This interview will be the first of a series of interviews of players from around the globe on the subject of ukulele fingerpicking style. The idea is to gather tips from skilled fingerpicking players to help anyone who would like to learn to play the ukulele using this technique.
Ken Middleton from the United-Kingdom has been very kind to accept to answer my questions.
If you are new to the ukulele, I suggest you subscribe to Ken’s YouTube channel. Ken plays the ukulele in many different styles among which folk, bluegrass, finger-style, Celtic and his videos are excellent.
U&L : How long have you been playing the ukulele? How did you learn to play ?
Ken : I have played the ukulele off and on for as long as I can remember. I recall that I owned one as a small child. However, I have only really taken it seriously over the last couple of years. Before my father died he gave me some money to spend on myself and I bought a nice ukulele (actually several). I can’t remember the reason why. I know that the ukulele I had before this was a terrible instrument that wouldn’t play in tune. I wanted something better.
My main instruments had always been the guitar and the piano. I have played the guitar for about 50 years. I think that this is why I play the ukulele – because I play the guitar. But, in reality, the two instruments are quite different. Interestingly, I have only got my guitars out of their cases on a few occasions in the last year.
Lately, I have concentrated my efforts on the ukulele. Lots of people just strum the ukulele, but I like to play it finger-style too. And I use all four strings. The high G re-entrant string is so important to correct ukulele playing. I believe it is what makes it sound like a ukulele, and not just like a high-pitched guitar.
U&L : What is your favourite ukulele for fingerpicking ? Or maybe I should ask which is your favourite Ohana for fingerpicking ?
Ken : I don’t really have a favourite ukulele for finger-picking. I suppose the one I have used in my videos more than any other is the Ohana TK-35G. I have it strung with Worth browns. By the way, I bought this ukulele a long time before I worked for Ohana. My Kanile’a tenor is also great for picking, but I actually tend to use it more for strumming. Recently, I have been experimenting more with the soprano uke. At the moment I use either an Ohana SK-35G or my Kiwaya. I like the way you have to be so precise with the dynamics and fingering on a soprano. It is a really good discipline.
I genuinely rate Ohana ukuleles very highly and am proud to work for the company. But this does not prevent me using other brands of instrument. In fact, I have commissioned a custom koa tenor from a well-known luthier and am looking forward to receiving that soon.
U&L : Do you have any piece of advice you would like to give to ukulele players who would like to learn to play fingerpicking ukulele ?
Ken : My advice to anyone who wants to learn to play the ukulele in a finger-picking style is: learn to read music or tab, grow your finger nails and work hard. Let me explain: It is hard to learn how to fingerpick without being able to try pieces that others have written. To do this you need to have an understanding of correctly written tab or music. This knowledge will help you to decide which notes to play if you want to make something up for yourself.
In my opinion, the notes sound best if they are plucked with the finger nail, not the soft fleshy part of the finger. Not everyone will agree with this, but I believe it to be true. It is so important, however, to shape and polish the nails so that they produce a beautiful tone.
Anyone can strum a ukulele after just a few hours practice. Finger-picking takes longer. Remember though, it is best not to play the same pattern over and over again, but to vary what you play. I know it is a bit controversial, but I don’t tend to think in terms of strumming patterns or finger-picking patterns.
U&L : On your website you have free tabs of tunes you have arranged. Among those, could you recommend one which is more suitable for beginners?
Ken : Yes, if you look on my website (www.kenmiddleton.co.uk), you will find 27 tunes that are free to download. Many are quite difficult, but some would be very suitable for someone who already plays the ukulele but does not have much experience at finger-style playing. Three that immediately come to mind are: Down By The Sally Garden, Flow Gently Sweet Afton and Old Joe Clark. All have videos that can be followed and all three demonstrate the use of the 4th re-entrant string.
There are plenty of my other arrangements to try when you get more confident. Of course you can purchase my eBooks too.
To illustrate Ken’s playing in fingerpicking style, here is a video of him playing She Moved Through the Fair, a traditional Irish folk song. You can find the lyrics here.
Some Information about Ken’s ebook: Ken’s e-book 12 tunes for Bluegrass Ukulele is very well laid-out, and besides giving you tabs for 12 Bluegrass style ukulele pieces, it also provides a wealth of technical information on how to read and play the technical parts of the tabs such as Hammer-On, Pull-Off, Slide, Broken chords… Each tune comes with historical information and midi files at different speeds to help you practise. You can watch some of the tunes being played on Ken’s YouTube channel.
Ken is currently working on another e-book called 12 tunes for Celtic Ukulele (which will include She Moved Through the Fair). You can already purchase the tab arrangement for The Lord of the Dance on Ken’s ebook page.
Many thanks to Ken Middleton for taking the time to answer my questions in such detail.