Putting Together a Uke Combo

(A number of club members recently attended a ukulele festival where the ukulele player James Clem appeared and gave workshops. He also gave out this useful handout, which is reproduced with his kind permission.)

Let’s Jam – Putting Together a Uke Combo

Arranging songs for a group

A ‘mistake’ many ukulele groups make at an open mic or concert performance is that you often have everyone in the group singing and playing the same part. Stop and listen to your typical pop recording and you’ll hear a rhythm and lead instrument, percussion and bass. Also, you usually have someone singing solo often with background harmonies. Here are some suggestions to spice up your next gig with your ukulele group.

1. Ditch the Music – When your faces are buried behind music stands your performance creates an amateur impression. Does your favourite artist do this at their concerts? I doubt it. If you are doing just a song or two at an open mic it would really enhance your set if you could play without relying on your printed music. You need to develop memorisation skills at some point if you want to advance and this small step will help. You can do it!

2. Assign Parts – When you agree on a song get together and decide who wants to sing lead, back up etc. Note that most songs have an intro, solo and ending. Who is going to play these parts? Many pop recordings have an instrument that plays a simple ‘riff’ (repeated phrase) or accents while the other instruments play a straight strumming rhythm. Why not have one player bang out a thumping drum part on the back of their ukulele to give the song a beat? Instead of everyone singing the same part, how about a harmony vocal? Adding some bass will give a solid bottom so perhaps one member of the group can get into that. The main goal is to split all the parts up to make it more fun for you and the audience.

3. Analyse the Music – Listen to the arrangement of a favourite recording and note how many measures the intro is. Where is the solo? Is the solo based on the bridge chords? When you do this it will help you down the road in putting together your own arrangements. Make that cover song your own by slowing it down, or speeding it up.

4. Counting Measures – A good way to memorise chord progressions is by noting how many measures you stay on each chord. Count measures by mentally counting 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4 etc. This is a foolproof system.

5. Set Goals – Got a big gig or open mic coming up? Get together and choose just a few songs and really rehearse them until they become second nature rather than running through dozens of tunes that may take forever to tighten up.

6. Wrap up – If you can go on stage and play as a group with an actual intro where you all start and end together without having to read the lyrics and chord changes from written music, you are going to show the other acts who is boss. Go for it!

The author James Clem playing ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ on YouTube
Check out his ukulele CD “Sugar Moon” on CD Baby Records, ASIN: B00VGRFSN0