15.4.14

But That's Not On The Songsheet! Get Out Of Your Ukulele Rut

Time for another ukulele rant. Well, like other rants on Got A Ukulele, actually more of a discussion piece to promote some debate and hopefully inspire someone. This time, do you want to move away from up down up down ukulele boredom?

OK, OK, I can hear the angst growing, and that opening was deliberately incendiary, but do read on... I have been meaning to write this piece for some time, and actually decided not to. But then I thought about it  and spoke to several players in clubs who thought it would be healthy and welcomed. ( I hope you folks were right!!). The aim is simple - how do you get beyond unison playing with your club or band when going out performing?

In part, it's connected to this post I wrote some time ago -  (IS IT ACCEPTABLE TO PLAY THIS ON THE UKULELE), but goes a little deeper. It starts with a confession. I really, really don't like the sound of dozens or more ukuleles playing exactly the same thing at the same time. It might just be me (suspect it isn't though) but I find the sound rather annoying in a nails on a blackboard kind of way. You see the standard tuned uke is a very trebly instrument by its very nature. Play two of those together and you are doubling that up. Play 100 together and just consider the sound. Add to that the fact that if the multiple ukes are not all precisely tuned to each other (and not just to their own clip tuners, to each other!) then you can get layers of warbly bad harmonics which kind of jar my ear. Just me?

two many ukes


I'd much rather hear things being mixed up a little.

A quick word. I am not pointing fingers here, and certainly am not aiming anything at the many ukulele clubs around the world. I take my hat off to the organisers of these clubs as getting multiple players, particularly beginners all playing together is no mean feat at all. It's also incredible to see these players stand up (when many ukers may have only been playing a matter of weeks) and perform songs. For those sort of performances, a rigid integrated team performance is absolutely necessary unless you want to alienate newcomers and beginners. I totally 'get' that system and if it gets people confident to play with others, then I think that can only be welcomed.

But more recently (and this is really encouraging) I've had quite a few club players get in touch explaining they are creating a 'band' or a breakaway group, and asking for advice on 'arrangements' and changing their sound. I've seen many more clubs and units doing exactly the same thing and this is great to see. And it is particularly pleasing to see that these players recognise when they go out and perform they want to try to work on something a bit more complicated and worked out. A fuller sound if you will.

the cursed ukulele song sheet


Sadly though, many of the same people who have talked to me have said that they want to change, was because the previous club or band they were with were totally resistant to any form of departure from what the club has always done. In a very sad real world example I know of one such outfit who refuses to deal with anything that is 'not on the song sheet'. No transposing of chords, no individual playing parts, no changing the basic feel of the song by experimenting with alternative rhythms and patterns, no vocal parts. No, if it's not on the sheet, it's not acceptable, no more discussion...  I have had it suggested to me that some 'leaders' of uke clubs prefer the status quo rather than player development... (can't think why...) What the hell is that about?  At a fairly recent gig of The N'Ukes in front of uke players, mid set I encouraged the audience to experiment with their playing, and if their club refused, to stamp their feet and shout about it. I got several 'hear hear's' back from the crowd and that, in part, encouraged me to get around to writing this.

The song sheet really is a blessing and a curse in my opinion. I totally get them (heck I have many on this site too), but I think they can only take you so far. Worse still, many song sheets out there in internet land are actually just plain wrong (compared to being a reliable chord sequence based on the original).  Many are transposed badly in order to avoid things like E chords and as such lose the feel of the song, many miss out interesting chord progressions in instrumentals or middle sections. Sure, they are a great way for a beginner to get playing quickly, and a godsend for a uke club to hand out to new players. I use them myself all the time. But they become a curse when anyone then tries to 'insist' that the playing must stick to what is on the sheet. It really doesn't. In fact, surely more fun comes from going off piste a little? Actually, I will go further. More fun really comes if you start working the chords out yourself and thinking about your own versions, variations and style. With our band, some of the songs that have proved most successful in our shows are not ones that we downloaded a sheet for, but rather kind of fell out of jam sessions, sounded good, and then one of the players went away and worked it up themselves. Far more satisfying we think.

