A lesson on how a beginning player can work to expand their musical options and become a more intermediate player. Tips and examples for practical things you can practice along with some unconventional ways of keeping your music fresh.
Edited slightly for clarity
Aloha and welcome to The Live ‘Ukulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa and in this episode I’m going to talk about something that has been flooding my inbox ever since I sent out a newsletter asking people what they thought I could provide to them and what they wanted to learn. And overwhelmingly the answer that came back was “how do I progress?” – mostly from beginner to intermediate, but in general “how do I progress and how do I follow a kind of lesson plan that will help me improve without just hop skipping and jumping around the different ukulele resources that are available to me?” And so we’re going to take a look into how you can go from being a beginner player to becoming an advanced player. And the sort of mindset and things you want to work on developing to get yourself into that space.
This episode is brought to you by Brad’s ebooks. Paying the bills since 2012. For those who aren’t aware I do have a collection of ebooks that I’ve written for the ukulele. One is my Ukulele Chord Shapes book which talks about movable ukulele chords and how to understand the fretboard and how different shapes progress along it. There’s also a couple of encyclopedia-like guides to ukulele technique and how to improve your physical interactions with the instrument.
So how do you grow from being a beginner ukulele player to an intermediate ukulele player? Let’s begin by defining these things. I feel like, as a teacher – and this is just my own opinion – labels really do nothing for anybody, really, besides just giving the teacher and the student a place to meet in the middle with the learning content that is trying to be expressed. If you’re a beginner, but I’m supposed to be teaching an intermediate class and our goals don’t match up, you’re going to be frustrated, I’m going to be frustrated. It’s not going to work out so well. So just by having these labels attached to different classes and different skill levels, it helps, mainly the teacher, and the student get onto the same page. Or maybe in your case your level and the level of the resources you’re seeking out, whether it be on Youtube or some other resource website.
And so, to me, a beginner player is anybody who is just starting out you know a handful of chords, you can strum your way through a song, but you haven’t gotten to a point where you’re feeling musically comfortable. And what I mean by that is: an intermediate player, in my opinion, should be moving into a place where they become confident in making their own musical choices. And this doesn’t have to be profound, you don’t have to be writing symphonies or anything. But just by having a little bit of a grasp on what music is and how you can create it on your instrument and the choices you make on your instrument to create those sounds, is kind of the beginning of what I feel like is the intermediate stage. Where people can say “Yeah! I’m an intermediate!” and be kind of excited about it. I think that the general consensus is that these people in this or at this stage really feel like they would like to participate in music more, rather than just kind of slaving along to it and serving its needs. And a lot of times beginners play in jam groups or whatever or they play along with play-along videos or play along with the radio, and they don’t get to make their own choices because they’re limited to what’s written on the paper and what they’ve been shown.
So what I want to do is hopefully give you some ideas for becoming more musical and applying these things to your playing so that you can move into a more free space of being an intermediate player. Whatever that is.
So when you become more musical, you create choices for yourself and different opportunities for selecting notes and chords that you want to express. The intermediate player, in my mind, has a collection of different chord shapes that they might use in the song. But they also know how to apply these chord shapes in a song. To begin, let’s start there. You probably already know a C chord – and that’s great! But you probably play the C chord just by default because that’s what you’ve been shown, that’s what you know, and that’s what it says on the chord sheet or the lyric sheet that you’re following. “C.” Okay must be that C chord. But what you want to do is expand your horizons to understanding that C is just a harmonic kind of construct that we have placed around that bit of the song. We’re trying to make the harmony sound like C, but you can achieve it any number of ways. You don’t even need to play a full chord to be expressing harmony. For instance, if you listen to a string quartet, none of them are actually playing chords on their instruments. But together, as a group, when they each play single notes, the combined effect sounds like a chord because the violin is playing one note and the viola is playing another note and the cello’s playing another note. And together it forms harmony. So if you can understand it kind of from from that viewpoint. That harmony is just sort of this loose collection of notes that you want to create a foundation with for the melody of the song, usually, then you kind of have some more options when you’re playing a chord. For instance you know a C chord how else could you play the C chord that’s not a C chord, but still fits within the harmony?
