Why I Play the Ukulele

IMG_0017wmSM

First Contact

When I bought my first ukulele in 2012 I had no idea of the journey I had just begun. Up until that moment I had regarded the ukulele as a toy, or comedy prop, rather than an instrument. The only two people I associated with the ukulele were Tiny Tim and George Formby. Not exactly inspirational role models for a classical musician. I should mention that I studied classical guitar at the Royal College of Music in London and on graduating was awarded the Madeline Walton Guitar Prize. This is me playing a Venezuelan Waltz by Antonio Lauro on the guitar.

Since 1996 I have been a professional classical guitarist performing and teaching in Australia, Spain and the UK. I teach at a school and perform regularly at events such as the Sherborne Abbey Music Festival. I love my work as a classical guitarist. When I started playing the ukulele friends and colleagues thought I was a bit bonkers, but taking up the ukulele was not the antidote to a mid-life crisis. I wasn’t looking for an alternative to the guitar. Initially, I was just curious. Pretty soon I was smitten. Now, it’s a passion.

This was one of my first videos playing a Musette by Bach arranged by Tony Mizen. (The Baroque Ukulele).

Getting Serious

In October 2016 I was accepted into the Post-Graduate Research Programme (PhD) at the University of Surrey, Guildford, UK. The working title of my research project is The Classical Ukulele. As well as researching the history of the instrument I’ll be creating a portfolio of new works which will include arrangements, compositions and pedagogical material. One of my aims is to demonstrate that the ukulele is capable of playing works by composers such as Bach, Sor and Tarrega with the further goal of encouraging contemporary classical composers to write for the ukulele. While there is a growing movement of classical ukulele players within the ukulele scene the ukulele exists outside the realms of classical music.

Here’s one of my own compositions: The Story of the Falling Rain.

Up Hill

It’s a big task and it’s been a steep learning curve. When I bought my first ukulele in 2012, I didn’t know anything about ukuleles. Nada! I didn’t even know they came in different sizes. My local music shop had a display of soprano ukuleles and after playing a few I chose a Tanglewood. I was captivated by the beautiful, harp-like sound and found the re-entrant tuning interesting. I’d spent my life playing a linear tuned guitar with 6 strings so a re-entrant tuned uke with 4 strings was a totally new concept. I found the ukulele to be quirky, enigmatic and downright confusing. What exactly was the point of having the 2nd highest string as the 4th string?

Quest

To find out more about my new purchase I searched the internet for sheet music. Initially, however, I could only find chord sheets for songs and endless YouTube tutorials showing you how to strum. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do with my ukulele, the only thing I new for certain was: I didn’t want to strum. Playing simple arpeggios (broken chords) was limited but rewarding. I felt sure there had to be more to the ukulele than just strumming. I was yet to discover the classical side of the ukulele and exponents such as John King, Tony Mizen, Rob MacKillop, Herman Vandecauter and Wilfried Welti. Here’s John King playing a Bouree by Bach.

Uke x 3

The most interesting thing I learnt from the strumming videos was that some people were playing bigger ukuleles. My ukulele was a soprano. Initially I was quite excited by the prospect of a ukulele family. However, all three sizes – soprano, concert and tenor – turned out to use the same standard tuning of high g C E A. This seemed, and still seems, very odd. What is the point of having a different sized instrument if you have the same tuning? OK, there are subtle differences in timbre but…really? To make an historical comparison both the lute and the renaissance guitar came in a variety of sizes. But different sized instruments used different tunings. Smaller instruments would sound at a higher pitch than larger instruments. This gives the potential for a wider range when playing in consorts and ensembles, or when accompanying a singer. When you think about it, different sized instruments with different tunings does makes musical sense. But the most common sizes of the ukulele – soprano, concert & tenor – use the same standard tuning of g C E A.

Barry Tone

There is, of course, the increasingly popular baritone ukulele. This does have a different tuning. The baritone is larger than the tenor ukulele and has the same tuning as the top four strings of the guitar – D G B E. Yeah! But wait… There is a trend to use G C E A tuning. The only variation to standard tuning being the use of  a low G fourth string (unless you prefer to use a high g). Low G linear tuning isn’t confined to the baritone either, it’s popular in all sizes of ukuleles.

Swing Low or Swing High?

One advantage of low G is that the range of the instrument is extended to provide a few extra low notes. They being B, Bb, A, Ab and G. In a group situation the extra low notes would be an advantage but as a soloist, arranger and composer I prefer the high g. The ukulele is, by nature, an instrument with re-entrant tuning. Re-entrant tuning is what gives the ukulele its unique and typical sound. While I’m not opposed to low G tuning, adopting a linear tuning does change the nature of the instrument. For example, re-entrant tuned instruments don’t have a strong sense of bass, like a guitar does. As James Tyler points out in, A Guide to Playing the Baroque Guitar, chords on a re-entrant tuned instrument are ‘blocks’ of sound rather than clearly defined harmonic progressions. Once you lower your G (pardon the expression) your bass becomes more pronounced and so do the limitations of having only four strings. It highlights that the guitar, with its two extra bass strings, is so much stronger harmonically.

