Higgs and I demonstrate some ways you can integrate seamlessly into a musical situation and become the perfect backup uke player.
Edited for clairity
Aloha. Welcome to The Live Ukulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa and I’m joined this week by co-host, Mr. Ryan Higgins aka Higgs. And we’re going to talk to you about playing nicely with others. A lot of times you roll up to an ukulele jam, or even like a real heavy-duty gigging situation and, you know, maybe there’s one guy there who just kind of hasn’t gotten the memo of how to integrate and play with other people. And hopefully we can give you some tips today and show you some examples of how to listen better, how to interact a little smoother, and how to find your place in a group where there might be more than one ukulele player or more than one instrument in your range.
And so I figured I would bring Ryan on board. We’re actually posted out… He’s on the porch of my place, I’m inside my place. Got the social distance on. How’s it going, Ryan?
RH: Doing pretty good, man. Pretty good.
BB: I’ve been playing with Ryan for… geez probably not 10 years, but getting there. We’re counting our way towards that number. And along the way we’ve kind of learned to interact as people but also as musicians and how to understand where the other one is going. And Ryan’s probably one of the people I have the best musical rapport with. And so to have him here on location to give you some practical examples seemed like it would be super relevant. So without any further ado… It might be a little noisy. We are in the middle of the country with lawn mowers and chickens and dogs and everything else, but hopefully the content remains useful and original.
So I think the first thing that people often forget is that they don’t always have to play. If you’re in a group and you don’t know what’s going on, don’t play. If you can carry your weight and paddle the canoe and lend something to what is happening, then by all means you know jump in and add your voice to the mix. But if you don’t, it’s very easy to derail something if you don’t know what’s going on and if you’re playing the wrong chords or if your timing’s off. So a lot of times the best way you can interact with a musical situation is just don’t interact at all. Just listen. Just see what’s going on. I know Ryan and I will, on, you know, certain occasions when we’re playing with other people that we’re not as familiar with, you know, they jump right in and are playing all over the top of us and they don’t actually know what’s going on, you know, look at each other… It’s like, okay… I thought we were running the song.
But that’s really the best place to start. I was making some notes about this and I wrote down one thing and then right below it: “don’t play if you don’t know what’s going on.” And that seemed like the best place to possibly start. So that’s honestly… That’s how we’ll start jamming right? I mean, we’ll… One of us will play a song and if the other of us doesn’t know the song, has no idea what if it’s not a song that we’ve, like, rehearsed before, we just stay completely out of the way until the progression’s gone around a couple times or it’s clear what’s been established and what we can kind of hang on to. And, I don’t know, fit in with. Otherwise we might be doing the wrong thing right off the bat.
RH: Yeah, for sure. It’s like, you got to get familiar with it first. Otherwise you’re just kind of like shooting in the dark. And sometimes you might hit a right note and it’ll be like ooh, but then half the time you might not and it’ll be like oh. Yeah, it’s better to familiarize yourself first.
BB: And once you know what’s happening. Once you’re kind of in the groove, you’ve understood with your ears what’s happening. I think the biggest thing to talk about is dynamics. Because there’s lots of other tricks you can use, but dynamics is really where you’re going to make or break your integration with the music. Would you mind playing something, Ryan? Just throw us, like, the first verse of one of your tunes?
BB: Okay. That’s great. Love your lyrics, as always. That’s obviously Ryan’s song. He’s leading that. He is kind of the mastermind of that, with the ukulele playing and his vocals. And no matter what I play to complement that, I’d never want to be louder than him. And of course, where we’re miked and we’re in different rooms, the volumes might not completely reflect, but I think if we exaggerate a little bit, we can bring the point across.
But try it again and I’m gonna play with you and maybe explain kind of how I’m thinking about it and some do’s and don’ts.
