Live Ukulele is a huge resource of tabs, lessons, reviews, and more for beginning to advanced players. My name is Brad Bordessa and I play the 'ukulele. I love teaching music to people from all walks of life. That's why I created Live 'Ukulele.com - to teach everyone how to play the 'ukulele for free.
I don’t know of too many traditional tunes that fall into the category of “hit song” within memory. But it seems that Peter, Paul, and Mary’s ditty, Puff The Magic Dragon has become one of those familiar tunes that could be right out of Mother Goose.
A student requested this song and it was a great candidate for a simple solo arrangement so I made up a tab in C. I also included the bare-bones melody version for those that want something more straight-forward or would like to take a stab at an arrangement themselves.
Here’s a classic with an alternate title of If I Could.
Simon and Garfunkel have been a favorite of mine ever since hearing Jake’s version of Mrs. Robinson and then looking up the original. What harmonies! What amazing songwriting! If only raw music like theirs was still on the top 40 stations.
Anyways, here’s one of their more popular tunes arranged in E minor for the ‘ukulele. The tab is just the melody with the words, but the chords are highlighted above so it should be very obvious in a couple places where you can flesh out the tune with some additional strums.
With my recent jazz kick, I’ve been spending time down at the Honoka’a People’s Theater on Saturdays jamming with the Mamane Street Music Club. They have a repertoire of great tunes that range from jazz to swing to bossa nova. One of the guitarists has a great feel for the later that gets in your bones and one of the highlights for me each week is him singing Wave by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Since the melody is located a bit higher up the fretboard in the key of D, I relocated some of the notes across the strings for smoother transitions. If you always play up and down the strings – great! This will get you out of your comfort zone.
The “basic” ‘ukulele chords are included at the beginning of the tab for reference. Alternate voicings might suit certain situations better than the ones shown. Use the Dm7 G7 progression as an intro vamp and go around as many times as you like before the song and in between verses.
I’ve been getting into playing more jazz and Bossa Nova lately. It’s a great challenge, my students like it, and there is a weekly jam in town I’ve been sitting in on that plays the style.
One of the many great tunes that has come to my attention is Luiz Bonfa’s Bossa Nova classic, Manha De Carnaval. It’s also known as A Day in the Life of a Fool or the theme from Black Orpheus.
Brush off your jazz chords because this tune will keep your fretting hand busy! I chose to notate the chords in the style of what you might find in the Real Book. That means you will see some symbols representing certain chords.
The little triangle means “major.” The circle with a slash through it is used for “half diminished.” Coupled with a number 7 it means minor 7th flat 5.
I used the English words in this tab because I’m not too hip on the Portuguese language, but if you want to use them, the melody is the same.
The ‘ukulele is a highly-pitched little beast. But what if you tune your uke a half-step down to F# B D# G#?
It can yield you a thicker, warmer tone. The half-step lower tuning also lightens the tension of the strings.
For the past year or two I’ve been using this trick on my main ‘ukulele. I believe I ran across this concept when trying to figure out a song in a funny key that needed some open strings. It caught my ear because of the thicker, more dark sound that it gave my instrument.
It’s pretty well known that many guitarists tune their instrument a half-step down. Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn are two of the most famous names, but many, many more lesser-known join their ranks using a Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb guitar tuning.
The Half-Step Down ‘Ukulele Tuning
On ‘ukulele, this half-step down tuning becomes F#-B-D#-G#. Simply drop the pitch of each string down to the next note in the chromatic scale from standard GCEA.
Because of the lower pitch, all of your chord shapes and notes change location. This is great for some keys, but terrible for others. A C chord shape becomes a B. Which is great for playing in B! …But it also means that to play a C chord you must play C# chord shape.
This is fantastic for jamming along with your favorite easy song on the radio and challenging yourself with harder chord shapes.
For easier reference I’ll call the F#-B-D#-G# tuning a B6 tuning – just like how standard C6 is G-C-E-A.
Advantages/Disadvantages of F#-B-D#-G#:
Playing in this lowered tuning is not for everybody and for all situations. But I will do my best here to convince you to at least give it a try.
A run-of-the-mill set of D’Addario Nyltech tenor strings tuned to G-C-E-A on a 17″ scale create a combined tension of 44.23 pounds (according to the D’Addario string calculator). Drop that down a half-step to B6 and you end up with 39.40 pounds. That’s almost 5 pounds of difference in string tension! Quite a bit.
