Ukulele & Languages

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Ukulele Learning Posts

Today I feature a post by Canadian professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz guitar teacher Marc-Andre Seguin.

Marc-Andre is the founder of the website JazzGuitarLessons.net, an online resource dedicated to Jazz guitar learning and has recently decided to write about the ukulele to broaden his horizons as well as to open the doors of Jazz music to ukulele players.

Thanks a lot to Marc-Andre for this post:

Tips for Playing Jazz On Ukulele

Over the years, we have heard countless renditions of classic songs played on ukulele. In fact, some of my favorite versions of a number of different songs are ukulele versions. Now, as a guitar player, I have more options as far as arranging goes since I have six strings available to me, whereas ukulele players only have four. We can be jealous of piano players together, but don’t worry, with a few little dynamics and arrangement considerations, you can make wonderful jazz arrangements on ukulele.

In this lesson, I will discuss some of these ideas and how you can approach them as well as some ideas that, perhaps, do not lend themselves to the instrument. I am also assuming that you know a little bit of music theory as it will be necessary to understand some of the basic concepts discussed here. If this does not sound like you, you can still get something out of this, but I would recommend exploring the topic further. Playing by ear is great, but you do not want to feel lost when interacting with other musicians!

Dynamics

Playing around with the dynamics of your arrangement is a highly effective way of getting certain parts to stand out and leave other parts in the background. That leaves us to think about what the best approach to this might be. In this great video below, James Hill discusses using your thumb for a more “padded” sound. The thumb is also fantastic for offering a range of dynamic options. In his example, you can see how he approaches the accompaniment aspect with a lighter stroke while using a stronger pluck for the melody notes.

You might have noticed that he has a bass player playing behind him, and this is an important thing to consider. As a ukulele player, you have to realize that perhaps adding bass parts to your arrangement should not be a focal point. Of course, they will be there because of the chord shapes themselves, but often, guitar players like to create the illusion of an independent bass line, and that is not quite as effective with an ukulele. The range of the instrument just does not go low enough and the ear usually will not perceive a bass line as such for this reason.

Rhythm

There are many different ways to approach these arrangements rhythmically. In straight-ahead jazz, it is common to make use of “swung” eighth notes as opposed to straight. Swinging your eighth notes basically means that your eighth notes are felt like an eighth note triplet where the first two beats are tied.

ukulelejazz1

With that said, this is not a hard and fast rule. You may have noticed that in his arrangement, James Hill decides to play most of his eighth notes “straight”. This is perfectly fine. This is, of course, a stylistic consideration after all, but it is important that you know what your options are.

Arrangement

There are a few approaches that you can take with regard to arrangement. In the example provided, he mostly opts to keep a steady quarter note rhythm with his chords and plays the melody in the upper register. It is actually rather interesting how he is able to get the ukulele to sound like two instruments going at one time. This is why dynamics are so important. Another approach you might take is Wes Montgomery’s approach. Have a listen to how he approaches the popular standard, Days of Wine and Roses.

In this approach, Wes gives almost every melody note its own chord – within reason, of course. This is a popular approach to arranging for guitar that has been around for decades and is still used today. This can also be applied to faster tunes as well, not only ballads.

Chords

Next, I would like to discuss chord vocabulary. None of these considerations will be of any use if you do not have a good vocabulary of chord shapes that you can access at a moment’s notice. With regard to making chordal arrangements of tunes, it is an important skill to be able to access melody notes at the top of any chord voicing.

Let’s go over a few 7th chord shapes that you can use and then we can discuss how to use them to construct your arrangement.

*Note: All of the chords we will be discussing here are in standard GCEA tuning.

Accords jazz (1)

Of course, I have only provided the chords in Bb, it is up to you to move them around and explore. Also, make sure you learn which chord tone is where in each voicing, especially the top note. The top note will be your melody note most of the time, so it is crucial to know which voicing has which note at the top. This will be useful to you when it is time to put together your own jazz arrangements.

Try It for Yourself!

The last step now is to go ahead and try it for yourself. It would probably be a good idea to start out with a jazz standard that uses simple chord changes so that you do not overwhelm yourself. A few good tunes to start out with would be Summertime, Days of Wine and Roses, and Autumn Leaves.

