Well, it’s been a busy sort of year, and one of the things which kind of got left behind along the way was the idea of blogging about my progress in mastering the ukulele. Finding quality time for the instrument has been difficult enough for much of the last twelve months; spending time writing about practising instead of actually practising would just have been absurd.
So, what news on the uke front? Well, one development is that I have acquired a second uke to go with the Makala MK-SC. The second uke is a Tanglewood TU-3 concert model, with a much bigger sound to it. The saddle is a bit of a pain when it comes to restringing, and I think I am still getting used to switching grips between the two different sizes of instrument (I am prone to strumming up the neck of the concert) but on the whole I am very happy with it.
This year has also seen me venturing out in public with the uke, which I never would have foreseen a year ago (well – except in some of my more grandiosely delusion moments). Along with fellow members of the Oxford Ukuleles, I recorded a few numbers for the city’s Jack FM, and did a little bit of busking in the city centre, both just this week (the busking was a little marred by a kazoo-related accident resulting in blood spraying across the covered market. I think there’s a lesson to be learned there, but I’ve no idea what).
However, I took the uke with me when I went off to do my summer school management job this year. Playing the thing in the office during breaks proved a sure-fire way of annoying my staff, which on reflection probably isn’t a positive, but I was also persuaded to break it out and perform at a couple of social functions. My rendition of Rihanna’s umbrella was met with rapturous indifference by 300 Italian, Brazilian and Russian teenagers at the school talent night, but my rewritten-for-satirical-effect version of Let It Be at the company management party went down a storm and apparently I won a prize (but this was back in August and I haven’t actually received anything yet).
So, all to the good so far, even if I’ve hardly made any progress with either fingerpicking or syncopated strumming, two areas I’m very keen to explore. Nevertheless, I thought I would present some general thoughts on how to make the best of your first year with a ukulele.
Obviously, make sure your uke is tuned properly so all the strings are sufficiently tight that your strumming appendage will not get tangled up. This sounds obvious but it took me over a month to sort it out – partly because I’m a lefty and have to restring every new uke I get, but even so.
I wouldn’t get too hung up on trying to work out the strumming pattern for every new song you learn. Much better to just master the Swiss Army or Calypso strum (these are two names for the same thing, by the way), as this is applicable to almost every song in 4/4 time. There are probably dozens of YouTube videos showing how this one goes, but basically across a four-beat bar it goes D-DU-UDU (down, skip, down, up… look, just go to YouTube).
Some songs require a more specialised strum to sound really authentic, it is true, but even here you can probably get away with the Swiss Army strum – I find that playing Space Oddity with the SA strum, at my default tempo, instantly turns it into a comedy number, but I don’t really have a problem with this. The shadow of George Formby is a long one…
I am probably not the best person to talk about how to form chord shapes, as some of mine are extremely eccentric – I am prone to using my thumb on the G-string when I need an E, an F minor or an A sharp 7, much to the horror of genuine musicians around me. However I do feel qualified to suggest which chords a new player should concentrate on mastering first.
So, absolutely essential chords for any uker surely include:
C, F, G, G7, D, A, Dm, E7, D7, C7, Am, Em.
Just these dozen or so chords, none of which are especially demanding on their own, allow you to play lots of different tunes. If you add A7 to the list you can play a very decent 12-bar-blues in that key.
In terms of getting used to switching between chords I found playing triad progressions to be very useful. This is in danger of turning into a serious piece on music theory, but, basically, if you give every note a number from 1-7, the triad progression (or three chord trick) is chords 1, 4, and 5. So the trick in the key of C is the C chord (number 1), followed by an F (4) and then a G (5). In the key of A it’s A(1), D(4), and E(5). Just getting used to playing the 1-4-5-4 progression in as many keys as you can master is a real help in getting knowledge of chord positions out of your head and into your fingers, where it needs to be.
Anyway, once you’ve got the essentials, other useful chords for the aspiring ukist are:
A7, B, B flat, E, Gm, G, E flat, Cm, Gm7.
Apart from the E, which has a well-deserved reputation as a source of horror for neophyte ukuleleists, none of these is especially challenging if you put the practice in.
From this point on, it’s really just a question of mastering the chords you need for a specific song – I grappled with and eventually (sort of) mastered F sharp simply because I needed it to play Hotel California and Wuthering Heights (the latter also requires an F sharp sus 4 which I’m still contending with, but no matter). You may also find it useful to explore the arcane world of the movable chord shape, something which I am still prodding around the edges of and don’t feel qualified to talk about in detail or at length.
There are lots of places on the internet where you can find songs with the ukulele chords attached, and I use some of them myself. Coupled to the rapidly-expanding songbook of my ukulele group, there’s no really pressing reason why one should want to actually invest in a ukulele songbook from a bookshop, is there?
Well… it really depends on how much you want to challenge yourself (and thus, possibly, improve your skills). It’s easy to try a song off the internet, discover it requires an E flat minor 7 or something else you haven’t cracked, and never consider trying it again. My own ukulele group songbook is actually pretty well pitched in terms of more challenging chords slowly creeping in, but there are other considerations here and a lot of easy songs still appear.
For me the big advantages of buying ukulele songbooks are twofold: firstly, the ‘difficult’ songs don’t go away as far or as permanently when you decide you’re not ready for them yet. When I first bought the Ukulele Playlist Blue Book, the version of Hotel California inside was way above my skill level (rather to my disappointment). However, I kept fiddling around with the easier songs in the book (one of the features of this series is that there’s a real mixture of quite gentle and savagely difficult arrangements in each volume) and when I came back to the Eagles’ song I found, miraculously, I was able to actually play it without too much difficulty.
This feeds into the second advantage of this kind of book, which is that – to some extent – you can choose your own songs to practice. This is hugely important in terms of motivation – I can understand why the tutor at my uke group has added Yes Sir That’s My Baby to the songbook, as it introduces the C sharp dim, but it’s not a song I can summon up much enthusiasm for. Playing songs you genuinely like and want to master makes a huge amount of difference (and in the same way, playing all the fingerpicking exercises in the world isn’t going to motivate you to progress as much as the desire to play the riff from Back in Black, should that be one of your favourite tunes).
Of course, you can still find songs you like off the internet, and I frequently do – but in terms of just challenging yourself, a decent ukulele songbook is also a great resource.
It’s difficult to overstate how big a difference playing with a group has made to my ukulele experience over the last year. Partly this is simply due to technical stuff – seeing how certain chords are formed, picking up little tricks (possibly I would have figured out the Em-G switch off my own bat, but I can’t be certain of it), even having the usefulness of the Swiss Army strum demonstrated for me. Partly it is just the fun of it, and the forgiving and yet unforgiving nature of playing in a group – my own dud chords are swallowed by the sound of the whole, while there’s no question of stopping a song just because you can’t quite get to the Fm every time you need it. If I’ve progressed at all in the last year, it’s in the areas of strumming and basic chords, and these are the areas we tend to work on in the group. Picking, movable chords, advanced strumming techniques – these are more things I’ve been looking at in my own time, which is why I’m not getting anywhere fast!
Nevertheless, of all the advice I would offer, this last would be the most important: find a group, or start one of your own. All the other things I’ve mentioned should follow almost automatically.