The Port Townsend Ukulele Festival 2014

by Jon

Class photo after the first session of the Baritone Ukulele Support Group

The first session of the Baritone Ukulele Support Group

Last year I attended the first annual Port Townsend Ukulele Festival, and had so much fun that I jumped at the opportunity to preregister for this year. Yesterday marked the end of this year’s festival, and I thought I’d take a moment to review some of the wonderful things I’ve learned in the past few days.

The festival consisted of four sessions of ukulele workshops a day for three days, along with ad-hoc non-ukulele classes, daily open-mics, jam sessions, and two live concerts featuring the instructors. The classes were held in the various buildings at Fort Worden, and included one-day drop-in sessions for shorter topics, along with three-day classes let you really dig into particular subjects.

Besides all of the wonderful opportunities to just sit down and jam with other ukulele players (there were some 160 participants this year), I also came away with a bunch of new techniques to practice, songs to learn, and a greater appreciation for all of the music that these little instruments can make.

Of particular note this year was the acceptance and accommodation of baritone ukuleles. In fact, one of the biggest highlights for me was the positive reception to my playing of Hawaiian slack-key on my baritone uke by both the staff and other participants. (I really need to make some videos, at the very least so I can get on Humble Baritonics again.)

The other highlight was showing off Chordious, which also elicited a positive response from some of the instructors, especially those with upcoming books.

It would be impossible to list everything that happened this weekend, but here are some of my notes (grouped by class and not in any particular order):

Baritone Ukulele Support Group (Aaron Keim)

  • Embrace the wound string. Enjoy the color it adds to the music. Only you will hear the squeaks.
  • There are only so many string factories, so pick the material and gauges you like and feel free to make your own sets. For baritones (tuned dgbe’), Mya-Moe uses D’Addario silver-wound classical guitar strings (0.033w and 0.028w) for the basses, and Worth clear fluorocarbons (0.0319 and 0.0260) for the trebles. (Mya-Moe sells their strings here if you’re not interested in making your own).
  • Keeping your thumb behind wherever your 2nd (middle) finger is will make chording easier.
  • Barre with the bony side of your finger, not the fleshy part, for a cleaner sound.
  • Hang your hand at your side, then raise your elbow – that loose grip, straight wrist, is how your hand should be shaped when fretting.
  • If you play smaller ukes too, use your knowledge of those chord shapes by jumping down and barring at the fifth fret on your bari to play them.
  • When you’re the only bari player in a  group, look at chord names, not grids, and not other people’s hands.
  • Play around with chord fingerings to try to get the root note on your bass string, ie. the 2130 E7 with the root note on the bass sounds better than the 0100 E7 with the 7th note on the bass.
  • Don’t worry about transposing or being in the same key as the paper when you’re playing by yourself.
  • Swapping out that low-d for a high-d will give you a nice, more “ukulele” sound, and isn’t a new idea – jazz ukulele master Lyle Ritz has been playing that tuning on the tenor uke for decades.
  • There is no “official strumming pattern” for songs. Some strums just sound better than others, depending on the feel you want the song to have.
  • It’s not hard to make up your own strumming patterns – just think of it as reductive rather than additive – start with your basic down-up, down-up, down-up, down-up and then remove strokes, replace one with maybe a thumb on the bass, change which fingers you use, etc.
  • In a 4/4 strum, put emphasis on the back-beats (2 and 4). Say chat-ta-noo-ga chat-ta-noo-ga as you strum.
  • If you want to capo, do it. Arron uses Kyser banjo/mandolin capos on his bari.
  • For that dreaded key of F, capo at the first fret and play the shapes for the key of E.
  • For picking like Maybelle Carter, almost everything is lead and played with the thumb.
  • Start by learning the melody, then the chords, then play just melody, using chord strums to fill gaps in the melody

Baritone Chord Magic 3 (Ginger Johnson)

  • When you see scary jazz chords (9ths, 13ths, etc) you can substitute a 7th. Note it doesn’t always work the other way, using a 9th for a 7th might sound good, but might clash with a non-jazzy song.
  • Baritone ukulele can sound deep, sexy, and sultry – don’t get caught up trying to play it like a smaller uke, use its strengths.

Fretboard Roadmaps (Fred Sokolow)

  • Learn your minor pentatonic scale to solo over bluesy songs by just playing in the key of the song (no need to worry about chord changes, just key changes).
  • If the song isn’t bluesy, slide down (toward the head) 3 frets and play the minor pentatonic there.
  • Learning your chord shapes mean playing those I, IV, V chords anywhere on the neck, wherever it’s convenient for the chord changes or melody notes.
  • Learn that circle of fifths. There’s no substitute for just sitting down and committing it to memory.
  • Learn the common progressions in multiple keys so that they become second nature.
  • Learn where major scales are relative to the chord shapes so you can stay in the shape and solo easily

My Three Strums (Casey MacGill)

  • Swing strum is alternating between using your thumb and finger at the same volume, which gives a off-beat natural accent when the nail hits the strings.
  • Keep your hand near the uke, you don’t want to waste energy.
  • You’re pulling your wrist out perpendicular away from the strings and “pinching” it with your thumb like you’re picking apart a cotton-ball.
  • Then flick down with your finger and mute with your palm for the 2nd beat, leading with your wrist.
  • Shuffle strum is using the fleshy part of your finger, again keeping your hand near (or even on the uke) the whole time, and muting between strokes.
  • Rumba strum is down, roll, down-up, down-down-up. Ups are hit with your thumb nail, and there’s no muting.

Hawaiian and Hapa-Haole Songs (Francis Doo)

  • Hawaiian music doesn’t have to be fast, fancy and complicated – simple chord progressions with simple strums give you room to express yourself in the song.
  • The Hawaiian vamp is II7, V7, I, I, then repeated.

Unobtrusive Percussion (JoJo Mascorella)

  • If he could only have one thing, it would be wire brushes. Wire brushes on a sheet of paper on a chair and you have enough sounds to have a good time.
  • Play thinking as if you’re whipping down from your shoulder, to get the right attack, but don’t actually do it as you’ll get tired too fast.
  • Lots of warmups go a long way.
  • Practice slower and speed will come naturally
  • Practice with a metronome to test (and humble) yourself

The biggest refrain was about practice. It’s a dirty word to some, but it really is the only way you get better. Period.

I could fill up post after post with highlights from the festival, but writing about it just isn’t the same as having been there. This year there were some 160 participants with another 180 or so on the waiting-list, so rumor is that next year they’re going to try and meet the demand with two separate festivals back-to-back.

I can’t wait to register.

Happy strumming,

/jon