Joel Eckhaus is not only a dandy ukulele player he is also a master luthier and founder of Earnest Instruments in Portland, Maine. He studied uke and banjo with former vaudevillian, Roy Smeck, the Wizard of the Strings, and studied mandolin with former Texas Playboy, Tiny Moore. He currently plays with the ukabilly duo Dos Eckies; a ukulele/tap dance duo, Ham & Legs; and his own group, Ukulele Eck and the Fabulous Lacklusters.
1. How do you approach arranging a song in the chord melody format?
First, I learn the melody, usually by ear (and the lyrics, if there are any). Then, I learn the basic chords or harmony, also usually by ear. If the song is particularly complicated, unfamiliar, or too hard for me to figure out, I might go to a fake book, sheet music, or online source to find out what chords the composer or other musicians use.
Then, I try to figure out a key that works for the particular song. If the melody goes below the lowest note on the uke, I move it up till I find a key where it fits the range of the uke. Likewise, if much of the melody lies above the 7th fret of the first string, I might try to move it down to a key where it is more comfortable to play. The melody is easiest for your listeners to hear if it is on the 1st string, but that is not always possible. It’s usually required to use the 2nd or 3rd string, and I often find it convenient to use the 4th string for a melody note. (I use a high 4th string on all my ukes, even baritone) I’m looking for the key where, as Roy Smeck used to say, the melody just lays under your fingers. It may take a few tries before I get that right.
Once I find a key, I transpose the basic chords to the new key, and learn to play the song comfortably in that key. (It may or may not be a good singing key for me, but I can modulate the song later to sing it, or play it in a different tuning).
Then I try to find some nice easy chord shapes or inversions to fit around the melody. Here, it is important to know as many different shapes or inversions of a chord as you can. For every major, minor, dominant seventh, and major/minor seventh chord there are at least 3 or 4 inversions, starting in the lowest or first position, and then moving up the neck to the 12th fret and beyond. There are also partial chords (2 or 3 string chords) that you can use to make fingering a particular chord easier and faster. The more of these inversions you have in your vocabulary, the easier it will be to construct a chord melody solo. Use a chord chart to help you, until you become familiar with them. Learn to move the 4-note, closed position chords up the neck and use the fingerboard dots to help you remember the name and position of the chord as it moves up.
Gradually, you will find the chord shapes that work best for you and the song. Not every note in the song needs a full chord behind it. Some passing tones can be played as single notes, or with one or two harmony notes. Use open strings when possible, even if you are way up the neck. Some fake books may show way more chords than you might actually need to play the song or construct a nice chord melody arrangement. Your ear, and your experience, will inform your choices of which chords to use, and which to leave out. When in doubt, simplify.
The last thing I do is to write down the arrangement. I don’t use music notation for this. I write down the lyrics with a fretboard grid above each word or syllable where the chord changes. I use a dot for each finger to indicate chord or harmony tones, and a little circle to indicate which is the melody note. This helps cement the arrangement in my memory, or at least helps me remember what I did so I don’t have to make it up all over again the next time I try to play the tune. It may take quite a while before you an actually play the arrangement up to speed. Eventually it will become part of your muscle memory, and you will be able to play the song without having to think of each chord name and position.
2. Does being a builder of ukuleles enhance your understanding of playing ukulele?
It works both ways…my playing can inform my building, and vice versa. Things like body size, neck shape, width, and thickness are a matter of individual size and taste. Everyone’s hands and bodies are different and we all have our preferences. We also all have preferences for tone and volume that are shaped by such things as our experience, hearing sensitivity, voice, and style of playing. As a builder, I’m sensitive to different materials and techniques that either enhance or diminish sounds that either I, or my customers, find desirable…or not.
One area that my building has informed my playing has to do with tuning. The notion that you can tune a soprano, concert, and tenor uke to gCEA doesn’t make much sense to me. Other instrument families use different tuning ranges. Each model has a specific tuning that responds best to that particular size, shape, string tension, sound hole size and placement, and several other factors (too numerous to mention).
If you sing into the soundhole of a uke (starting as low as you can and gradually moving up), you will hear that certain frequencies will cause the uke to vibrate and resonate. The lowest of these notes is called the fundamental resonant frequency of that particular box or body. If your lowest string is tuned to that frequency, the instrument will resonate when that note is plucked. This can be a good thing. It can make the whole uke louder and more responsive.
I often will try several tunings on a uke to find which sound best. gCEA, aDF#B, eAC#F#, fBbDG, dGBE are some tunings I have tried. It often requires mixing string sets to get the tension, volume, and tone that seems optimum. There are formulas for figuring string gauges and tensions for a particular scale length and tuning, but I usually have to play and hear several options before I’m satisfied.
Lyon & Healy made a “tenor” uke with a 15 5/8” scale. I make a copy of that uke that I play in eAF#C#. I call it an “alto” uke just to distinguish it from other sizes. I tune my baritone uke aDF#B, an octave below my concert uke. I get the benefit of that low D string with a re-entrant tuning. To me, it doesn’t really sound like a uke if it’s not in re-entrant tuning.
3. What was the most important thing Roy Smeck taught you about playing ukulele?
Roy’s mantra (if he had one) was “vary your strokes”. He had a vast repertoire of techniques, strums, tricks, and gizmos for getting sounds out of a uke. Some were mostly visual, like swinging the uke, flipping it in the air, playing it upside down, strumming it on his leg. Others definitely had acoustic effects, like tapping the strings on the fretboard, striking the body, blowing into the soundhole, and shaking the body. His rhythmic strums were often the hardest to emulate. He had rolls, triplets, glissandos, picking patterns, thumb plucks, string snaps, and more that he would combine in lightning fast combinations to create complex rhythmic patterns. His right hand was literally a blur, and often he couldn’t (or sometimes wouldn’t!) slow them down to show them to me. The best I could do was to get the rhythm in my head, and then try to figure out what combination of strokes he used to get it.
Often players get locked into one or two strumming patterns that they use for almost every song. Roy taught me that using a variety of strums and techniques will make your performance more interesting to listen to and watch.
Tags: 3 Questions Interview, Joel Eckhaus