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3 Questions Interview: Gerald Ross (Guitar-Songs-Rhythm)

Posted on: September 21st, 2009 by dville
imagesGerald Ross is Michigan’s ukulele ambassador. Based in Ann Arbor, Gerald is a staple at ukulele festivals across America making the uke swing! Gerald has played music professionally for most of his life, coming to the uke from the guitar. He records under his own Uke Tone record label.
1.You come from a guitar background, what do you see as the biggest similarities between learning to play guitar and learning to play the ukulele?
It is very easy for a guitarist to pick up the ukulele. If you disregard the two bass strings of the guitar – the low E and A, the left hand chord shapes are exactly the same on both instruments. Example: a guitar’s first position D chord shape played on a uke sounds a concert G chord. Every guitar chord shape is a fourth higher when played on a uke – (a C guitar shape is an F on the uke, a G guitar shape is a C etc.). That’s where the similarity lies. The big difference comes when the octave tuned fourth string on the uke comes into play. The uke’s 4th string tuned an octave higher confuses and “throws” many guitar players. When they play a melody line on the uke that descends from or ascends to the fourth string the octave jump in sound is disconcerting to their ears. Many guitarists give up on the uke at that point.
I see the octave 4th string as a great asset. It gives me many interesting and difficult to achieve chord voicings “for free”. To get the same chord voicing on a guitar I am forced to stretch my left hand into an uncomfortable and not easy to grab chord shape. The octave 4th string can also be played as a rhythmic, constant drone note providing accompaniment to a tune (listen to my recording of ‘The Peanut Vendor’ for an example of this technique).
2. How to you go about learning new songs, is it a melody or a chord based approach?
I always start with the basic “plain vanilla”, first position, open string chords. I get a rough frame work down and once that’s accomplished I embellish the arrangement with different inversions of the chord or chord substitutions. In terms of melody I look for chord shapes that contain the melody note/line of the song. I do not want to stretch too far out of the chord shape with my left hand in order to play the melody note, or be forced to jump from one position on the neck to another. Jumping positions often times results in an unnatural flowing melodic line.
I have the added luxury of being an instrumentalist. I’m not locked into playing a song in a particular key to suit my singing voice. This freedom allows me to arrange a song in a key that provides the easiest to grab, easiest to play up to tempo, easiest to remember left hand chord shapes. My main objective is to perform music and have fun in the process. Trying to memorize and perform extremely difficult arrangements that involve complex one-of-a-kind, song-specific chord shapes or left hand gymnastic feats is not my idea of fun. Music should be fun.
3. For most beginners, the ukulele is played as a rhythm instrument. What’s the best way to improve as a rhythm player and make things sound interesting?
I feel that rhythm is the most important element in producing pleasant sounding music. A person can play a melodic line flawlessly, but if there is hesitation or a tempo fluctuation in their performance their beautifully executed, perfectly toned melodic line is overshadowed and diminished by the lack of a solid beat. At the DNA level, humans react to rhythm first, melody second.
There are many ways to improve your rhythm. One is to get out of the house and play with other musicians. There is safety and accuracy in numbers! Many times when a person plays alone they develop bad habits and timing peculiarities. They speed up parts of the song they know well and slow down the difficult passages. Join a local ukulele group. Relax and get into the group groove during the song. It will straighten out your timing issues.
You can also incorporate rhythm into your everyday life. When you walk down the street do it rhythmically while humming a song to yourself. Kids do this all the time when they walk or run. As adults we get way too tight and self conscious. In adults the internal critic works too hard and in this case working hard is not good. Your internal musical critic is not your friend.
In terms of right hand technique, the main thing I stress when I teach is to relax your hands. Let them be loose and wiggly (think octopus). Too many beginning players employ a vice-like grip on their instruments. They grab the neck so hard that they cut off the blood flow to their left hand. They also tend to have “concrete-like overly stiff right arms”. If either hand or arm is tense it is difficult to get a pleasant tone from your instrument. It’s also very tiring maintaining this tenseness for long periods of time and painful as well. Loosen up.
Speed: You can’t play a song fast until you can play it slow and evenly paced. If you are working on a fast song make sure that you can play it slowly and rhythmically before you try to the speed it up. Slowly increase the speed until you can play it fast. Also look at your fingering. Are there parts of the song that always trip you up when you try to play it up to tempo? This could be a fingering issue. Try using different fingers on the melody line or an easier chord in the difficult section.
Volume: Watch out for the insidious volume spiral. There is a tendency when playing with a group of people for the overall ensemble volume to increase. Within a short period of time everyone is flailing away on their instruments with all the subtlety of a jack hammer. Instead of focusing on the ensemble sound and tone they are expending all of their energy struggling to be heard above their neighbor. Nobody is having a good time. If all you are doing is striving for volume, your rhythm and tone will suffer. As the band size increases the overall volume level should decrease. Try it. Believe me, it works.

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