Sunday, 7 December 2014

Little Saint Nick

image from Wikipedia

Last year we made a modifiable Christmas songbook with the intention of adding new songs every year. As it happened, however, the calendar this year meant no meetings between early November and our upcoming Christmas party, save for a couple of impromptu get togethers that people offered up between regular meetings. At one of these, we worked on a version of The Beach Boys' Little Saint Nick.

It's based on a guitar tab that appears in several user-generated chord sites, but is modified for easier ukulele playing (and hopefully more complete lyrics—what I always heard as "Merry Christmas, Santa" seems, by common consensus, to really be "Merry Christmas, Saint Nick").

A more readable .pdf file of the complete song can be downloaded here.

And our updated Christmas songbook with Little Saint Nick included can be found here.

Little Saint Nick
Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Am   D                G         Gmaj7      G6        E7
Ooo, Merry Christmas, Saint Nick
                     (Christmas comes this time each year)

Am  D7

      Am     D7              Am       D7
Well, way up north where the air gets cold

          G          Gmaj7                 G6       E7
There's a tale about Christmas that you've all been told

      Am          D7              Am    D7
And a real famous cat all dressed up in red

       G                Gmaj7        G6         E7
And he spends the whole year working out on his sled

It's the Little Saint Nick
        (Ooo--           Little Saint Nick)

It's the Little Saint Nick
        (Ooo--           Little Saint Nick)

       Am        D7               Am        D7
Just a little bobsled, we call it Old Saint Nick

           G        Gmaj7         G6         E7
But she'll walk a toboggan with a four-speed stick

       Am         D7         Am        D7
She's candy apple red with a ski for a wheel

         G              Gmaj7          G6        E7
And when Santa gives it gas, man, just watch her peel

It's the Little Saint Nick
        (Ooo--           Little Saint Nick)

It's the Little Saint Nick
        (Ooo--           Little Saint Nick)

Run, run, reindeer
Run, run, reindeer

Run, run, reindeer

Run, run, reindeer (he don't miss no one)

    Am                  D7        Am          D7
And haulin' through the snow at a frightenin' speed

     G            Gmaj7       G6      E7
With half a dozen deer with a Rudy to lead

     Am             D7                 Am          D7
He's gotta wear his goggles 'cause the snow really flies

         G              Gmaj7       G6        E7
And he's cruisin' every path with a little surprise

It's the Little Saint Nick
        (Ooo--           Little Saint Nick)

It's the Little Saint Nick
        (Ooo--           Little Saint Nick)

Am   D                G         Gmaj7      G6        E7
Aaa, Merry Christmas, Saint Nick
                     (Christmas comes this time each year)

(repeat and fade)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Yes Sir, That's My Baby on Ukulele

"Yes Sir, That's My Baby" is one of those Tin Pan Alley songs that lends itself naturally to the ukulele. It's been recorded numerous times and in the year it was published, 1925, was a hit for Blossom Seeley, Ace Brigode and his 14 Virginians, Ben Bernie, The Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra, and Gene Austin who, according to the notes on this video, made the very first recording of the song. Billy Carpenter plays the ukulele here:

A few weeks ago, this video appeared, also recorded in 1925. It was made at the Case Research Lab, then in the process of developing the Movietone sound-on-film system:

These virtuosic arrangements notwithstanding, it has a fairly simple song structure and can be strummed with just a few chords. Ukester Brown's version in G includes the introduction, also heard in the recordings above. Doctor Uke simplifies the song down to its more familiar refrain. His arrangement is in C and quite close to that in this final video, a clip from the 1965 movie A Thousand Clowns. Jason Robards plays tenor ukulele and Barry Gordon is on soprano.

Many thanks to my teacher Robert Armstrong for introducing me to this song, the Case Research Lab video, and many other bits of history and music lore that led down this particular rabbit hole.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ukuleles in Wine Country

Ukulele festivals are everywhere now, but I wonder if anyplace has as many as California. We are fortunate to have several to choose from over the course of a year. 

