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

15 Apr 2014

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. . The aim is simple - how do you get beyond unison playing with your club or band when going out performing?

The post 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. Is that just me? I'd much rather hear things being mixed up a little.

I am not pointing fingers here, and certainly am not aiming anything at the many ukulele clubs around the world who have fun playing in mass jams. 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 in public. 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 makes people confident to play with others, then I think that can only be welcomed.

But more recently 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. A band sound.

the cursed ukulele song sheet

Sadly though, many of the same people who have talked to me have said that they want to change and develop, 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.. the end.. 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 I played at 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 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.  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. In my last band, some of the songs that proved most successful in our shows were 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 when you make it 'your own'.

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 worked on band arrangements, they were our own arrangements that made us sound like 'US' (we hoped!). That wasn't to say our arrangements were perfect or suitable for everyone, they were just what we have worked out and we liked.  

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 far 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 for the core song, but try adding in other parts to give some counter balance to the sound. 
  • 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 as 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. 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 the vocal range of your group? 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 melody. 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 middle of the song.
  • Look beyond the ukulele. This point is perhaps the one most capable of stirring the hornets nest.  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. 

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! They are actually playing many complex individual parts to make up the whole.

Have fun experimenting!

AND! Be sure to check out my other ukulele RANTS - where I explode the many myths and bad advice that surrounds the instrument - CLICK this link! http://www.gotaukulele.com/search/label/rants


  1. 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.

  2. Great article. Makes so much sense.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

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

  6. 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

  7. 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 !

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. Johnny - thats a very interesting take. Thank you!

  13. Thank you for this overdue and much-needed article!

  14. 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?

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. May I add my tuppence worth? I have found most people discover the uke later in life after having been told they would never carry a song or play an instrument. What they have achieved is commendable but they are content to stick with what they feel comfortable with and not venture outside the boundaries of what they feel they can achieve. Some are just plain lazy and do the minimal preparation and practice so the number of chords in their quiver is limited. Some steadfastly refuse to attempt anything new, for example barre chords. And finally the amout of possessiveness in the leaders who have 'created' the group is sometimes staggering. Anything like a threat or a hint of rebellion or something new is rejected quickly. Loosen up people. The uke is a universal instrument and horrors are you may learn something. William

  18. Baz! This is a great contribution to the ukulele community. I predict it will be forwarded abd shared widely among members of Uke Clubs with a Supreme ├ťberChunkaChunkaGruppenLeiter who resists or even forbids deviation from the unison ChunkaChunka sound. Quite the Revolutionary, you!

    Like the yeast in your ale, you can die as a group if you just keep chewing through the same stuff until it poisons your appetite. THANK YOU fir pointing out where adding a little different sugar and spice can create a better brew. Strum On!

  19. Hi you are a bit late with this! Our bands have been playing parts for the last two years. We do however still have nine bands that offer seats to players that enjoy a strum and a sing! The ukulele should include everyone. Try and keep up if you are going to be an internet guru.

  20. Congratulations for missing that this post was written 2 years ago. I re-shared it because I've been told of three examples recently where clubs had descended into pointlessness because the club leaders were being so restrictive. Not entirely sure what your nine bands are as you chose to stay anynonymous, but I think you will note that the post isn't aimed at one particular club, it's more of an encouragement for people to branch out. Yes, the ukulele should include everyone, but that wasn't my point either. No, not a guru, just a writer who seems to have a knack of touching a nerve here and there..

  21. From the first 2 months starting to play the baritone I have always felt this way the second month I joined a group lasted two sessions just not my thing , the ukulele has a far superior sound than up down up down in a 50 group thing

  22. I agree with you Barry. I believe the Up/Down methodology restricts learning. Music is a personal "feel" thing, so playing music should be a "feel" trip. I have started the reform but I am but a lonely Bolshevik in a sea of four stringed tedious mediocrity. I have to remain Anonymous to protect my family from any repercussions. But I'm with you brother ........ in spirit at least!

