One of the best, most sure-fire ways to tune up your playing and achieve a more polished ‘ukulele sound is to spend some time looking at your technique regarding playing clean. Granted, some artist’s charm comes from ratty technique and buzzing all the time, but, in general, a better approach – or goal – is to play cleaner ‘ukulele.
By playing clean I mean that notes are pure and buzzes are at a minimum. Technique is crisp, leads to good tone and an easier time for the listener to hear what you are doing. It just sounds more professional. Any beginner that takes the time to play clean will, almost certainly, sound like they’ve been playing ‘ukulele for years longer than they have.
So how do you play clean? By practicing the basics. Many times we want to rush ahead and learn this new song or that new technique when really, the best thing you could spend your ‘ukulele practice time on is studying what you already know and making it better. This isn’t going to light the world on fire, but when you play a note, you will really know how to play it properly. Imagine if you really learned every note in every song or scale you play. Can you see room for improvement? Just writing that question makes me feel the need to practice more.
Tips For Playing Cleaner ‘Ukulele:
When trying to make your ‘ukulele a squeaky-clean, note-producing machine you have to take physics into consideration. Creating a note takes a few steps that go something like this:
- Think of the note.
- Locate where the note is on the fretboard.
- Move your hand to that position.
- Press down on the fret.
- Pick with your right hand.
So that’s a nutshell, but you get the idea. An action with 5 steps takes a blink of an eye to execute. To me, that’s amazing.
The items in italics are physical motions. We can quantify those. Mental speed all amounts to how well you know the ‘ukulele’s fretboard, how well you know the song, things like that. But physical motions can be broken down and performed in slow motion. A little bit of observation goes a long ways. In order to make your physical motions more efficient you have to see what you’re doing inefficiently and make a change.
It all starts with timing. To see what you need to improve on physically, you need to go slow. Actually, to do pretty much anything on the ‘ukulele you should go slow first. You can always go slower and you can always stay slow for longer. You’re not hurting anything by working on a tune at 60 BPM for an hour. You’re – just – not. So if that’s what it takes – do it! Don’t speed up before you can play it perfectly slow.
Make sure that your fingers are in between the frets. At this point you’re probably hovering over your browser’s “back” button or clicking over to Facebook thinking, “Yeah, right, Brad.” Okay, it’s pretty basic, but play something you know well very slowly and see if your fingers are consistently within the frets. If they aren’t, or you find you are really having to think about it, then don’t go scan Facebook quite yet! You’ve got things to practice!
Note that your fingers don’t have to be exactly in the middle of the frets. The minimum requirement really is that you are not fingering on the metal of the frets creating buzzes or mutes. But if you want perfect efficiency (I applaud you), there is a sweet spot inside each fret on the ‘ukulele where the leverage and tone makes for even more positive fretting. This pressure point, so to say, is just bridge side of the middle of a fret – maybe 2/3 of the way up to the next fret. You won’t hear angels singing when you start playing like this, but eventually it will allow you to play with less downward pressure on the string and keep that super clean tone.
While not affecting the cleanness of your playing too much, overkill finger pressure can slow you down tire out your hand. You want to find a pressure that is enough to put the string in solid contact with each fret, but no more. To find this happy medium, put your finger over a fret space, but don’t push down – just rest your finger on the string so that it is muted. This is one extreme. Then, while picking that string steadily, begin to press down slowly with your fretting finger. Listen for the first sign of a note and buzzing. Keep moving through the buzz until the note is crystal clear and push until your finger is smashed up against the fretboard. This is the other extreme. We normally play somewhere near the middle of the spectrum, but the best place to be is exactly in the middle with no wasted energy. Keep picking and slowly release your fretting hand, passing back into a slight buzz. Once you reach that first sign of a buzz, add a little pressure once more to bring the note back to full clarity. This is the amount of pressure you should aim for using on every note you fret, no more.
