The Grande Royale Ükulelists of the Black Swamp are a ukulele and vocal quartet from Bowling Green, Ohio. The GRÜBS cover every kind of music they can think of, from pop, rock, swing, folk, country, and show tunes to Bertolt Brecht and Harry Belafonte, and from James Brown to the Beatles and beyond.
It’s surprisingly easy to play complex harmonies on a ukulele, in many cases because the first and fourth strings (A and G) are only one tone apart.
One of my earliest posts here on the GRÜBS blog, about the process of writing “Sweet Rebecca”, alluded to this. The chords in that song are all jazzy ones with complex names, yet most of them are individually easy to play, and in most cases changing from one chord to the next is also pretty easy. Here are diagrams for a few of them. [G major 7: barre across the first three strings at the second fret; C major 7: first string, second fret, B minor 7: barre across all four strings at the second fret; E-flat major 6: barre across all four srings at the third fret]
And here is an article by James Hill illustrating this point further: http://www.ukuleleyes.com/issues/vol7/no3/pedagogy-corner.htm. He recommends a three-finger “Bb6” voicing, which is easier to play than the regular four-finger Bb chord, even though it sounds more sophisticated. Another kind of Bb chord that’s a little easier to play than the standard one is the three-finger Bbmaj7 [first fret on the second string, second fret on the third string, and third fret on the fourth string].
And then there’s this fun fact: That Bbmaj7 chord uses exactly the same left-hand shape as B7, but starting one fret lower on each string.
Recently I was working on a new GRÜBS arrangement of a popular song. Although I knew I would probably end up playing bass, as usual, I wanted to record a demo of my arrangement for the rest of the band, so I was figuring out how to play all the ukulele chords. The last three chords of the chorus were B7, E7, and A. For me, that progression was hard to play quickly, so I decided to look for an alternative (ideally, something that would also help put an original spin on the arrangement).
One option was a tritone substitution, which is a very clever thing jazz musicians do sometimes, and which I had learned about decades ago in college, but which I’d never really done before in real life. As the phrase “tritone substitution” implies, I eliminated the E(7) chord and substituted a Bb(maj7) chord (because Bb is three whole tones – i.e. a tritone – away from E).
Then I noticed something truly grand.
The new progression was B7 – Bbmaj7 – A, which I could play by just sliding my left-hand fingers down one fret for each chord!
I’ve posted a few other recommendations for “cheat” (i.e. substitution) chords here and here; as I’ve said before, these cheat chords will not always work for every song in every style, but you may discover others through experimentation; listening is always the key, because music exists in your ears, not on paper …
Let’s start with a quick review of Metronomics 101:
Plain and simple, practicing with a metronome (or drum machine or “click track” or what-have-you) will make you play better. If you really give it a chance, I think you will be amazed at the results.
When the GRÜBS did our first few recording sessions, playing to a click was unfamiliar and really uncomfortable for some of us. There were times when it was almost painful. But all of us agreed, eventually, that it improved our playing, both individually and as a group.
These days, we occasionally rehearse a song together with a click … which, to be honest, still feels a little awkward, but almost everything we play afterward is both more accurate and more relaxed.
The main reason is this: Like most people, we have a natural tendency to speed up when the music gets louder and/or more exciting, or when we get nervous. So, ironically, we’re usually speeding up when we get to the most difficult part of a song … which of course is when most of our mistakes happen!
Playing with accurate timing means, among other things, not rushing the difficult parts … which results in fewer mistakes. And of course playing better and sounding better is more fun!
* * *
Now, if you’ve been practicing with your metronome for a while and you’re starting to get bored, maybe it’s time to take it to another level!
For example, if you’re playing a song at 120 bpm, try setting the metronome to 60 instead, so there are only two clicks per bar instead of four (later you can set it at 30 for one click per bar, or 15 for one click every two bars); this can be an excellent way to find out how accurate your playing is between the clicks!
Here’s a different kind of challenge: Take a song you usually play at 120 bpm, set the metronome to 110 or 100 or 90 instead, and force yourself to play it slower. You can learn a lot about a song, and about your own playing habits, by slowing down. For one thing, slow mistakes are sometimes much easier to hear, and fix, than fast ones!
Another useful, challenging, fun thing a lot of bass players do is practice against a “backbeat”: Set the metronome to a half-time click and imagine it’s going “(rest) two (rest) four” instead of “one (rest) three (rest)”, so you’re playing your downbeat bass notes between the clicks.
A few years ago, we had a great time playing a Friday Night Live show at the Ritz Theatre in Tiffin. It was a welcoming venue with excellent sound, and we had the chance to meet and listen to a surprising variety of other musicians. The only downside was the lousy weather and the resulting low audience turnout that night.
Ironically, tomorrow we were going to go back to the Ritz for another Friday Night Live event (this time sharing the stage with Liz Croak and Kerry Patrick Clark), hoping for better weather … but this time the forecast is so bad that the show has already been canceled!
Looking ahead to the spring and summer, we’re “penciled in” at Leisure Time Winery in Napoleon for March 23, June 22, and August 24, and we just might also be playing a Verandah Concert (accompanied by an Ice Cream Social) at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library.
FYI: We were just informed about the June 2018 Midwest Uke and Harmonica Camp, sponsored by Elderly Instruments. (The GRÜBS are not affiliated with this camp; just passing along the info.)
The all-inclusive weekend offers a packed slate of workshops, performances, and musical camaraderie. We have assembled a world class staff teaching artists, offering our attendees over 45 hands-on workshops. Other camp highlights include evening concerts featuring our teaching artists, as well as informal jams, group strums, and open mic opportunities.
Promising to be the premier ukulele camp in the country, Midwest Uke Camp is an exciting new experience co-produced by Mighty Uke Day‘s Ben Hassenger and Stan Werbin of world-renowned Elderly Instruments.
Based on the long-running Midwest Banjo Camp, our uke camp combines the excitement of the Mighty Uke Day festival with the immersive workshop and communal activities of banjo camp. Activities include: workshops of all levels, instructor concert, open mic, group strums, and plenty of time for informal get-togethers and jams. Instructors slated to appear include: Sarah Maisel, Craig Chee, Kimo Hussey, Paul Hemmings, Lil’ Rev, Jim Beloff, Gerald Ross, Brian Hefferan, Andy Wilson, Rachael Davis, and Frank Youngman.
Located on the beautiful grounds of Olivet College, Midwest Uke Camp will be an encompassing weekend of ukulele study and fun! Visit our website at: http://www.midwestukecamp.com to find out more and to register.
Please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any comments, questions, or issues. We
look forward to seeing you in June!
Joyeux noël, fröhliche Weinachten, mele kalikimaka, y ¡feliz navidad!
The GRÜBS just played our first “holiday” gig of 2017 a few days ago, as part of a Downtown BG fundraiser. Coming up in December:
An out-of-town private party this weekend,
A guest spot on the WBGU-FM 88.1 Morning Show on Tuesday, December 12, at 8 am,
A three-hour set at the Stones Throw on Saturday, December 16, from 7 pm to 10 pm.
And speaking of out-of-town, we’ll be one-third of the Friday Night Live line-up at the Ritz Theatre in Tiffin on Friday, January 12, starting at 7pm. Also performing that night: singer-songwriter Kerry Patrick Clark and the inimitable “TBA”!
… in downloadable digital formats from iTunes, Amazon, Google, and innumerable other fine e-merchants. (We recommend following these direct links if you can, because search engines sometimes have trouble with our lengthy and superfluously-umlauted name.)