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Posts Tagged ‘potentially dubious uke tips’

Christmas draws close and my Diploma course grinds irresistibly on (to say nothing of work commitments and going to the movies), but still I am managing to find the time to practise and write about the ukulele and my increasingly complicated relationship with it. So far, here or hereabouts, I have written about my reasons for picking up a uke in the first place (I think the word self-justification should have been in there somewhere, but never mind), the mechanics of strumming, the basics of fretwork, and probably the one and only occasion in history when I will ever jam with James Hill.

Quite how long I am going to continue to find brand new topics for each installment of this strand I don’t really know, but this week I would like to share a bit of an epiphany which occurred just the other night.

When I do a full proper practice session I aim for at least an hour and generally try to mix stuff up: some of Aldrine Guerrero’s finger training exercises to kick off, then a trot through a few set pieces and a rattle through one of the tunes I already know – currently limited to House of the Rising Sun or Passenger (normally the former as the very simplicity of the latter makes it easy to get lost inside it). After this I generally move on to some melody or finger-picking stuff and/or an attempt at a new song.

This week I got my hands on the Yellow Book from the Ukulele Playlist series and started tackling a couple of the songs from it. I must join the consensus and agree that these books are really good if you are of the strumming-accompaniment-to-your-own-singing persuasion. That said, I’m still not wholly sure of how the musical notes above the lyrics translate into actual strumming, and the difficulty levels of the songs vary wildly and aren’t always clear – one can innocently start to look at Hotel California, completely unaware that virtually every chord in it is different.

Anyway, this week I had a crack at Rockstar, which is a nice friendly song for a beginner: very reasonable (i.e. slow) tempo, not many chords, and lots of repetition of chord progressions. I also started looking at Dream A Little Dream Of Me, which I’ve always liked and seems like a bit of a uke staple. (There are numerous versions on YouTube; my favourite is this one, though this may not be solely due to the quality of the strumming and fretting.)

However, despite the relatively simple strumming and slow pace, the chords in DALDOM turned out to be rather complicated – not the chord shapes themselves, but the issue of how to transition rapidly between them without breaking a couple of fingers. It all boiled down to how make the initial D chord – which finger, and whether to barre the chord – in a way which allowed me to go straight into the Fdim which immediately follows it.

And, eventually, I figured it out (a first finger barre, if anyone’s interested. I’m aware this may be an unconventional and possibly even idiosyncratic finger position). From the Fdim, the Em7 and the following A are a doddle, but in the third bar you run straight into a D – C# – C progression with a B immediately following. Going from the C to the B at speed is proving incredibly difficult and I am looking for a way of consistently achieving the transition.

I spent at least an hour twiddling around with this and ultimately only stopped when the muscles in my fretting hand started to complain. And I found I was actually quite reluctant to take a break, despite the fact that my playing still sounds rubbish and I can’t consistently play anything all the way through, let alone DALDOM. That was when I realised how much more cheerful and relaxed I have been since I’ve started messing around with the ukulele.

Initially I was worried that taking up the uke would turn out to be another in a long line of silly and embarrassing ideas I would ultimately do my best to forget (finishing a novel, learning to speak Klingon, getting married, etc). But I can see myself sticking with the uke, even if it’s just at the messing-about-in-the-garret level I’m currently at. One way or another my ukulele engages both sides of my brain, the how-exactly-do-I-get-my-fingers-from-here-to-there problem-solving part and the let’s-get-some-rhythm-and-emotion-into-this creative part. Most of the things I stick with tick both these technical and creative boxes, so – the feasibility of my mastering the fabled Formby Split Stroke aside – it looks like I and my uke are in it for the long haul. Which feels a cheerful thought right now.

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Well, the Mighty Uke people gave me a free set of strings as a bonus to go with the t-shirt and DVD I bought from them, and this seemed like an opportune moment to upgrade from the nylon strings that came when I bought my uke. It also seemed like a chance to investigate the mystery of what exactly’s been going on with my first string (i.e. the one nearest the floor): to wit, the strange twanging effect and the tendency for my strumming appendage to get entangled in it.

Not having a history in the Boy Scouts there was a degree of jury-rigging involved in contriving a knot that would not slip through the hole in the saddle under tension (this is possibly the most technical this blog has ever become), but eventually all was in place and the peg screwed to the appropriate point: and lo! The first string achieved an A a whole octave higher than the one to which I had become accustomed!

The timbre of the instrument is now a bit more pleasing, but more importantly the tension in the first string means strumming at speed is far more achieveable, which bodes well for my Formby-esque long-term aims. (Although the fact that I am clearly so tone deaf I can’t recognise the fact that my notes are in completely different octaves suggests any kind of musical ambition is probably utterly deluded.) This means I can stop worrying quite so much about what’s happening at the thick end of my uke’s neck and pay more attention to matters in the vicinity of the headstock.

Somebody fretting. Boom-boom.

Yes, folks, it’s fretwork time. Now, once you’ve got the jargon down (‘learning to speak ukulele’ as James Hill puts it on the DVD) in terms of first string, second string, first fret, second fret, etc, it is very easy to get started in making a pleasant noise strumming on the uke. It isn’t even that difficult to do the most basic chord changes – F to C, and vice versa. Of course, this is largely because F and C use different fingers on different strings.

Once you go beyond that point the learning curve ramps up vastly. In the past I would never have described myself as having ugly clumsy sausage fingers – I know my way around a paintbrush and can produce results I personally find very pleasing – but the kind of speed and precision required, in my off-hand especially, to make even the C-to-G transition at tempo (a very common and fairly basic chord progression) seems to be beyond me.

Play slowly and practice a lot is what everyone routinely recommends at this point. There is some virtue in this – the first song I properly practiced that wasn’t utterly simplistic was ‘House of the Rising Sun’ from Uke for Dummies. Displaying more of my musical mastery, it transpired I originally practiced it a) much too slow and b) in the wrong time signature. When I figured this out and modified my playing I found the transitions weren’t too difficult even at full speed (though I find I have a tendency to truncate my strumming pattern in my eagerness to get to the next chord on time – this, of course, is another issue).

Nevertheless, I have decided that serious work in training my fretting hand is called for. My guru on this, as with many other practical matters of uke-wrangling, is Aldrine Guerrero of Ukulele Underground. Putting aside my habitual grumpiness at the drills in question being labelled ‘Left Hand Exercises’, the ideas Aldrine suggests seem sort of obvious once you see them, but I would never have thought them up myself and they seem to me to be very practical. I put in a lengthy session yesterday and have had an odd sensation in my fretting hand ever since: not in a bad way, but definitely signs of the muscles working in a new way. Will this translate into improvement in my fretting? I can only hope.

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