The DJ 5

There is, however, the possibility of having a a five string ukulele with both high g and IMG_0192wmSMlow G. The two strings are struck simultaneously, or ‘as one’, sounding both high g and low G. In order to experiment with this idea I commissioned a five string tenor ukulele from Dave Morgan in 2017.

I find this instrument ideal for playing Renaissance music. You can hear the five string in the video below. Please note: I’ve tuned this ukulele a semitone lower than normal. Why? A very tenuous answer but: I really like the sound. You can hear it in this video. I’m playing 3 pieces by Adrian Le Roy, originally for renaissance guitar.

To Summarise

The four main sizes of ukulele are soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. Only the baritone has a different tuning (unless it doesn’t….!) The only variation is the use of a low G fourth string as opposed to a re-entrant high g. Same tunings, different size instruments. I’m not criticising, just stating facts. Moving forward I would like to see players experimenting with different tunings in the same way guitars are sometimes tuned. For example, the D A D G B D guitar tuning as compared to the standard guitar tuning of E A D G B E.

The Big Taboo

If all ukuleles have the same tuning why do people choose to play different size instruments? This is the question you should never ask on a ukulele forum! If you want to read the gritty details then I’d recommend this informative article by Barry Maz of Got A Ukulele. Click here to read article.

What Ukuleles and Shoes Have in Common

I’m not going to even try to answer the ‘size’ question. Suffice to say, like shoes, they do come in different sizes. I would much prefer to tell you what I love about the soprano. This is my mahogany soprano made by Rob Collins of Tinguitar.

IMG_3535wmSM

Little Bells

People often say they find the soprano too small but I really don’t have a problem with the size. In fact, I think the small fingerboard is what makes the soprano so attractive. I love playing campanella style. This is a baroque guitar technique which John King used on the ukulele. The melodic notes are placed across the strings which creates a sound like ‘little bells’. Campanella notes ring on and over each other in a wash of consonance and dissonance thus creating interesting harmonic nuances. This technique is particularly effective on re-entrant tuned instruments and is the perfect reason to use the high g 4th string. Here’s a campanella arrangement of an Irish tune.

Time Travel With the Ukulele

The ukulele has more in common with the five course baroque guitar and the four course renaissance guitar than it does with the modern guitar. These ancient instruments were also significantly smaller than the modern guitar. Once you realise this similarity a world of possibilities opens up and you find several hundred years of music to explore. Who said the ukulele is limited? Here’s Rob MacKillop playing his arrangement of Folias by the Baroque guitarists and composer Gaspar Sanz.

The Dusty End

The soprano fingerboard does require precision. The frets are close together so the further up the fingerboard you move the closer together the frets are. The guitar with its larger fingerboard has a larger area to aim at. If you don’t land exactly in the right place you might just buzz a bit and then adjust. On the soprano you don’t have this luxury. If you miss you are on the wrong note. There’s nowhere to hide.

Bach and the Ukulele

I did find I needed more than twelve frets on the soprano so I commissioned a fifteen fret soprano from Liam Kirby. This gives me a full two octave range – C to C. That said, I hardly ever venture beyond the twelfth fret. My main reason for the extra frets is to be able to play this Prelude by Bach without putting the final bars up an octave. Check it out here:

Something Fishy

Initially, my biggest problem was holding the soprano. I’m used to playing the classical guitar which is supported by the legs and the body. The arms and hands are completely free to move around the instrument. This is ergonomically, musically and technically very important. An instrument has to be stable to be able to play it well. The problem I encountered with the soprano was that it was like a slippery fish. I needed to find a way to stabilise the instrument without using my arms and/or hands. The traditional way of holding the ukulele is in the crook of the arm with the instrument pressed against your chest. This works for strumming but doesn’t work for playing classical. There is also the awkward reality that the female anatomy is really not conducive to clutching a ukulele to your chest.

Rule Breaker

I tried various supports including a guitar rest which attached to the ukulele with suction cups. Being designed for a guitar, the rest was too big and only one suction cup attached. This kept un-suctioning. Something which nearly drove me to distraction! Eventually I gave up on the rest and started using a strap. (Gasp! Yes, you wouldn’t believe how emotional people get about straps. This is another topic to avoid on ukulele forums!) The strap is attached to the ukulele with two buttons. One button on the end and one under the heal. After much trial and error I found the best strap was a wide, padded strap. Once the ukulele is in position the instrument is very secure. My arms and hands are uninhibited. I can play standing up or sitting down. (No! I can’t play standing on my head.) Using a strap gives me musical freedom.

