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.
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 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’.
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.