BB: So if I’m playing like this, I’m probably playing too loud. If I’m just really banging on it. It actually feels physically uncomfortable for me at this point in my musicianship to jump in and to be playing so much over the top of Ryan where I’m playing loud enough that I can’t hear him in my own ears. And so what would be a lot more appropriate is you come in with just a soft touch. If you’re gonna – especially if you’re gonna just match the chords – he’s already got that pretty much handled. So if I’m gonna add to it and create like a chorus effect or there’s more going on, I would want to just lay really back and create a softer tone. And a lot of times you can do that with, like, strumming with your thumb instead of with your finger.[Music]
So just real, super light touch is what I’m going for. So that I compliment instead of step on top of. Even though I’m playing quietly, something I can do is catch the emphasis where Ryan’s also kind of bringing out the rhythm of the song. I can play a little stronger in those places, even though the overall sound of what I’m doing is softer. He’s got that “boom cha” that he’s playing with the rhythm. If I try and match that a little bit, that would be one place where I might play a little bit louder so I can help keep the emphasis going and kick the song along. Or if I’m playing everything else kind of short and muted, I might let those emphasis notes ring out.
Cool, yeah. So dynamics is probably for me the biggest offense somebody could make when they’re playing is they just have no consideration for others. But if you come across somebody who is responsible with their volume and with their dynamics, then it’s easy to integrate. And a lot of times, dynamics can be volume, but also I sort of think of it as also the touch and the kind of way you’re hitting the notes, right? Because you’re… You don’t want to… It’s like when you’re singing lead versus harmony. Do you feel like there’s a difference in tonal quality when you sing lead versus harmony?
RH: Yeah. Maybe not tone quality but definitely in dynamics and volume and… sometimes tone quality. Sometimes you… Yeah, when you’re singing backup or harmonies or something you usually don’t want to put as much of your full voice into it. Unless it calls for that. Like different settings call for different you know parts of your voice. But I would say, for the most part, um if you’re singing lead, you know, you’ve got a certain… You’re usually projecting um a little bit more than if you’re singing harmonies or even like doubles or any kind of thing that is not supposed to be the forefront. You’re kind of holding back just a little bit.
BB: That’s a good word for it is projecting. Because when you’re playing that main line ukulele rhythm part or main line lead part, you’re projecting, you’re carrying everybody. Whereas if you’re just… If you’re the second or third ukulele player, you’re trying to not project because you don’t want to cover that up. So that would be a good way to think about it as well, I think.
RH: I think dynamics is… I agree. It’s probably one of the most important things. I would say like, in music, the beauty of music is there aren’t really any hard, fast rules. So in certain genres dynamics aren’t really a thing and that’s fine. Like if you’re gonna play, you know, some straight like garage punk. It’s probably not gonna be a whole lot of dynamics there. It’s usually pretty, you know, just noisy. But that’s the sound that it is. So I think dynamics is not just like quiet and loud and… But it’s knowing your – who you’re playing with, knowing the genre, and kind of what it calls for at any given time. I guess it’s all dynamics, but it’s not always like as subtle or, you know, play softly here, play loud here. Sometimes it’s just listening and knowing when to belt it and when not to belt it.
BB: And so a good rule of thumb, kind of the rule of thumb, is that if you can’t hear the lead person, you’re playing too loud. And if you back way off and you still can’t hear the lead person, you should try and convince everybody in the band to also play quieter.
RH: Shut up, drummer! You’re too loud!
BB: I think you can put lots of different words to what we’re discussing today because one thing affects another. You can have dynamics on one hand and the loudness or softness of your part, but also, if you were to play a different part or play less notes, it might inherently be softer or quieter. And so you don’t need to actually play it as softly because it’ll come across as quieter. You know, if I was playing… um if Ryan’s playing chords and I’m in the background playing like a…[Music]
Just by nature of what I’m playing, it kind of comes across a little bit softer so I can dig in a little more just because of the actual content of what I’m putting across. And so that kind of brings me to the next point that I think is super vital and is something that I just automatically reach for when I’m playing with somebody, is that you differentiate your parts.