This lighter tension makes it feel like you dropped a gauge of strings. For instance, I use Worth CH strings. Tuned to B6 they feel more like I would expect a CT set to feel – the next lightest set of Worth strings. This is easier on your fingers and makes bends jump up to pitch faster and require less pressure while still retaining the feel of thicker strings.
When playing on your own, this B6 tuning really can open up some richer, deep tones. I find my ‘ukulele resonates more in this tuning as opposed to up the normal half-step in C6. The sound is fatter and seems to me to have more punch. It’s exactly the opposite of what tuning up to the English D6 accentuates on an ‘ukulele.
If you’re playing solo, any chord chart or tab can be played as if you were tuned to G-C-E-A. Don’t even worry about the different tuning. Your ‘ukulele is still tuned to “my dog has fleas.” It’s just that the pitch of it is lower.
Here’s a video comparison that points out some of the highlights:
B6 vs. C6 Tuning on 'Ukulele - Could Your Uke Sound Better? - YouTube
If you play with anybody else it’s not as simple to use a different tuning like this. You’ll have to mentally transpose everything you play up a half step to match the pitch everyone else is at. (Assuming you come from a C6 tuning background.) This is a lot of work.
What I do instead of memorizing a completely new fretboard is relate all things to each other as they exist in keys. Once I figure out what key I’m playing in to match concert pitch, it’s simple to visualize all the commonly used chords and scale positions in relation to the root. It doesn’t really matter what the true pitch of the song is if I am familiar with the shapes that I need to play to get a certain sound.
B6 tuning is but one option to try on your ‘ukulele. You might find that another tuning brings out the tones and resonance you want to hear on your own instrument. Let this post be an encouragement to try other tunings and see what your ears like or dislike about them.
The biggest hurdle here is studying the location of notes on the fretboard. If you’ve spent any time learning where they live in standard C6 tuning, any effort you put into studying their location a half-step below might become contradictory. Every mind is different so proceed how you are comfortable.
Don’t Ask Your Doctor…
…if B6 is right for you. Try it – consequences be damned! There’s nothing to break and nothing to lose. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
In addition to doing the ‘ukulele rockstar thing (ha!) I also help run sound at the local theater in my town (and for all my own gigs). It’s a beautiful venue and we have a pretty good in-house PA system. But sometimes it’s the musicians who are playing that are the limiting factor. Here are some tricks and tips I’ve picked up along the way from trying to make them sound as good as possible.
1. Throw On A Little EQ
Sometimes all it takes to make your ‘ukulele pop on a PA or amp is the right tweaking of key frequencies. I’ve found over the years that cutting around 200-400hz range can really clean up the “mud” that sometimes comes from amplifying a wooden box. Boosting around 1.5-2khz adds a bit of crispness to the high end and can make the ‘ukulele cut through better. In general, it’s better to EQ down instead of boosting, if possible. Experiment. You might find that cutting at 200hz gives the impression of boosting the high end.
2. Put In A New Battery
A pickup running on less than full batteries handles the signal much more poorly than one that’s topped up all the way. So if it’s a big gig and you want to sound your best, change your juice even if you think your battery is fine. And please – bring a spare just in case!
3. Play Like You Mean It!
‘Ukulele pickups are finicky beasts that are far from perfect. The louder you turn them up, the more squirly they get. Feedback, mistakes, and random noises get emphasized with more volume. So, if you can, try to attack the strings a bit more than you might so that you are sending out a stronger signal that doesn’t need to be turned up at the board quite as much. For instance, the other ‘ukulele player in my band doesn’t use picks or nails – which is fine – but he also has a very light touch. So by the time his ‘ukulele is loud enough to be heard, it’s feeding back and if he accidentally plays harder than he intended it’s super loud. A compressor can help this, but shouldn’t be necessary.
4. Use a Preamp
A preamp usually isn’t necessary, but can often do wonders for your sound. Having a tool specifically designed to balance the signal and prepare an ‘ukulele for its run to the PA can really help. A bonus of a preamp is that it often acts as a DI box. By using this feature you can use an XLR (mic) cable to run to the board. XLR is specifically designed to carry a quiet, balanced signal no matter how long the cable. A 50’ instrument cable will loose a lot of signal. So use the XLR when you can.