And this is where I’ve really got to encourage everybody to just try things. Just be brave about it and see what happens, see what you like the sound of see what you don’t like the sound of. But a lot of times when you’re in that beginner place, you’re kind of afraid of everything like you might break it. Well let me tell you friends that we should all be bulls in a china shop because there is not really anything to break. At the end of the day it’s just music we’re all just expressing ourselves. So if you try different things you will know if they work or not and I promise no one’s going to be hurt by it.
So if you’re playing your C chord, you can think of it as the basic version would be strumming all the strings. But if you wanted to make it more interesting and give yourself musical choices around that chord… For instance, you could arpeggiate the chord and play one string at a time while still holding the chord. All that changes is what your right hand is doing. And that’s a basic picking pattern. But a lot of times people do know about picking patterns and they ask about picking patterns. But it’s always asked from the confines of a limitation. It’s like, “how do I limit myself to play a picking pattern that sounds good?” That’s kind of backwards of how I think a student should be thinking of “Hmm… I wonder what I could discover by trying some things…?” Because there’s really only so many options. You have four strings. If you’re only going to make a four slot picking pattern where you have four different rhythmic locations that the pick could go, then there’s only so many options. You know, do the math. I’m not the math guy, I’m the ukulele teacher. So instead of just playing from the top string down going GCEA… Instead you could mix it up and see what different sounds you like. Instead of thinking of it so much as exact strings, kind of think if you want to go higher or lower on the sonic spectrum. And this is where just by doing it and trying some different things you’re going to become less afraid about trying these new things and you’re also going to develop a sense of when a low note is appropriate and when a higher note is appropriate – or a higher string.
So, for instance, if I was to just pull something out of thin air to make a C chord sound nice when I was playing a song… I’m just gonna make something up right here. It’s not so much the exact notes that I’m playing, but how I’m playing them and how I’m interpreting them. It’s really simple, but the way that you create this sort of sound is probably going to be completely different from how I just created that sound. And that’s why I sort of hesitate to to give people exact instructions around this sort of a thing… and feel like creating that musical freedom and creating musical choices is a lot more of an important thing that I can give to my students is… You know, this is how I do it, but how you do it is going to be a little different. See if you can interpret it in a way that works for you. Because I’m playing that from a place of having played for 15 years, whereas if you’re a beginner, maybe you’ve been playing for one year or two years, your kind of technical limitations are going to be very different from mine. So to express that, you might play it a completely different way to get kind of the same idea across. Like what I was doing was something like this… If you wanted to approximate something like that, you could do it kind of differently and just create something that captured the vibe… It’s not the same but sort of the flow of it is similar. And one of the great things about music is I don’t really have to teach you the rhythm of something. Granted, timing is a big problem for ukulele players and it’s something that you should work on, but actually capturing the sound of what should happen? Usually people can do a call and response and that’s very natural and they won’t have to think about the rhythm so much, but it’s the notes people get hung up on. And the fact that rhythm is kind of built in is a really beautiful thing. And you should just go with it. Just try and figure out something that sounds appropriate and similar by varying the simple parameters that you have. And in this case it’s a C chord. So how can you create a different texture using a simple C chord that you already know?