BB: When you have – especially with two ukulele players – if you’re both playing the same chord at the same time, it gets muddy and you overdo that one frequency spectrum where those notes are living. You overdo that very quickly when you have two ukuleles or more. And so – especially with the same instrument – it’s really good to try and get out of the other guy’s way. And so Ryan and I were jamming a little bit earlier and if you do this enough and you think about it beforehand, you think about how you’re going to execute and how you, I guess, should quote “behave” while you’re jamming with people. It’ll become kind of second nature. But I was playing a song and as soon as he jumped in, he wasn’t just playing the same chords I was playing. He just kind of instinctively went up to the next voicing of chords so that he was a little bit out of my note range and was in a different place. So maybe we can demonstrate that and the difference between playing on top of each other note-wise and then trying to intentionally differentiate between the parts that we’re playing. Kind of kind of following the same rhythm and still playing chords, but using different voicings to create a little bit of separation.[Music]
So first I’m going to listen because I don’t know what he’s doing yet. So if I was to play the same thing, it doesn’t sound bad at all, but it’s a lot of that. But if I move up, it creates a sense of space. Whoops. And if I use my dynamics I might palm mute a little bit to bring myself down even more. And I could even go up to a new voicing.
RH: With the roosters and everything!
BB: So use different voicings and stay out of the other guy’s way.
RH: That’s a big one.
BB: What is your approach for thinking about how do I stay out of somebody’s way. Do you have like a thought process you go through, like, oh, they’re there so I should be here? Like, how have you learned to incorporate other chord voicings? Because I know you said earlier that you didn’t used to do this and it was a learned skill – which it is for, you know, most people. You have to learn to hear it and learn to stay out of the way. What is your process for that?
RH: Yeah. So it took me a while. I was always that guy that just looked at the other person’s hands and like, oh they’re playing that chord, I better just follow it. And I guess that’s how everyone is when you’re first starting out. You’re just trying to learn the chords and you’re not as comfortable, like, diverting from the path of the shape that’s going on or whatever. So I think it’s… For me it just was getting more comfortable with different shapes, like finding, oh, there’s more than one way to play a C chord. And then, oh, there’s more than one way to play a D chord, or like any major chord. Oh, and any minor chord. And pretty much every chord you can think of, there’s multiple ways. And usually at least two, if not three ways, that you can find pretty easily if you uh kind of know your fretboard somewhat and know what uh, you know, what shape to play.
So that was my uh sort of learning process. And then from there I think it’s just jamming with others enough to where you can kind of figure out uh your own thing. With two people it’s not too hard usually because you can find, you know, you have a lot of options besides what the other guy’s playing. But it gets even more complicated when there’s like, you know, three or four people all playing stringed instruments and you’re all kind of vying for your for your spot. I found this actually… I grew up singing a lot more than I grew up playing. So I would find this often in trying to find harmonies is that, you know, there’s someone playing the – singing – the main melody and so you automatically usually you’ll go to the third and you’ll be like, aha, I found the nice third. But then when you have three people or four people and someone’s singing the melody and the third already, then you’re like oh, shoot, now I gotta really work. And you try to find the next one, usually it’s the fifth or, you know, some other harmony that sounds good. But it’s like, the more parts there are, the more crowded it gets on the highway. You gotta kind of find your lane.
BB: Blinkers please!
RH: Yeah. I’ma stay in my lane, don’t come in here.
BB: And so is that basically your process? You just you go… You find your lane where there’s nobody and you can just floor it from there? Like when you’re playing chords on the ukulele and you’re looking for that alternate part?
RH: I would say so. Yeah, I’m not super complicated with it. I usually look at what they’re playing and listen to what they’re playing and then I’ll be like, what can I play that fits with that but it’s different?
