Quick Lesson – 1979 (Smashing Pumpkins) on Ukulele

I’ve been working with one of my Zoom ukulele students on a bunch of 90s alternative rock songs recently, and we discovered that “1979,” by The Smashing Pumpkins, works really well on uke. I recorded this quick tutorial during our lesson. You’ll see the chord fingerings, strum patterns, and also some tabs. I create custom song pages like this one in lessons, usually on the fly while we listen to the song together.

Coffee Shop Jam – June 24, 2018

I’m so proud of all the student performers this past weekend! It was a great return for the Coffee Shop Jam, this past Sunday June 24, 2018 at Local Burger in Keene, NH.

The Coffee Shop Jam is an informal performance opportunity I organize for my students, and this time around, we had 12 student performers who played ukulele and guitar.

Some students performed totally solo, some played duets with me. At the end, we played a couple of big group songs.

The Coffee Shop Jam gives students an exciting (and scary) goal to work toward, and based on everybody’s feedback, a blast was had by all.

The next event isn’t scheduled yet, but I’m aiming to do it again in the fall, possible in October. Keep practicing, everybody!

Here’s the song list from last Sunday:

Crazy Train
Closing Day (original)
CM, guitar

Blitzkrieg Bop
Folsom Prison Blues
CT, ukulele

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
WI & TD, guitar

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
AP, ukulele

Take Me to the Water (original)
Tell Me The Future (original)
NT & TD, guitar

Make It With You
JM & TD, guitar

Aloha ‘Oe
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Take Me Home, O Hawaii (original)
SH & TD, ukulele

Dear Prudence
JS & TD, guitar

Marry Me
Little Talks
Safe & Sound
OS & TD, guitar

Message in a Bottle
Greasy Coat
KB & TD, guitar

LK & TD, guitar

Johnny B. Goode
Everybody, guitar & ukulele

Which Ukulele To Start With?

Originally published May 17, 2011

Ukuleles come in four sizes. From smallest to largest, they are: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.

I recommend getting a tenor. Sopranos are usually what you’ll see in a store, but for adult-sized hands, especially if you’re a beginner, sopranos are just too tiny!

You’ll have a lot easier time with a tenor. The neck and body are just a little longer, making it easier to hold and fit your fingers between the frets. And it’s still small enough to be portable and encourage you to pick it up whenever you see it.

The soprano, concert, and tenor are all tuned GCEA, which is the standard, traditional uke tuning, while the baritone is tuned lower, to DGBE. The baritone feels and sounds more like a small guitar than a uke, which is a nice touch of variety if you’re already a connoisseur of the instrument, but most uke enthusiasts start off with one of the smaller sizes.

Brand & Cost
As far as brand and cost, I think a beginner can get started just fine for under $200. Aim for a tenor from Kala or even better, a Fluke or Flea, and you’re all set.

If the instrument is for a child under 12, or if you just want to dip your toe, get a $30 soprano from Mahalo. It’s playable, but the tuning’s not reliable, and remember, the soprano size is tiny and may be hard to manage for adult hands.

On the upside, the $30 Mahalo comes in a variety of bright colors, which is kinda fun, and you can take it to the beach without worrying about damaging your investment.

Unfortunately, most local stores don’t carry much more than a couple of sopranos, if that. Try to shop local, but you may well end up online. Craigslist is a good resource for used instruments, and unlike eBay, you can actually see what you’re buying in person before you pay.

Hope that helps!

How to Read Chord Charts

Originally published June 2, 2011

A chord chart usually contains the lyrics of the song, with chord names placed over the word or syllable where the the chord changes. For instance:

     F          G         C               F
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
     F        G               C
The answer is blowin' in the wind

The easiest way to use a chord chart is to strum a chord and then sing or recite the lyrics. Hold the chord you just played until you arrive at the next chord.

Normally, each chord will last one measure, or four beats. If the chord lasts two measures, rather than writing it twice, I’ll often place a (2) after the chord name. That means “two measures,” which comes to eight beats.

Sometimes you’ll have to change chords in the middle of a measure. If a chord lasts only half a measure (two beats), you’ll see a (1/2) after the chord.

In my chord charts, I’ll sometimes give you numeric fingerings for chords. These might look like:

A       2 1 0 0

From left to right, those numbers refer to the fourth, third, second, and first strings. It’s the same order you see the strings when you look down at your uke.

This chord is fingered “Second fret on fourth string, first fret on third string, and leave first and second strings open.”