So that’s one thing you can do is kind of the picking pattern approach. But what a lot of people don’t think about is you have the C harmony, why not only play a piece of it? Because a lot of us are used to playing in jam groups where there’s 20 or 30 or 40 ukulele players all strumming the same chord at the same time. There’s plenty of people holding that bit of the harmony down. So if you take some away and you play less, less is actually more in some situations. If I have this simple C chord here, what if I only played the two middle strings out of the chord? Just because I can. And I would just play that with a thumb and index pinch… By focusing on only those two notes, I’m highlighting a different side of the harmony. It fits in the same place, but because I’m only playing parts of it, it sort of sticks out more. This is why a lot of times when you listen to different recordings, if you really pick apart the tracks that are being played, it’s usually less than you think. Like if you listen go back and listen to some of the Beatlesʻs songs, I bet you the chords that they’re playing are smaller than they sound on the recording because they’ve selectively created their harmonic space by playing less for that given part. Or another one is like funk music where the guitarists intentionally play only two or three notes at best – instead of strumming all the strings all the time. It’s a more focused sound because there is a foundation. Granted, if you’re playing by yourself, you may not want to strip away that fuller sound and that might be necessary for what you’re trying to do, but a lot of times you can play less and get away with it.
A lot of times you can model your rhythmic bits off of things that exist already. So just for instance, I’m going to take the first bit of a melody from a traditional song. Let’s do “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.” And I’m going to use that rhythm… I’m not going to try and play the melody, I’m just going to use that rhythm to create an idea seed for the little chord piece that I want to play. So if you’d be like “take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd.” That kind of a thing, where I have created a rhythmic moment by ripping off something else that’s completely unrelated and not trying to play it exactly like the thing. It’s not any kind of brilliant, but it’s something that’s new. It’s kind of, it’s a freedom idea that will allow you to play more than maybe what you already do. Try that: take just a piece of a chord and pinch it or pluck it or strum it and mute the rest of the strings – however you want to express it – and try and pull ideas from elsewhere. A lot of times when you’re making the transition from beginner to intermediate, you’re kind of never sure where to pull your ideas from or where you can collect the inspiration that you need. It’s like… Obviously I know that I want to play a nicer chord or a fancier chord or a more interesting strumming pattern, but where do I get that from? That is one of the ways you can source these materials is rip it off from something else. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing to borrow. There’s some great quote, I can’t remember who originally said it, but I heard it said by Carlos Santana where “if you take something from one person it’s stealing, but if you take something from many people it’s research.” Try and research some different songs that you like and incorporate them into just a simple bit of a chord. All right? Let me try another one to give you a little bit more of an idea how this can work. And I’m just going to play a C to F progression. Super basic right? But the idea is to become musically free and expressing it – not necessarily playing something fancy, which a lot of people get confused by. There’s a there’s a big difference between playing something that is sophisticated and fancy and being able to make your own choices about something that is kind of simple. Because most of what you end up playing is actually simple and the way that you decorate it is how you express your different musical choices.
See if you can guess which song I am pulling inspiration from for my rhythmic kind of melody ripoff… Or something along those lines… I was thinking “Hey Jude” in my head. It sounds nothing like “Hey Jude,” but by taking that melody and interpreting it as a rhythmic seed for just a little kind of two note chordal harmony bit, I was able to create something that was a little more interesting than maybe I could have played if I was just stuck thinking like oh “down down up up down down down up up down.” You don’t have to wonder about a rhythm because you can always just manufacture something to follow. You can use the rhythm from anything. You could use the rhythm from somebody knocking on your door, or a tree branch banging on your house, or the way that your car motor idles up and down. It all can be turned into different rhythm inspiration. So I don’t feel like that is any kind of a drawback for a student. Hopefully, if you’re clever, you’ll have lots of rhythmic ideas. The trick is getting those into something that is fresh and new. A lot of times there’s more opportunities and possibilities inside the chords you already know than you expect.
Naturally, I’m a little bit of a chord guy. I literally wrote the book on it! Really though, something that many players are interested in is chord shapes and different inversions of chords. Because they think that there is gold in them hills – and there is. But you’ve kind of got to have a little bit of a guidebook for applying them. Because a lot of people, they learn the chords and then they don’t do anything with them. Which is fine, I guess, but they’re so excited to study them and practice them and, you know, I send them away with some things to work on and some new shapes. And the next year when I see them they’re playing the same exact thing because they didn’t really know how to use them or to apply them.