BB: And a lot of times with voicings. Voicings highlight the highest note, but actually the notes that are lower in the chord you are repeating. Which is why another thing that I tend to do a lot is I play less because the notes are already covered. Like if you were to strum a C chord. You know, that’s just open C that we’ve got there. If I was to play the next voicing of C. It would be like the F-shaped C up on the seventh fret. Nine, seven, eight, seven. The lower three notes. We don’t have we don’t have the G because that’s not in the first shape, but otherwise you basically have the lower three notes are already in the range of the open C. The only new note that we’re getting is that high E on the seventh fret. And so as I play that, I can keep that in mind is I don’t really need the lower notes.
And if I was just to play – go ahead and strum do a C strum thing. Make it groovy, man! There we go. So if Ryan’s playing that, I could just add the E note and it would kind of bring the openness. And that’s covering the same-ish sonic ground of me playing the whole chord. By playing the whole chord, there’s more substance to it, but also a lot of the notes are repeated. So that’s something to keep in mind is you don’t have to play the whole chord. Because you can just take a piece a piece here and a piece there. Especially if you’re the second ukulele or the third ukulele or the 40th ukulele. God knows you don’t need to add more of those same notes.
That’s where playing less can be really powerful.
So all you do for that is you just hold the next chord invoicing that… The chord… The invoicing! Invoicing. Invoicing, not a voicing, not an inversion. It’s an invoicing. You would just hold part of the chord and play part of the chord. You hold the chord and then just select a couple of strings out of that. Usually it’s going to be the higher strings if you want to highlight those higher notes and then you can just play the higher notes out of the chord, whether it be one note, or two notes, or three notes, or the whole thing. But they all have their place and they all can, if you use them correctly, they can help keep you in your lane.
Okay well let’s take what we’ve kind of covered so far and play an example all the way through and not project but still support what Ryan is doing by following his rhythm and his harmonies.
RH: All right.[Music]
BB: And so in this case I’m actually trying to lay low by playing lower notes in Ryan’s chords. Kind of hiding behind what he’s playing by staying on the low end. That’s kind of a low g thing.
Great. That’s one of Ryan’s originals called “The letdown.” If you like what you hear it’s on iTunes and Spotify and all those good places.
Playing through that with you and kind of paying attention to what what I was doing, the parts that you were playing, the different sections of the song, like the verse and the chorus and the pre-chorus. That is what stuck out to me as being the places that I wanted to… It changed my approach for how I wanted to support what you were doing. Like in the first verse, I realized the playing higher voicings thing went out the window because in that situation I wanted to be way softer than Ryan, but I also didn’t want to, like, create too much interest right off the bat. Because when you’re playing with just two ukuleles you kind of have to guard your hand a little bit because if you lay it all out there right off the bat, you know, there’s nowhere else to go. Your dynamics are maxed out, your harmonic interest is maxed out. There’s nowhere to expand to. So if I was to right off the bat… That’s like, I want to reserve that for kind of the height of the song. And so at the very beginning, I was sort of copying his chords but then also leaning on the lower notes of the chords and not playing the higher notes. So letting him hit the highest notes of the chords and I was sitting on the lower notes. And again, that’s kind of a low-G thing. Because I have the low-G, I can almost like fake being a guitar or a little bit more of the bass player in the band. Because I noticed that when you play, you stay off those notes and I’m kind of the opposite. I lean on those notes and try and not play the high notes.
RH: Oh, gotcha.
BB: So that’s kind of interesting. So that’s all I’m doing is I’m just like, literally I’m playing just the top three strings closest to the ceiling. And the mix is that I’m gonna sit back and you’re not gonna hear my part as much because your ear always hears the highest notes. But then as the song went along, it was more appropriate to start playing a little piece chord with the higher notes to kind of spread it out, create a little bit of interest, but still not bring my dynamics up all the way as the backup ukulele guy. And then, like, for the chorus. That’s where you want to have the most kind of “ahhhh.”
RH: Yeah, kind of explodes.
