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Ukulele Geekdom – week 6 – How to Build a Ukulele

Hello Friends,

If you watched my week two video where I demonstrated my ukulele collection – you will remember the last one I showed you was a beautiful pineapple shaped handmade ukulele. Crafted for me by my husband David as a wedding gift, it remains my most treasured instrument. David has kindly organised some photos of the building process and written down what he did at each stage of the make – it is a fascinating process and after seeing all of the hard work that went into the creation, it makes me love it even more. David was instructed on how to build it by Guitar Luthier Tom March and it all took place at Crimson Guitars in Piddlehinton.

Click on each picture to read the caption explaining the process!

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Ukulele Geekdom – week 5- Chord Shapes and Soundscapes

Hello,

Although the ukulele can be wonderfully easy to play with lots of basic chords requiring only one finger placement on the neck, there are so many more chord options that can be played further up the neck creating an almost endless supply of harmonic sounds to get creative with. I love exploring different chord voicings (or inversions) and in TTWU I try to use lots of types of chord all over the neck to vary the sound.

Before I go in to detail about how to play a couple of different types of chord, I should probably explain what a chord is. A chord is more than one note, played together at the same time to create harmony. Depending on what notes are played in the chord and the intervals between each of them, a different quality or colour of sound is created. In Western music we have named these chords according to their harmonic intervals such:

Major

Minor

Augmented

Diminished

In basic triad form these chords have three notes each, if we look at them from the root note (which is the letter name of the given chord) we can see what is different about each of them. These are all based in the key of C:

Major: C E G

Minor: C Eb G

Augmented: C E G#

Diminished: C Eb Gb

So baring in mind that a ‘b’ = a flat note (or a lowered note) and a ‘#’ = a sharp note (or a raised note) already you can see how different these chords must sound!

Now, these chords only have three different notes, but on top of any of these chords you can add more notes! The most commonly known and used are 7th chords – which come in a number of different forms (major, minor, dominant etc.) But you can also have chord extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths), chord suspensions (sus2, sus4), altered chords (#9, b13 etc.) THE LIST GOES ON!!

All of these chords can be played in a number of different ways, we can play them in basic root position (with the letter name of the chord played at the bottom of the chord) or we can invert them to have a different note played at the bottom. This again creates different sound options and of course as you invert the chords further up the neck of the ukulele we get the change in pitch too. Just remember, chord inversions are basically the same notes played in a different order – I feel a Morecambe and Wise joke coming on……

So as you can see, the options really do feel endless! How exciting.

The most useful thing we can do on the ukulele to start utilising some of these different chord ideas is to learn barre chords. A barre chord is so called because you often have to use the index finger to play a barre across all four strings, but really a barre chord is just when all four strings are in use to create the chord. I also like to call them transferable shapes, because that is exactly what they are. And once you know a few of these shapes, you can transfer them to anywhere on the neck and it will play the same ‘type’ of chord (eg. major/minor) but in a different key (eg. C or F).

Here is a good first set of barre chords to learn, if you can get the hang of these – all you need to know is the letters of the frets along the A string to reposition them to that root note. For example, if you play them all from the 3rd fret they will all be types of C chord (because C is the note on the 3rd fret of the A string). But if you play these same shapes from the 7th fret, they will all be types of E chord (because E is the note on the 7th fret of the A string).

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All played on the 3rd fret these four chords would be:

C (C Major) – notes – C E G

Cm (C Minor) – notes – C Eb G

C7 (C Dominant 7th) – notes – C E G Bb

Cm7 (C Minor 7th) – notes – C Eb G Bb

When you try them, have a good listen to how they sound. They all have different harmonic qualities that we have learnt to recognise with certain feelings and emotions. Major is often considered happy sounding, minor is considered more melancholy. As soon as you add the 7ths in, the chords instantly sound more complex and colourful. Different styles and genres of music tend to use particular types of chord to create the sound they want, for instance Rock and Roll music frequently uses the Dominant 7th chord, whereas Jazz music often favours Minor 7ths and complex chord extensions such as b13ths (so cool).

It is when these different types of chords are cleverly cobbled together into a chord structure, that the true music making magic begins! I find this whole topic utterly fascinating. It is something you could spend a life time discovering more about and I am continually finding new ways of playing chords and constructing them in to structures. I hope you have enjoyed learning a little about chords and perhaps you will listen slightly differently to them the next time you play or hear a song. As always, if you have any questions, please do get in touch.

Lucy x

Ukulele Geekdom – week 4 – Techniques and Styles

Dear Friends,

It is most often assumed that the ukulele is an instrument meant only for strumming chords on and perhaps singing along to. It is true that this is an excellent way in which to play it but there is so much more that this little instrument can do. Here I would like to outline just a few of the different techniques and styles that make the ukulele so versatile. I try to employ lots of different techniques in our TTWU set and it is always good fun to experiment with ideas when we are doing new arrangements of pieces. All of the below techniques can be combined, creating even more options. Check out the accompanying videos for some audio/visual examples.