For instance, you have a standard… Let’s move to F just so we can play something that’s a little bit more sonically interesting than the normal C we’re used to. So if I have a standard open F chord, that is one inversion of the chord. It’s one chord shape, one kind of harmonic package that I can choose from. And inside of that there are a handful of different notes that create the different tones that make up the chord. Right? Basic crash course not-very-theory theory. If I select certain notes out of that I can get even more mileage like we were talking about… Even without meaning to I played a little bit of like a Stevie Wonder song where the guitarist only plays a few notes. Is that “For Once in my Life”? I think. I don’t know if that’s actually what they played, but that’s kind of what it’s reminding me of… and again there’s a little idea seed. Take the little guitar stabby part from the beginning of “For Once in my Life.” All of this is inspiration. That’s a basic F chord, but if I want to play a more complex version of that chord I can move up to the fretboard to another sort of package of harmony notes. And in this case I’m going to move up to the 8th fret [Music] which is our root inversion F chord. And from the top string down to the bottom strings the fret numbers are 10 9 8 8. So you get a higher tone because there are higher notes inside of the chord. And with this extra range above the normal F chord you have some more sonic options. You could just with using this chord inversion go right back to strumming your favorite strumming pattern using that new inversion when you felt like it was appropriate. Like I could play something simple along these lines, where I’m just kind of staying on F for a while, but I’m moving between the inversions and that movement creates interest. That kind of a thing where it sounds like there’s more happening than actually is happening, harmonically. Because harmonically I’m just staying on F, but on the instrument I’m changing which harmony notes I’m highlighting.
So what I recommend is learning maybe an extra inversion for whatever chords you already know. Just some of the basic ones. Because you’d really want to focus on using them well and feeling free in what you have rather than having lots of different chord options. Because lots of different chord options doesn’t mean anything if you can’t apply them well. And then start taking pieces of the chords – I’m a big proponent of pieces of chords. Because full chords a lot of times it’s just too much – especially when you’re going for ideas. Because if you play everything all at once, you’ve kind of given away your hand and there’s nothing left to do. Which is why people get stuck on thinking that they need a new strumming pattern or a new picking pattern or whatever the new thing is it’s going to give them that inspiration. But when you have less happening inside the chord, there’s room kind of to go up and down if you’re just playing two notes out of the chord, you could go down to just playing one note at a time, which would be like a picking pattern. Or you could move up to strumming a full chord. And by by sitting in the middle kind of as your default experimentation zone, you have room to work on both sides. You could switch from a picking pattern and see what picking patterns might fit, you could play two notes… just a two note pinch out of the chord, and then you could go into strumming a full chord. And depending on the context of the song or what you’re trying to accomplish, you can use all three of those different plucking right hand approaches in the same fabrication that you’re creating for that musical harmony. You could play one piece of the song using a picking pattern because it’s a little bit more gentle and mellow because there’s less happening at once… And maybe you pump that up a little bit for the next bit of the song because you want it to be a little more driving. And all you could do there is you could just like expand to two note pinches… And then interspersed with that you could go to strumming… And having those three different options is musical freedom. You have some executive choices that you can make within the song.
