Arriving home after a late flight from Spain I was greeted by a large pile of envelopes on the doormat. Amongst the pile of white letters – most of them with those officious looking windows that you’d rather not receive – I spied an A4 sized yellow envelope. Dumping the rest on the kitchen table – who wants to read their bills at 4am – I opened the more interesting yellow envelope. First Class International from LA didn’t disappoint. Inside I found a signed copy of Daniel Ward’s new book Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele.
The first thing that struck me was the title. Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele sounded like my kind of book. It was playing simple arpeggios on the ukulele that awakened me to the beauty of the instrument and got me hooked. I was tempted to break out the ukulele and start playing through the pieces but that seemed a little antisocial at 4am. Instead I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to have a thumb through. The blurb on the back of the book succinctly sums up the concept behind Arpeggio Meditations:
Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele is a group of 16 carefully crafted studies, each with a unique picking pattern that loops over pleasing chord melodies. This book is based on the concept of becoming deeply in touch with the strings, allowing the hand that “speaks” to pull the most out of your music. Presented in order of difficulty, these pieces are easy to learn and will quickly yield vast amounts of improved ability in tone, rhythm, agility, and speed.
That sounded pretty good. But does the idea of “studies” suggest a lot of hard work playing exercises? One tends to think of “studies” as pieces which focus on mechanical rigour rather than musical subtlety. For many they are the musical equivalent of taking bad medicine: you might get better but you won’t enjoy the process. Arpeggio Meditations, however, promises a deeper, meditative approach to learning. The pieces meld technique and musicality. The concept of meditation also suggests a spiritual journey – a calming rather than obsessive path to improvement. As someone committed to teaching the ukulele I’m already inspired by Daniel’s approach. While this might not be a new concept in music this kind of material is certainly lacking in the ukulele repertoire. My first impressions were positive. But the big questions remained: Does the book deliver? Would I recommend this book to my students?
Though self-published every effort has been made to make the book as professional as possible. The cover – simple, shiny & colourful – has an upbeat, welcoming tone. Clearly a great deal of time, thought and effort has been spent on presentation and content. The printing quality is good, as is the layout. (I do have a couple of small gripes about the layout which are discussed below.) The first page has a comprehensive index enabling quick referencing. The forward and information section comprise 6 pages (indicated in Roman numerals) and the Studies account for a further 29 pages. The last page, page 30, contains biographical information about Daniel. The bottom of the contents page provides a link to video tutorials of all the pieces. You can watch the trailer video by clicking on the link below. The videos are available through Vimeo On Demand and access to all the tutorials costs £5.31 for one year’s streaming. That’s pretty good value!
The preamble includes a forward, information on how to use the book and handy practise tips. Wording is simple, concise and to the point. As a fellow guitarist I particularly like Daniel’s approach of using the Spanish plucking hand finger indicators. While that sounds like a bit of a mouthful it simply means thumb is called pulgar, index finger is indicio, middle finger is medio and ring finger is anular. This is abbreviated to p i m a and really helps when annotating a score. Fretting fingers are indicated 1 2 3 4 and plucking fingers p i m a. This is a simple but effective way of clarifying fingering. It also avoids any awkwardnesses between right and left handed players.
To the music itself.
The pieces are in notation and tab with chord boxes written above. The chord boxes will be particularly helpful for players who have experience with chords but are relatively new to fingerpicking. Each piece is based on a repeated fingerpicking pattern over a chord progression. Once the pattern is memorised you can follow the chord boxes, rather than the tab or notation – although occasionally the last bars have a few different notes so watch out! Repeated plucking patterns applied to chords makes memorising the pieces relatively easy. While some of the notation and tab looks complicated on first sight, the patterns after a little practise, soon feel instinctive. At this point your practise becomes soothing and relaxed allowing you to focus on tone, speed and fluency.
A variety of time signatures are used including 4/4, 3/4, 5/4 and 6/8. My first small nit-pick is that not every piece has the time signature indicated at the beginning as is the convention. Pieces in 4/4 are assumed, rather than stated. I would prefer to have all the time signatures inserted. It’s the kind of thing that can lead to long, unnecessary conversations in lessons. “But it doesn’t say 4/4. It might be 2/2, or 8/8.” My other small concern. The tab doesn’t have the rhythm. You have to refer to the notation for the rhythm. That’s Ok but reading tab with rhythm is more fluid and easier to sight read. I also find that the numbers only tend to “swim” while numbers with tails are easier to focus on – but maybe that’s just me!
The pieces focus on arpeggios but incorporate a variety of other techniques. Several pieces call for two notes to be played together either using the m and a fingers, or p and another finger. This is a good technique to develop. The aptly named, Roll and Pull, requires a rolled chord with the right hand thumb followed by a left hand pull-off. You’ll certainly sharpen up your coordination with this piece. The effect is very pleasing and worth the effort. The Spanish sounding Sueños calls for tremolo technique. While a m i fingers are busy with the top notes the thumb plays the arpeggio. Tremolo is a difficult technique to master so this is a good piece to start on. Other effects include triplets, the hammer-on, and harmonics. The final piece, Chicago Dog Blues, requires the i m a fingers to pluck three notes together followed by p playing a repeated bass note. The swing rhythm is also really cool! Once again, the piece is tricky but offers big rewards. Your friends will be impressed. All the effects are clearly indicated. While the pieces are all arpeggio based Daniel has used a variety of styles ranging from classical, blues, Spanish and Latin.
I enjoyed playing through the pieces and would certainly recommend this book to students and anyone looking to improve their finger style technique. You can certainly use this as a teach yourself book if you are an intermediate player. If you are new to fingerpicking you will struggle with some of the pieces. Ability to read tab or notation is essential. If you’ve worked through my Art of Arpeggios: introduction to finger picking booklet then Arpeggio Meditations will be an ideal next step. There is plenty of material to immerse yourself in. With time and practise many aspects of your playing will greatly benefit.
Daniel’s years of experience as a teacher and a performer together with his knowledge of a wide range of musical styles have come together to produce an excellent book. Arpeggio Meditations is a great contribution to the ukulele repertoire and I would certainly recommend it!
Available from Daniel Ward’s website. Click here to find out more.