BY FRED SOKOLOW | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
In this ukulele lesson, you’ll learn an approach inspired by the blues guitar lexicon. It can also come in handy for rock and country soloing, as both of those genres are infused with the blues.
Many blues guitarists—past and present, acoustic and electric—have practically lived in it the key of E major (that’s four sharps), as it’s great for soloing on the instrument. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Arthur Crudup, and Muddy Waters almost always played their iconic licks in E, using a capo if the key wasn’t well suited to their vocal range.
Guitar licks in E best translate to the key of A major (three sharps) on the ukulele. That’s because the uke is tuned like the top four strings of a guitar, but pitched a perfect fourth, or five frets, higher. In other words, a guitar’s E chord shape is a uke’s A chord. Let’s take a look at some of those primeval “E” blues guitar licks and turn them into “A” ukulele moves!
On the Fence
A typical blues tune sits on the fence between the major mode and the minor. If you play an open A chord on the uke, an easy, third-string blues lick presents itself: When you open up the third string, the A chord becomes minor, as shown in Example 1. That open string is a blue note—the flatted third (C natural) in the key of A. You can play this major-minor move with simple hammer-ons to create a typical blues lick (Example 2).
Example 3 demonstrates some more blue notes in A—the flatted third on string 1, the flatted seventh (G natural) on string 2, and the flatted fifth (Eb) on string 3, all at the third fret. Try bending each blue note, like I do in the video, by nudging the given string such that its pitch is slightly raised. When you start bending strings, things get bluesier!
Slides can also produce bluesy effects. Start with a basic G7 chord, shown in Example 4a. If you play that same shape two frets higher you have the A7 chord that is the basis of Example 4b. The slides here, depicted by slanted and curved lines, occur on beats 1, 2, and 3. To play each three-note group of slides, start with the G7/A7 shape at the second fret. Strum the chord and then quickly move the entire grip up by one fret, without strumming again. Alternatively, you can play the figure with the first string open, as shown in Example 4c.
Turnarounds and More
In Example 5, your A7 is used in a classic blues turnaround—a two-measure lick or chord progression used to set up a subsequent verse in the 12-bar form. Move the chord down one fret at a time, before arriving at the open A chord and ending on an E7. Example 6 demonstrates a variation of that turnaround, in which most of the chords are played as melodic sixths. Note the bluesy slide on beat 1 of the first measure.
Example 7 shows how you can play two of the three chords in an A blues—E7 (V) and D7 (IV)—with the same barred shape. As seen on beat 2, you can create a bluesy effect by sliding into the E7 chord from one fret below, just like what you did with the A7 chord in Ex. 4.
Now let’s look at one last iconic blues idea: the “Hoochie Coochie Man” lick, as in Muddy Waters’ classic tune of the same name (Example 8). You’ve no doubt heard this in a lot of blues tunes, like Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” Elvis Presley’s “Trouble,” or George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.” At the start of the example, try barring across the top three strings at fret 2. That way your first finger will be in place for grabbing fret 1, string 3, on beat 1 after the repeat sign. Also, note the bluesy use of the open high G string—remember, the flatted seventh.
Putting It All Together
Now let’s put everything together in the context of a classic 12-bar blues song. Example 9 takes you around two verses of “Reconsider Baby,” which was a hit for Lowell Fulson, a pioneering electric blues guitarist who was popular in the 1940s and ’50s. (Note that the example starts on bar 12 of the form, or the second measure of the turnaround.) This uke arrangement uses all the above licks and a few new ones!
This lesson has been just a little sample of blues uke. I’m hoping that by learning the examples—and by listening to the guitarists mentioned above—you’ll get some authentic blues sounds out of your ukulele. As you may know, playing the blues is one of the best ways to lose the blues!
Fred Sokolow is the author of many instructional DVD and tab books, including, How to Solo on Ukulele and Blues Ukulele, covering many strategies, both chord-based and scale-based, for soloing in practically any genre.