best ukulele songs, we’d like to give you a few historical notes on this fascinating instrument. The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument, which was introduced to the Hawaiians by Portuguese immigrants, primarily from Madeira and the Azores. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century and spread internationally from there. The tone and volume of the instrument vary with size and construction, with the Ukulele commonly coming in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.

Rockschool Ukulele: You can currently study Rockschool Ukulele up to grade 3

The ukulele has since become a largely mass-produced, plastic instrument, manufactured by the millions throughout the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, which has since led to the ukulele receiving a fair share of scorn from musicians ever since. As far as we’re concerned, this criticism is wholly unfair. So, in defence of the ukulele, RSL HQ have put their collective minds together to present our 10 top performances that highlight the versatility and unique expression of the diminutive, but effective, Ukulele.

Paul McCartney, George Harrison & Ringo Starr — Ain’t She Sweet

Taken from the 1995 Anthology documentary series, the surviving Beatles get together on a summer day in George’s garden. Harrison, who was a big fan of the ukulele, leads this casual sing-along of “Ain’t She Sweet,” a call-back to a song the gang used to perform in their early years. We’re sure you’ll agree, it’s lovely to see them all gathered around a uke for a cup of tea and a sing-song. In Hawaii, where Harrison owned a retreat (and where he was known as ‘Keoki’), it’s said he bought ukuleles in batches and gave them away. The story may be legend, but it’s a nice image to remember him by all the same. And this is definitely one of the best ukulele songs!

Queen – Good Company

While Brian May is best-known for his electric guitar acrobatics, he also played the ukulele on some of Queen’s material, one being “Good Company” from the band’s breakthrough LP, ‘A Night at the Opera’. May first began the song during his early school years when he first learned to play the uke. One of the main features of the song is that it contains a recreation of a jazz band in Dixieland style which was provided by May’s Red Special guitar played through a Deacy Amp. This is also one of the few Queen songs without Freddie Mercury participating at all!

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole – Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World (Medley)

It would be extremely remiss of us not to include this track in our list of the best ukulele songs. Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. Known to his fans as ‘Iz’, the Hawaiian musician passed away in 1997, but his medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” has become ingrained in Hawaiian culture. It’s become so popular, it is now the most requested version of the song by far, according to EMI publishing. That’s quite remarkable for a rendition with one voice, accompanied only by ukulele!

Eddie Vedder — Sleeping by Myself

The Pearl Jam front-man, Eddie Vedder, has always had a huge soft spot for the uke. ‘Soon Forget’, which featured on the bands ‘Binaural’ album released in 2000, contained a solo track accompanied by a uke, which served as a preview to Vedder’s solo project, ‘Ukulele Songs’ (2011), which comprised of his unmistakable vocals over a Ukulele only. ‘Sleeping by Myself’ is one of the album’s most popular tracks; a beautiful, forlorn and folky composition that highlights Vedder as an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right.

Taimane Gardner — Beethoven, System of a Down, Led and ACDC Medley

Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner, has been playing since she was knee-high to Don Ho. She was quite literally discovered by the Hawaiian music icon before going on to study under another in Jake Shimabukuro (who also appears on this list) even before he himself rode his ukulele magic to world stardom. You can check her out here as she tears through compositions from Beethoven, System of a Down, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC is one of her many, super-impressive uke-medleys. Would you add it to your own list of the Best Ukulele Songs of all time?

Jake Shimabukuro — While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Racking up almost 17 million views on YouTube, the YouTube uke classic is one of the site’s first viral videos! This clip introduced modern day ukulele virtuoso and Honolulu native, Jake Shimabukuro, to the world. Since then, Jake has become a living legend of the instrument, and this is the video that started it all. For those who’d like to dig a little deeper, an award-winning documentary was released in 2012 tracking his life, career, and music, titled ‘Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.’ Go check it out!

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – Psycho Killer (Talking Heads Cover)

The Orchestra was formed in 1985 as a bit of fun, but after the first gig was an instant sell-out, they have been performing ever since. By 1988 they had released an LP, appeared on BBC TV, played at WOMAD and recorded a BBC Radio 1 session. The current ensemble has been playing together for over 20 years, and has become something of a national institution. Below, you can revel in their endearing version of Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’, which was performed at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms in 2009. You can watch this, and all the other performances from the night on their DVD “Prom Night”.

Honoka & Azita — Bodysurfing

Honoka Katayama and Azita Ganjali were 15 and 13, respectively, when this jaw-dropping display of ukulele ingenuity appeared on YouTube of the pair performing a killer cover of Ohta-San’s “Bodysurfing” on a gorgeous beach in their native Hawaii. The duo were named MVPs of the 2013 International Ukulele Contest in Honolulu and — as you’ll be able to see from the video below — it’s easy to see why from their playing. After the contest, they opened for the popular music festival in Okinawa, Japan, and regularly performed at the Hard Rock Cafe in Honolulu.

James Hill — Billie Jean

James Hill, an award-winning ukulele player and songwriter hailing from Canada, has been called a “ukulele wunderkind,” and an artist who “gives the ukulele its dignity back without ever taking himself too seriously.” Performing live for a crowd in California, Hill and his “imaginary band” illustrate these comments perfectly during an enchanting version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” With just a uke, Hill plays the bass line, percussion, and piano parts. Put it all together, and you have a fascinating one-man ukulele performance, and one of the best ukulele songs.

Noah & The Whale – 5 Years’ Time (Sun, Sun, Sun)

No, this isn’t a trailer for the latest Wes Anderson film – it’s the ultra-catchy, top 10 hit from 2007 by Noah & the Whale! Since it was uploaded to YouTube on 13 June 2008, and as of January, 2020, it has been viewed almost 12 million times. The singer-songwriter sensation, Laura Marling, provides backing vocals on this track. Only a teenager at the time, Laura used to often perform with Noah and the Whale before striking out on her own. She also went out with frontman Charlie Fink for a time with the bands second album, ‘First Days of Spring’ being a concept record based on Fink’s emotional meltdown after their eventual split.

As some of you may already be aware, Rockschool’s second instalment of their Method Book series will focus on the Ukulele in 2020, with plans to extend the grade exams all the way up to grade 8 already in the development phase. Keep your eyes peeled for updates on our social channels very soon!