BB: Yeah, you want to leave the last little bit for the chorus or even the last chorus. If you blow it all on the first chorus then you don’t have anywhere to go later on in the song. But if you can kind of stage it so that your rocket stages explode at different times, you can go and create more… A little bit more of a musical statement and differentiate the parts. So that’s something that I noticed. Is there anything that you notice as the lead guy kind of with me at your back?
RH: I think it really goes back to the dynamics thing. Like you’re saying, you don’t wanna even in the context of like playing underneath someone or kind of following someone else that’s doing lead, you don’t wanna just play the same thing. Even if you find something that works for one part, you don’t want to just play that the whole time because that’s gonna kind of still be not dynamic and might be kind of boring after a while. So what I appreciate about you is that you’re always kind of looking for something new to layer the sound with instead of… And it ranges from like you know playing staccato to legato like you’ll just strum notes and then you’ll kind of palm mute them or pluck them and make it a little more just interesting. And I think there’s a good way to do that. I think it can easily become like – sound like – you’re just experimenting. If you do too much of that.
BB: Yes. Yeah, I was gonna say.
RH: You know, um I’ve worked with some musicians over the years that it feels like they’re always just trying to, like, show off their musicianship in different ways. And so I think, you know, that’s kind of off-putting as a musician or as someone that’s part of a group. You don’t want people, you know, just showboating or messing around if, you know… You don’t want the sound to distract from the entire whole. Like I think all the parts need to kind of add to the whole instead of um subtracting from it or or trying to overdo it or out do the whole entire song. Yeah, finding that balance between, you know, just playing the same thing and uh doing all the things. You want to find a few different options that are interesting. And I think you do that really well.
BB: Oh, thanks. But yeah I think that’s a good point is that if you find something that’s good, don’t just throw it away because you want to find something new. And sort of as you play the supportive role a little bit more, I think you kind of create a memory for stuff that worked and you kind of like have… There’s a little bit of a cache in your memory where you save the part that you used earlier in the song and then you bring it back. And I think for for somebody who’s just getting started with this, the best way to approach it is verse, chorus. If you can come up with a part – a little thing for the verse, you know, maybe it’s maybe it’s your lower notes, maybe you’re playing quieter, you’re just supporting the chords that the other person is playing. And then for the chorus you have a little bit more dynamics. You’re playing the whole chord, you’re playing a higher voicing. That would be good, but then maybe you go back to it. Because if you continue searching for a new thing every single time you go around, it’s gonna be less cohesive.
BB: Yeah, that was what came to my mind as you were talking about that. You know, when you have something that works – even if you don’t love it. If it works, you can differentiate by having those separate parts.
RH: Yeah. And I think there is something to be said about experimenting a little bit as you’re kind of trying to find what does work. You know, especially if you’re just like at a jam session. You know, it’s one thing if you’re, you know, playing a gig that you’ve already practiced a bunch and then you’re like, oh, I’m gonna try this. Whoops, that didn’t work! In front of 200 people. But yeah, if you’re just kind of figuring the song out for the first time, I think it’s great to try a bunch of different things and, you know, kind of look at different angles of how you can create a unique part.
BB: And I would um almost go as far as to say that you want to think about it kind of as an arranger or as a producer. It’s like if you’re listening to a Beatles record. You know, there’s so many guitar parts that they layered on those albums. How are they not on top of each other? How are they differentiated? And that would be some good inspiration in and of itself. But kind of, on the fly, I think your job as the supportive person is to think, like, arrangement-wise, how how am I fitting in? And you can experiment within those parameters as well.