But what you shouldn’t wait for is for somebody to give you permission to experiment with music. That’s yours to take. And all you have to do is reach out and grab it and just try some different things. And I know that, you know, hearing me talk about this it’s easy for me to say these things and for a beginner who’s, like kind of, really excited to jump up to that next musical plateau and be in that new space, it might seem kind of intimidating and like you don’t quite understand it. But if you sit and just try some of these different things, you really just experiment. I think that that is super valuable. And maybe to make this work for you, you need to create a specific time in your practice for expanding your musical choices. If that’s what works, that’s what works. That’s fabulous, you know, make it happen, make the time to explore those different possibilities. Because I really believe that the difference between a beginner player and an intermediate player is somebody who is beginning to have, kind of, the veil pulled back from their eyes of what music can be to them. Not necessarily what somebody else says music is because if you’re playing music the way someone else says it is, again you’re kind of following the beat of somebody else’s drum. And what you want to be able to do is create your own vision for music and in order to do that you need to have some musical choices that you are comfortable exploring yourself. And there are, of course, going to be different levels of exploration that somebody wants to embark upon. If, you know, you’re just enjoying the music, use this as an opportunity to enjoy it further. Find some things that you like the sound of, remember those things, maybe incorporate them down the road. If you’re really kind of biting at the bit, chomping at the bit – whatever they say – and looking to really improve your skills and maybe move ahead to becoming qualified as an ukulele teacher or something along those lines, maybe you’re practicing an hour a day of just musical exploration and creating things.
I guess we should probably take a minute to discuss melody as well. We’ve already covered kind of some things you can do with chords and rhythms, but melody is very appealing to people. They feel like it’s kind of the next step up from maybe where they are strumming chords and playing along with songs. And having that melody and being able to express the melody on the instrument is that next level. And so with melody, a lot of times what people start with is scales. And this is fine, this is good. I think it’s important to know your scales and to be comfortable in them. But a lot of times what happens is the scale gets learned as its own entity and you ask somebody, “Oh, well, do you know your scales?” “Oh yes, I know how to play a C scale from top to bottom and back!” And that’s good, but it’s not… The whole point of a scale is to show you kind of the way to having musical choices. Every note that’s contained in a scale is a possibility and what you want to do is develop ways to transition between the notes in a musically pleasing fashion. And if you just play a scale up and down, that’s all you’re going to know. That’s the only the only musical pattern you’re going to be familiar with.
So something that I really like to do in regards to scales and when I’m teaching scales is to encourage the student to sequence the scale. Because just like the ripped off melody rhythm idea forces you to use a different rhythm for your chordal work, by playing a scale in a certain sequence you’re forcing yourself to play the scale in a different kind of order where it’s not quite as linear and it’s not as easy to fall into the rut of memorizing just the finger pattern for the C scale, but only being able to do it in order. Because the entire goal of the scale is to give you places you could play some sort of a melody. Which is basically a lead line or a solo can all be considered a melody as well as the actual melody of a song. So what I mean by sequencing a scale is you could play a C scale up and down… That’s great, but you could also play it more interesting by using those same exact notes, only you’re applying kind of a number sequence to them. And so what the number sequence is here that I’m going to show you is one two three. From each node of the scale, right, the C scale is C D E F G A B and then back to C. From each of those notes, you’re going to play up three notes. But then when you go to the next note in the scale you come back down. So for instance, if I was sequencing it would sound like this… That is a three note sequence of the scale. And to put it in perspective I’ll call out the note names so you can kind of see what the pattern is. I’m going C D E and then I’m dropping down to D which is the second note in the scale and then I’m going to play three notes up from D. D E F. And then we have E in the scale: E F G. F G A. G A B. A B C. B C D. And then back to C would be the final note. So you’re creating a lot more notes in the sequence – you’re expanding the scale quite a bit – but now instead of just playing everything in order you’re stepping down every three notes. By doing that you’re creating something that’s a little bit more melody-like. A scale is not very melody like. The only melody I know that follows a C scale is this very classic example… That’s a descending C scale. But, in general, a melody is not going to just follow the scale. So you want to have your fingers used to playing in different directions. Up and down and around and skipping notes…
A further thing you can do with that one two three sequence is remove the middle note. And this is where you start actually making some melodic leaps. So now instead of going C D E you just go C E. C E and then D F. E G. F A. G B. A C. B D. And then back to C. So by doing that we’re creating bigger jumps which can be even more melody like. Very often a melody will use just one note movements up up or down, but between one note movements up or down and that skip where you’re skipping up a note, that is where I would say the majority of melody work happens. And of course, you can do the same thing with more notes. Instead of playing groups of three you could play groups of four. So instead of C D E you play C D E F… Something along those lines. And again, you could remove the middle notes so that you’re only getting the first note and the fourth note… And then all of a sudden something that’s very simple becomes a little bit more of a brain teaser and a little bit more outside the box of what you’re used to hearing.
