I took my uke into work this week – not a self-indulgent look-at-me gesture, but I was going up north to visit my family straight afterwards and didn’t want to miss five days practice – and the response from colleagues was gratifyingly positive (one comment from someone in the next room along the lines of ‘why can I hear a harp?’ excepted), although no-one asked the question I’d been sort of expecting, to wit:
‘Why did you pick the ukulele?’
To which the only acceptable answer is surely:
‘You don’t pick the ukulele. You pick the mandolin. You strum a ukulele.’
Ah, the joys of uke humour. Just another reason to go with the four-stringed wonder I suppose.
So, anyway, at the end of our last
gripping entirely traction-free episode, we left our intrepid uke newbie (i.e. me) coming to grips for the first time with a shiny new MK-SC ukulele, and had established the following tips to ensure a pain-free introduction to the instrument:
- Invest in an electronic tuner.
- Be right-handed. (Not terribly helpful, that one, I concede. I suppose if you contacted a store in advance and told them you were of the sinister persuasion they might set-up a left-handed uke for you specially.)
Anyway, the three sources I pay most attention to – Woodshed, in Uke for Dummies, Aldrine Guerrero of Ukulele Underground, and Pineapple Pete of Uke School – all agree that the place you absolutely must start with the uke is with the strumming. This is the left hand (don’t start) which goes up and down across the strings and actually generates noise from the instrument.
No plectrum is involved, nor usually – as I had to point out to a guitarist colleague at work the other day – most of the fingers of the hand. Index finger only, hand moving solely from the wrist.
Another righty. Grrr.
As you may imagine, the mechanics of this are not especially taxing, although as a new uker there was an initial degree of physical discomfort until the side of the finger got used to bashing against the strings.
That said – well, one of the things about the uke is that much of the time you are hitting the strings on both the downstroke and the upstroke, usually in rapid succession – if you imagine the beat of the music as being ‘one-and-two-and-three etc’, you’ll be strumming down on the numbers and up on the ‘and’s.
Strumming down is not generally a problem for me. Strumming up is occasionally troublesome, however: my finger frequently gets tangled in the bottom string or ricochets off at a strange angle, producing a strange noise rather than a strummed chord. Possibly I have the bottom string tuned too slack. Is that even possible? I don’t know.
I suspect the problem may be a) a simple lack of practice and b) trying to go too fast too soon. The former is not an acceptable excuse but as for the latter… well, it was bound to come up sooner or later, but nevertheless – the time has come to drop the F-bomb.
For anyone in the UK, the moment you start talking about ukuleles, one name comes up with the speed of Jake Shimabukuro’s strumming hand. That name is, of course, George Formby (usual qualification that Formby more commonly played the banjolele than the uke goes here). As I mentioned last time, I’ve enjoyed George Formby’s music for decades and the aspiration to do the same is probably a reason why I took up the uke in the first place.
Formby seems to be a polarising influence on the uke community – has his work dated? Is he a limited player of the uke? And so on. But no-one seems to deny what a tremendous strumming hand the man possessed. I mean, good grief, he’s a blur from the wrist down – split strokes, triplet strums, and lots of other tricks that I can name but don’t really understand.
The point I’m trying to make is that ‘sounding like Formby’ is not a realistic prospect for the starting uker. You’re not even going to get remotely close and attempting to do so will only be depressing and demotivating. So there.
Anyway, back to strumming the uke at a realistic level for the beginner. Fretting (i.e. using the other end of the ukulele to actually make chords) I am going to look at in detail in a future instalment, but suffice to say the beginner sources all tend to zero in on C and F, which are one- or two-finger chords and easy to transition between.
Having demonstrated how to do these, both Woodshed and Pineapple Pete announce it is ‘first song time’ – although there’s no actual melody involved, you’re just strumming along with the chords. In both cases, unless you know the song in advance (melody and tempo, etc), you’re not going to be able to produce something recognisable, probably because the chords involved are so basic.
However, it is not all bad news. Pineapple Pete’s website offers a strum-a-long option which allows you to play along with a backing track and get used to the mechanical action and the rhythm and so on. This isn’t perfect, mainly because the track’s on an imperfect loop, but it does mean you can be involved in a piece of music and getting used to playing to a beat without simply strumming along to a metronome (which is a bit dull).
I must also mention a fourth source I am making use of – ‘A Practical Method for Self-Instruction on the Ukulele and the Banjo Ukulele’ by N.B. Bailey, published in 1914 in San Francisco, available at theuke.com. Not the hippest and funkiest volume for a modern audience, I admit, but it seems to me to contain some really useful material, particularly the strumming exercises with basic chord progressions (the I-IV-V progression in the key of C, etc).
There isn’t actually a tune involved but the chords involved are pleasing to the ear and changing the frets is, I would imagine, good practice for my ugly sausage fingers.
We seem to be on the verge of leaving the arena of strumming for the less comforting terrain of fretwork, and so I shall draw this to a close with the following summary of points which I personally have found useful:
- Get your physical relationship with the ukulele right (oh, stop it: I mean, hold it in the right way and strum from the wrist with a single finger).
- Don’t go mad trying to be George Formby: you won’t manage it.
- Get your guidance from as many different sources as possible (well, present company excepted, if that’s even a coherent thing to say), and especially don’t just stick to a single book or website.
- At really low levels of uke-ability (i.e., mine), learning to play basic chord progressions is probably more aesthetically pleasing and useful than laboriously strumming your way through ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ or whatever.
Until next time…
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