Jere Canote is one-half of the Seattle-based Canote Brothers. Jere plays ukulele and guitar while his brother Greg plays fiddle. These affable twins share their love of old time music to audiences throughout the western states. Jere is also a master luthier with his own line of banjos and banjo ukes.
1. What is the most useful strumming pattern for playing old-time music on the ukulele?
Old-time music is a blanket term that covers fiddle tunes (square dance music),country, novelty, and folk songs from the Appalachians and the southeast U.S. Much of it was recorded in the late 20’s and early 30’s, and continues today as a living tradition in the southeast and the rest of the country. The music is fun, simple, mostly 3 chord tunes and songs of rural life. It is played on guitar, banjo, and fiddle (also bass, harmonica and mandolin). If you look at old photos, you will see an occasional funny looking guy or gal with a uke, or banjo-uke!
The strum I use is a basic 4 beat per measure, down-up down-up down-up down-up rhythm, with an accent on beats 2 and 4 (down-up DOWN-up down-up DOWN-up, or one and TWO and three and FOUR and). Play beats 1 and 3 quieter (or even just strings 3 and 4), and beats 2 and 4 harder and louder. When played fast it sounds like a freight train (hence the name freight train rhythm). I use my naked index finger (nail=down, pad=up). Some people use all 4 fingers or a large thin (floppy) guitar flat-pick.
For a small ensemble (fiddle, guitar, banjo), I use a soprano, or concert uke. The rhythmic strumming sound of a wooden uke makes a good aural pillow for the melodic knees and elbows of the fiddle and banjo! For larger jams, I’ll use a banjo-uke for its cutting power and volume! One modern practitioner of the old-time uke art is Jeff Claus (of the Horseflies). Jeff uses a banjo-uke with an 8 inch rim stuffed with foam rubber, and strung with heavy nylon strings (classical guitar), and strums with a large, thin fender pick! Jeff’s sound is more percussion than tone, and it really drives the band!
2. How do you bring out the melody of a fiddle tune on a ukulele?
There are 2 ways. One way is to put a low G string on a concert or tenor uke, and flat-pick it like a guitar. The low G gives you more range and bass. I use a Herco thumb-pick that looks like a flat-pick with a plastic loop that slips onto your thumb. That way I can pick melodies with the pick, and then play rhythm with my index finger for a mellower rhythm sound. the important thing to learn is pick direction (down for single quarter-notes, down-up for 2 eighth-notes) A teacher is helpful for learning this technique!
The other way is to use an Appalachian banjo technique known as clawhammer. This banjo style works on the uke because both instruments use a re-entrant tuning (a 4th or 5th string tuned higher, then a 3rd or 4th string tuned lower). Uke=gCEA, (4th to 1st) Banjo=gDGBD, or gCGCD (5th to 1st). The right hand is held in a “C” shape. The nail of the pointer or index finger strikes down on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd strings, and the pad of the thumb plucks down on the 4th string (most of the time). The technique is a little tricky to learn (especially the proper timing and execution of the thumb-pluck), but highly rewarding. By using hammer-ons, and pull-offs, along with various tunings (standard gCEA works well, I also like aCFG), you can get a nice melding of melody and rhythm!
Examples of both of these techniques can be found on my uke CD, Uke Life cut 1. claw-hammer on Turtles Dream, cut 7. flat-picking on Shoes and Stockings/Climb the Golden Stairs
3. Can you suggest any practice exercises to help build a solid rhythmic base to one’s playing?
First! Listen, Listen, Listen! If you want to play a certain style, listen to many examples of music in that style. If you want to play a certain piece of music, listen to it a lot, then listen some more! Get the tune in your head before you pick up your uke.
Next! Play, Play, Play! Play with a metronome, play along with recordings, Play with other people! Playing with a metronome is a challenge, but it makes you pay attention to your timing (my brother-in-law says, “This darn thing keeps slowing down!”). Play only as fast as you can comfortably play the tune. After a while, playing with that relentless clicking sound gets old! Try playing along with recordings. Today there are digital tools that let you adjust the pitch and speed of your recording (you can tune the recording to your instrument!). Playing with recordings gives you a feel for arrangements and dynamics, and lets you practice playing lead and rhythm!
Lastly! The most fun is playing with other people! (Uke clubs are Great for this!) I highly recommend finding two or three friends to play with, and getting together regularly (once a week, twice a month). Playing with others is one of the best ways to hone your skills (listening to the rest of the band, keeping steady rhythm, hearing the changes), and it can be a lot of FUN, which is what music is all about!