I think this is super fascinating all of the different possibilities that you could possibly come up with just from rearranging the notes of a very simple scale. So that would be my my recommendation for the melody side of things as you go through and work on that. While we’re on the subject of melodies and musical choices and musical freedom I think it really makes sense to talk a little bit about improvising. And improvising can seem like this big scary thing that only is reserved for pro ukulele players. But it’s not. Improvising is basically everything I’ve been doing up to this point up to the sequencing point on the show. I’m just creating something from scratch. And usually you’re not even creating something from scratch. You’re creating something from a seed of something else that you already know. And that’s why if you sit and force yourself to experiment with these different things – whether it be different rhythms or different scale sequences – you’re creating kind of a muscle memory of playing those sounds. And by having those sounds in your internal music library and having experienced them yourself, you’re more qualified to regurgitate them at a later point. And that’s really all that improvising is, is becoming more and more comfortable with the sounds that you have previously discovered and assigning them to these new places and these new ideas. Basically putting everything that you’ve already worked on in a blender grinding it up and then pulling pieces out that seem to work in a certain situation. There’s not really a whole lot to it.
But jumping in and becoming involved with improvising can be very daunting because it seems like there’s nothing to go on. It’s like, “oh, what do you mean I’m just like pulling stuff out of thin air?” like “I don’t know how to do that!” And that is definitely the case at first. You do not know how to do that and you won’t know how to do that. But by sitting and again experimenting and trying different things you can figure out some options that you like. A great way to do this is with some sort of a backing track. If you actually go on Youtube and you search… Say you’ve learned how to play the C scale and you’ve experimented with some different sequences and maybe some different plucky chord variations of the simple chords you already know. If you search on Youtube for “backing track key of C” you’ll actually come up with lots and lots of options and you’ll have some different genres probably that people have incorporated into the backing tracks. And you can click and listen to one of these backing tracks and it’s basically just like a full band playing some sort of a song – it’s kind of a song – but without any kind of a melody or a lead part. I find that this is a lot of fun where you sit and you just create on top of this foundation that somebody else has created in a certain key. So if you want to improvise on the C scale you’re learning, find a key of C backing track in whatever genre floats your boat and sit down with it. Put it on repeat. Download it and put it in your iTunes on repeat and just sit and goof around with what you’ve been working on with the sequences of the different scales. You’ll find that you can play what you’ve practiced – be it the c scale in order or a certain sequence or anything else that you may have practiced in regards to the melody – but what really makes things tick is something called phrasing. And this is a little bit more the advanced side of intermediate, but I think for a beginner to kind of have at least an understanding of what is happening is really important.
