Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Tag: ukulele

September in the Rain on Ukulele

While at the Port Townsend Ukulele Festival last weekend, I took a wonderful class by Danielle Ate The Sandwich on tips for recording for YouTube.

All of her advice was good and straight-forward and just what I needed. The process I’d developed for recording myself was certainly quite an affair and at sometimes a slog that would leave me exhausted and frustrated at the end. Seeing how easy it was to make decent video with even just a phone inspired me to find an open spot on the Fort Worden campus and make a video.

It’s the first piece I ever learned, over a decade ago. I’m pretty pleased with the result, and I look forward to making some more impromptu videos.

/jon

For those who’ve asked for it, here’s the tab: September in the Rain (Ukulele Tab). It’s not my arrangement – it’s based on the intro to the full song that I played in a group a long time ago that I reconstructed from memory.

Aloha ‘Oe on baritone ukulele (slack key style)

Took some time this weekend to record this. It went a lot smoother than I anticipated, though it still needs some work.

Recording some slack key ukulele videos

For a while now I’ve wanted to record some videos of myself playing ukulele, both to keep tabs on my progress and to introduce some more slack key uke videos online. Now it’s true I’ve recorded some videos in the past, but I was never impressed with the video quality of my regular webcams. So this past week I finally found a HD camcorder I liked (the awesomely cheap Zoom Q2HD) and on Saturday I sat down to record.

These were all recorded on my Black Bear baritone ukulele, which I talk about in the first video. Enjoy!

/jon

The Port Townsend Ukulele Festival 2014

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

Revisiting how to practice the ukulele

A little over a year ago I outlined an index card based system for organizing my ukulele practice sessions. I designed it to help me retain old material while always learning more, to keep my practices structured but still interesting. I used it to create and execute regular practice sessions for several months with great success. In fact I even had the great opportunity to share my system at the first Port Townsend Ukulele Festival during Cathy Fink‘s session on practice tips.

Now, the system wasn’t without its flaws – the biggest complaint was its complexity. While I still believe in the system’s core goals, I’ll admit that the particular implementation I came up with isn’t for everyone.

With that in mind, and in light of this year’s ukulele festival, I thought I’d take another whack at the problem, and distill last year’s system into something a little more user-friendly.

Goals

My goal has never been to become a professional musician. I just want to be able to make some nice music for my family and friends without any notes, aids, and with a little more than a basic up-down-up-down C, F, G7.

With that in mind, the system needs to:

  1. Track all of the new material I want to learn.
  2. Track my progress with the material I’ve already started learning.
  3. Make it easy to create fun practice plans that balance learning new material with retaining old material.

The New System

The new system can be quickly summarized as:

  1. Keep a stack of cards, each with:
    1. Something to practice written on the face.
    2. How many times you’ve practiced it tallied on the back.
  2. When you want to practice, turn the cards face down and draw a random set. Remember:
    1. The more cards the longer the practice session.
    2. Try to have a mix of cards, ie. some with no tallies, some with a few tallies, and some with lots of tallies.
  3. After you’ve practiced each card, add a new tally to the back and return it to the stack.

Simple enough? Too simple? Let’s walk through the details:

The Practice Stack

The new system starts, like the previous one, with a stack of index cards. This is your Practice Stack. Size, color, lines or plain, it’s up to you. Just get a good sized stack.

Now, each card in your Practice Stack is going to represent some particular thing you want to practice. It can be a technique, an exercise, or even a whole song.

So on one side of the card, write or print exactly what you want to practice and for how long. If it’s a technique or exercise, give it at least five solid minutes. For a song, at least long enough to get through the whole thing two or three times.

You can be as vague or specific as you want, whatever works for you. For example, let’s say you want to practice picking your C Major Scale. You can write a simple “C Major Scale / 5 min” or a more elaborate “Finger-pick first-position C Major Scale with a metronome for five minutes”.

Personally I prefer being a little vague, one because it’s easier to write, but also so I have room to experiment while still using the same card. In the beginning, I might practice that C Major scale as slowly and accurately as possible, staring at the fretboard the whole time, but after a lot of practice I might decide to use a metronome to rock out that scale with my eyes closed. Being vague on the card lets me use one instead of two.

Your Stack is Personal to You

Now to start out your Practice Stack, I recommend creating at least a good thirty index cards. Remember, this is your list, so pick things that you want to practice. Your stack won’t be the same as anyone else’s, and that’s okay!

If you’re having trouble coming up with thirty, try the following for inspiration:

The only recommendation I have is to keep a mix of songs and techniques. It’s tempting to list out just the song’s you’d like to learn, but you’ll get much better if you throw in some technique practice.

Tallies Mark Your Progress

Where the front of the card keeps track of what you want to practice, the back keeps track of how many times you’ve actually practiced it. Every time you practice what’s on the front, you’re going to add a tally to the back. How you tally is up to you – you can use pen marks, stickers, colored squares, whatever works for you.

The goal is here is to give you both a physical representation of how much practice you’ve put in and also an easy and quantitative way to compare cards with one another. You’ll use this information to help you decide what to practice.

Practicing

When you sit down to practice, you’re going to draw some set amount of cards from your Stack. Remember:

  1. The number of cards you draw will dictate how long you practice.
  2. By placing them face down and choosing randomly, you’ll make sure that no practice is the same.
  3. By watching the tallies on the back, you can make sure you can get that balance of new and old material.

Now, what will happen is, over time you’ll build up this nice set of index cards with all of the things you’ve learned, and you’ll be able to quickly see the things you’ve focused on and the things you haven’t. It’s quite the feeling to have a physical artifact in your hand of all of the effort you’ve put into playing the ukulele.

Conclusion

That’s it! I hope this helps folks out there, especially those that were intimidated by all of the charts in the first iteration of this system. Does this work for you? Have improvements or other ideas? Let me know in the comments!

Happy strumming,

/jon