So if we are going to explore getting out of a rut with your playing, the first thing to bear in mind is that the song sheet is not gospel, it's just a guide. You ARE allowed to experiment. In fact I would positively encourage it.

Sadly, I can't write a complete guide to working with ukulele band arrangements in this post. It's not just that I don't have the time or the space, it's just that it is a massive topic, with very personal elements. When we work on band arrangements, they are our own arrangements that make us sound like 'US' (we hope). They don't make ours perfect or suitable for everyone, they are just what we have worked out and we like.  Others might not like them, and that is cool too - each to their own.  Added to which, we have other instruments in the mix that you may not have (although I strongly feel that other instruments are a big part of any 'band' finding alternative sounds).

What I can do though is provide some thinking points that may help you experiment. Not everything may work for you, but consider this. If you are in a band with five ukes and you move to getting at least half of those into playing separate parts, then you will automatically have given yourselves a far different (and for more interesting) sound. Take a look at these ideas, and bear in mind that these are just simple structural changes you can consider. One of the best ways to improve your sound of course it to improve your playing, learn to use more of the fingerboard etc. But you knew that already!


  • Everyone is not duty bound to play exactly the same thing at the same time. Back to the song sheet dilemma again. All you are then doing is just expanding exactly the same sound to the audience, but not filling out the sound space. Speak to the band members and talk about people doing something different. Not everyone will be comfortable, and that is just fine - having a couple of ukes on rhythm doing the basic song (i.e. - whats on the sheet!), will work if you explore other avenues with the other performers.
  • Think about the bass. And in that I don't just mean the inclusion of a bass ukulele, double bass or bass guitar (although I would heartily recommend that to offset the naturally high uke sound and fill your performance), but think about the bass on the ukes. That may sound odd for such a high pitched instrument, but even the inclusion of a low G on some of the instruments will add a different dynamic to you overall sound. Try having some of the band keep some basic strums to the low G and C of one of the ukes in a percussive style. Better still, why not look at a Baritone or a Guitar. They are allowed!
  • Picking. Often considered scary or just overlooked by those starting out, but even a very basic picked roll over the ukulele chords joined with a partner playing the same chords with strums will immediately change your sound for the better.
  • Lead breaks. Ah yes, release your inner guitar rock god! More seriously, if you have multiple players then you will have 'room' for one or more of your band to play out the melody or a blues lick over the top.
  • Less can be more. Not every player needs to strum like a demon on every song. The beauty of a band with multiple players, is that certain members can just accentuate certain beats and strums in songs to give them more emphasis. Sure individual players can do this too, but if two players alternate such strums on different sounding instruments you can get some cool effects.
  • Starts and finishes. Again, often overlooked as in many cases they are 'not on the sheet', but pick up any record you own and have a listen to some songs. Really, not that many start with "1, 2, 3, 4" and then go straight into the song. Similarly not many end with a 'dooby dee doo' and then stop. Work on each song and see if you can build up some longer starts and finishes. In most cases, these intros and endings will work through a repeat of a bridge / chorus or verse pattern, and there are no rules really.
  • Transpose / learn your Inversions. Just because the sheet says that the song is played in the key of G, does that really suit your style and your vocal ranges. Don't try and stress the vocal chords out just to stick to the sheet - consider transposing the song to suit the majority of the band. Even when the song works and you are happy with the key, bear in mind that there are several ways to play the chords and often a chord played at a higher position can enhance your sound dramatically. There are no hard and fast rules to this - just experiment. (Oh, and an E7 is not exactly the same as an E - just learn the E...)
  • Harmonies. Firstly on vocals - it is just a simple fact that vocal harmonies between two or three people sound hugely better than those singers performing exactly the same tune. The same works for the ukes too and you can find harmonic patterns on chord sequences that will naturally work together, yet still keep the feel of the song right. The science of harmonies is too big a subject for this blog post but I would recommend you do some other reading on the subject.
  • Instrumentals. Another failure of many song sheets - they can often just be verse chorus verse chorus throughout. As well as missing the intro and endings, they often miss out an instrumental verse. Even if they don't miss one, there is no reason why you can't add one to both lengthen the song and allow some of your players to show off some chops in the song.
  • Look beyond the ukulele. Perhaps the one most capable of stirring the hornets nest, and the subject of the other blog post I mentioned earlier. If you really want to work on complimenting the ukulele, getting a thicker sound, then please, please, don't be afraid of bringing other instruments into the mix. Drums, keyboards, other strings, melodicas, fiddles, whistles, brass, bass, whatever, it's all good.
  • Challenge everything you do. A simple last thought. Record your performances and play them back. Does it sound 'samey' or 'simplistic'? If so, at your next practice, try and work on an addition. I am not suggesting you throw everything away, but week by week if you work on adding some other interesting elements, before you know it you may have a fully fledged song on your hands.

