Mark Kailana Nelson is a multi-instrumentalist author, entertainer, recording artist and music educator. He has written a number of Mel Bay publications for dulcimer, slack key guitar and ukulele. He lives in southern Oregon.
1. What are the first steps in learning to play finger-style ukulele?
I suppose the first thing is to define whatwe mean–after all, just about everybody plays ‘ukulele with their fingers.I use the term to mean using your thumb and two or more fingers to pick out melody and harmony at the same time. I borrowed the term, and the techniques, from guitar playing; when I first started the ‘ukulele, I had already played Hawaiian slack key and country blues guitar for many years. My uke teachers at the Aloha Music Camps in Hawaii, Herb Ohta Jr. and Keoki Kahumoku, both played melodies mostly using their thumbs and index fingers; I found it easier to apply what I already knew rather than to learn a whole new right hand style.
Let’s start with exercises to develop picking independence. Place your thumb on the fourth string, index on the third, middle on the second and ring finger on the first string. Try playing an F chord one string at a time; starting with the thumb and moving up to the ring finger. Maintain a steady rhythm, sounding each string for a quarter note. Then reverse the pattern. After you’ve done that a few times, practice alternating the pattern as you cycle through F, Bb and C7 chords. Challenge yourself to develop new patterns; say thumb-middle-index-ring, as you cycle through chords. The idea isn’t to memorize picking patterns–although they can be useful to accompany singing–but to develop independence so you can play any note on any string.
Another good exercise concentrates on the relationship between your thumb and fingers. This comes directly from both “Travis-picking
“and slack key guitar styles, where the thumb plays the bass and the fingers add melodies on the upper strings. Of course, the ‘ukulele doesn’t have any bass strings, but you can still get a great sound thus way.Instead of the one finger-per-string approach, set your index and middle fingers on strings two and three.Hold a chord and alternate your thumb between the fourth and third strings on the beat (this sounds best with a low G string, by the way). Next, add one of the fingers at the same time as your thumb stroke–we call this a pinch. It doesn’t matter which finger you start with; just be sure to vary it after you get comfortable.
Once you can play pinch strokes on the beat, try alternating strokes: thumb-index-thumb-middle (or thumb-middle-thumb-index.) Notice that now your fingered notes are off the beat. Finally, try mixing pinches and alternating strokes as you run through some chords. Again, don’t worry about memorizing anything, just get your fingers moving.
Speaking of chords–get to know not only your basic major, minor and seventh chords, but also their inversions moving up the neck. Most –OK, all–melodies fall right out of the chord forms. If you can grab chords without thinking about it you’ll be ahead of the game.
I wouldn’t spend too much time on any of this–just a couple minutes a day works wonders. Limbering up your fingers will speed up the learning curve when you dig in to some finger-style arrangements.
2. What is “slack key ukulele”, and how do you go about incorporating those techniques into your ukulele playing?
“Slack key Guitar”, or /ki ho‘alu/, developed in Hawai‘i sometime after the arrival of the first cowboys in the 1830’s.Slack key is both a style and a specifically Hawaiian repertoire. Although it uses altered tunings, not all finger-style guitar played in an open tuning is “slack key.” When you hear it, you know. Nothing else sounds so sweet.
I first heard “slack key” ‘ukulele from the playing of Sheldon Brown, a virtuoso uke-a-banger on the Island of Maui. Like most Hawaiian players, Sheldon uses a low G string for an extended range. He tunes his first string down a whole step from A to G. (G-C-E-G) This tuning, with a C major triad on the top three strings, is similar to a slack key guitar tuning called “Taropatch.” Using this tuning, the ‘ukulele can play the harmonized scales and licks typical to the slack key style.For another flavor, tune the third string down a half step–G-B-E-G; a tuning called “C Wahine” or “Double Slack.” By holding one finger on the third string, first fret you have a C chord–shift over to the first fret on the second string for a G7! Two chords with one finger–what could be simpler?
Since there are few recordings of “slack key” ‘ukulele, the best way to learn the style is to listen to a lot of slack key guitar. I’m a huge fan of the real old style as played by Raymond Kane on his two Dancing Cat
CDs (listen at www.mele.com
). As you become familiar with slack key, you will begin to recognize the characteristic licks, turnarounds and ornamentation.I have a few TABs posted on my website; but there really is no substitute for listening, listening, listening.
By the way, I have heard some people argue that you can’t call it “slack key” if it isn’t played on the guitar. Both Sheldon and his brother, slack key guitar wizard Kevin Brown call it “slack key ‘ukulele” and that’s good enough for me!
3. Can you suggest any ear training exercises?
Here’s one my buddy Ray Frank calls “finger singing.” Start with an easy song, like Brother John or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, one that you know so well you don’t have to think about.
Randomly stick a finger down somewhere on your uke’s neck, it doesn’t matter where. That becomes the first note of the song; your task is to find the rest.
How do you do that? First, breathe. Slow down. Using the first note you found to set the key, sing the melody a couple of times. Then break it down into phrases–sing the first phrase and find it on the ‘ukulele, stopping to compare to your voice. Does the melody go up or down between the first and second notes? By a little or a lot? Or does it stay the same, and then move?Once you have the first phrase, move on to the second. Then link the two together and move on to the next. Remember what I said about “slow?”Truth be told, you don’t even have to sing and play in the same key, as long as you can hear the relation between the pitches in the melody you sing and the melody you play. In other words, you’ll know when you played a wrong note. So OK, don’t play that clam again, try a note a little higher or lower.
Obviously, the better you know your chords and scales, the easier this is. But finger singing strengthens your ears regardless. You will learn that you can play anything that you can sing.
Above all, have fun.
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