Friday, 16 September 2011

The Ukulele ... Some Notes About Technique

Like the guitar, there are a multitude of ways of playing the mighty ukulele.  If you already play the guitar, and many who take up the ukulele do, you’ll be well aware of how much of a difference your technique can make to the sound you get from the instrument.

Most guitar players start off by learning a few chords and strumming.  It’s amazing how many popular songs can be accompanied by a handful of chords.  The ukulele is generally considered to be a rhythm instrument but if you’ve ever spent any time with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, you’ll have realized that there’s SO much more to it.

Even simple strumming offers a host of variable techniques.  Some use a pick or plectrum which may be plastic or made from a more pliable felt covered substance.  Naturally, this proffers a softer, less abrasive sound.  The thickness of the pick can also make a difference.  When strumming, the pick needs to bend as it makes contact with the strings.  You don’t want it to sound like a bag of nails.  Of course, if you’re playing a melody, you’ll want a harder pick.

Many choose to strum with their fingers.  Again, you have many choices.  I prefer to strum making contact with the left side of my thumb.  With a loose wrist, this is good for both up and down movement.  Some like to strum with the thumb and the index finger together.  Imagine you are holding a pick between those two digits.  I find this method a bit fiddly.  It doesn’t offer a smooth contact with the strings when strumming and you’re always catching either one of your digits on a string.  I know some players who strum with a pointed index finger which offers a contrasting up and down sound, the former with the flesh and the latter with the nail.

Of course, you don’t have to strum all the time.  As a melody instrument, the ukulele has a lot to offer.  Again, you can use a pick or your fingers to play tunes. You can also pick out arpeggios.  This simply means picking out the individual notes of a chord, usually to a repeated pattern.  Considering that the lower string is the 1st string, you may try a whole range of picking patterns, such as: 3241, 4321, 3121 and so on.  Try playing the two outer strings together on the first beat:

1232              or       1212
4                               4  4  

There’s really no end to the patterns you can try.

You can also use the ukulele as a rhythmic accompaniment.  If you watch the UOGB, they tap the body of the instrument, strum with their fretting hand dampening the strings and even mess with the bits of string between the head nut and the tuning pegs.

It’s not a novelty or a toy.  It’s a versatile and capable musical instrument.  Experiment with it. Try different styles.  Make it your own.  Learning to play the ukulele is lots of fun and you will get much more from the experience if you work to improve your playing technique.    

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