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.
In case you’ve been waiting and wondering (We certainly have): Yes, the GRÜBS are playing at the 2018 Black Swamp Arts Festival. We’ll be on the Community Stage (aka the “acoustic stage”) at 1:30 pm Sunday, September 9.
Also, here’s a reminder about the Uke Club that meets the first Saturday of each month at “Second Wind Music Center” in Fostoria. All are welcome, and they have Kala ukes to try out and/or purchase. You can check their Facebook page for more details.
Also, we’ve just learned that there’s a Uke Club that meets the first Saturday of each month at “Second Wind Music Center” in Fostoria. All are welcome, and they have Kala ukes to try out and/or purchase. You can check their Facebook page for more details.
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 …
Believe it or not, the best way to do something is sometimes the easiest way. If you play your instrument the “easy” way (by which I mean without unnecessary effort), you’ll play better, sound better, and end up having more fun. And then you’ll be motivated to practice more, and your playing will get even better. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Of course, sometimes doing things the “easy” way does require a little bit (or a lot!) of preliminary work; for example …
It’s easier, in the long run, to strum syncopated rhythms accurately if you first learn to use a consistent up-and-down strumming pattern, which takes a lot of practice (more about this in a later post).
It’s much easier to play fast bass lines or lead riffs by first learning to alternate your right-hand index and middle fingers when playing slowly … which, again, takes a lot of practice.
It’s easier to play in sync with the rest of your band if everyone first learns to keep steady time by practicing with a metronome.
However, some things about the ukulele really are actually easy from the get-go!
If you’re not already familiar with Canadian ukulele virtuoso and educator James Hill, you should be. (Just enter his name in the YouTube search box, and prepare to be astonished and delighted.) He says his favorite ukulele chord shape is the two-finger “G6”, both because it has an authentic “Hawaiian” sound and because it is extremely versatile. (Here’s a YouTube video and an article with more details about the G6 chord.)
My favorite thing about the G6 chord is this: The absolutely easiest, quickest way for a beginner to get started playing real songs on the uke is by using this shape and its counterpart, the two-finger “Hawaiian D7”. (More on this chord, and other kinds of D7 chords, in a later post!)
These two shapes are mirror images on the fretboard: G6 is made with two fingers at the second fret on strings 1 and 3 (the A and C strings), while D7 is on strings 2 and 4 (the E and G strings). You can switch easily between these two chords by just shifting your left-hand fingers slightly back and forth. They sound great, and you can immediately play a few two-chord songs (like “Jambalaya”, “Darling Clementine”, and “Achy Breaky Heart”) in the key of G using these!
Better yet, you can play hundreds of three-chord songs just by adding the C6 chord, which uses no left-hand fingers at all!
So if you ever come across sheet music for an old familiar song with a lot of G, C, and D chords, try replacing them with these super-easy-to-play (but rather impressive-sounding!) G6, C6, and “Hawaiian” D7 fingerings. Be aware, though, that these versions of the chords might not quite fit for some songs and some musical styles, so you’ll eventually have to learn the regular G, C, and D chords too.
Just don’t be afraid to experiment and figure out what sounds right. In music, whatever sounds right … is right!
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.
Sheri has a love-hate relationship with metronomes.
“It’s more of a hate-love relationship, really”, she corrects me; “the hate comes first.” She elaborates below …
I don’t want to use a metronome because
They’re boring. TAP tap tap tap TAP tap tap tap TAP tap tap tap ARE we done yet HOW much lon-ger HOW much lon-ger TAP tap tap tap ARE we done yet …
They’re not cool. Gone are the days of the elegantly-crafted wooden pyramid with its perky little arm swinging back and forth making its cute little click. All I have now is a soulless plasticky TAP tap tap tap coming through my earbud from my phone.
Also, they’re boring. (Did I say that? It bears repeating.)
But once in a while, with a heavy sigh and much ostentatious griping, I practice with a metronome anyway. Because it’s effective. Just a couple minutes repeating a problematic riff with the boring, soulless plasticky earbud tap, and it sorts itself out. I feel more relaxed playing it, it sounds better, and (here’s the big pay off) when I do it again later I can speed everything up and feel like a hotshot. And isn’t that what every ukulelist is secretly after?
Sheri’s uke hero, Jake Shimabukuro (like lots of other hipper, younger musicians) practices with a drum track instead of just a click. If you have a drum machine or sequencer or some other kind of variable-speed playback device, playing against a rhythm track sometimes is great, because it can be less boring than a simple click, and can feel a little more like “real music”. So when I say “metronome” I also mean that kind of thing.
Being able to vary the speed (tempo in Italian, if you want to be hoity-toity) is really the reason metronomes were invented in the first place. After all, if you wanted to play everything at 60 or 120 bpm (beats per minute), you could just use a ticking clock for reference. But some songs don’t sound right (or feel right) at that speed.
Also, struggling to play along with the original album version by the original artist at the original speed is often not the best way to learn a new song. A metronome can help you learn things accurately at a manageably slow speed, then gradually increase your speed while maintaining accuracy.
Some people worry that using a metronome and paying attention to rhythmic accuracy will “cramp their style” or make their music more “robotic” and less expressive. Here’s the thing, though: Really good musicians—the creative, expressive, accomplished professional musicians that we all admire—pretty much all practice with metronomes (and use “click tracks” in the recording studio). Because accurate timing is cool.
Accuracy doesn’t have to be robotic, and sloppiness isn’t the same as expressiveness. Speeding up and slowing down can and should be real artistic choices, not just something that happens by accident.
Ironically, though, probably the only thing that will really convince you to use a metronome is to use one—really bite the bullet and give it a chance—and then observe the improvement.
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.