One thing that we kind of haven’t talked about that I think is also very valuable is the riff mode of of playing backup. Where you’re kind of, on ukulele for me at least, it ends up being… It’s almost like a bass part that I’m plucking on the ukulele. You wanna try “Living on the Rock”? And I can kind of demonstrate what I’m talking about for that. So what I’m doing is I’m gonna be leaning on notes around the chords and you can do this just with the chords too where you do chord movements and you add a note or subtract a note. Basically you add or remove a finger in the chord shape. But in this case I’m probably going to be adding more notes than that. But it’s all playing around the chord, just trying to create a little, kind of, motif that convinces you that there’s a bass playing along.[Music]
And so for that. That’s a very stylistic reggae kind of a thing. It’s not just that I’m trying to copy the bass, that’s actually a part in a reggae song is the guitar in the back doing some sort of little riff that follows the chords like that. And so that happens. Let’s try it again. You want to do the next verse or the chorus into the next verse? And then I’ll try and do something that’s a little bit less reggae-esque. Let’s see if I can come up with something. It might be hard. My brain is hard-wired to play the reggae riff part.
RH: Oh yeah, gotta have that reggae.[Music]
BB: And so for something like that I’m realizing… That’s less reggae. It’s a little bit more of like a… Is that a motif kind of thing?
RH: I think so. Yeah.
BB: Where I’m repeating it. But because I’m repeating it, like, maybe the first time your ear is caught by what I’m doing. But once you realize that that’s what I’m playing, I kind of fade into the background. Even if I’m playing something that’s like very different and kind of seems like it’s kind of a lead, I think by the repetition, if I’m just sitting in the back dynamic wise, just from the repetition you’re going to slowly kind of forget about what I’m doing and your attention is going to go back to Ryan.
RH: That’s a good point.
BB: Just by nature of the repetition. Which is why, like Ryan was saying earlier, you don’t want to just diddle and experiment the whole time because that’s distracting.
RH: Yeah the ear kind of gets tickled and it’s like what’s that going on over there? That melody? And why is it changing every four beats?
BB: Yeah. So if you can find something that works, that kind of does the trick, that expresses maybe a counter melody inside the song. And then kind of stick with it and just repeat it. Because that’s, you know, your role is not to play a solo while Ryan is singing; no one’s gonna appreciate that. But by having that repeating motif going on, then it becomes less of a solo and it’s just a filler. I hate to say “filler,” but…
RH: Yeah, it’s like an intricate part of the song.
Yeah and I would say too for those that are like kind of real beginners or just don’t have a super wide knowledge of chords yet and don’t want to, you know, haven’t been able to find different voicings or whatever, sometimes just uh changing what your right hand is doing can can really help too. Even if you’re playing the same chord, you know, instead of just doing like a chank or a strum, you could just finger pick it or just pick like a couple notes. Like you could stay on the same chords and just play it a different way and it might still sound different enough and cool enough to not have to change the voicing even.
BB: Yeah. That’s a super good point is that, a chord is like – it’s a built-in playground of notes that work. And so you can create melodies inside that.
So hopefully that’s a little bit of inspiration and ideas. I know we’re living in a time that doesn’t facilitate group gatherings of ukulele players so well at the moment. But it still applies. All of this kind of instantaneous arranging and knowing where you fit and how to find your place. It all does apply when you’re playing along with your iPod or playing along with the radio or anything that you do. If you’re not the lead part or there’s other tracks or, you know, you’re playing with it along with a song or you’re recording a song or whatever you’re doing, you have an opportunity to approach it with the supportive ukulele player critical mind. And just because there’s not a group of people to necessarily play with, there are still possibilities.
So I want to thank Ryan for jumping on and joining me today, helping me kind of showcase and demonstrate some of these different ideas. It’s nice to have a real person to bounce things off of instead of just recording yourself and doubling tracks that’s not as spontaneous or fun.
RH: Yeah. True. Right on, dude. Yeah, it’s always better in person – with others.
BB: Yes, better in person …from afar.
RH: Yes. Socially distanced version.
BB: Thanks for tuning in. The Live Ukulele Podcast is published on the first and third Saturday of every month. Please subscribe on your favorite podcasting app or service. And for more information and resources and ebooks and good stuff like that, check out liveukulele.com.
Once again, Ryan Higgins, aka Higgs. You can find him on iTunes and Spotify under Higgs. I’m Brad Bordessa. Have a lovely week and a lovely month and catch you in the next episode.