Recently I was thinking about attending an intermediate-level uke workshop. One of the requirements was that you needed to know the primary chords (I, IV, V) in the most common keys. I gulped and decided to pass on the workshop until I somehow figured this out. I found a chart and tried to memorize the chords, but didn't get that far. Lately, though, I've been digging a bit deeper into music theory and now I understand how to figure this out. It's not that complicated so here goes....
The I, IV, V chord progression forms the bedrock for hundreds of songs in many genres: rock, folk, country, blues, spirituals, and so on. It's easiest to show this chord progression in the key of C as there are no sharps or flats. The notes in the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B and all the primary chords in the key must be made up of these notes only.
With C major, the I, IV, and V chords are as follows:
I: Start with C, the root note.
IV: Count up 4 steps from C and you are at F.
V: Count up 5 steps from C and you are at G.
Each chord is made of a triad--three notes together. The C chord, for example, is made up of three notes together: C-E-G.
The main thing to keep in mind is that it’s the relationship between chords that’s important. In other words, with any key, you start at the root chord, then count 4 steps up the scale to find the IV chord, then 5 steps from the root to the V chord.
Each major key also has relative minor chords. For C major, the relative minor chords are D-minor, E-minor, A-minor, and B-diminished (the latter isn’t used very often). In a major key, the relative minor chords often add a slightly more melancholy tone, but I think this is what appeals to our ears and emotions because the song almost always returns to the major root chord--back home where we started.
Another commonly used key for ukulele songs is F major. The notes in the F major scale are F, G, A, B-flat, C, D, E, so the primary major chords are F-I, B-flat-IV, and C-V.
I think it's been helpful to figure out this concept rather than just memorizing the chords for the commonly used keys. For example, I may be playing a song in a songbook and if a chord doesn’t sound right, I can choose another chord from the key's chord family. I haven't tried this yet, but I may want to transpose a song into a different key so it’s a better fit with my vocal range. And next year, I'll be ready for that workshop and I'll know the chords when someone says, "Ok, let’s play this song in the key of F.”
There are many, many songs that use this chord progression. Here is a verse and the chorus from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that demonstrates how the primary chords in the C major chord family are used in a song--and he even throws in a bit of music theory!
I heard there was a secret chord
that David played and it pleased the Lord
F G C G
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
C F G
Well, it goes like this the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall and the major lift
G Em Am
The baffled king composing hallelujah
F Am F C-G-C-C
hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah
This past week, I’ve been working on the famous Beethoven piece, Für Elise. I’ve always loved this piece, especially as a teenager. When I was about 15, I had a friend teach it to me without the music (just the famous first part). Later, when I took piano lessons I was so excited to learn it, but it’s a lot harder than it seems, especially the fast middle section. It’s fun to play on the ukulele, though, and it works surprisingly well, even if it’s just a bit of the piece.
I've tried a few ukulele versions of Für Elise, but I finally found one I really like--Helmut Bickel's version on YouTube (my last post was another of one his lessons--All I Have to Do is Dream). I don’t understand everything Helmut is saying in the video (his lesson is in German), but I have learned the numbers (for example, drei, vier means three, four). And if you want to pronounce "Elise" correctly in German, it seems to be Eliseh not Eleese. He provides the tab in the video so I screen captured it and printed out.
Who was Elise? The prevailing theory is that Beethoven dedicated the piece to an Austrian singer named Therese Malfatti, to whom he proposed in 1810; she turned him down to marry a nobleman. The piece was discovered 40 years after his death and wasn't published until 1867. Beethoven's handwriting was pretty bad and most musicologists believe the dedication was transcribed as "For Elise" by mistake, instead of "For Therese."
Another theory, however, is that he may have written the piece for 13-year-old Elise Barensfeld as a favor for Therese, who possibly gave Elise piano lessons. This theory works for me: over two hundred years later, it's still a favorite of preteen and teen pianists around the world.
For this post, I’m going pre-Beatles—the Everly Brothers.
I was inspired to learn a fingerstyle version of the song “All I Have to Do is Dream” after a conversation I had with an Uber driver on Cape Cod this past weekend—a young man who was listening to the Everly Brothers. At first, I thought he had put on an oldies station for my benefit, thinking it was the sort of music I might like. But when the second Everly Brothers song came on, I said something like, “They had great harmony,” and he responded, “No, the greatest harmony” and he sang along to one song with a Caribbean-inflected accent. Evidently, he was a big fan.