Another point of interest is the coordination between the left and right hands. In order to produce a positive note, your fretting hand must push down into the fret a moment before your picking hand strikes the string. On the other end, if you release your fretting hand before you finish the pick, you will similarly encounter buzzing or muting. The solution for this is slowing down and studying your transitions from note to note. Be sure to get to the right fret by the time rhythm dictates the need to pick it. In order to do this you must be confident of where you are going next. Don’t rush away from it either. Hold that note until it is finished, then shift. If you need more speed to do this, slow down some more. You are achieving very little if every note in a fast passage is skipped over in a rush to get to the next.
The previous thought leads into a simple one: think ahead. The further down the line you look, the easier it is to be comfortable with what you need to do on your ‘ukulele. This is mostly a mental preparation that pays off instantly as you recall the next section of song. Slow songs are easier to take stock of as you are playing. There is no rush so you can relax and take a peek into the future without worrying about botching what you are currently playing. What does that tell us? Go slow! If you make a fast song as lazy as a slow song, you can practice looking ahead and become even more familiar with it.
Since we are interacting with the physical movements of the ‘ukulele’s strings as we play, we have to keep in mind their limitations for producing good tone. One such limitation is the amount of vibrating space they have. If you play an ‘ukulele with low action, a string has .09″, .10″, maybe .11″ of wiggle room at the 12th fret. That’s not that much. The harder you pick, the further the string moves in its arc of vibration. An aggressive attack makes for buzzes and “bogging.” “Bogging” is the highly-scientific term for when a string just can’t put out any more sound and begins to sound dead because of it.
A simple solution is to play softer. That way the string will have some leeway before hitting the frets from vibrating. Depending on the instrument, you can still play pretty darn loud and not bog down. It’s just a matter of finding the edge and pulling back just a tiny bit. Another thing you can experiment with is attack angle. Very few people actually hit a string dead-on when they play. Sometimes they pull the string away from the fretboard, sometime push it down and towards the fretboard, etc… There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but think of the angle that attack sets the string vibrating at – towards the fretboard to one degree or another. If you can pick a string straight down and make it vibrate side to side, parallel to the fretboard, it won’t hit anything during its arc. I’m not saying to sit and make sure all your picking strokes are straight down. Instead, take a look at your attack angle and experiment to see if the tone tradeoff is worth it. If anything, you might find a happy-medium you like.
So far we have discussed mainly the playing of notes. Now let’s talk about the bystanders – innocent notes on your ‘ukulele that sit quietly until you come along and bash their friend on the head! Sympathetic vibrations, hand chatter from shifting notes, and feedback (when plugged in) are all some of the extraneous noises that can be silenced with a little bit of clever muting. Muting comes in two main forms: left hand muting and right hand muting. Both take some serious practice to get synced up and have absolutely zero chance of impressing your friends, but really make for a tidier presentation.
The role of either hand in muting is sort of interchangeable. That said, some things are better handled by one over the other.
Left Hand Muting is great for:
- Silencing ringing notes – Just by lifting your fretting finger to the point of a mute you can dampen any note you are currently playing.
- Muting all the string simultaneously – If there is a place for complete silence in your song, a pinky mute can bring all strings into check in one small movement.
- Keeping the top G-string from ringing – This is controversial, but you can use the tip of your thumb to keep the G-string quiet when playing.
Right Hand Muting is great for:
- Palm muting – By placing the fleshy side of your hand of the bridge you can shorten the ringing duration of all notes and create a tighter sound.
- Keeping the bottom strings from ringing – Place your pinky and/or ring fingers on the E and A strings to keep them silent as the grave when you are playing elsewhere.
- Muting all the strings simultaneously – Same as above.
My inspiration for writing this is ‘ukulele performing artist Herb Ohta Jr. – the King of Clean. Listen to him sometime and pay attention. No buzzes, no hand noise. Just the notes he intentionally plays. Such a pure sound that is a force to be reckoned with in itself, even if his music wasn’t as great as it is. I’ve asked him about this before and he said that the only thing he really thinks about when he is performing is playing clean. Maybe that’s it.