Patience and Improving II: Tabs & Time

I think enough time has passed that I can retouch on this subject. Like in the other Patience and Improving post, practicing your ʻukulele is still important.

First point. (Please note that I don’t think tabs are bad. They can be a great learning tool. But don’t rely solely on them.):

If you have to ask for ‘ukulele tabs to a challenging song, you probably shouldn’t be trying to play it. I believe that it is way more beneficial to your playing to learn by ear an easy ʻukulele song than something you have to learn from a sheet. Figuring something out by ear can be a challenge, but that’s why you start simple. The more you do it, the easier it gets. If you don’t have the ability to work this said piece of music out yourself, and you take the easy way out (get the tab), you are going to end up doing several things (for the most part):

  1. Playing the music just like the tab.
  2. Playing beyond your physical abilities, because the tab can show the notes Jake can play, but you can’t. This probably leads to…
  3. Getting discouraged.
  4. Not understanding the music.

I think the last one is the most important. When you take the easy way out, you aren’t forced to learn the structure of the song. All you have to do is play the right frets that the tab shows. But if you listen to the song and figure it out, several different things happen:

  1. You learn how the song goes better because you end up listening to it many more times then you otherwise would.
  2. You are forced to figure out the key. (If you want to find the notes it’s way easiest to find the key first.)
  3. You will probably learn the chords. Because a lot of times the melody starts and ends on chord notes. Also, it’s more interesting to strum the chords while you learn the rest of the song in your head than to just sit there and listen.
  4. Because of these things, you will (hopefully) see the relation of the melody and the rest of the song.

So develop your ear! And remember that music has kind of a built in difficulty filter that says, “whoa! This is probably over your head, why don’t you try something a bit easier?”

Just so you know, I’ve been down this road. There was a stage when I’d hear a song I wanted to learn and head straight to the computer to look for a tab – without even trying to figure it out by ear first. Then, if I found the tab I’d spend an hour trying to figure it out before going “arrghhh! This is beyond me!”. That was always discouraging. Now it’s easy for me to ear a song out.

Tabs are a great way to learn a song, but be sure to learn the music too.

Second point.

Time. If you practice, you really do improve. It may not be noticeable, but it’s there. The best advice I think I’ve ever gotten was along the lines of “you’ve got the tools Brad, now you just need to practice the basics”. At the time it was a kick in the face, but looking back I’m really glad it was said. It’s been almost a year since then and in that time (I hope) I’ve been practicing “the basics”. Basics are not necessarily picking quarter notes all day (although they could be). I believe the basics are more like touch, songwriting, playing clean, confidence – things like that – overall musicality.

You can help the process along, but basics are also acquired with time. The longer you play, the more solid your basics are.

For me, I feel that in the past year I’ve been able to improve upon two main things. The first is my own musical voice. It’s not even close to finished, but I think this came about more so from writing songs, being able to play more of what I hear in my head, getting a better tone, etc… That leads to the second thing: confidence. With a bit of my own personal basics established, I feel like I can say something in a musical situation better than I could have a year ago, before taking a better look at the basics.

Even without any super noticeable leaps in your skills, you are still improving on the basics. Playing that chord better, making that one note cleaner, feeling your fingers become just a bit more nimble, understanding what is happening in a song a little easier. It’s all just a process. Time will provide better basics. Just remember that they are important.

Along the same lines. When you hit the “wall” and have no idea what to practice or you feel like you’re not improving, just keep playing, because even if you can’t see improvements at the top of your game, there are improvements happening at the bottom.

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Brad Bordessa
brad bordessa smiling holding ukulele

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honokaʻa, Hawaiʻi, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once jammed with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me