Bluesman James Clem grew up in southern California listening to the sounds of blues legends Bukka White, Lightin’ Hopkins and others at the famous Ash Grove folk club in Los Angeles during the mid-1960’s. This began a lifelong musical relationship with the blues. A National guitar player since the early 70’s, James now also plays a National reso-phonic ukulele. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.
1. How has your knowledge of guitar and slide guitar helped develop your ukulele style?
It has been invaluable in playing the uke in that I have studied the playing styles of so many players and so many different genres. While blues has always been number one with me, like most musicians I have gone thru various phases and I would totally immerse myself in western swing, twenties jazz, ragtime blues, etc. That knowledge does not come overnight. What many ukulele players do not realize is that just about anything on a recording can be played on the uke. That funky New Orleans R & B horn line? Yes, Bub, you can play that on our little friend! When you learn a song you should ask yourself “what makes this song special?”. If it is a catchy riff and you do not play that riff in your version you have left out that very thing that made you like the tune in the first place.
The guitar and uke are very similar in that you can play rhythm and single string leads as well. One of the things I love about the vintage blues guitar players is the way could play a strong rhythm and an intricate lead line at the same time or throw that single string lick in when you least expect it (and doing a great vocal as well). These guys were basically a one man band. That style can be adapted to the ukulele. One thing that many uke players overlook is the need to work on their vocals. Unless you are doing all instrumentals, you better learn to sing and the best way to do that is just sing along with recordings (hopefully, when no one is around, or in your car) and pretty soon you will get the hang of it. You can’t go wrong by listening to vintage blues and jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Big Bill Broonzy and so many others. There is a treasure trove of music out there to dig into that most people do not know even exists.
2. Are there scale patterns specific to the blues that you practice?
This may sound crazy, but I never practice scales. My musical upbringing was very primitive in that when I was learning back in the sixties there were no videos, very few teachers or even books to show you how to play blues guitar. It was all trial and error and learning songs and riffs from records. But we were copying the sound they were getting and when you learn a song from tablature that is often missing. Tab sounds like playing by numbers at times. That is why listening to the greats is so important. After many years you amass hundreds (or thousands) of these fills, rhythms, accents and you learn to slip them into any tune. On the ukulele I learn three positions for each chord on the fretboard for each song and walk up or down (with those darn scales or a chromatic single string line) between the various inversions. I strongly recommend you learn to play the melody of the tune and you will be surprised how easy it is to play that melody just by jumping from one inversion to another. Noodling around when learning a tune is encouraged. Improvising is not rocket science. Often players are just tweaking the melody with various tricks such as hammer ons, pulls offs, a bend here and there and jumping back and forth between lead and rhythm. Try playing a chord solo just using different chord inversions higher up the neck. A simple, but effective tool most jazz guitarists use.
3. Are there special challenges in playing a reso-phonic ukulele?
Yes. A resonator uke needs to be played with a lot of string damping and a light touch or your sound can be turned into a big mess. Reso’s have a lot of sustain and the some heavy handed playing can build into almost a distorted sound. One thing I like about resonator ukes is they are very mic friendly. I never felt I needed a pickup to be heard.
One thing that most uke players should think about is using a very light touch when strumming or fretting. So many players think that by bashing as hard as they can they are really creating a strong groove, but the opposite is true. A good swing rhythm should be damped every other beat and it is that silence that helps give it its drive. Your great jazz rhythm guitar players such as Freddy Green played a subtle style of rhythm that could barely be heard but it swing, swang and swung like crazy. Next time you and your uke friends get together try to get everyone to play quieter and you will be amazed how good it sounds.