Finally, sometimes in the spirit of simplicity, you’ll find a chord chart that doesn’t include chord durations or fingerings. In these cases, you’ll just need to listen to the original recording to get a feel for how long each chord lasts. Following along with the words can help, too.

All right, grab your uke songbook (or favorite website) and get strumming!

Easy Chords

Originally published June 2, 2011

One of the awesome things about ukulele is how easy some of the chords are. Learn these four chords and you’ll have what you need to get started on lots of songs.

C major

   o o o
   │ │ │ │
   │ │ │ │
   │ │ │ ☻
 3 └─┴─┴─┘
A minor

     o o o 
   │ │ │ │
   ☻ │ │ │
 2 ├─┼─┼─┤		
   │ │ │ │
F major

     o   o
   │ │ ☻ │
   ☻ │ │ │
 2 ├─┼─┼─┤		
   │ │ │ │

   │ │ ☻ │
   │ ☻ │ ☻
 2 ├─┼─┼─┤		
   │ │ │ │

How To Read Chord Diagrams
The vertical dotted lines are your strings, the horizontal lines are your frets. It should look like your uke is standing up vertically with the headstock in the air. The black dots show where to put your fingertips, the open circles are for open strings.

How to Learn a New Chord:
1. Tip of finger, close to the fret wire.
2. Pluck each string individually.
3. Adjust until all notes ring clear, then repeat.

Even though diagrams may place the dots evenly in-between two frets, you always want to slide up closer to the higher fret. If the dot is in between the 2nd and 3rd piece of fret wire, move up closer to #3. It takes less pressure to get a clear sound if you’re closer to the target fret.

Switching Chords
Start with C major, then A minor, then F major, then G7. Notice where there are shared notes – you can sometimes keep a finger or two in place from chord to chord.

That’s it! Thanks for reading all the way to the end of the tutorial. Here’s a bonus ukulele chord for the road:

G major

   │ │ │ │
   │ ☻ │ ☻
 2 ├─┼─┼─┤		
   │ │ ☻ │

How To Tune

Originally published June 8, 2011

G C E A is the tuning for tenor, concert, and soprano ukuleles. Baritones are tuned D G B E.

Those are the string names if you’re counting from fourth string (the highest off the ground) to first string (the closest to the ground).

I recommend getting an electronic tuner. Tuning by ear is a great skill and developing your ear will help you tremendously in the long run, but at the beginning, it’s more important to get your uke sounding good, fast.

Using an Electronic Tuner
My favorites are the small electronic tuners that clip on to your headstock. They’re portable and they don’t get distracted by loud noises in the room.

Here’s how it works: you clip the tuner on to your headstock, turn it on, and pluck a string. The device picks up the string’s vibration through the body and tells you what note you’re playing, and whether it’s perfectly in tune or not. Usually there’s a little needle that swings left when you’re too low or right when you’re too high. You’ll turn your tuning peg to adjust until the needle points straight up.

Quick footnote #1: make sure the note name displayed matches the target note for that string. G for 4th string. C for 3rd string, E for 2nd string, A for 1st string. It’s possible to get perfectly in tune…to the wrong note!

Quick footnote #2: also make sure you’re turning the tuning peg for the correct string. It doesn’t help your G string if you turn the peg for the C string.

Tuning by Ear
Also known as “relative tuning,” this technique involves fretting a note on one string, and comparing it to the open string next door, then adjusting the tuning pegs so they match. You should seriously get an electronic tuner, it’s a lot easier for a beginner.

Still with me? Ok, let’s do it…

We’ll start with 4th string, the one farthest off the ground. Let’s assume this string is in tune, and use it as our reference for 3rd string. Whenever you turn a tuning peg, remember to TURN IT SLOWLY. A little bit makes a big difference.

1. Play 4th string open. Now play 3rd string with your finger on 7th fret. Compare the two notes. Adjust the 3rd string until they sound like the same note. Now we’ll use 3rd string as the reference to tune 2nd string.

2. Fret 3rd string on the 4th fret, and compare it to the open 2nd string. Adjust 2nd string until they’re in tune. Now we’ll use 2nd string as the reference to tune the 1st string.

3. Fret 2nd string on the 5th fret, and then play 1st string open. Adjust 1st string until both notes sound the same.

What to Listen For
When you compare the fretted note and the open string, listen for a “wah-wah-wah” sound. That beating / pulsing sound is the difference in frequency between the two notes.

As they get closer to being in tune, that pulsing sound should slow down until you don’t hear it anymore. If you’re turning the peg the wrong way, the beat will speed up.

