Ukulele & Languages

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Tips for Playing Jazz On Ukulele

19 2018

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

 

2 Comments »

  1. Jeff on the 20th of April 2018 @ 00:49

    Great article. However the videos do not load on the page.

  2. Armelle Europe on the 20th of April 2018 @ 20:47

    @Jeff : glad you enjoyed the article.
    Thanks for mentioning the video problem. It should be fixed by now. It was due to a plugin not working anymore.

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