Strumming  

A great place to begin! So many different sounds, textures and timbres to be found.

In order to strum a particular chord, fingers are placed on the strings over the neck of the ukulele marking out individual notes, which when combined (strummed together) create harmony. Different notes combined create different types of sound/chords and these are categorised with names such as ‘major’ or ‘minor’. The Western ear recognises these sounds often with different feelings or emotions. For example the major chord is said to sound ‘happy and bright’ whereas the minor chord is said to sound ‘sad and dark’. The more notes you add to a chord, the more complex and colourful the chord sounds.

Generally ukulele players use a combination of different chords played in a certain order (a chord structure) to play a piece of music or a song.

The strings can be strummed using an endless combination of rhythms, directions, tempos, dynamics, timings, fingers etc. All of which make a real difference to the sound that comes out. For example if you were to strum the chords in a downward direction using the back of your finger nail, you would have a stronger, harsher sound than if you were to use the soft pad of your finger in an upward motion. Or if you were to use all your fingers and your thumb instead of just one, you would be able to create more complex rolls across the strings and accomplish different rhythmical patterns.

Finger Picking    

Finger Picking is a great alternative to strumming and can be used in the same context as most chord based pieces/songs to create a completely different sound. As with strumming, picking patterns are endless because again you can use so many different combinations of which strings to pick when, timings, rhythms, fingers, dynamics etc.

Picking can also be used in a completely different way. Individual notes can be picked out to create melodies, scales and improvised solos. Or you can combine both the melody notes with the chords and create an ‘chord melody’ piece where everything is played at the same time. Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro has used this style of playing in a most incredible way – creating his own versions of epic pieces such as ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

Effects 

The are many effects that can be applied to the ukulele, some more successfully than others due to the lack of sustain on the instrument! A few effects include:

Hammer Ons – Instead of picking the string to create the note, you hammer your finger on to the fret board to create the note vibrations.

Pull Offs – Again, instead of picking the string to create the note, you pull it off of the fret board with your fret hand.

Slides – You slide the finger up the fret board from one note to the next, with no need to pick the second note again.

Bends – Forcibly bending the string up or down to create a bluesy effect or a pitch change, you can bend 1/4 note, 1/2 note or even a full note (hard to do without breaking a string!)

Percussion – Using any and all parts of the ukulele to create percussive sounds! Muted strings scratched, taps, knocks, flicks, palm slaps – anything goes!!

I hope you have enjoyed getting a small introduction to the world of extended ukulele techniques. I really enjoy messing about with all of them, I think they give the music a bit more interest and enable the ukulele to be a true creative force to be reckoned with.

Ukulele Geekdom – Week 3 – A Potted History of the Ukulele

Hello There,

You know – I could write pages and pages on the history of the ukulele but, like the instrument itself, I am going to keep it short and sweet. Here is some key information about it’s origins, along with some notable genres, great players and some further listening and reading suggestions if it takes your interest.

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Although it is a common misconception that the ukulele started its life as a Hawaiian instrument, it actually originated in Portugal and was bought to Hawaii in the late 1870’s. A descendant from the ‘Machet’ (or ‘Machetes’) instrument as it was known back in Madeira, the ukulele went through a number of transformations and name changes, including being called a ‘Taropatch Fiddle’,  and a ‘Rajao’ before it finally found itself as the ‘Ukulele’.

Ukulele is a Hawaiian word meaning ‘Jumping Flea’ or another translation is ‘the gift that came here’. The ukulele was truly taken to heart by the Hawaiian people and in 1897 Hawaii’s (then ex) Queen Liliuokalani helped introduce the instrument to world, by staging a concert in Washington D.C. The New York Times wrote about the upcoming event, noting she would be playing “songs of her nation” and accompanying herself on the ukulele “a native instrument that looks and sounds like a diminutive guitar”.  And so began the popularity of traditional Hawaiian ukulele music.

May-Singhi-breen

The first real uke craze, which swept over America and the rest of the world, came when it was show cased at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Fransisco. Through the 1920’s and 30’s the Ukulele was embraced in music halls, theatres, circuses and travelling bands and found itself centre stage and onscreen in a number of different shows and films.

elvis

After a bit of a lull, the 1950/60’s brought about a resurgence of ‘Ukulele Cool’ when it was played by a number of rock and pop stars, along with a Tin Pan Alley revival that still hasn’t ceased. Ever since then it has continued to find its place in all sorts of genres…. In folk, country, jazz, blues, rock and classical, as an ensemble instrument and as a virtuosic solo instrument. Check out my list below of recommended artists and composers, spanning the different eras and genres. This list is by no means complete!

jake-shimabukuro-652x367

These days popularity of the ukulele continues to grow with it overtaking the recorder in schools as the perfect beginner instrument. As well this, 1000’s of adults are coming together – forming groups and creating Ukulele communities all based around the joy of playing this little instrument. I feel super lucky to be a part of spreading the ukulele love through my teaching and performances with TTWU.