You can also ask yourself, does the string I’m tuning sound “higher” or “lower” than the reference string? If it’s too high, you need to loosen the peg. If it’s too low, you want to tighten it.

2 Chord Songs

Originally published June 4, 2013

Here are a few sketches of songs that use 2 chords. I’ve written them out with C and G7, but if you read further, I’ll suggest some other chords and try and explain why they work so well together.

Jambalaya	                C...G7...C		
Honky Tonkin'	                C.........G7		
Deep In the Heart of Texas  	C...G7...C  
Down in the Valley	        C...G7...C	
Row Row Row Your Boat	        C.........G7 C	
Three Blind Mice	        C G7 C		
Dreidl 			        C...G7...C	
Hokey Pokey		        C...G7...C	
Iko Iko			        C...G7...C	
Tom Dooley		        C...G7...C

Tonic and Dominant Chords
A little music theory: in a particular key, the TONIC chord is the one that’s the home base. In the key of C, the tonic chord is C. The DOMINANT chord creates tension and interest before you go back home to the tonic. In the key of C, the dominant chord is G7. They’re also referred to by Roman Numerals: Tonic is I, Dominant is V.

2-Chord Pairs to Practice
These chords appear together a lot, because they’re the tonic and dominant chords in their respective keys.

I     V
C   G7
D   A7
F   C7
G   D7
A   E7
Bb  F7

Changing Keys
To change keys, just substitute these chord pairs for the C and G7 listed above. It’ll still sound like the song, just a little higher or lower than before. Changing keys is an important skill for singers – a female singer usually needs a different key than a male singer, and vice versa.

More Songs
There are LOTS of other songs to add to the list up top, including folk songs, country songs, holiday songs, and children’s songs. Even some rock ‘n roll. Keep your eyes and ears open and you’ll find there are a surprising number of really simple, easy-to-play songs you already know the words to.

New Hampshire Ukulele Picnic

Originally published Aug 5, 2013

In honor of the first annual New Hampshire Ukulele Picnic, I’ve made a ukulele video of my song “Driving To Georgetown.” You can watch it here. The festival is Saturday August 24, 2013 at Greeley Park in Nashua NH from noon to 4pm. I’ll be performing and also teaching uke workshops. The full schedule of events is up at the NH Ukulele Picnic Facebook page.

Workshops at NH Ukulele Picnic

Originally published Sept 10, 2013

What a day in Greeley Park! After my onstage solo uke set, I taught classes on chords, strumming, and fingerpicking. Student demographics varied wildly, from little kids to seniors, from total beginners to members of the bands who’d played earlier during the ukulele festival.

I knew it would be impossible in that situation to give everybody exactly what they need (can you ever do that, anyway?), but I tried to make sure everyone got SOMETHING they could use in each workshop, whether they were picking up the ukulele for the first time, or already could play, sing, and jam comfortably.

Big thanks to my fellow teacher Amy Conley for bringing her tent and basket of loaner ukes (and for taking these pictures!), and to Michael and Ben Chung for doing the dreaming and legwork necessary to make this festival happen.

Low G and High G

Originally posted July 6, 2016

About two years ago, I wanted a few more melody notes below the 3rd string C, so I put on a low G string. Suddenly, I could play C chord melodies which previously I could only play in the key of F!

Think of a tune like, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” You know the opening two notes? “Oh, I’ve…”

In the key of C, “I’ve” is a C. And “Oh?” That note is LOW G. You can’t play it in that deep octave with a high G string. You can play it up an octave, but then all the rest of the melody goes way up the neck.

So folks might play this tune in F, since you just have to set up an F chord, and you have the “Oh” on the 3rd string, and “I’ve” on the 2nd string. That’s what we typically do for this type of tune. “Amazing Grace,” “Taps,” a number of tunes start with a low note, then jump up to the key note or tonic.

But C is such a good key on ukulele, and I just kinda like being able to play these melodies in the low octave. So I have a uke set up with a low G. And luckily, I have more than one uke, so I can set up another one with a high G for other songs.

High G is plenty neat, though. It’s tuned a step away from the high 1st string, so with those two outside strings you can get some really beautiful “close” chord voicings, where you have two notes in the chord which are only a step or a half-step apart. This creates a haunting, poignant, harp-like sound.

In fact, there’s a whole style of melody playing built around this relationship between the outside two strings, called “Campanella.” Check out John King’s book “The Classical Ukulele,” which features arrangements of classical pieces and really makes the most of the high G reentrant tuning.

High G or Low G? Like all musical choices, it’s matter of taste, tempered by practical considerations, and also by your own relationship to the larger world of ukulele culture and communities.