The Everly Brothers had lots of hits in the late fifties and early sixties and then went into decline for various reasons--and not only because of the British invasion. They seem to have had a falling out with the songwriting team, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote their biggest hits, and they had other problems.
Known for their close harmony, they influenced a lot of famous sixties groups and singers. At one point, Beatles called themselves "the British Everly Brothers.” They also influenced Simon and Garfunkel and others.
My favorite YouTube tutorial is a lovely version of the song by a German ukulele player name Helmut Bickel. I don’t speak German, so I may have lost some of the nuances of his tutorial, but he provides tab in the video, and he plays the song several times slowly. I screen captured the tab and printed it out. Watch out for the repeats (double lines with two dots)—you’ll play through once to the first ending and then on the repeat, play the second ending. The diamond shapes indicate where he taps the uke with his hand.
The only problem with this song is that it becomes a bit of an earworm, which comes from the German word, “Ohrwurm”—a song that continually repeats in your mind after you’ve finished listening to or playing it!
Continuing my summer of Beatles songs, I’m working now on the ballad, “Till There Was You.”
“Till There Was You” was the only Broadway show tune the Beatles recorded; the song was written by Meredith Wilson for the 1957 musical The Music Man.
Paul said about this song, "I could never see the difference between a beautiful melody and a cool rock 'n' roll song. I learnt to love all the ballady stuff through my dad and relatives – Till There Was You, My Funny Valentine – I thought these were good tunes. The fact that we weren't ashamed of those leanings meant that the band could be a bit more varied. (As quoted from Paul McCartney / Anthology on the Beatles Bible website)
The tutorial below was made by the late Mike Lynch, aka Ukulele Mike, who had a sweet style of teaching and singing/playing. In the YouTube comments many people referred to him fondly as “grandpa.” As he said in the tutorial, this is a good song to work on if you are tired of playing the same ole chords and instead want to play some “delicious chords”—interesting diminished, minor, and augmented chords (none are difficult to play but they really do sound wonderful). He plays the song with a kind of a rolling strum using his thumb on down strum and index finger on up strum, which I’m still working on.
I’m continuing my summer Beatles theme by learning a fingerpicking version of “Let It Be” that I found on YouTube. Unlike some Beatles songs, “Let It Be” has easy chords and a slow, steady tempo, so it’s a good song for beginners.
"Let It Be” was written and performed by Paul McCartney. The lyrics refer to a dream McCartney had of his late mother in which she reassured him that everything would be ok and that he should just “let it be.” When I first heard the song in 1970, however, I figured Mother Mary was the Mary--the song does have somewhat religious overtones. But as McCartney says, listeners can interpret the song however they want.
Here’s the YouTube lesson from TenThumbs Productions. The fingerpicking isn’t difficult, and the riffs are fun, especially the last “walk down” that starts on the 12th/13th fret and moves down to the 1st fret. This is a good lesson—he goes step by step, repeats the tricky bits several times, counts out the rhythm, and so on.
I grew up on Beatles music and have many favorite Beatles songs. Yet I don’t go out of my way to play Beatles songs on the ukulele. Many of their songs are surprisingly tough to play—the chord changes are complicated and not typical. Lately, though, I’ve begun to appreciate the richness and harmonic complexity of their music.
I’m learning to play the song “Blackbird” from excellent YouTube video tutorials by Cynthia Lin (the tutorial is divided into three videos). This song isn’t easy and yet if you can play barre chords, you’ll be alright. There are no chords that twist your fingers into pretzels. She takes you step-by-step through the song, which has two fingerpicking patterns that are pretty straightforward.
You can download the chords and tab for fingerpicking from a link that’s with her video and donate what you want, or get it for free. (I donated $5 but it’s worth a lot more.) I am so impressed by what she’s put together. Not only does she give you the tab for the fingerpicking parts (and the counting patterns for the rhythm) but she also gives you the fingering for the chords (left hand), divides the songs into its various parts (intro, bridge, verses, etc.)
