Ten Suggestions For Music Jams

Music is a social thing. Music takes on a whole new dimension when two or more musicians get together. These days, I participate in two or three jams a week. And for a while, I organized a regular ukulele jam in Kingston. In this missive, I offer some advice on how best to take advantage of your musical jam opportunities, whether you’re organizing a jam or participating.

To clarify, I’m discussing the informal song circle style jam where a dozen or so musicians take turns singing songs. Not the large big city jams where fifty or sixty people cram into a room together.

1) Participate. That is, don’t just show up and strum along in the back. I mean, be sure to take your turn in leading the group in the songs of your choice. Song circles work best when everyone participates. They’re less fun when they’re dominated by the same three or four musicians.

2) Don’t be intimidated. There’s always going to be someone better than you. Or someone with a more expensive instrument. Don’t let your lack of skills or lack of confidence deter you from participating. We were all beginners once. Private lessons and practice can only go so far. A jam is the best way to improve your skills and confidence.

If you do feel lost, don’t sweat it. If you don’t understand something, ask questions. Remember that you’re with friends. Over time, you’ll get the hang of things.

And if you’re an experienced musician, do have patience with the beginners. Remember that you were in their position once yourself.

3) Pay attention to the leader. I’ve been to jams where everyone is looking down at their song sheets, plowing through regardless. Sometimes, at the end of the song, half the room is a couple of beats ahead of the other half. Don’t do that!

Pay attention to the person leading and follow their lead. Don’t start a verse or chorus until the leader starts. Sometimes they may want to add a bar or two. Or they may want to give others the opportunity to do an instrumental break. Or if the song is short, they may want to return to the bridge before finishing the song. There’s no right or wrong way to perform a song. Let the leader decide how they want to do it.

4) Don’t push the tempo. This is related to the previous point, but it’s worth emphasizing. I know from my own experience how annoying it can be when another musician tries to push the tempo faster than what you want. It can be a challenge to bring the tempo back down. Sometimes you can do it by just slowing down until the offender realizes that they’re off tempo. Sometimes, I’ve just had to stop the song, scold the offender, and start over.

5) If you can, bring copies of your songs. If possible, include chord diagrams of at least the less common chords, or chords with a non-standard fingering. Before diving into the song, explain the trickier elements of the song.

Don’t be surprised, though, if an experienced player simply introduces a song by saying “It’s a 4-chord song in the key of G”, and expects you to follow along. That’s fine for songs that everyone knows. But for unfamiliar songs, keeping up in that type of situation is a skill that takes a while to master. If in doubt, just look at what chords the other musicians are playing.

6) Develop a repertoire. We all like to try out new material. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we also like to play songs we know. As a general guideline, I’d recommend limiting new material to one new song per person per jam. Having a repertoire of familiar songs is also helpful if the group is called upon to perform publicly.

7) No key changes. When arranging songs for your jam, stick to one key. In addition, stick to keys that are easiest for your instrument. For example, in a ukulele jam, stick to C, G, D, or A.

8) Be prepared. When bringing your favorite songs, be sure to practice in advance. This should be an obvious piece of advice, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has seen others try out a song without any advance practice.

9) Allow for a variety of skill levels. I know ukulele players who primarily choose three-chord songs in the key of C. Those are easiest for beginners, but that can get boring for the more experienced players. When choosing songs to bring, choose one easy song along with more challenging songs. Most beginners gravitate to the easy stuff, but most still appreciate (albeit grudgingly sometimes) the need to get out of their comfort zone.

10) Finally, have fun! I think this goes without saying. I just wanted to pad out the list to ten suggestions.

Cheers! Hans

4 String Chord Explorer

Some time ago, I wrote about a method of building your own ukulele chords. I’ve always realized that the process can be done automatically. But only recently, I finally got down to coding, and came up with an easier solution, which you can now try, at 4 String Chord Explorer.

This is a set of tools any ukulele player can use. Or the player of any stringed instrument with four courses, such as tenor banjo or mandolin. I realized that the algorithm used for determining ukulele chords could apply to any instrument. You can even choose your own tuning if I’ve missed any instrument. (Once you get past four courses, things get more complicated, so to make things easier, I decided to limit the tools to just four courses.)

There are six separate tools. First, choose the instrument you’re dealing with. If you want a completely different tuning, you can select the notes for each string. Next, choose the function. Currently, there are six you can choose from, each one using the specified instrument or tuning.

Chords by chord type: Select the root note and type of chord. Then click on “Selected Chords” to show possible fingerings for that chord.