So phrasing is when you change the expression of something. I can talk slowly like I’m pondering every word that I speak or I can really blast ahead like I know exactly what I’m going to be saying and use lots of words to fill the space to get where I’m going. It’s basically the presentation. So when you’re phrasing a melody the the most basic explanation I’ve I’ve heard of improvising is a call and response. Think of how you would have a conversation with somebody: “Hey! How’s it going? How are you today? What did you do today?” “Oh, today I went and power washed my roof.” “Oh, well, that’s great. I did that a few weeks ago…” Just that little interaction could be its own its own kind of melody. So again applying a very simple thing to a very simple thing let’s try that. “Oh, how are you? What did you do this weekend?” …or something along those lines. I’m going to use three notes I’m going to use open E-string, F, G and I’m going to see what I can come up with. Three notes and I’m going to try and mimic a conversation. It seems like it might be kind of hard and it might not come out very well, but at least I’m trying and I’m seeing what might work. And if I do a second pass it’ll be better and better and better and better the more times I do it. So let’s see… “How are you today?” “I’m doing fine.” “What did you do today?” “I power washed my roof.” It’s kind of silly and it’s kind of stupid, but just by following that conversation I don’t have to really provide anything from the ether of my mind as far as creating musical content. It’s already there. All I’m doing is taking my knowledge – which you probably don’t have yet, but that’s fine you will develop it as you go – all I’m using is just high and low, basically. And that’s what you should try and accomplish. Because as you get more comfortable with improvising you’ll begin to hear in advance kind of what you want to do and, like, “Oh, I want to be able to play this. It’s going to be these, these ,and these notes.” It’s kind of… You’re hearing into the future. And this is a more advanced level and I kind of have that – I can’t really turn it off – so what I was playing is maybe more sophisticated than what others would come up with right off the bat, but if you get familiar with high and low… What are the highs and lows in a question? “Oh, how are you today?” “How are you today?” maybe that would be your higher note. “How are you today?” If you can think of it in these very simple terms, all of a sudden you have content. You have things to to put into your improv.
So what you might try is come up with a conversation or take your favorite favorite scene out of a movie or your favorite speech or some some sort of, like, words that are just kind of bulk words. Kind of eloquent and expressive. Give yourself two or three – or maybe four if you’re feeling adventurous – notes that you can use for the highs and the lows of the conversation or the speech and try and follow it. And at first it’s going to be bad. But then if you do it again and again… Especially if you repeat it instead of going back to the beginning and starting with new notes, if you do it again with the same notes, you’re going to start coming up with ideas that you like. It’s like, “oh I like these notes together” or “I like this rhythm and how it works with this one note when I stay on the one note but just play it with this different rhythm.” This is really the end goal that you’re going for, is collecting these little nuggets of musical content that you like, that in the future you will be familiar with. And if you need to create a brand new fresh conversation as an improvisation, you’ll have things to lean on that you are already familiar with. So the more times you use these different ideas in different contexts and over different chords in different places, you’ll get more and more familiar with them. But that is the heart of a lot of people’s anxieties and problems is that they just don’t want to do anything wrong. And if you don’t do anything wrong how will you ever know how to do something right? Victor Wooten makes a very good observation of relating learning music to learning a language. And that when we’re learning to play music – especially as, like, adults learning to play an instrument – you want to do it right just boom from the get-go. And that’s fine, but think about how you learned to speak English. You were a baby, you were crawling around on the floor, you were making noises and making sounds and trying to copy people. And, you know, if you try and talk to a a very young child, it doesn’t make much sense a lot of the time. Well, if 95 percent of the world doesn’t like what you’re playing, that’s about on par… Or can’t understand what you’re playing, doesn’t really “get it,” that’s about on par with a child who’s learning to speak English. And music should be no different. From that standpoint we should give ourselves the opportunity to just kind of suck. Because when you’re starting a new skill – and everything new you do in music is a new skill. You might have a little bit of more context with it as you move along and you understand, like, “Oh, well, this new strum is kind of like this and I can reuse some of those physical motions I’ve already practiced,” but a lot of it is just straight up fresh and you have to start from zero – and in those situations all you can do is just put your nose to the grindstone and really go for it. Try these things out. Dare to suck, as James Hill says. Just aspire to have those musical choices available to you. I think that’s really the bottom line, is be brave enough to jump in and try out ways to give yourself musical choices.