5. Sing INTO The Mic!
Not for making your ‘ukulele sound better, but making YOU sound better. It’s only possible to turn a mic up so far before it starts to feed back. But it’s (almost) always possible to turn a mic down. So for your sake and the sake of your sound guy – sing into the mic! Yes, you sound different through the speakers. Yes, you probably don’t like it. Get over it if you want to be heard! A good rule of thumb is a two-finger-width gap between your lips and the mic. At loud gigs I kiss the mic all night. Sometimes you have to.
6. Use The Low-Cut/High-Pass
Most mixers have a low-cut/high-pass (same thing) button on each channel that ramps off the low end under a certain frequency (usually 80hz). There is virtually no useful sound produced by an ‘ukulele below this point so you might as well get rid of it. Same for microphones. Just by enacting a low-cut on several ‘ukuleles or mics you can really clean up your PA mix and avoid low-end feedback.
Ever since my late great uncle told me (multiple times) at a family event that the Tennessee Waltz was his favorite song, I’ve felt a fondness for this tune. I first discovered Sam Cooke’s version and rocked to that for years – even though it’s very far removed from a “waltz” feel.
Just recently one of my students requested this tune as done by Bonnie Raitt and Norah Jones. This version is slow and waltz-y. A very pretty tune that fits well on the ‘ukulele.
So often we get stuck playing something only one way – how everyone else is doing it. This is influenced by the players in your ‘ukulele club, on Youtube, and even your own playing. It can be a lonesome road, but finding ways to deviate from the path most traveled will instantly make you sound more interesting and, most likely, add more to the music. Here are some quick tips to spice up your playing if you are a beginning ‘ukulele player.
1. Ditch The Common Strum
50 ‘ukuleles playing in unison on the same chord and the same strum sounds nice, but it in no way sounds diverse. Since everyone else is already holding down the rhythm, take a pause and listen to where the strong, interesting, or otherwise notable beats are taking place. After taking some time to notice the internal rhythms of the song, start playing again, but only on these strong beats. This will eliminate much of the strum pattern you are used to and create extra emphasis on the beats you are playing.
The more time you spend paying attention to the rhythm and following this minimalist approach, the more creative you will get, playing on the off beats and varying your dynamics (volume).
If you’re not sure where to start, many times a down, up strum places strong beats on the 1 and 3 (1 2 3 4) or the 2 and 4 (1 2 3 4).
Keeping a down, up motion in your strumming hand helps sync you up with the tempo of the song, even if you’re not strumming the strings every time your hand goes by.
2. Scrub Your Fretboard Clean
No, not with a rag – with your chords! One of the most bang-for-your-buck tricks I know of is adding a scrub to your chords. “Scrubbing” is when you briefly slide a chord up or down one fret and then return to where you were. This technique is most prominent when you play closed position chords, but can be used with any chord and any number of fretting fingers.
You never want to change the tonality of a song. If you do this in a group you will stick out like a sore thumb. But you can get away with altering some of the chord tones.
The easy way to do this is a low-tech approach to chord substitutions. Add or remove a finger in a chord to incorporate a new note. If it sounds good, use it. That’s it. These notes are usually part of the key you’re playing in.
Instead of playing all of the strings (which everyone else is already doing), play only a few strings – or just one string. By reducing the number of notes you play you are putting emphasis on the ones you do sound. Same with rhythms. If you play only on one beat a bar, that place you play is going to have added weight. Combine both and you’ll have less to think about and more to focus in on. Forcing yourself to play less is great a great to chance to ask yourself “is what I’m playing musical? Is what I’m playing as precise as it could be?”
5. Volume/Dynamics and Tempo
My main gripe with most amateur jams is that all the songs sound the same. This is usually because each one is played at exactly the same volume and at very similar speeds. Combine this with a no more, no less approach to strumming the song and you’ve got bland!
To counteract this, my advice is to change it up. You will be hard pressed to do this by yourself if you’re just one of the members (though you might be able to start a trend). It takes the leader(s) of the group to make a conscious decision to alter the tempo or announce that “this song is supposed to be played softly/loudly….”