Chords by root note: Select the root note, and click on “Chords by Root”. You’ll see 24 different chords for that root: major, augmented, 7th, minor, etc.

Chords by family: Select the key, and click on “Chords by Key”. You’ll get a table showing the most common chords for that key.

Search for chord: Finally, a reverse-search tool. Specify the fingering for a chord, click on “Search for Chord”, and you’ll see the chords that match the fingering.

Custom chord chart: Start by clicking the “Chord Chart” button. You’ll get a bunch of chord diagrams, 13 for each key. If you prefer a different fingering for a particular chord, click on the chord. Once you’re satisfied with the selection of chords, go to the bottom of the page. Specify a custom title and page size, click on “Create PDF”, and you’ll get your own single page chord chart that you can print out.

Create chord collection: Use this to create a zip file containing diagrams for the selected chords in png format. After you extract the image files on your computer, you can  drag and drop the images into a word processor document.

Cheers! Hans

Ukulele Chord Diagrams

After I started playing ukulele, I realized that I needed a way to create my own song arrangements. There are numerous web sites that offer chord arrangements for songs, many specifically geared to ukulele. We all know that Dr Uke ‘s Songs and Richard G’s Songbook are great sources of ukulele arrangements. And of course, Chordie.com has everything.

But I’m not always satisfied, especially with Chordie. Chordie often provides a good starting point, but I always want to do things differently. There are always multiple ways to finger every chord, and often, there’s a better sounding alternative to the standard open fingering used in most song arrangements. Here’s an example of the three main chords in the key of D, using my favorite alternative form of A7:

To prepare your own chord arrangements for your favorite songs, you need a couple of things. First, a good word processor. LibreOffice Writer is my choice since it has full-fledged desktop publishing features. It also runs on a variety of different operating systems.

Second, you need a source of graphics for the chord diagrams. One way to do that is to download the chord graphics from a site like Chordie.com. But finding all the diagrams you need can be tedious. If you’re technically oriented, you can figure out a way to download them all, but then you’d have a torrent of files to sort through. And you still won’t get diagrams for alternatives, such as the 0454 A7 (pictured above).

And so, I created my own chord diagrams, which you can download from my Ukulele Chord Box Collection. There are six collections to choose from, with chords geared to standard GCEA tuning, ADF#B tuning, and standard baritone tuning. In addition, there are left-handed variations for them all. The diagrams come in two sizes: 48×64 pixels and 36×54 pixels.

I’ve made these available under a Creative Commons License, so you can do what you want with them. If you find these chord diagrams useful and want to show your appreciation, there’s a Paypal link on the download page where you can donate $10. I certainly won’t get rich from these donations, but $10 will pay for a couple of beers at the local bar where we hold our monthly ukulele jam in Kingston.

Using LibreOffice Writer, I usually include the chord names within parentheses within the song lyrics, and highlight the chord names in red. I then put the chord diagrams at the bottom of the page. If there’s no room at the bottom, I add a frame to the side, and put the chord diagrams there. With a folder view of the chord diagrams open, I drag and drop the image into the document. With a right mouse click on the image, I choose “Anchor”, and then select “As character”. I then cut and paste to position the diagram where I want.

Cheers! Hans

Ukelele-Banjo: First Impressions

About two weeks ago, I added to my modest collection of musical instruments. I must confess that I’ve always wanted a banjo. And admit it: You want one too!

This instrument is a banjo-ukulele. But in my opinion, that name is a misnomer. It is a banjo, not a ukulele. So a more appropriate name would be “ukulele-banjo”. The instrument I bought has almost all the characteristics of a banjo. The only differences are the nylon strings, a neck the same length as a concert ukulele, and tuned the same as ukulele.

You can play the uke-banjo more or less like a ukulele. However, while the ukulele is a very forgiving instrument, which make it so easy to play for beginners, the uke-banjo is much less so. It seems like any touch to the instrument can make a sound. So although it’s a sturdy instrument, it’s best to handle it with care.

Unlike the ukulele, strumming the uke-banjo really needs a more nuanced approach. Of course, you can get a really loud sound out of the instrument. And while that’s appropriate in some cases, often you have to apply a lighter touch to your strumming. But you can play with rhythms by varying the strength of strum. For example, on some songs you can do a light strum, but emphasize every other beat by doing a harder strum.