So since a lot of that was kind of rambly and intangible sorts of ideas I was throwing at you, I will wrap this podcast up with some ideas for resources that you can use to move from that beginner phase to the intermediate phase. None of these that I’m going to throw out are actual lessons or lesson plans they’re just straight up materials that you can use to expand upon kind of what I talked about in this episode. So the first is a chord chart. Something that shows you multiple chord positions this is something that isn’t super readily available, but if you go to my website, liveukulele.com and you go to the chords page, you’ll find that there are some sheets that have multiple chord voicings for each chord. Keep in mind what I said earlier that quality over quantity. You want to make sure that you know as many ways as possible how to use that chord shape before you go loading up on a bunch of other ones that you don’t know how to use. I would way rather play with somebody who plays simply, but well using those simple ideas, than somebody who’s got all the chops and all the inventory of all the chords and the scales and all the stuff, but they don’t know how to apply them and to play them. And that is a problem, trust me. Even as, you know, kind of a semi-pro player who ends up jamming with people who are also on that level, there’s a lot of people who just, like, they have the stuff but they don’t really apply it well to music. And so you always want to put your very priority on playing music and expressing things as many ways as you can and as well as you can using what you have.
After that: scales. You don’t need a lot of scales. At very best – especially at the intermediate stage – the very best you need are the major scales. Don’t try and learn the modes. You maybe could look at the pentatonics if you really wanted to study, study, study, but again you need to be able to use this stuff practically by sequencing and trying to improvise and playing melodies with them. That is going to be more useful than trying to learn 101 different scale variations. Spend some time with the backing track in a certain key. If it gets boring, find a different style. There are lots of options; it’s the internet! And you don’t need an ukulele specific backing track too, by the way. You can use a guitar backing track or a piano backing track or any style. If you want to play over heavy metal, go for it! It actually might give you some different inspirations by playing over different genres that you maybe wouldn’t normally consider.
And finally, probably the best resource any of us have is music that already exists. If you’re playing ukulele and you’re not listening to music as well as you go, you’re going to have a hard time kind of coming up with ideas that you like because you won’t have much inspiration to draw from. It doesn’t have to be ukulele players, but it should be something with some musical substance that you can latch onto and gain some ideas from, whatever genre it may be. You know, listen to the melody lines, listen to what the guitar player is playing, listen to the drums. And see what you can glean from each of those sources so that when it’s your turn to come up with something to create some choices or to create an improvisation, that you have a little bit of something to work with. It’s like, if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to read a lot of books. If you want to play music, you got to listen to a lot of music. It’s really one of the best resources we have. And you can try and emulate these things as well. Just because you can’t play the song exactly like the song is on the recording, you can still rip off some of the ideas. Like, “Oh, I really like what the guitar player is playing, but I don’t really know how to play all those funny chords and I don’t know exactly what they’re doing.” But how can you approximate it? How can you use what musical background you have at the time to give yourself a little bit more to go on?
So hopefully that’s useful for some beginners who are ready to ascend to the next level of their musical journey. Like I said before, beginner and intermediate, advanced, all these terms and labels don’t really serve much of a purpose other than making sure that we’re on the same page as far as learning and teaching. In general, I feel like I’ve kind of covered some of the the main concerns that I hear from folks who are wondering what to do next and wondering how they can improve their ukulele playing.
Thank you for listening. Please go check out liveukulele.com. You will find chord charts there and scale diagrams like I was talking about a little bit earlier. Both of those can help you have some materials to work off of, though remember you just want to be creating music with them as much as possible. I also have a handful of ebooks if you want to take a deeper dive into some technique or some chord theory and chord application in the form of shapes. All of these things the proceeds go directly to paying my bills so always will appreciate any of that kind of support you feel like throwing my way. Please subscribe to the podcast. New episodes come out every first and third Saturday of the month. Once again, I’m Brad Bordessa and I do hope this upcoming week treats you well. Take care of one another, be safe, wear your mask, all of that good stuff. We’re all in it together. When in doubt or having a bad day get out your ukulele and just play some music, have some fun with it. Because really, that is one of the best cures any of us have who are playing music and are living in that world. It’s really really a gift to be able to go to that place and bring back some happiness with us. Aloha.