BY CRAIG CHEE | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
When many of us start to play the ukulele, we want to play like our heroes. Troy Fernandez, Jake Shimabukuro, Lyle Ritz—these musicians are a few of the iconic ukulele players that have inspired so many to pick up the ukulele for the very first time. We want to embrace that feeling as we hone our skills, and emulating our heroes is a fantastic place to start. But, at a certain point, we realize that the sound we are trying to re-create was built only after years of playing, experimenting, and manipulating. At this point, many of us realize that we need to go back to the basics. We take a look at our foundation and fill in the holes that we overlooked by jumping ahead too quickly.
Part of revisiting the basics now is to focus on making the easy stuff sound just as fantastic as the fancy stuff. Just like any language or skill, we have to have a good foundation so we can accurately translate what’s happening in our head. You can’t just focus on hitting the long drives in golf, or triple axels on the ice without being able to skate in a straight line. Everything we do on the ukulele expands our vocabulary and allows us to be more creative when we play. From simple strum patterns to delicate and intricate picking, it all helps our playing become well rounded.
The Tone in Your Hands
It’s easy to appreciate when someone is very articulate in their speaking, and the same can be said about a clean ukulele player. That kind of control is built with time and focus. The good news is you can improve your tone every single time you play your ukulele. You just have to be deliberate in the sound you are creating. Every time you work on scales, a chord progression, or a picking pattern, take time to concentrate on your tone.
Achieving good tone requires you to focus on two main aspects—the timing of your left and right hands and the consistency of your pick or strum. Let’s break them down in the following exercises.
The coordination of your fretting and picking hands is one of the hardest to break down. Play through the C scale using quarter notes, as shown in Example 1a.
Did all of the notes have the same clarity? Did all of the notes you play have the same consistent length? Players often get ahead of themselves with their picking hand, inadvertently muting the string they are planning to pick. This happens frequently on the E string, where several notes are played on one string. The player will pluck the note, then rest the picking finger on the string to prepare for the next note. This creates a more staccato, or cut off, sound, instead of letting it ring for its full quarter-note value. The same effect can happen with your fretting hand, but the cause is slightly different. Many times, players will prematurely lift their fingers from the string. Once the finger is lifted, the string’s vibration stops, and the note is cut short, giving us a sound that’s more like what we see in Example 1b, which shows the C scale as 8th notes with rests.
Now, play the C scale again, and focus on plucking the string at the exact moment necessary to give each note its full length of sound. Be sure not to cut off your notes with the fretting hand. This requires some thought and coordination, but if you start slowly, you’ll be able to create smoother transitions. Once you accomplish this, you can then focus on the second aspect, how you’re picking and keeping that consistent.
Consistency and Dynamics
There are many different ways to pick the C scale: with your thumb, index, or using multiple fingers. Start experimenting with which finger(s) you prefer. You may find that using the thumb nail gives you the preferred tone, or perhaps you prefer the flesh of the thumb; either way, you won’t know till you try. Once you figure out the type of sound you like, try consistently using that technique in your practice. In the accompanying video, I’ll take you through the C scale, giving examples of the tone and clarity I seek when practicing.
If I’m in a circle of friends sharing stories, there’s no reason for me to yell out each anecdote or try to talk over them. The same can be said about our ukulele playing. There is a tendency for uke players to strum loud and proud, making it harder to hear the vocalists and potentially changing the original feel of the song, unintentionally.
When Sarah and I perform with other musicians onstage, you’ll see us do much less compared to when we are playing solo or as a duo. We each try to find where we can fit in and make sure that the overall sound is meaningful and not just a wall of sound. Part of it is playing with the arrangement and part of it is playing with dynamics. Being able to control and master the volume of your playing is one of the most beneficial things you can work on as a musician. Not only will it make you a more articulate player and improve your musical ear, but you’ll also widen the scope of sound that you can create.
Try playing a song you already know and test out playing it using dynamics, which is the technique of playing some parts softer and other parts louder. See if you can create a story arc as you play, and, just like a conversation, there will be peaks and valleys. You want your playing to enhance the story of the song, and most of the time this means adjusting your level of volume to suit the music. If the song lyrics are sad, like a break-up, try playing that area of the song a bit quieter. If there is a lyric describing anger over the break-up, try playing a bit louder. Playing dynamically is one of the skills that sets a seasoned payer apart from an amateur.
Although there are countless techniques and ways to create your own sound, what follows are a few basic techniques that every ukulele player should not only learn, but master, to achieve different effects.