Regarding repertoire, I’ve had to go through all of my song books to see what songs work. Probably not surprisingly, not all songs work well on the uke-banjo. Or perhaps I just haven’t figured out how to make them work. On my regular ukulele, I’ve been leaning towards a more bluesy feel to my songs. But that doesn’t work on a banjo. So far, I’ve been looking for songs I can play fast. Songs that work well include “Farewell to Nova Scotia” and “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am”. In general, a lot of old classic folk songs seem well suited to uke-banjo. Recent pop songs don’t work nearly as well.

Finally, since this instrument is much louder than a conventional ukulele, you have to be more considerate of those you live with. Finding an appropriate time and place to practice may be more of a challenge. And while a new instrument may be a novelty in the home, that novelty can wear off fast. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates the charm of this type of instrument.

In conclusion, this instrument is a lot of fun. It is well suited to up-beat music, and has a wonderful sound. In a Peanuts cartoon, Charles Schulz offered the opinion: “As soon as a child is born, he should be issued a banjo“. Make that a uke-banjo, and I agree whole-heartedly!

Cheers! Hans

Ukulele Strumming for the Beginner

I’m not sure if I feel comfortable giving advice on learning to play the ukulele. After all, there are lots of other people much more qualified to teach ukulele. However, I can pass along some of the things I’ve learned from the masters, such as James Hill and Hal Brolund. The latter rolls through southern Ontario a couple of times a year offering workshops. If you have the chance to attend a workshop run by either of these two, do it!

If you’re picking up a ukulele for the first time, read on. Many beginners seem to worry most about learning the chords. And sure, that’s important. But that will happen over time. The first priority when learning ukulele is rhythm. That is, keeping a steady beat while strumming. I’ve seen beginners play like this: They strum four beats, then pause while they change the chord, and then strum another four beats. When playing together with others, even if that pause is very short, it can still be disruptive for the group.

The point is this: When strumming on a ukulele, maintain the beat. Even if it takes a beat to fully establish your left hand fingers in their proper chord position, don’t let up on that beat.

Now let’s get down to a lesson. To start with, count out a simple 4/4 rhythm: One, two, three, four, one two, three, four, and so on. On each count, strum the fingernail of your index finger down across the strings, roughly at the point where the neck of the ukulele meets the body. Don’t worry about the chord. An open C will do nicely. Practice that for a few minutes. Tapping your foot as you strum might help you maintain the rhythm.

Next, count out: One and two and three and four and one and two and three and four, and so on. Strum as before, but on the “and”, strum your finger up across the strings. You’re now doing both down-strokes and up-strokes. Again, practice this for a while to develop a smooth rhythm.

Next, you can try some more complicated rhythms. While strumming your hand down on the count and up on the “and”, try omitting a strum. That is, keep your hand moving down and up in rhythm, but at certain points in the strumming pattern, your finger misses the strings. Here are some possible strumming patterns to practice. Skip the strums marked by parentheses.

  • down (up) down up (down) up down up repeat.
  • down up (down) up down up down up repeat.
  • down (up) (down) up (down) up down up repeat.

Yeah, I know you’re itching to practice those chord changes. The point of practicing your strumming is to make it second nature. Playing ukulele involves coordination between one hand strumming and the other making chord changes. The more you practice your strumming, the more natural the movement becomes. Once that becomes second nature, you can then better concentrate on the chords. Heck, even Manitoba Hal’s recommended practice regimen for beginners includes five minutes of just this kind of strumming!

Building Your Own Ukulele Chords

When learning the ukulele, one of the first challenges is learning the chords. One page chord charts become indispensable for the beginner. (Here’s one.) However, as you gain experience, you realize that there are multiple ways to finger each chord.

Why learn different variations of the chords? As an example, think of a two chord song. You can add interest to the song by using different forms of those two chords. Even in more complex songs, it may still be useful to change to a different form of a chord from one bar to the next. (Here‘s a good video demonstrating switching between alternate forms of G and C.)

Here are some examples of some alternative fingerings for a couple of common chords:

(I especially like the 0454 form of A7. Think of the main chords in the key of D: D, G, and A7. When changing from G to A7, you just have to slide your fingers 2 frets up the fretboard.)

How does one figure out different chord variations? I’ve put together a couple of charts to help me come up with different fingerings. You can always learn the patterns for barred chords. However, if a chord includes one or more of G, C, E, or A, these charts can help you find easy alternatives using open strings. You can download the charts from here.

The first chart lists the notes for many of the chords we use. The notes are identified by Roman numerals. If you haven’t seen that notation, just think of the notes by their other names: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, and do. For example, a major chord consists of three notes: I, III, and V. (Or do, mi, and sol.)