Last week six of us attended the Wine Country Uke Fest, a favorite for its combination of workshops, performances, vendors and community playalongs. Everything takes place on a college campus just a short hop from some of the best vineyards and wineries in the country.

lunch on the quad 
Paul Hemmings, Char Mayer of MyaMoe Ukuleles, and Daniel Ward
Master of Ceremonies Andy Andrews leading the Saturday evening playalong
Event organizer Elaine De Man hands out ice cream dressed in a Good Humor outfit
Hot Steel & Cool Ukulele perform on Hawaii Day
'AHAmele Hawaiian music ensemble perform with hula dancer

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Music and the Brain

"While listening to music engages the brain in some pretty interesting activities, playing music is the brain's equivalent of a full-body workout."
I sent this link to my circle of ukulele players in July, but have a feeling that very few opened it. When I came across it again today, I thought it deserved a little more attention.

Even without this research, the pleasure of learning something new and the enjoyment that comes with music are reason enough to learn a musical instrument. But for those who doubt the good that music learning does, give yourself 5 minutes to watch the animation below:

Sunday, 31 August 2014

How to Use a Fretboard Diagram to Learn Chord Inversions (or Scales)

There comes a time when one wants to go beyond the chords played at the first five frets. Ukulele Underground has published a fretboard diagram and this tutorial to explain one way of learning the chord inversions:

Get the accompanying fretboard diagram from Ukulele Underground here.

And here is a page with three fretboard diagrams on one sheet, as shown in the video.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Can Playing Ukulele Add Years To Your Life?

"This is an encouragement to old men who think they are too old to learn something new!"
~from the intro screen to John Simmance's first banjolele video

A couple of news items caught my eye last week. The first was a profile of a 97-year-old luthier who attributes his longevity to his many hobbies which, beside making ukuleles, include collecting antique radios, oil painting, and gardening.

The second story reports the finding that learning a new skill can help improve memory function. The study specifically looked at digital photography and quilting, but presumably learning an instrument would be a comparable activity.

Both stories reminded me of John Simmance's YouTube channel. Mr. Simmance took up the ukulele later in life and has recorded the development of his musical hobby in a series of videos. Take a look at his Formby strums after only 9 weeks of playing:

His videos chart each of his instruments: the first banjolele, a second baritone banjolele, and concert and baritone ukuleles, all of which he demonstrates with English folk songs.

Perhaps more tellingly, the videos also show travel, flying, a new dog, and a well-organized workshop where he machines parts to make homemade steam engines.

It's never too late to start playing the ukulele—or doing anything else that interests you. And if doing so adds to your lifespan and keeps you sharp--well, that's just a bonus, isn't it?

Thursday, 1 May 2014

May Day is Lei Day: How to Braid a Ribbon Lei

May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii. There's even a song telling us so. A few meetings ago, Carey—just back from Hawaii—showed us a bit of hula and a method of making ribbon leis.

You start with two complementary colors of ribbon (we used 1/2" grosgrain ribbon provided by Carey, and it worked very well). For the purpose of this tutorial, we'll keep the lighter color on the left and the darker color on the right.

Make a simple loop at the ends to start.

Slip the dark loop through the light loop & pull it through about 1/2".

Next, form another loop with the light-colored ribbon and slip it through the dark loop.

Continue in this manner, looping dark through light and vice-versa. You may need to occasionally snug up the lei by tugging gently at the ends of the ribbons.

In about 15 minutes, you'll have a length of braid.

You can either tie the ends together, or try to match the braid as I did (before ultimately just stitching the whole thing closed).

Add an embellishment if you like, and it's ready to wear.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

'Ukulele Festival of Northern California

The 'Ukulele Festival of Northern California took place in Hayward, California last Sunday.

Billed as the "longest running ukulele festival on the mainland," it has been in existence since 1994 and differs from other festivals around here in its strong Hawaiian background. Instead of workshops, the festival focuses on performances, with 20 groups each playing 10-minute sets over the day. The NorCal organizers also bestow a couple of scholarships to students who participate in a Pacific Islander cultural class or activity.

Walking around was like taking in a little bit of Hawaii.

There were muumuus:

aloha shirts:

ribbon leis (more on these in a future post):

and of course, ukuleles:

lots of ukuleles:

as well as ukulele-themed bags, hoodies, & t-shirts:

Not for sale, this beautiful birthday cake was still a booth highlight:

I didn't take any photos of the performers, as the organizers discourage any kind of recording. But we heard several formal and informal groups play, and all were very talented and well received by the large audience.