But those are just ideas, and as I say, they are not compulsory and may not work for your band. But at the very least they should help you get some variation in your sound, and in doing so I strongly believe you will have more fun in your gigging exploits. Make notes of what you practice and then keep experimenting. We often try things out and then hate them, but often we usually find something we like and then try it out on stage. If it goes down badly we try again.

I may well get get some questions back on this such as 'but we want to be a ukulele band'. I get that, and I am not suggesting that you stop the ukulele playing, but consider this. How many 'guitar bands' out there consist of a range of guitars, all playing exactly the same pattern, chords in every song. Mix it up!

Oh and finally - no, the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain don't sit in a line and all play exactly the same thing. Look closer!

Have fun experimenting!

19 comments:

Jeb Hoge said...

Totally agreed. It's why, while I'm glad we've got a local uke organization that has regular sessions and does a yearly festival, I haven't been at all in love with the "regular session" experience. In the few I've attended, it's been...rigid. Particular. "Rules-oriented." I know the lead organizer has reasons for wanting to maintain control, but honestly, it's not that much fun. Plus the songbook is duller than dishwater and hyper-traditional, whereas I like to play a mix of pop, country, and bluegrass, and I dislike having to define strum patterns. I'm not sure how well received I'd be if I made my preferences clear.

clarice said...

Hoorrraaaaaaaaayyyyyyyy!

Ron Miller said...

Big YES. Excellent article.

swoop said...

Great article. Makes so much sense.

Anonymous said...

We at SLUGS in Leicester use a Baritone tuned an octave down but with the usual GCEA configuration. It adds resonance to the mix for some arrangements but as it has the same chord shapes allows anyone from the group to enjoy playing it. It's not the whole answer but it's a way in. A classical nylon strung guitar has some of the same properties and can be really useful without overpowering the ukuleles. It could be the same for the steel strung flat top but it needs a little restraint. Ultimately anything is viable but achieving a balance is the goal as I think you've very elegantly put. Mark Ferraby

colhead said...

Thanks for writing this Baz. It does all make sense if a band want to produce a fuller, richer sound. Over the 5 years we've been playing as the Ukeholics, we have added a melodica, bass uke, vocal harmonies, low G and variation in what the four ukes play and believe it really does create a more interesting sound.
There are quite a few people taking to the double bass and cajon at the moment and they usually feel quite honored to be invited to join a gig. They really add to the sound.

Anonymous said...

Record and playback are pretty key to working out kinks and identifying stuff that really doesn't sound that good.

Andrew said...

Great articlr and am happy ti say our group the DUKES is probably the total anti-thesis to playing by the book, we are always looking for variations, breaking up the vocals, tempo and strum pattern, re-arranging at will...use a Ubass, a Baritone and at times a cello, guitar, percussion, banjolele, picollo ...whatever might enhace the song. Thanks for writing this, it's a bug bear of mine too that so many feel you just plunk away together and that's all there is to it....well yes in a way it is, but not if you want tocreate your own sound and not just mimic others. Also good comment regarding record and playback by Anon above

Anonymous said...

Stand up and be counted ! I am struggling to find a club that does NOT just up and down strum "Morning Town Ride" sitting in a circle.......... AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH !

Darren said...

Totally agree. It does take time and a lot of effort sometimes, but playing with an arrangement is a lot of fun. I play in a uke quartet called The Ukulele Light Orchestra. We often approach a new tune with the question 'right, how're we going to do this one?' It does help that we all play various instruments and there are only 4 of us. Do a YouTube search to see what I'm on about.

snugatthesnug said...