  23. Yes, yes and many more times yes :) I'd add that writing out songs is a really good way to understand what's behind a song. There's a problem behind the 'song sheet' which is the 'song book', i.e. if it's not in the book, it doesn't exist. As a result it can be all too easy to play the same songs, reinforcing the (strum) pattern. The answer is simpler than people might think - look on chord sites, listen to original songs and covers, and start having a go! All the best, Jon

    I have been playing the uke for only six weeks and have found the North Staffordshire group I have joined to be invaluable. I watch tutors on YouTube, read the Ukulele for Dummies and read articles on Got a Uke but there is nothing more focusing than playing in a group. It has helped me to develop from a three note novice to a fairly competent strummer and chord changer in just a month. At first, sitting with fifty others on stacking chairs, playing from Jim's uke songbook projected on the wall seemed so uncool, but once I had nailed Plastic Jesus and rolled on like a Wagon Wheel, I could forget that I love ELP and Metallica; it is the taking part. As someone else said, I am not overly confident about either my playing or my singing voice but hiding in the crowd, I enjoy trying. Besides, I spend a couple of hours playing in a group, there are 168 hours in a week for me to spend playing on my own doing finger picking, or playing songs with E chords in them. I doubt that I will stay with the group forever, but it is a boon for me at the moment. I guess playing in my living room with four or five others will be more musical and harmonious, but that's not for now.

  25. I quite agree with you and no need to defend groups - this was not a slight on all groups - it was more a shout against those that restrict their players

  26. I've only just come across this rant, but honestly I could have written most of it myself. As a solo performer of little consequence but trying to develop a recognisable style of my own, I choose songs I like and then tweak them mercilessly until I'm happy. Organisers keep inviting me back to their festivals so I'd say it's working.

    Hmmm. The bass. I have a background in traditional jazz, where the bass is either a proper grown-up string bass or a tuba/sousaphone and is fundamental to the beat and tempo. My experience in the uke world is that there are lots of people walking round with U-basses, but few can actually play and even fewer have any idea of the role a bass should play in a group. Your idea re the lower G and C strings is good and in lots of tunes a bass line of sorts can be developed.

    I've actually wondered about a ukulele and tuba combination. There's the novelty aspect but the right song could work nicely. Finding a willing tuba-ophonist might be challenging...

    Keep it up!

  27. UBass, yes! I've seen (heard) the UBass enhance many a jam session. I do take umbrage to inclusion of the guitar. They are simply too loud, too large, and too intrusive. I've had to ask guitar players and even large loud bass guitar players to leave. It's no fun for the ukulele players being covered up by instruments that are just too loud. I also banned banjoukes from my jams, but had a banjouke jam once a year. It was very loud!

  28. Moving ahead to 2019. I am one of those who is learning ukulele (going on 4 years). I want to strum the way I feel the song is leading me. I am working on barre chords and learn reggae (on my own, it seems, because the rest are just happy to follow the song sheet. I have been directed that "majority rules". How does one determine that the majority has a preferance when no one is given an alternative choice? I enjoy music from different genres. Yes, it's my take that a "possessive" slant is at work in our group. Group leaders should take note. Don't suck the happy out of what started out as fun.

  29. I have taken on running a ukulele group with older players in Western Australia, that has been going for a while. I like to re-do arrangement to include extra chords (eg C - Csus4) to add interest to a song and also include picking parts and riffs. I also include a suggested strum pattern on my arrangements as some members seem to need it. Members have a choice to try and play the extra what I call "fiddly bits" or not, its up to them. I find a lot of our members like to give it a go. We have a wide range of songs form all eras and genre's and I feel our group appreciates and enjoys the variety of songs. We recently did a gig at a community music night and a comment we received was "every music night should have a group like that"
    I think they are proud of our achievements as I am proud of them.


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