Why I Play the Ukulele

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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. When I started playing the ukulele in 2012 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 published by Flea Market Music).

Getting Serious

In October 2017 I was accepted into the Post-Graduate Research Programme (PhD) at the University of Surrey, Guildford, UK. The title of my research project is New Works for Classical Ukulele. My research is both practical and theoretical. As well as researching the history of the instrument I have created a portfolio of new works which includes arrangements, compositions, collaborations with other composers and didactic material. The primary aim of my portfolio is to demonstrate the potential of the ukulele as a contemporary classical instrument. A further aim is to help secure the future of classical ukulele by creating material of all levels and actively engaging with the ukulele community through workshops and tutorials both live and on-line. While there is much interest and enthusiasm for classical ukulele within the ukulele scene, the ukulele is yet to accepted by the classical music scene. In order to help raise the profile of the ukulele I have given numerous talks on classical ukulele at events such as the International Guitar Research Centre, the Dublin Guitar Symposium, 21st Century Guitar, the European Guitar Teachers Association, the Guitar Foundation of America and the Colloquium for Guitar Research at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

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

Up Hill

Championing the ukulele is 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 the instrument. 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. The ukulele was quirky, enigmatic and at times downright confusing. Let’s face it, having the 2nd highest string as the 4th string is pretty weird!

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 also 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. Nevertheless, 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.  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. 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. I also love the potential of campanella with high g tuning – something I’ll talk about shortly.

The DJ 5-String

One of my favourite ukuleles is a 5-string tenor made by DJ Morgan which has with both high g and IMG_0192wmSMlow G. The two strings are struck simultaneously, or ‘as one’, sounding the octave.

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. Generally speaking: same tunings, different size instruments. A few players do tune their ukuleles up a tone to a D F# B but the g C E A tuning remains very much standard. I would also add that recently a few players, including myself, have been experimenting with alternate tunings. Here’s one such example:

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.

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 in his arrangements. 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.

I’ve experimented a great deal with campanella in my own compositions. Here’s an example:

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. My original reason for the extra frets was to be able to play this Prelude by Bach without putting the final bars up an octave but I have also used the higher frets in my own compositions.

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 while keeping my arms and hands free.

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 has been to explore and develop the potential of the ukulele. I’ve arranged works by Bach, Sor, Giuliani, Carulli, Carcassi, Tarrega, Le Roy, and Ferrer. In 2015 I was commissioned by Schott to arrange a book of 35 Scottish Folk Tunes. I’ve arranged 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.

Since 2017 many of my new works have been published by Les Productions d’Oz. These include 12 Progressive Studies, Variations on the Dowie Dens of Yarrow, 21 Studies, 100 Arpeggios, 12 Progressive Lessons by Sor, The Falling Rain, The Classical Ukulele Method, 12 Traditional Tunes, A Conspiracy of Ravens, Mercurius Suite and 22 Pieces from Renaissance to Late Classical. My pieces have also been recorded by Donald Bousted and Giovanni Albini.

I have also collaborated with several composers including Loretta Notareschi, Choan Gálvez, David John Roche, Dimitri van Halderen, Tom Armstrong and Milton Mermikides.

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 they 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.

Update 2022

In the last ten years I’ve seen some big changes in the ukulele scene; most notably the growing interest in classical and finger-style ukulele. This is perhaps best reflected in the wealth of material now available in printed in digital formats by arrangers and composers from across the globe. My website now includes a list of classical and finger-style publications. While the list is not definitive it is comprehensive and constantly being updated as new material becomes available. When I first started playing the ukulele I struggled to find suitable repertoire so I hope the list will be a useful resource for new players or those interested in expanding their repertoire.

Cheers!

24 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 😊

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  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!

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  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!

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  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!

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  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?

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      • 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.

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  8. What an excellent blog you’ve started. It’s an education to see how a professional handles the little instrument and arranges music for it. I hope that all goes well with your thesis, and I cross my fingers that the University will publish it on line in due course.

    As a rank amateur (who started on the instrument about the same time as you) I too began with the soprano, which turned to be a bridge drug to acquiring a small family of the little chaps. I was therefore very interested to read your championing of the re-entrant tuning. Having played in the past the (almost) linearly tuned guitar I found the high G so counter-intuitive that I bought a tenor with a low G so that I could play home-made arrangements of Dowland’s easier pieces. Tony Mizzen’s are great, but I was desperate to fit in a bass line. I don’t really think the low G instrument is a poor man’s guitar, because the pieces I fumblingly play on it sound so much lighter and airier (and Renaissance-y) than on the guitar. There is also the advantage that as my hands get older the motto “4 strings, four fingers” is ever more relevant.

    On the other hand, I was bought Rob MacKillop’s book of Sanz arrangements for Christmas, and got totally seduced by his campanella versions. Passacalle in D is a real corker, and I’m trying to learn it. Having made a low-G version from a facsimile of Sanz’ original I find you’re totally correct: it sounds quite different, and probably less like the original, but good fun anyway.

    In conclusion: there’s room for both.

    Anyway, that’s enough from me (for now). I’ll look forward to watching your site grow over the years. All the best!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I was bitten by the ukulele bug a year ago. I played guitar (strum and sing) for years before that, but because this little instrument is SO accessible and simply fun I am already more technically and musically proficient with the uke than my guitar! That being said you now have my wheels turning regarding classical music. I see a lot of work in my future!

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    • Hi Mike! The transition from guitar to ukulele is relatively easy. I do find the campanella pieces challenging because they are so count-intuitive. I suspect this is why so my guitar / ukers are using low G. But campanella is really something! Best wishes with your journey! Sam

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  10. Guitarist here…been intrigued with the idea of renaissance music on the ukulele. I was actually thinking about about either a 5 string like the one you had commissioned or an 8 string tuned in unison.

    Thanks for sharing your journey!

    Liked by 1 person

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