The second chart represents the notes on a ukulele fretboard. The notes shaded in yellow are the notes of the open strings. The white area is for the notes on a standard soprano ukulele. The other notes (blue) represent notes found on bigger ukuleles, as well as an additional extension for convenience so you can see full octaves on the chart, even for the key of G#.

After printing out these charts, fold over the top edge of the second page (or cut it off) so that the top of the page is the edge of the fret board. The idea is that you can place the fretboard chart over the chart of chords and have columns line up.

How does this work? As an example,  let’s say you want to find a fingering for the Am7 chord. Line up the fretboard chart with the “min7” row on the chord chart. The root note of Am7 is A, and so line up the I column with an A on the top line of the fretboard. You can now read off the notes of the chord: A, C, E, and G. You’ll recognize these as the open notes of all four ukulele strings. But let’s find an alternative so your left hand has something to do.

The next step is trickier. We must now find A, C, E, and G from different places on the fretboard. It’s really guesswork at this point, but let’s start with the C at the 5th fret of the G string. We’re now left with the task of finding A, E, and G. We see an E at the 4th fret of the C string and a G at the 3rd fret of the E string, leaving us with an open A. These notes are all close together, making the 5430 a really easy way to form the Am7. (Since discovering this form of Am7, I seem to be using it a lot!)

Some notes: First, note that what is commonly called the “diminished” chord is really a “diminished 7th”. The row labeled “dim” is the true diminished chord, and not the diminished 7th. Second, the keen observer will note that the 9th chords have five notes. Since the ukulele only has four strings, you need to delete one of the notes. Usually, the III or V is omitted.

I always enjoy finding interesting chord alternatives. I hope you find these charts as useful as I do.

Cheers! Hans

KUS – Our First Public Performance

Not long after I put out the call for ukulele players in Kingston, I got an e-mail from someone who wanted us to perform at her event. I had to reply that we hadn’t even had one jam yet! The Kingston Ukulele Society started jamming in September of 2010. But it took until March 2011, before someone suggested that we should work on a core repertoire. And so we began to think about performing in public.

In April, we started jamming at the RCHA Club, a great place that’s very supportive of local musicians. A new venue meant a new schedule, with jams on even-numbered Wednesdays. An unfortunate consequence of that schedule meant that there would often be three week gaps between jams. How can we survive such a long time between jams? Well, I think we should do something different in those long intervals. For example, we should perform at an open stage or open mic.

Well, it so happens that every Sunday at the RCHA, there’s a folk open stage. I suggested that we do a set on May 29. I didn’t know how many of my fellow ukesters would join me. But I figured that if no one did, I would just do a solo set. Fortunately, a few days before, I started getting confirmations from people. First, Mary said that she was interested, even though she hadn’t been to any jams. That was fine. After church on Sunday morning, we ran through the song list. If no one else showed up, we could easily do a duet. But later in the afternoon, I got more replies.

All together, we had five ukulele players spanning the stage. As we started into the opening chords of our first song, (D, D6, and Dmaj7), some people in the audience recognized the song and started clapping. We knew something special was about to happen. As we played Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, the mood was electric. I had trouble concentrating on my part since I got distracted by the wonderful music we were making!

I then introduced the people on stage: Heather, who was the first person to answer my initial call for Kingston ukulele players, and then Mary, Jane, and Colin. Our second song was “Tower of Song” by Leonard Cohen, followed by “You Are My Tech-Shine”, a traditional song with new words written by someone at our church.

The audience certainly enjoyed our short performance, and later we were asked if we’d be the feature act for a future folk evening! Well, that now puts a bit more pressure on us! So far, we’ve been a very informal gathering of ukulele players. But definite gigs require definite commitment from members of the group. Do we have the critical mass to get enough ukulele players to show up for shows? And do have enough good material for a longer show? I think the answer to both questions is Yes!

Over the past year, I’ve seen improvement in practically all the ukulele players that have jammed with us. Although I always try to bring at least a few easy three-chord songs to each jam, most people don’t seem to get fazed by the more complicated songs I throw at them. But then again, we don’t need tricky songs for a show. What we need is a good selection of fun, entertaining songs that we can all learn easily.

Anyways, I think we all had a good time that evening. There’s something magical about a person playing a ukulele. And even more so with a group of ukuleles. I hope that we’ll have more opportunities to play in public.

Cheers! Hans