At SnUG (The Snug Ukulele Group) at The Snug in Carnforth, the members have asked me about strumming patterns, and I refuse to give them strumming patterns, as I don't want a group of robots. I give them an onomatopoeic version of how their strumming should sound (da ca da ca da da daca or whatever, if that makes sense?) and despite being a club of 80% absolute beginners when we started this January, they are really progressing very quickly, and we will be playing at The Snug's Beer Festival in November.

But before we do that, I have told them that I am going to take as many of them as possible to an open mic night beforehand, to see how everyone copes with nerves, etc.

We only meet once a month, so before that beer festival, I am going to make it so that we have a meetup rehearse through the setlist once a week for a month, and I will be doing my best to encourage a layered sound, getting the more advanced players to do the fiddly bits, encourage the best singers to focus on singing, and for the ones who struggle with a song make sure they do have a role to play in the makeup of the song.

It's going to be a lot of hard work and effort, but it will be worth it!

Barry Maz said...

Snug - that sounds great and you have really just hit the nail on the head - it DOES take a lot of hard work and effort - that is the key.

Johnny Hunt said...

I'm Johnny Hunt, the leader of SUGAR (Saginaw Ukulele Gurus And Rookies)

It has been my observation that there are essentially three types of musicians - solo people, band people, and orchestra people.

Solo people includes those who see themselves as the "voice of their generation", and write songs that seek to explain the cosmos and influence others to think as they do. They sometimes have difficulty not being the dictator, and find that it's hard to get people to "do what they're supposed to do" and keep a band together. There are also solo people who just like to keep things simple and feel that their voice and an instrument is all they need to really have.

Orchestra people tend to be highly-social personalities, or perhaps even more on the beginning end of their musical development, and like being able to blend in with the group and be somewhat anonymous. The bigger the group, the better, and if it means only playing familiar songs and everybody singing the same part and strumming the same chords, so be it, because it's fun!.

Then, there are band people. Band people are a hybrid between solo people and orchestra people, and like being part of a group and sharing musical experiences with friends, but still having a role that goes beyond anonymity. In a group of 30 strummers, it doesn't really affect the musical product if somebody isn't there, but, if there are four people in a band, and somebody isn't there, it's pretty obvious.

Like I said, there's room for everybody, and people all have to chart their own course to find what works best for them. I think we all grow and change, and it's hard to always pigeonhole everyone into one of three categories, but, what really matters is that there needs to be a place for EVERYONE who enjoys music to participate, and uke groups are great at providing this sort of environment!

Jan Powell said...

Hear, hear!

Barry Maz said...

Johnny - thats a very interesting take. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this overdue and much-needed article!

Anonymous said...

anonymous on april 15th referred to SLUGS usinf a baritone tuned GCEA an octave down. I'm interested, what are the strings used for this?

Anonymous said...

At last someone game enough to mention the elephant in the room.
Our uke group contracted the deadly "Strum Mania" virus a few years ago and withered from a robust group of 25 or so to just a few diehards who played loudly and rudely from song sheets. These people fought bravely to resist any attempt by individuals to play anything but the house style. Newcomers came and went and things looked grim for the future of music in the group. A group of ex members rejoined, stacked the committee and held and open discussion with ALL members. The unanimous result was a new format for our meetings to give everyone a chance to introduce new material and form smaller groups to work on songs. Our group is back on track and flourishing and we still set aside time for members to play together at meetings.
There will always be a group of players that want to play from the song sheet with a repetitive strum. They have every right to be a part of any uke group, but they must NEVER be allowed to dictate the playing style.
Johnny Hunt, I liked your comments and yes, there was also a 'star songwriter' exerting undue influence over proceedings. (Hasn't been seen for quite a while.)
Thanks for bringing this up.

Anonymous said...

re baritone one octave lower: I am not the original Anonymous who posted this suggestion, but I just tried it out and like it already. :)
I did some math and found the EADG strings off a 1/2-scale guitar work fine. each string is three semitones above their generic tuning (two for the D-string), resulting in slightly higher, but not uncomfortable string tension.
I assume the four middle strings of a regular full scale guitar will also do the job.

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