Notable traditional Hawaiian performers old and new:

Ernest Kaai (1881-1962)

Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917)

King Kalakaua (1836-1891)

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole “Bruddah Iz” (1959-1997)

Mixed Bag of Music Hall, Blues Country and Ragtime performers: 

Roy Smeck (1900-1994)

George Formby (1904-1961)

May Singhi Breen (1891-1970)

Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards

Del Rey (1959-present)

Tessie O Shea (1913-1995)

50’s/60’s resurgence:

Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983)

Elvis (1935-1977)

George Harrison (1943-2001)

Groups: 

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (1985-present)

The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra (2005-present)

Current virtuosic players:

Jake Shimabukuro (1976-present)

Daniel Ho (1968-present)

James Hill (1980-present)

Ukulele Geekdom – Week 2 – Sounds and Subtleties

Hello Folks,

So in my last post I explained a few of the different shapes and sizes of the ukulele. This week I would like to show you some (but not all!) of my collection. I have written a bit of technical info on each of them here and I have made a video with a little demo of each instrument, you can find the link to this at the bottom of the page.

Kala Mahogany Concert Ukulele – This is my most used ukulele and it is a brilliant all rounder. It has the standard tuning of GCEA and is tuned with the traditional ‘reentrant’ high G string. It has a gorgeous warm tone, bright but not ‘too’ bright, which is due mainly to it’s solid (not laminate) mahogany body. It is an electro-acoustic instrument, which means it has a pick up installed inside which leads to a simple jack output socket. It feels great to play, it is lightweight but solid and is smooth to the touch – with a gloss finish, apart from where I’ve played it so much it has turned matte! You’ll notice the cutaway shape, this is is designed to allow you to reach up to the higher frets with ease. It is well used by me now so has a few indents and markings but that makes it all the more suited to my playing. Lovely for general use – and suitable for all styles of playing (strumming/finger picking etc.) It is super reliable, I’ve yet to break a string on it and stays in tune beautifully.

Recording King Concert Resonator Ukulele – This was my first ukulele, I bought it because I saw someone playing one at a festival and I liked the look and the sound of it. It has the same tuning as the Kala. As resonators go it is a fairly cheap model but that really doesn’t seem to matter, as it has the perfect sound I was looking for. It is loud and has a harsh/trashy/twangy sound due to the metal body and the resonator cone at the bottom which gives it some natural amplification. It is hard to mic up, I have tried a range of clip/stick on mics, the best option was using an external SM57 instrumental mic set up by the cone – but I found it hard not to hit it with my strum arm! It’s got a great look, with some nice etchings and it really suits a more retro, bluesy sound.

Banjolele – This instrument is a true antique, I have had it looked at and it is thought to be well over 100 years old. It has it’s original case and looks to have it’s original calf skin head too. Like most Banjoleles, it has the body of a banjo but the neck, strings and tuning of a ukulele. This instrument has got a resonator plate on the back which is beautifully etched, not all banjoleles have a resonator – some are left open at the back and this varies the volume and the sound quality quite a bit. The intonation is pretty bad, the lower frets are so worn down that the strings move in to places they shouldn’t! It has an amazing sound but is not hugely gig-able due to the tuning issues and it is difficult to mic up, I also wouldn’t want to work it too hard – he’s an old boy and deserves a quiet life. But it gets 10/10 for it’s vintage look, feel and quality of sound, I think it sounds like it’s being played through an old gramophone!

Risa LP Electric Tenor Ukulele, Cherry Sunburst – This is the latest addition to my collection and ‘oh my’ the possibilities are ENDLESS! I am just getting to grips with it really and have only experimented with a few of the sounds but so far I have found that it can range from a beautiful jazzy mellow sound, to a harsher country twang, to full on distortion in just a few adjustments. It is modelled on a classic Les Paul guitar and has the same duel pick up capabilities, with the same three way switch to go between them. It is tuned with a low G string at the top, which gives the overall sound more depth but also opens up melodic and soloing options a bit more. The biggest difference with this instrument I have noticed so far is the sustain. Typically, being such a small bodied instrument, the ukulele has a notoriously poor sound sustain. But with this ukulele I can use higher chord inversions up the neck, hold on to them and the sound won’t disappear! I plan on running it through an amp rather than through the PA like I usually do with my other ukuleles – so that I can control the tone and volume better. It is gong to take some getting used to and it won’t be appropriate to use in all situations but it is an amazing addition to our TTWU arsenal!

