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3 Questions Interview: Al Wood (Learning Songs By Tab or Ear)

Posted on: September 7th, 2009 by dville

UnknownAl Wood is the man behind Uke Hunt, the number one ukulele website in the world. In addition to maintaining the site with daily updates, Al has written a number of indispensable ukulele instruction books, and seems to spend all the time he has left over tabbing out songs. He lives in Derby, England.

1. How do you approach learning a new song, using tab or figuring it out by ear?

When I get tab for a tune I’m always too eager to get started to do anything sensible. So I’ll just dive straight in. That will give me an idea of where the tricky parts are in the tab.

Once I’ve found those, I’ll try to work out the best way for me to finger them. Then I’ll slow that section right down. Make it so slow that I can play it without getting it wrong – even if that’s a snail’s pace. I find that when I play something wrong once, I’ll make exactly the same mistake next time. And the more I make the mistake, the more ingrained it becomes (someone smarter than me called this ‘practicing your mistakes’). It’s much easier to speed up once your fingers know where they’re going.

2. What’s your technique for figuring out a song by ear?

It varies, but I always start out by listening to the tune without trying to play along. I make sure I know where all the chord changes are and try to get an idea of the overall structure and harmony. I’ll notice patterns that I’m familiar with (I – IV – V for example) and major and minor chords. I’ll listen to all the instruments on the track. The bassline is a good place to start. I’ll do this even if there’s a video of the song being played.

By the time I grab my uke I’ll have a vague idea of what the chord structure of the song is.

If there’s a video I’ll use that to get an idea of the chords – it often won’t give you all the information you need but it’ll give you a good idea of what’s going on. Otherwise, finding the key is a pretty unscientific process of playing a C note then sliding up the neck until I find the right note.

By this stage I’ve got the key and a few of the chords. There’ll often be a few chords I don’t get right off. I have to try out a few chords I know will fit with the harmony. Knowing a bit of theory is a big help at this stage.

Depending on how tricky the song is, there might be one or two chords left over that I still haven’t found. At this point I start to get desperate and have to build up the chord note by note. If there’s a bass on the track that will often give you the root note. Unusual notes will often crop up in the melody as well as the chords. I’ll try to listen to notes that stay the same between the chord before and the chord I’m playing. Other than that, it’s a process of testing things out until it sounds right.

3. How do you go about memorizing a tabbed out song?

I am completely the wrong person to ask about this. I’m forever forgetting how to play things. I quite often forget how to play tunes I’ve written myself.  I think muscle memory is the only real way to memorize a song long term. Play it over and over until your fingers know what they have to do and you don’t have to think about what comes next at all.

Uke Hunt

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