Beyond changing each song’s tempo or volume, a way to really make things pop is to play with dynamics within the song. A song is made up of different parts that all have an energy level. If they all have the same energy level, the song is a flat line. If you bring the volume down in the verse and then blast it in the chorus you’re creating an energy contour. This creates interest and distinction – a fingerprint for the song. Listen to any tune on the radio and you’ll hear that the intensity of the music changes between parts. Anybody can do this. It’s just a matter of taking the time to learn how to implement it.
What should you do?! First of all, don’t panic! Calmly make eye contact with the gift-giver and say “thank you.” Do not judge your new ‘ukulele just yet. It’s pretty hip these days. I mean, it’s even in commercials, like, all the time. Maybe it will grow on you.
Take the ‘ukulele out of its box and pluck the strings. They are guaranteed to be out of tune. Nice first impression! “My dog has fleas” doesn’t even sound right. It’s okay. Hopefully the kids didn’t notice because they were are busy tearing festive paper off their new Lego set while mom, dad, and the grandparents watch. Your Uncle who did notice your horribly flat first attempt probably won’t say anything …until later in the day at the worst possible moment. You’ve got a limited amount of time for redemption! Let’s do this. Step into my office…
In order for anything to sound good, you must first tune the instrument. Your options for getting your new ‘ukulele in tune are (in order of ease for a first-time player):
By pitchpipe/tuning fork/piano
If your uke came with a tuner, you’re set. If not and you have an iOS device, download a tuner app. If you got an iTunes gift card in your stocking, check out one of these five. If you didn’t, find a free one. If (last one) you don’t have a tuner OR an iOS device, you can go to an online pitch pipe to hear reference notes.
I’d waste more space here on tuning, but I’ve already made an entire page about it: Tuning Your ‘Ukulele.
My headstock tuner of choice is the D’Addario NS Mini. It’s small – you can leave it on when you put your ‘ukulele in the case and it’s very accurate.
Learn A Chord!
The great thing about an ‘ukulele is that once it’s tuned it takes less than 5 seconds to learn your first chord: the open strings. Strum your newly GCEA-tuned ‘ukulele. This is a C6 chord!
Meh. Nobody uses that one very often. Let’s jump ahead to the easiest fretted (fingered) chord – C major. To play C, hold your ‘ukulele with the headstock pointing left, body flat against your own. Now, squeezing the neck gently between the thumb and ring finger of your left hand, press the bottom string in the third fret space. (The little metal strips on the neck are called “frets.” You place your finger(s) in between them to change the pitch of the note.) Like this:
Time to make the strings do their thang. Make a loose fist with your right hand (as if you were going to do rock, paper, scissors). Now, let your pointer finger pop out at a 90 degree angle. This is a ballpark for what your strumming position should look like. While holding the C chord with your left hand, brush the index finger of your right hand up and down the strings in a perpendicular movement. Try turning your wrist as you move your hand up and down. This helps pilot your pointer finger across the strings without getting stuck.
Strum down and up over and over again with even timing until it feels pretty comfortable.
Here are two more chords that are family members to C major.
To play F major, place the index finger of your left hand on the 1st fret of the 2nd string from the bottom. (The strings are counted like the stories of a building – 1 on the bottom closest to the floor, 4 on the top closest to your face.) Then place your middle finger on the top (4th) string on the 2nd fret. Like so:
Last up is a G dominant 7th chord. Place your index finger on the 1st fret of the 2nd string (just like in F). Your middle finger plays the 2nd fret of the 3rd string (one string down from where it is in F). And finally, your ring finger plays the 2nd fret of the bottom string. Since you have to play two fingers on the 2nd fret, you might need to turn your wrist outwards and down to get them both to fit.
If you really want to dive in, check out my book about ‘ukulele chord shapes. It has more chords in it than you’ll ever need plus tons of background info to help you understand chords.
Play A Song!
With three chords you can play way more songs than you’d ever think. Here are some good choices that use C, F, and G7:
Once you’ve slept off the ham, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, get out your ‘ukulele again and practice what you’ve already learned. Short, but consistent daily practice sessions are much better than a long session once a week.
When you’re ready to move on to new things, check out my page on ‘Ukulele 101. It talks about many of the things presented in this post, but more in depth. You’ll also want to find a couple more Easy Songs to learn and the Chords you need to play them.
With that you will be well on your way. Check back when you need new things to practice and leave a comment to let me know how you’re doing!
May you have a merry Christmas and prosperous, peaceful new year!