Ukulele accompaniment

27 Oct 2012

Ukulele accompaniment

This is a ukulele site, that much is clear, and as such I pretty much only talk about ukuleles. And in the ukulele world out there so many groups and friends do just the same, naturally. But, is the ukulele exclusive - should it only be played with other ukuleles? Of course not!

I actually think it's a real shame when I find groups out there who actually shun the use of non ukulele instruments in their jam sessions or club nights. For me the ukulele works brilliantly when accompanied by another instrument, and that got me wondering whether my readers have tried playing the ukulele along with something completely different.

Now, you might think that the diminutive size of the ukulele means that it doesn't really work with other instruments playing along with it - not so. Read on!

Perhaps one of the most common instruments, (if you can call it that..) that crops up at ukulele jam nights is the humble kazoo - it seems to work so well with a ukulele (if a little cheesy sounding for my tastes). For me, why not take the kazoo up a notch to the natural successor and full musical instrument - the harmonica? We are increasingly getting harmonica accompaniment at our N'Ukes sessions from members of the Malbank Ukulele Club and I think it sounds just great, particularly on bluesy stuff.

And of course if the harmonica was ok for Bob Dylan, why shouldn't it work with a ukulele which is, essentially, a folky instrument. It's used to great effect by Les from the mighty Chonkinfeckle pictured below with Tim.

chonkinfeckle with ukulele, bass and harmonica
Credit - Chuck Belanger

And that picture brings me on to the use of percussion. Tim in the picture is playing his famous Chonkinfeckle Tea Chest or Washtub Bass - and what a great sound it gives.  You see, when a dozen ukuleles are played together, their naturally bright sound can, well, naturally get a bit overpowering and 'plinky plunky' (technical term...). I also think that ukulele sessions would benefit from some percussion (and Tim in Chonkinfeckle plays alsorts from tambourines to bones, to washboards). I also think a handdrum like a Cajon would also work a treat and again, the N'Ukes have been lucky enough to have been accompanied by that as well - it really gives an extra dimension to the sound.

The percussion section does not need to be just about drums though, but a bass line is a tone that I think a ukulele club would really benefit from. Whether it be a home made tea chest bass such as Tims above or one of the dedicated ukulele basses that are now on the market, it's a sound that I think you should try to experiment with - let's face it - a bass sound could not be much further away on the scale than a ukulele sound, and as such it works wonderfully. And I don't think you need to be too obsessive about it having to be a ukulele bass - before those uke basses were on the market the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain played with bass accompaniment via a full size acoustic bass guitar.

So what about other instruments? Well, the skies the limit really. Sure, a group of ukuleles may struggle to get themselves heard over a Tuba or a screaming electric guitar, but you would be surprised at what can work.  Take the picture below of Chester  player Stephen and his wife Rekha who thrilled us at our mini uke fest - Stephen on uke and his wife playing beautifully on tin whistle. Really worked a treat.

stephen and rekha fowler with ukulele and whistle
Credit - Keith A Lees

The Guildford based UkeJam club actually play with one of their members Adam Wolters playing a lead / guide line on a full sized acoustic guitar as you will see on pictures on their website. Whilst it would probably be tough to do a gig with just one uke and one guitar, they have a good number of uke players and the sound balances. In that case though the guitar adds an extra layer of tone to the many ukuleles giving a fuller sound to the performance.

And what else works? Well, I couldn't write this post without a nod to the N'Ukes own Dr Pete who plays with us so wonderfully on saxophone.

The N'Ukes Peter Lewis on Sax
Credit Tim Cooke

Now you may think a sax would be too overpowering for a ukulele jam, but nothing could be further from the truth. Pete's sax truly brings some of our tunes alive (helped, of course because he is such a natural player!).

So I hope you can see from this little ramble that it really doesn't have to end there, and the sky is the limit. If you are playing ukulele with other people, you don't need to be completely uke-centric - try experimenting with other instruments, whether throughout your set, or just for a bit of something different. What matters is making enjoyable music!


  1. Couldn't agree more - ukes benefit from addition of other instruments ... in a band, there's a mix of instruments, for musical texture....

  2. I'm a big fan of the harmonica sound with the ukulele. Another option for bass is a stand-up electric double bass, which is the next instrument I'm going to invest in. It's unbelievable how much a bass line adds 'body' to the sound of a uke group. Great article, keep up the great work :)


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