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?
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.
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!
Have fun experimenting!