ukulele chord shapes banner

Interview With Benny Chong

Jan 8, 2010

I had the wonderful opportunity to take a class from Mr. Benny Chong years ago in Hilo at the Naniloa Hotel. His workshop covered many facets of building chords and it is probably one of the the main reasons I have a solid understanding of how they work.

Apart from being a great teacher, Mr. Chong is one of the best ‘ukulele jazz artists around. He tours with Byron Yasui as “B2” and has released an album called Ukulele Jazz.

Mr. Chong was kind enough to answer some questions via email.

Brad Bordessa: After a 35 year break in playing ‘ukulele, during which you played guitar for Don Ho, what kinds of things did you have to practice to get back into the groove?

Benny Chong with Byron Yasui on upright bass

Benny Chong with Byron Yasui on upright bass

Benny Chong: I tune the ukulele to a G6 or Em7 tuning which is the same as the first 4 strings of the guitar which is D G B E and use the (re-entrant tuning) in which the 4th string is tuned an octave higher. Many people use the (non re-entrant tuning) which the 4th string is tuned an octave lower. Most ukulele players use the C6 or Am7 tuning (G C E A). The intervals between each note are the same using the non re-entrant or the re-entrant tuning. Only the pitches are different. If you hold a C6 chord on a G C E A tuning it would be called a G6 on the tuning I use. To answer your first question, the chord formations on the first 4 strings of the guitar is the same as the ‘ukulele but the name of the chord is different if you use the C6 tuning. So in a way my chord hand which is my left hand, has been always been forming chords. I primarily play the ‘ukulele more as a solo instrument so the demand of right hand technique to create certain moods and effects is what needed attention. For me, my practice is playing and creating arrangements of songs that I like. The more I play and create, the more I get into a groove.

BB: You play some crazy chords using your thumb for fretting notes. Can you detail what kinds of sounds and chords you usually play using that technique?

BC: There are no secrets to chords. Chords are chords. It’s the understanding of how chords are formed from scales that is important. It’s the inversion of the chord placed at the right point of a melody or melody line that makes a note or melody sound fuller and unique. In music theory there is a Root or 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th inversion of chords. Inversions that go beyond that I call “alternative inversions”. The root or 1st note of any chord determines the name of the chord and root is normally but not always the lowest starting note in the forming of a chord.

In the C6 chord (C E G A) The C note is the root or start of the 1st inversion. The 2nd inversion in the forming a C6 chord starts with the 3rd of the chord which is the E note (E G A C). In this inversion the E is the lowest starting note. The 3rd inversion of C6 chord starts with the 5th of the chord which is the G note (G A C E) In this inversion the G note is the lowest starting note of the C6 chord. The 4th inversion starts with the 6th of the C6 chord which is an A note (A C E G) In this inversion the A note is the lowest starting note of the C6 Chord.

With these inversions of the C6 chord you have different notes starting as the lowest note in the C6 chord. Now, with the tuning that I use (re-entrant) my lowest note on the ‘ukulele falls on the 3rd string so when I arrange a song and I want to use the 4th inversion of a chord, depending on the key I’m in, I might not be able to play it as written so I change the inversion around. An example would be a C6 4th inversion of (A C E G ) I would change to ( A G E C) or ( A E C G ) or ( A C G E ) etc. Because of the limited range of the ukulele many times I have to move the root, 3rd or 5th up or down an octave to keep the A note the lowest. This is what I call alternative inversions and why I sometimes have to use my thumb to create these inverted chords. This may not be the correct terminology for it but it’s what I call it. Even though these notes form a C6 chord, if you strum these notes either with an up stroke or down stroke the sequence of the notes strummed gives a different timbre to it even though it’s still a C6 Chord. It is difficult to explain how and why I use these types of chords. I seem to hear and visualize melodic moving lines and harmonies and try to recreate it on the ukulele whenever possible. Concepts in the use of chords and its inversions vary from musician to musician. We feel music differently therefore express it individually.

BB: When you play as the B2 duo with Byron Yasui and perform an ‘ukulele duet, how do you arrange the different sections for your instrumentals?

BC: We do concerts in Japan, the mainland, Honolulu and the outer islands. I also perform solo and do ‘ukulele workshops. Some of the duets that Byron and I do are arrange by Byron and some are created from just jamming on the spur of the moment. Byron’s main field in music is composition. He has his Doctorate Degree in Composition and teaches music theory, composition, improvisation and whatever he is call upon and needed to teach at the University of Hawaii Music Dept. He is also an arranger, accomplish guitarist and ‘ukulele player. In duet arrangements one ‘ukulele usually plays the melody and the other is the orchestra. One way to play duet arrangements is have the ‘ukuleles switch in playing the lead or one plays the head and the other plays the bridge. In between orchestrated and counterpoint parts are played to embellish the arrangement. A lot depends on the style of music being arranged and the creativity of the arranger and what ┬áhe wants to do with the song.

BB: I find jazz to be a challenging style to break into. What defines jazz ‘ukulele playing in your opinion and what is the best way to get started in the genre?

BC: Music is an individual preference. In wanting to play any form of music requires a desire for that particular type or style of music. Sometimes being exposed to that music helps create that desire. In Jazz, there is different forms of it such as Contemporary, Bebop, Fusion, Pop and so on. I fall in between the contemporary and bebop styles, sort of middle of the road. I relate more to these forms of jazz music. What defines jazz ‘ukulele is the same as what defines jazz on any instrument. It is the person that is playing the music he loves on the instrument he loves. It is truly hard to play music you have no feel for and hard to play music you love on an instrument you don’t care for. This is my opinion. Listening to a particular type of music that you like and can relate too or that moves you is probably the most common way of getting into that genre. Then it would be trying to play it on the instrument of your choice. A lot of dedication, practice, and determination to say the least. Many musicians have gotten into their particular genre in different ways. I’m sure there are many stories that could be told. For me, I love all types of music and listen to every kind of music imaginable. I also attend concerts and recitals to listen to interpretations of these master musicians. But when I pick up my ukulele I tend to play the music I feel the most.

BB: What kinds of plans do you have for the future? Any new albums or tours in the works?

BC: Currently I’m working on my next cd and still working on my ‘ukulele chord book. I will be going to Japan twice this year, New York, and California for a series of concerts and workshops. I have a concert Jan. 22, at the Aloha Theater in Kainalui, Kona Hawaii. The rest is mostly local appearances for weddings, concerts and one night performances as of this writing.