Handmade Concert ‘Pineapple’ Ukulele – Finally I couldn’t finish showing you my collection without showcasing this beautiful hand made ukulele, made for me by my husband as a wedding gift. I will be doing a post later on about how it was made, with step by step photos, but had to include it here too. ’Pineapple’ refers to the shape of the instrument and it is made out of Sapele. It has a super smooth, yet surprisingly loud, tone and I just love it. It is not an instrument I gig with, but it is my most precious uke and my most used at home.

Here is the video demo, I’m aware the sound quality isn’t spot on, once I get this sorted I hope to post some videos of each uke played alone so you can really hear them properly:

 

Thank you for indulging me and reading/viewing this post. I have so enjoyed playing though my ukes and remembering what it is I love about each of them. I really don’t claim to be a ‘gear expert’  but if you have any questions or would like to chat about anything ukulele, do post a comment below or contact me at our email address: tiltherewasuke@aol.co.uk

If I can’t help you, I’m sure I will be able to put you in touch with someone who can.

Bye for now xx

Ukulele Geekdom – Week 1 – Versatility and Variety

Hello TTWU Friends and Ukulele Lovers,

If you are reading our blog I am assuming you have an element of affection for the mini instrument that makes up the main harmonic and rhythmic structure of our duo. I (Lucy) personally really do love the ukulele. For many it is seen as an un-serious instrument, as a fad, as an mini/easy guitar or even as a bit of a joke. It is easy enough to see where this reputation stems from but if you would be so kind as to indulge me, over the next few months I would like to demonstrate why I believe the ukulele to be a beautiful sounding, versatile and totally valuable instrument in it’s own right.

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Since we begun our TTWU exploits (over 5 years ago now!!) I have been lucky enough to try out all sorts of makes, types, brands, sizes of ukulele. The options out there are seemingly endless and I am often asked by new players, ‘What should I buy?’ My first answer is always to try a few out and go for the one you like the sound of best. My second answer is to consider your budget and go to the top end of what you can afford – quality of build and materials used always makes a big difference. But having said that, there are many very affordable ukuleles that make a beautiful sound. Here is a quick bit of info about some of the different sizes of ukulele you can get….

Soprano – this is the smaller, ‘classic’ type of ukulele – the one you would see in played by Elvis or the beautiful hula girls in the movies. It is usually about 12 frets in length and often has a high bright tone. Most have the standard ukulele tuning of GCEA, with the G tuned up higher (nearly an octave above the A).

Concert – this is slightly bigger than the soprano, with a longer neck and slightly more spaced out frets. This is my size of choice because it enables me to do more but keeps that same high ukulele sound and classic look.

Tenor – again this is slightly bigger, the body depth is usually deeper which can give a warmer and louder tone. Fretboard length varies, as does the soundboard size but it looks considerably larger than the soprano and feels quite different to play. Often you will find the Tenor has a low G string, which again changes the sound quite a bit.

Baritone – bigger yet again and quite different in tone, much more guitar like. Also its tuning is different to the other three, it is usually tuned like the top four strings of a guitar (DGBE).

Although these four are the most typical sizes, there are other options including the super mini Sopranino and the often quibbled about Bass ukulele. This is really a different instrument altogether – the strings are super thick and rubbery, carrying the fantastic name of ‘Thunder Gut Strings!’ They are tuned like a bass guitar (EADG) and its purpose is to be played like a bass guitar too, so individual notes are picked out to create a bass line. Chords are not often strummed on this instrument and it is usually used in an ensemble.

All of these instruments are available in a number of different materials – tons of varieties of wood, metals and random objects can be made in to ukuleles, with varying degrees of success and sound quality! Some are totally acoustic, some have electronic pick ups. Some use nylon stings, some use steel strings. It is each to her/his own as to what sound they like and in my next post I will be posting a video giving you a run down on my own collection and my favourite ones to use for what purpose.

Until then, if you love the ukulele – get exploring, I guarantee the perfect uke is out there waiting for you and it just might not sound or look how you expect…!

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Projects in the pipeline are a’poppin’…

It is September – say whaaaaat?! I genuinely cannot believe what I am writing… Wedding season is well & truly over for us for another year & I can assure you it has been a beaut… TTWUKE Wedding.jpg

See what I mean…?!

Looking ahead we have lots of exciting plans in the pipeline & are hoping to ‘relaunch’ around Christmas time so keep your ears & eyes ready for that…! In the meantime you can expect a little update from us every Monday just to keep you guys in the loop & also to hopefully inject a little sunshine into your Monday  they’re generally not everyone’s favourite!

Today’s little insight is a new video… here is snippet of a new song we are working on – it is by Katy Perry & we love the country harmonies in the final chorus 😍 Have a listen to Lucy’s new toy/instrument which is also all part of our pipeline project… Yay! Have a GGRRRRREAT week! Stacey (singer) xx