I’ve been puttering around with learning to play the ukulele for the better part of the last year. Progress has been pretty good, and although I don’t typically play for audiences, I can at least get through a fair number of songs without embarrassing myself (which, I’m convinced, already puts me one better than, say, Tiny Tim).
Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that I’m getting into the ukulele because I’m looking for fame and chicks and being able to hang out in sequined jumpsuits and ruckus with hottentots. All that is very nice (that is, if you’re Jumpin’ Jim Beloff), but for me, I’m more interested in the art of the ukulele. I’m interested in plumbing the the instrument’s shadowy depths and discovering its hidden macabre secrets. That’s me: the Ukulele Shadow Master.
To this end, I’ve been continually trying to build my ukulele repertoire. Typically, when I’m looking for songs to play on the ukulele, I’ll just go to the guitar tablature archives at Harmony Central, find some chord sheets, and just play the corresponding chords on the ukulele. It’s an easy, no-muss way to get started playing the instrument (seriously, with the tab archive and a simple chord sheet, anyone who gave a rats ass could pick up this instrument and be playing a song or two in a single afternoon). Playing songs directly off of the guitar tabs actually sounds pretty reasonable most of the time, and is supa fun. But, of course, to be a Ukulele Shadow Master, playing mere chords isn’t really enough. Which brought me to my next exercise in coolerosity: playing fills.
Let me just go ahead and mention that none of the stuff I’m going to mention here is particularly hot shit as far musicality is concerned. I freely admit that I still basically don’t know what I’m doing as far as playing an instrument. This is all just stuff that I’ve picked up after putting in some time on the ukulele, and actually, it’s probably all wrong. That’s all okay though because, after all, you’re not going to learn how to be a Ukulele Shadow Master from any book or actual accredited instructor. They won’t teach you this shit – because they’re all too scared. Onward!
So anyway, fills. Fills, to me, are basically everything in a song that that is not an actual chord. These can either be an actual melody line, a little jangly emphasis bit, or a solo-type bit that you throw in at some point to impress everyone with your virtuosity. This is where any instrument starts to get tricky for me. The problem is that I don’t have a particularly good ear as far as music is concerned, and when this is combined with my basic lack of knowlege about how a fretboard is laid out, bad things sometimes happen. I have managed to stumble through some arrangements on my own, since it turns out that most of the jangly bits you hear in most songs are basically just arpeggiated (hit each string individually instead of as a a single strum) chord structures with a couple (3 or 4) random notes thrown in between, which I can sort of handle. So all you have to do is go back to your chord sheet and play the chord as blonk-blonk-blonk instead of BLONK!!!
So that’s pretty much my comfort level with the ukulele for the moment. It’s all very nice, but it’s not really enough yet. One problem I keep running into is that non-chord based melody lines still present a problem to me, especially when converting them from guitar to ukulele. This frustrated me to the point where yesterday I sat down and wrote a program to do it for me. Thus, I humbly submit Jeff’s Ukuleleverter. Please bask in its 733t-ness.
The idea behind the Ukuleleverter is that it allows you to basically follow along a line of guitar tablature (say, for instance, Sting’s lovely Saint Agnes and the Burning Train), click the appropriate links on the coolio guitar fretboard at the top, and then the Ukuleleverter will convert it to the appropriate ukulele tablature. I wrote this from scratch both because I think it is a useful tool, but also because I wanted to take some time to actually puzzle out how octaves and other mysterious musical bits actually function.
The guitar’s tonal range (top) compared with the ukulele’s (bottom). Weep.
What I discovered as a result of this exercise is that the ukulele has a really limited tonal range. I suppose that this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering that the ukulele is cartoonishly tiny and the guitar is oafishly big, but I was still sort of surprised when I sat down and drew out a diagram of the disparity. Making matters worse, the stock ukulele tuning doesn’t even bother using all four strings to expand its range, but instead uses three strings in the expected fashion, and then tunes the fourth string as a completely redundant fashion. I guess this is done to fill out the chords and generally make everything sound ukulele-ish, but it sure doesn’t help the process of translating things from the guitar. Lots of ukulele players tune their G string down an octave to make the instrument function more like a guitar, but I’m not sure I want to, you know, be unpure or impetuous. After all, people who trifle with the ukulele often wake up in the morning to find their tires slashed.
The answer, I suppose, is that it isn’t really fair to the ukulele to expect it to accept guitar music verbatim. It is a fussy bitch of an instrument, and it deserves (nay, demands) its own unique discipline to get it to really perform. Am I up to the challenge? Of course. I am the Ukulele Shadow Master.