First, see if you can play the chords for the whole tune. I would suggest taking this into every position on the fretboard. This will also help improve your knowledge of the fretboard. Next, find out which chord voicings provide for the easiest access to melody notes. When you feel you have got this under your belt, go ahead and see if you can put together your arrangement and try playing through it in time.

Take these suggestions and apply them to as many tunes as you can. Each tune has some musical listen written into it. This is especially true for jazz standards.

I hope you enjoyed this lesson and happy playing!

Marc-Andre Seguin

 

In fact, this post could just as well have been entitled ‘Some ideas on how to play the guitar with a ukulele player’. If you are playing the ukulele and your best friend is playing the guitar, there is a chance that you might tire after long hours spent arguing which of the two instruments is best. How about trying to combine both instruments to play together instead ?

My friend Gwilym and I would like to share our experience on playing the ukulele and the guitar together. Gwilym is playing the guitar and I the ukulele. For a few years now, we have been trying different ideas to play our instruments of choice together in a way that allows both of us to make progress. We have chosen to write this post and to make two videos to illustrate how the ukulele and the guitar can play different roles when played together.

Of course, in order to play together, we needed to have a common structure, which could be seen as the ‘spine’ of our tunes. This is where playing the blues is interesting : the ‘spine’ consists of 12 bars following a set pattern (see below). We have opted to play a minor blues in the key of (Am and Dm are among my favourite chords). We have used the same structure for both videos but each of us improvised his/her part according to his/her fancy.

Our 12 bar blues is very standard and uses the following chords in I-IV-V progression :
(Am is I, Dm is IV and Em/E7 are V)

Am / Dm / Am / Am   (The Dm here is a quick four)
Dm / Dm / Am / Am
Em / Dm / Am / E7

Chords for A Minor Blues

In the first video, Gwilym is playing a melody on his guitar which he plays a bit like a bass, while I strum the accompaniment on the ukulele.
The ukulele accompaniment uses the strumming pattern below in Swing time.
(Where ‘X‘ means ‘Chnk‘ and ‘‘ means ‘silent‘,  means downstrum and  means upstrum).
One bar of 4 times works like this :

Rhythm Pattern for ukulele accompaniment

For more information on Swing Time and Chnk, read Al‘s article on Ukulele strumming, paragraphs on Swing/Shuffle Strums and Chnking.

First video :

A Minor Blues – Guitar and Ukulele duet

Second video :

In this video, Gwilym is playing the accompaniment on the guitar while I play the melody on the ukulele. He uses roughly the same strumming pattern as I use for the ukulele in the first video but with barre chords.

A Minor Blues – Ukulele and Guitar duet

To make things easier for you to create your melody, all you need to know are the 5 notes belonging to the A minor pentatonic scale as they will always sound right in a blues in A. The following diagram shows you the 5 notes of the A minor pentatonic scale : A, C, D, E and G.

Basically, you can try to create melodies using all the notes that are highlighted on this ukulele fretboard (notice that open strings are included). They are all either A, C, D, E or G at different places on your fretboard.

Trust your ear to retain whatever melody sounds nice to you!

Am Pentatonic Scale

If you wanted to play a blues in a different key, then you would need to learn the corresponding pentatonic scale. For example, if you played a blues in C, you would then need the C minor pentatonic scale.

Afterword :

You may have noticed that in both videos we have tried to play the instruments so that each can sound distinctively from the other. This is why the guitar emphasizes the low notes on the first video and in the second video, starts each bar with the root of the chord which is the lowest note of the chord.

On the ukulele, it is interesting to look for the higher notes in contrast so don’t hesitate to navigate up the fretboard ! Another thing to point out is that one instrument is playing chords while the other plays the melody. If we were both to play chords or melody, it would either sound dull or confusing.

What we wanted to illustrate with our two mirrored videos is that the guitar and the ukulele can reverse roles while using the same melodic and harmonic tools.

We hope you will find these ideas useful, we are still learning and there are many more possibilities we haven’t explored yet ! Music is a never-ending journey !