The ukulele can be an extension of our vocals. We can harmonize and help support our singing with the instrument. That is why there are many techniques that are shared between the two, especially when we are soloing. The first technique we’ll look at is the slide. Slides can be used to not only tie different notes together with the same “breath,” they can also help prolong a phrase. They are commonly heard in a variety of genres, like country and Hawaiian music. Examples 2a–2c show how a modest slide can change a simple walk-down on a chord progression. You can play the basic progression, as shown in Ex. 2a, but you can add more interest and texture to the part by adding some single notes (Ex. 2b) and slides (Ex. 2c) on the E7 portion of the progression.
If this is difficult for you, try working on the E7 measure only before trying to play the whole progression. Breaking this down and working on it in small parts will give you a greater success rate.
Focus on the quality of the slide. A great slide typically contains a great “snap” to the fret that you want. In the video, I’ll show exactly what this means. Knowing precisely where you are starting and where you are going to end up on the fretboard will ensure a crisp and clean transition. This will also allow the notes to ring out clearly, for as long as possible. One of the easiest things to overlook on a slide is to rush the slide from its original fret. Make sure that you hear the original note being played before the slide, and also the slide itself. Slides can also be used in chords. You’ll hear this in everything from blues to country to ragtime to ’70s funk.
Slides can be utilized for efficiency as well as to help you keep your place on the fretboard, even if they aren’t all audible. To show this, I’m going to use an example of a G7 walk-down, much like one found in the song, “Guava Jam.” Example 3a shows the original progression and the walk-down lick is shown in the first measure of Example 3b.
Though there is only one slide shown in this example, you will use the technique used to play the slide to play the rest of the phrase. Use your middle and index finger together as a pair, with the index finger in charge of notes on the A string, while the middle finger takes care of the E string. Use your middle finger to play the initial slide on the E string; your index will fall to the A string on the 8th fret. This sets your fingers to their string assignments, and then you will slide down to the note pairings in beats three and four. Finish the phrase by using your ring finger to play the final note on the 3rd fret of the A string, a move that sets you up for the C chord that follows.
At its most basic role, muting is the idea of controlling the notes that are already being played. Many times while we are playing in a group, if we allow our chords to ring out all of the way until the next chord change, chances are the music will start to sound a little messy or sloppy. By controlling exactly when those notes stop, and giving space in between these chords or notes, we can achieve a crisper, more deliberate sound.
Muting differs from chunking mainly because we use different hands to create a similar effect. Muting requires stopping the string vibrations with your fretting hand, while chunking mutes the strings using your strumming hand. The biggest advantage to fretting-hand muting is that you now have more control over the instrument’s sound, allowing you to use other strumming techniques, while holding the mute with your fretting hand.
For now, let’s focus on getting a clean mute by building control of these “hits” using an A chord. Start by doing one down strum and then adding whatever free fingers we have on our fretting hand (in this case it will be the ring and pinky) to touch across all four strings to stop them from vibrating. The secret to this technique is to use as little pressure as possible. Using too much pressure for the mute might make you might end up with an accidental hammer-on. Releasing too fast can also cause unwanted string noise. (You’ll see how much strength is really needed in the accompanying video.) Try out Example 4a and 4b, remembering to mute after each strum. Once we feel comfortable with the A chord and muting, try out other popular progressions using this technique. The biggest takeaway here is to get a clean mute utilizing only the fretting hand.
What happens, though, when you have chords that use all four strings? Try barring at the 4th fret and strum once. Release the pressure in the barre, stopping the string vibration. This will create the same effect as laying your fingers down on the string and may even be easier because your finger is already on the string, acting as a mute. The key to this style of muting is relaxing!
All of this boils down to time and being as efficient with your practice time as possible. There are times that Sarah and I have to prioritize working on songs for a performance, but typically our practice routine revolves around focusing on different parts of our playing. I’ll often watch a show on Netflix while only playing through eight bars of a song or just one run of a technique. Over and over and over, while watching the show. I’m also paying attention to the other things besides just the sound (like our examples above). This is to help master that one section of the song and then being able to manipulate it in songs how I see fit. This is incredibly important in being able to apply all of the different things that we practice to really flesh out our sound. As a single line of poetry would be read completely differently by people, a song can (and should) be performed uniquely to that performer. It is your story, your version, and your vision. Then on any given day, you can completely change it into a brand new form.
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For those of you wanting more of a challenge, here are a few rhythmic patterns using a jazzy chord progression in the key of F major. First, play the basic progression, in which each chord occupies two beats and is strummed in quarter notes, as shown in Example 5. Next try the first variation (Example 6), muting each chord just after it is strummed.
To create more of an island vibe, work through Example 7. Once again, be sure to mute the chords. If doing so between the eighth-note pairs (on beat 2 of each bar) feels too difficult, then feel free to mute only after the second eighth note. That might be cheating a little bit, but it shouldn’t detract from the island vibe.
The variations shown in Example 8 are jazzier with their swung eighth notes. Just as you did with the Ex. 7, try to mute after every chord, to make the rhythms tighter and your playing more sophisticated.