- by Marc-Andre Seguin -
Ukulele is definitely one of the more unusual instruments when it comes to playing jazz, but that does not mean the genre does not sound great on the instrument. In fact, some of my favorite covers of tunes, including standards, have been versions that I have heard on ukulele. Naturally, since I play guitar and have more strings, it is a little bit easier for me to come up with arrangements as I have more options available to me harmonically. However, with dynamics, arrangement, and a little bit of chord vocabulary, you can come up with your own great arrangements as well! As I often mention in my lessons and blogs, this lesson will yield the most benefit if you know a bit of music theory. If that is not the case for you, don’t worry, you can still learn a thing a two. I do recommend that you go explore the topic, however, as you could be left behind later on!
Dynamics / Volume
First, we let’s go ahead and discuss how the use of dynamics can make certain parts of our arrangement stand out and keep others in the background. Typically, you want the most attention to be given to the melody. The rest of the material is supporting material. Therefore, it follows that melody will almost always be the loudest aspect of your arrangement.
Next, depending on the specific tone quality you are going for, you will need to think about which parts of your hand you will to use for strumming and plucking. Nails, while producing a louder and brighter sound, might sound a bit harsh for some. For that reason, other players prefer to use the meat of the thumb to get a more padded sound. Ultimately, what you end up using will depend on your taste, but I would suggest a combination of the two.
Swung 8th Notes + Rhythm
Now you will want to consider how to approach the music from a rhythmic perspective. You might be familiar with what is known as "swinging 8th notes". Basically, this is the practice of playing two 8th notes as if they were an 8th note triplet where the first two beats of the triplet were tied. Further, accents are often placed on beats 2 and 4 and this is usually marked by the drummer’s hi-hat pedal. Here’s a visual example to give you an idea:
It is important to note, however, that this is not necessarily a requirement. There are plenty of arrangements - on ukulele and otherwise - where the band or soloist plays straight. Either way, he’s a great example of a drummer playing a typical swing pattern. Pay close attention to his hi-hat pedal and his ride cymbal.
This should give you a good idea of what we are discussing here.
Arranging the Tune
Next, we will discuss different ways of going about arranging the tune itself. There are a few approaches you can take here. One common approach is to play a sort of quarter note accompaniment with chords and play your melody on the top string. This rhythmic differentiation and the dynamics we talked about earlier will make the melody stand out while leaving the chords nice and audible enough to support it. Another approach that is simpler conceptually but perhaps more difficult to achieve is to harmonize all or most of the melody notes. Wes Montgomery was a master of this sort of thing. While you may not add all of the bass content that he does with his lower strings, you can still come close. Check out his take on the classic “Days of Wine and Roses”.
Of course, he is doing this on a guitar, but it is totally possible to take a similar approach on the ukulele with some chord vocabulary. This leads us to the next section.
A good chord vocabulary is key to playing jazz on any harmonic instrument. I would suggest really getting each of these shapes under your belt in any key. For the sake of practicality, I have provided them here in Bb and they are all in standard ukulele tuning (GCEA). You should reach the point where you are able to access any of these at a moment’s notice anywhere on the fretboard.
Let’s go over these 7th chord shapes and discuss the benefits of using them for your arrangement.
Note: The number on the side of some of these is the number of that fret. This is a marker so you know where you are on the fretboard.
As you learn these shapes, assuming you know the notes on the fretboard, figure out where the root note is in each shape. This is how you will be able to access it wherever you end up. For an added challenge, learn which chord tones the others are for each shape.
As you can see, playing jazz on a ukulele is really not as impossible as it may sometimes seem! With some basic understanding and some vocabulary, you can make your own jazz ukulele arrangements.
I invite you to take these considerations and apply them to every tune you know. Additionally, it is extremely important that you learn lots of tunes. Each tune has its own lessons and challenges written into it. Every time you overcome a new obstacle in music and on your instrument, it is like leveling up, so to speak. Here are a few tunes to get you started. Each of these has something different to offer.
- Autumn Leaves
- Mr. PC
- Days of Wine and Roses
- Stella by Starlight
Hopefully this lesson was beneficial for you!
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.