BY DANIEL WARD | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
There are instances in which a specific chord progression or a riff can be recognized as a familiar tune, but it is a single-note melody that creates a true song. In the world of ukulele clubs and jams, much of the time is spent strumming chords and singing, while letting our voices carry the melody. Learning to play single notes can open a brand-new door to musical adventure and is well worth turning the knob to take a look. The simple technique of playing one note at a time will give you access to playing popular songs as instrumentals, classical duets, jazz arrangements, melody breaks within a song, and taking a solo over chord changes.
In this lesson, we’ll look at this single-note melody “Home,” which when played above an accompaniment, creates a duet. The accompaniment for this duet is “Arpeggio Meditation,” which is also available at Ukulele magazine online as a video lesson. This new melody is not difficult but does require moving up and down the neck with some light stretches, as well as some careful execution of the rhythm.
Single notes on the ukulele are plucked on one string at a time, fretting each note or leaving a string unfretted as needed. Lining both right and left hands up to strike the correct string and fret in time can be challenging at first, so here are some helpful tips regardless of your experience level.
Use your thumb, or alternate middle and index fingers in a “walking” motion.
Practice by playing several notes in a row on each open string to get a good feel for repeating your stroke. The next step is to pick groups of four notes on a string before moving to the next. As your technique improves, decrease to three notes per string, and then just two.
With your fretting hand, put your first finger (index) on the first string, first fret. Keep the first finger down and add your second finger to the second fret, and so on, until all four fingers are on a fret. This will help with your alignment and requires that you put your thumb behind the neck and behind your index and middle fingers. Keeping that thumb down and behind the neck will be helpful as the melodic content becomes more challenging.
Playing a simple C major scale up and down is a terrific way to start lining up both hands. Starting on the third string, play open, then second fret (Example 1). On the second string, play open, then first fret, then third fret. On the first string, play open, then second and finally third fret. Start on the first string, third fret, and just follow the scale back down. Repeat this up and down until it becomes familiar and easy.
Look at the music!
Follow the tab closely to make sure you are on the correct string and fret at all times. The first measure starts on the first string and goes from the third fret to the fifth to the seventh fret. This stretches the left hand over two frets each time, so use the suggested fingering indicated next to the notes on the top staff. In this instance the fingers used are: index, middle, and pinky, which are numbered 1, 2, and 4. Open, unfretted notes have no number. Work slowly until you can get through the whole melody with all the correct fret numbers on the indicated strings and the left-hand fingerings as well. It’s a short melody, so it won’t take long to get it under your fingers.
Take your time and start with using just your right-hand thumb as you learn the notes. Make sure you watch the rhythm carefully as well. A few of the eighth notes move in different places to fit with the original arpeggio, and there is one spot with a dotted quarter to eighth figure (Bar 5). If you don’t read music rhythm yet, you can learn this piece’s rhythm by ear from the video lesson. Once you have learned the melody using your thumb, try playing it with alternating middle and index fingers. After a quick review of “Arpeggio Meditation” you’ll be ready to find a partner. The score contains a small third stave with the arpeggio part so you both can keep your place when rehearsing.
Playing the Duet
A few simple things will help make playing this duet easy and fun. Learn each part carefully and pay close attention to how the two parts fit together rhythmically. The arpeggio part will be the pulse of the music, and the melody floats on top. A good count-in is key to starting together, but you can also loop a couple of bars at the beginning of the arpeggio part until the melody comes in. Another great intro is to play the last four bars (bars 13–16) and then bring the melody in at the top. If each player knows both parts, it’s fun to switch parts each time they repeat.
If you can’t find a partner right away, you can always make a recording of the arpeggio on your phone or other recording device and play along with yourself.
Enjoy the music!