It turns out that “Blackbird” is based on a bit of Bach’s Bourrée in e minor. John and Paul liked to play this well-known Bach piece on the guitar to show off at parties. The lyrics were inspired by the civil rights struggles at the time in the US, and as Paul has said, it’s a song of empowerment: take these broken wings and learn to fly.
So in honor of the song’s fiftieth anniversary (written in 1968), I’m excited to tackle it on the uke.
I plan to revisit more Beatles songs this summer, but this one will keep me busy me for a while.
Last year, I wrote a post about a simple fingerstyle version of "Silent Night", but this year I’m working on a fingerpicking version of the carol. What the difference? I think of fingerpicking as an accompaniment to a song as you sing it, and fingerstyle generally as a solo instrumental version (though there aren’t hard and fast rules about this and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably).
Here is a fingerpicking pattern for "Silent Night" that’s not difficult, yet it sounds pretty. It’s an arpeggio pattern, which means the notes of a chord are played in succession rather than together, so you will pluck one string at a time. For each chord, you should play the pattern twice.
In ¾ time (3 beats per measure, counted 1+2+3+), the pattern is:
thumb (4th string)
index (3rd string)
middle (2nd string)
ring (1st string)
middle (2nd string)
index (3rd string)
The slash marks indicate when you should play the pattern:
/ / / /
Silent night, Holy night,
/ / / /
All is calm, All is bright
/ / / /
Round yon virgin mother and child.
/ / / /
Holy infant so tender and mild,
/ / / /
Sleep in heavenly peace.
G D7 G
/ / / /
Sleep in heavenly peace.
It's been a while since I posted here. I think I got into a bit of a rut with my playing and wasn't sure in which direction I should go. One thing that's helped me is teaching the ukulele to beginners. I realized that I've been focusing mainly on fingerstyle solo songs, but for beginners, I needed to teach the basics of strumming, find good songs to play along with, and so on.
While preparing the ukulele lessons, I found that I really enjoyed singing again while playing--which I don't do that much with the fingerstyle solo songs in which I generally play the melody rather using the fingerpicking patterns as accompaniment. So I've been learning new fingerpicking patterns and having fun with this. It allows me to do something fancy while I'm playing and to sing the songs as well.
Today I downloaded Brett McQueen's 20 Beginner-Friendly Christmas Songs Fingerpicked ($19 normally, but it was on sale for $13) and am loving it. The chords are easy so you can concentrate on learning the fingerpicking patterns.
Here's a video of Brett McQueen fingerpicking one of my favorite Christmas carols, "Good King Wenceslas." The tab for this song, and a lesson that will teach you how to play it, are available for free on his site, Ukulele Tricks.
I first heard the song Moon River in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's when I was a young child. I’ve loved it ever since. According to my mother, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the first movie she took me to—I was four years old. An odd choice for a first movie—I think a Disney movie may have been my second one. But I imagine she really want to see it and didn’t have a babysitter or something. The movie was on TV the other night and I watched it again. I had forgotten that Audrey Hepburn sits on the fire escape and plays the song on the guitar. This inspired me to search for a ukulele version.
I found a nice ukulele version of Moon River (with tab) by Al Wood of Ukulele Hunt (a treasure trove website of ukulele news, resources, and so on). It’s an easy chord melody version. A video of him playing the song is below.
The lyrics to the song were written by Johnny Mercer (it was composed by Henry Mancini) and when I was visiting Savannah, Georgia, with my family we went to see the inlet near the city renamed Moon River in honor of him and the song. We happened to visit Moon River at night during a full moon, when moon's reflection created a band of light, "wider than a mile," across the river. I had an ah-ha moment—it was a moon river indeed. I live near a river, the Hudson River, and enjoy moon river evenings by this river as well.
"Silent Night" was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, with lyrics by Joseph Mohr. The song was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 in a small church in the village of Oberndorf near Salzburg, Austria.
What I found interesting about this beautiful carol is that Mohr requested that his words by accompanied by guitar music and that was how it was first performed--not with an organ, or another typical church instrument. So in a way, it's a natural for the ukulele.
I like this easy solo version by Aaron Keim . The tab is available for free on his website The Quiet American.
Playing fingerstyle ukulele, with information about the songs and where to find the ukulele tablature so that you can play these songs yourself.