Watch for next year's event to be posted here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Three Ways to Play Over The Rainbow

photo by Karen Johns

Faced with a growing group and thus a wider range of abilities this year, we are trying a new format.

At the first meeting of the month, everyone gets to choose a song. This ensures that each person will like at least one thing we play that day, and it gives us a nice variety of music, as well.

At the second meeting of the month, one or more volunteers take responsibility for the entire session in any way they choose.

Our second meeting in February had us going over a few different ways to play songs. While it's famously easy to learn a handful of uke chords and strum them underneath a tune, going past that can sometimes be a challenge. There are a few ways to mix up a song: picking the chords, playing the melody, changing the strumming pattern, and varying the chord progression.

Here, for example, is the first verse of Over The Rainbow in the key of C. Four chords, changed at regular intervals, a slow tempo—and not the most exciting song to play. So if strumming gets boring, it's possible to pick the chords.

If you place your thumb on the G string, and your index, middle, and ring fingers on the C, E and A strings, respectively; you can pick in the pattern of [C-G, E-G, A-G, E-G]. Or by assigning the numbers 1 through 4 to your thumb through ring finger; the pattern can also be written as: [2-1, 3-1, 4-1, 3-1]. Try playing this pattern of 8 strings once per chord: 2-1-3-1 on "some" and 4-1-3-1 on "where," back to 2-1-3-1 on "over the" and 4-1-3-1 on "rainbow." It's harder to write and read than it is to do, especially if you start slowly.

A second way is to play it as a very simple chord melody (see this post on how to read ukulele tablature). This is also in the key of C and uses the same chord progression, as you can see below. The chords are simply opened up a little to bring out the melody.

Finally, there's the version that so many ukulele players want to learn, the one made famous by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (known worldwide as Iz). Again in the key of C, the chords are similar the above versions but with a critical change from C to Am-F that lifts the melody in an appealing way. The unique strumming pattern is also key to this version.

As far as I know, there are no videos of him playing this song, and it appears that the only audio recording was a one-take, middle-of-the-night shot made almost as a memo to himself (see this NPR story).
Thus the many different tutorials on how to play Iz's Over The Rainbow, each with its own take. Some chunk or dampen the strings, some use a reggae-ish strumming pattern. This version entails plucking the G string with one's thumb and strumming in an accented pattern that is heavy on the down strum and has a pause in the middle: pluck-D-u-(pause)-u-D-u, pluck-D-u-(pause)-u-D-u.
For a printable .pdf of these three versions as complete songs, click here.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Show Me The Way To Go Home: Chords, Lyrics & 2 Vamps

Happy 2014! This last year was a busy one for us. We went from being a few friends noodling around in living rooms to somehow becoming a bona fide ukulele group. People hear about us through neighbors or friends of friends, and each new member helps to expand what we do and how we do it. 

At our first meeting of the new year, Bob brought us his version of Show Me The Way To Go Home. You may remember this song from summer camp or from the movie Jaws. It's a simple melody that lends itself well to a group. Bob, who has been playing ukulele since his childhood in WWII internment camps, told us that Show Me was always the last song played at any session. It's a tradition we plan to adopt.

This arrangement is in the key of F and includes both a traditional Hawaiian vamp and an alternate vamp. The real fun is in playing both the vamp and the song in two different places on the fretboard. Bob's method was to play the alternate vamp once high up the neck and again with the regular first position chords. The song is then played in the first position, then moved back up the neck to repeat the song with harmony. Here are the chords:

Show Me The Way To Go Home

Hawaiian-style vamp: G7//C7//F//D7//G7//C7//F////
Alternate vamp: F//Dm//C#7//C7// x2

F                     F7
Show me the way to go home
    Bb                      F
I'm tired and I wanna go to bed
  (F)                         (Dm)
I had a little drink about an hour ago
         G7               C7
And it's gone right to my head
    F          F7
Wherever I may roam
   Bb             A7
On land or sea or foam
You can always hear me singing this song
G7          C7        F
Show me the way to go home

Printable .pdf file showing two inversions of the chords here.