Please let us know what you think in a comment !

Further reading :

You can find more information about playing the blues on the ukulele on Al‘s site in this post and I strongly recommend Al‘s e-book How to Play Blues Ukulele.

Further listening :

You can listen to our other ukulele/guitar experiments :

Ukulele playing arpeggio and guitar experimenting different strums and picking

Guitar, ukulele and singing ! Our original song : Countryside Walk

***

 

One of the things I find most difficult in my ukulele learning process is to keep time while playing. An excellent exercise is to play with others.

My friend Ganymede Gwilym and I often like to play a series of chords to practise keeping time when playing together. Today we had great fun doing a video of an improvisation on 4 chords of Clocks by Coldplay (initially D Am C Em, transposed to G Dm F Am). Trying to keep a steady ukulele fingerpicking while the guitar is changing rhythm is excellent practice.

Here is our rendition of passing time :

I never knew my Pono baritone ukulele had a truss rod until a couple of weeks ago. I suddendly noticed, much to my horror, that my Pono had started to buzz badly when I played certain strings.  I knew the strings were not to blame as I had changed them shortly before the buzz first occurred.

I couldn’t understand what caused the sudden change in the sound. I hadn’t dropped my ukulele and it had received no shock, nor did I leave it in the sun or in the cold.

I showed it to my friend Guillaume and he spotted that the truss rod was slightly coming out. We could take it out even more when we pulled it gently. I quickly searched on the internet and found this explanation from Ko’olau Guitar and Ukulele  Company on how to set the truss rod. This guitar page (in French) was helpful to understand the principles of a truss rod too.

Here is my Pono with its truss rod sticking out. Thanks to Guillaume for the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not wanting to risk doing any damage to my uke, I emailed Ko’olau Guitar and Ukulele Company for advice. I got a very fast answer from John and applying all he said restored my ukulele’s natural buzz-free warm and mellow tone. Thanks John !

Here is the explanation I got, in case you ever have the same problem :

If the truss rod has tension then it will not come out. So push the truss rod back in, then turn the rod counter clockwise. If the rod nut only turns, but just feels loss, then continue turning counterclockwise until you feel the nut threading again. So after a little tight when turning, continue to turn approximately 1/4 turn. This will cause the truss rod nut to stay inside and will not come out. Also this will cause the neck to develop a slight dip (like ski slope), and this will cause the buzzing to stop. If you do not see any space around the 5th to 7th fret, then turn again, another 1/4 turn, counter clockwise.

When neck is too straight it is because weather is dry (natural dry, or heater or air conditioner). and when weather is humid (moisture), then neck will have dip (warp, ski slope), and you will then need to turn clockwise.

But remember, between clockwise and counter clockwise the truss rod nut will be loose and have no threads. When this happens, continue turning until you feel it tight again, then turn only small 1/4 turns at a time.

For more information on baritone ukuleles, check out Jeff‘s site Humble Baritonics. Jeff is collecting information on baritone ukuleles, including, tabs, chords and baritone ukulele videos.

 

I was at the same time pleased and embarrassed when I was asked for the tab for my original tune Maelström. Pleased in the sense that it felt great to hear that a piece of music I had written was appreciated and embarrassed because I had never thought of ever tabbing Maelström, having but very little knowledge of music theory.

I have written Maelström completely ‘by ear’, relying only on how pleasant it sounded to my ears. So I never gave any thought as to how it would fit in with music theory. After much procrastination on my part, I finally decided to try and discover how my piece was constructed. I focused on trying to learn how to use Powertab and after a difficult start, I found this excellent post which helped me set up the program for the ukulele.

So I am now glad to oblige with my attempt at tabbing Maelström for anyone who feels like playing it. A big thank you to those who asked for the tabs, I learnt a great deal from working on it. Many thanks to Guillaume for his help and to Al for reviewing the tab.

Download Tab for Maelström (for standard GCEA ukes, I might do the baritone tab later if anyone asks for it).

Here is my video of Maelström for all that is not mentioned in the tab (ie. strumming pattern for the strumming part)

Any suggestions on how to improve the tab are welcome.

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