Expanding Your Ukulele Playing

Expanding Your Ukulele Playing By David Martin - The Twelfth Fret

Expanding Your Ukulele Playing

If you’ve been getting the feeling you’re stuck in a rut, playing the same old chords, in the same old rhythms – on your ukulele, this article is for you. The ukulele is a surprisingly fun little instrument which plays much like a guitar. It’s super convenient to travel with, and even easier to grab for an outdoor summertime tune.

It’s also fun to just strum chords – for a while.

I frequently see students on both the guitar and the ukulele who are starting lessons again because they just feel bored with what they know. They’re also not sure what the next step forward is to curing the boredom.

When most people think of the ukulele they usually think the classic “Somewhere over the Rainbow” played and performed by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole. And if you can sing like Israel, then strumming an accompaniment  to yourself might be all you ever really need.  However, most people can’t rely on their great voices to keep their instrument interesting or even fun, and they need to expand on their playing a bit.

The first thing I like to tell students is to start thinking of music that has a bit more going on in the accompaniment part than just an even rhythm of chords or try to  find songs with very distinctive chord progressions. 

Groups like the Beatles can a be a nice place to start spicing up your playing on the uke with songs like “Here Comes the Sun”, “Something” or “Norwegian Wood”.

“Something” has a nice little single note intro followed by fairly simple chords.  If you were to see the chords to “Something” just written out you might not notice that there are a lot of little melodies moving chromatically through the chords. Playing the right voicings to highlight this really makes this tune sound a lot more interesting than the “usual” voicings you might grab if you were just going to strum off an internet tab version.

Here is a small section of the beginning of “Something”:

The tune “Here Comes the Sun” and “Norwegian Wood” are two songs that incorporate very distinctive melodies into their harmony, which results in a far more interesting and recognizable structure.  “Here Comes the Sun” sounds particularly good since the higher tuned ukulele strings come very close to the song’s actual key which is a capo on the 7th fret.

“Here Comes the Sun” “Norwegian Wood”

Basic classical pieces can also be a really nice way to liven up your ukulele playing. In fact, many of the more introductory pieces work better than the more difficult ones. This is because the more advanced pieces tend to use more of the guitars’ range and the extra two strings, which can create problems transplanting them onto the ukulele.

Here is a piece called “Natalia” by Georges Moustaki that is fairly easy to play and sounds lovely on the ukulele. 

Another simple little piece to consider is something like the traditional Spanish “Malaguena”.  This pieces is often begun slowly and then sped up with subsequent repeats making it a fun little exercise for the fingers as well as a interesting piece to play.  I’m just using my thumb and index finger here to play the main theme.

Another great little piece is “Spanish Romance” or “Romanza”-  as it’s sometimes called.  To play it on the uke, just remove the bass notes from the fifth and sixth strings of the guitar and play the higher arpeggio triplet melody.  The difficult B7 in this piece is actually much easier without having to do the bar that a guitarist, performing this piece, would have to do.

Lastly, you can also take a look at Travis style blues and ragtime type pieces many of these work extremely well on the ukulele and sound great in the higher register.  Here is what I call the “Cliché Blues” since it is made up entirely of parts everyone has heard a million times before.

These are just a few samples of music you might not have considered playing or learning on your ukulele but actually work really well and sound great! 

So, the next time you get tired of that traditional Hawaiian sound, think of some classical pieces that you’d like, some pop tunes you know with distinctive characteristics, or perhaps some blues or ragtime stuff.  It all sounds surprisingly cool and unexpectedly fresh on the gold old ukulele.

By David Martin, Teacher – The Twelfth Fret Music School