The Beautiful Dream

One of my goals is to explore and develop the potential of the ukulele. To date I’ve arranged works by Bach, Sor, Giuliani, Carulli, Carcassi, Tarrega, Le Roy, and Ferrer. I’ve also arranged a book of 35 Scottish Folk Tunes (published by Schott) and numerous other traditional and folk tunes. Adapting this music to the ukulele is fun and challenging. It also made me aware just how versatile a ukulele can be. Jake Shimabukuro’s Nashville Sessions CD took the ukulele to a new level of creativity and experimentation proving that the full potential of the ukulele will only be realised by creating new works for the instrument. At this stage convincing non-ukulele composers to write for the ukulele feels more like a dream than a reality.

Why the ukulele needs to be taken ‘seriously’? 

The ukulele is accessible, portable and affordable. It’s the ideal instrument for both children and adults. It’s a highly sociable instrument with many people joining local ukulele clubs and groups for a sing-a-long. While this is hugely popular, and one of the main attractions of the ukulele, it is only one side of the story. Many schools are now choosing the ukulele over the recorder as the first instrument for children. One of the benefits of a the ukulele is that a child can sing and play at the same time. With 3 or 4 chords he/she can sing and strum hundreds of songs. This is fine, but limiting. The real potential of the ukulele is to use it as a tool to teach children, and for that matter adults, how to read music and how to grasp the basic concepts of harmony (chords), melody (the tune) and rhythm. The ukulele is the perfect instrument for teaching music literacy and could provide a sound musical foundation for other instruments, such as the guitar.

Small World, Big Challenge

The problem the ukulele scene faces is the low standard of technical and musical knowledge. There are a lot of ukulele teachers out there but few of them are qualified. The ukulele has a huge online presence with many forums, groups and websites. The upside of this is that ukulele players from all over the world can connect with each other. The downside is the proliferation of myths, misconceptions and misinformation.

Things are, however, gradually changing. James Hill’s Ukulele Initiative Teacher Certification Programme is leading the way in Canada. The Australian Ukulele Teachers and Leaders Association was formed to help improve and expand the options for music education in Australian Schools. In the UK exam syllabuses are offered by the RGT, VCM and LCM. With the movement towards a serious pedagogy growing now is the time to be developing and extending the repertoire.

Cheers!

15 responses to “Why I Play the Ukulele

  1. An interesting read. I like the idea of the five string. Wondering how it would be with a Baritone Uke with the high and low D anyway it’s a thought. I have put a high d onto one of my Baritone ukes since reading a comment on one of your other blogs and like it. I do have the Scottish Book of yours plus some of the others. And nearly all of Robs plus a couple of Herr Welti’s. But have only now started to actually get down to playing ” properly ” since I came across you again on the Internet.
    All the Best and Keep on exploring the Ukulele .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, having bought a soprano and not explored it fully yet. The main issue I have is with holding it! Coming from a classical guitar stable I recognise the ‘slippery fish’ feeling. Will now go and investigate straps, though there are no buttons on the instrument. The video clips provide incentive to do more, thank you for being one of the uke’s advocates 😊

    Like

  3. When I got your Little Book of Carulli, I discovered a whole new world of sound for my uke. Consequently I acquired a 1933 Martin 1K which seems it was made for campanella. Thank you for opening that door, and for this thoughtful article. Best wishes on the dissertation!

    Like

  4. Thanks for the interesting read! I started on Ukulele in order to play classical music. I wasn’t getting far on guitar. I have experimented with open tunings quite a bit. You may want to visit south coast strings website. They sell great strings and have wealth of info on tunings. I rarely have a uke in gcea anymore. Also different intervals are possible as well. Tune the 3rd string down a half step and you have a lute style tuning. A variation of the banjo plectrum tuning works very well on an instrument with a low 4th string. Thanks again!

    Like

  5. Thanks for putting this together and sending it Sam. I’m trying to learn Campanella techniques on my concert size uke, because that is what I have. Having been addicted to Classical music for some time now, I’m eager to learn to play the style well!

    Like

  6. This is wonderful article filled with lots of insights. Thank you for sharing it. I love “The Parting Glass”. When I sing it, I do one simple down strum only on the first beat of each measure and let that strum ring out until the next first beat of the next measure; but your version in your video is beautiful. Will you be sharing it? If so, how might I get/pay for a copy?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m just curious if you’ve ever played around with the Aquila string sets that are tuned in fifths (CGDA)? More similar to the orchestra strings?

    Like

      • No, I’ve considered trying them, but haven’t yet. I’m very new to the ukulele, and I figured I should get more familiar with the standard tuning and the instrument itself first. I do really like some violin/fiddle and mandolin music, so those are in the back of my mind for future exploration.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s