…that I didn’t learn playing guitar.

That’s such a loaded sentence, isn’t it? 🙂 But, it doesn’t make it any less relevant. And, it doesn’t mean you can’t – or won’t eventually – learn about these things learning guitar. It does mean – like earlier comments I’ve made about bass, that the ukulele poses some unique mental challenges that become more important, faster.

I’ve talked about how, since most bass exercises you find online are written out in music notation, it becomes important to learn music notation sooner, if you want to work through the exercises and articles on the web.  It’s not mandatory, but it’s something that your attention is drawn to earlier with bass than with guitar, because if a song exists, you CAN find guitar tab for it online. There is no shortage of resources for beginner guitarists to choose from, which – it turns out – is not something that can be assumed of all musical instruments.

That brings me to the ukulele (which has stolen my soul and refuses to give it back).  I’ve mentioned that I want to learn ‘In My Mind’ by Amanda Palmer (working on it), but as I was driving home from work a week or two ago, listening to tunes off the back wall, a certain song by the Flaming Lips came up on my ipod, and I got it in my head ‘I want to learn to play that song on the ukulele.  It sounds like it would be a really fun uke song.’  Well, that song has no uke tabs on the internet. It has guitar tabs on the internet, so that sent me on a data search.

I already knew the chords were different shapes between the two instruments. A D chord for guitar is the same shape as G chord for Ukulele. I do not have enough information in my brain yet to say if there’s a guitar chord shaped like an ukulele D chord. Different number of strings, in a different order – there’s a logic. F is evil on guitar and easy on Uke. E is borderline demonic on ukulele, but easy on guitar. It’s all a little different, is what I’m getting at. Though there’s a lot of overlap in concept and execution, the details change.

But, it got me wondering if I could use guitar tabs for ukulele, provided I know how to form those particular chord on the ukulele.  The answer, apparently, was ‘only sometimes’, because the key changes, and that doesn’t always work out well.

Ukulele players need to transpose guitar tabs in order to get them into a key that sounds right. There’s a formula for where to start (5 half steps) that sometimes works, and sometimes needs some tweaking. If you’re going to be singing along, that adds a level, as you want to transpose the song into a key that you can comfortably sing in.  These are things that make sense, but have not yet crossed my mind on guitar, and also haven’t really come up with the bass either.

So, my brain went ‘fuck. I have to learn to transpose? NOW?!’  I knew it was something I would have to learn eventually. I didn’t think it was something that was going to come up right away. And, I can keep learning songs like London Bridge, but I don’t want to. I will run through these songs a few times – it’s good exercise for learning chord shapes and transitions, but I’m sorry, I am not memorizing London Bridge. I am never going to play London Bridge in full. I want to learn songs that I’ll actually play. That’s why we learn instruments. The basic songs are good for learning new chords, for gaining some confidence, but there are plenty of FUN songs that use those same basic chords. SO, transposing it is.

It seemed a really daunting task in those first few moments. Transposing is a big, intimidating word to a newbie, and the information I need to do it I don’t really have committed to memory (I do have it taped to my desk near my computer).  But, what it amounts to is taking all the chords or notes you’re playing, and moving them each the same amount.  For lack of a better analogy, think hopscotch. You hop along from one end of the grid to the other, and even if you do it on one foot, your other foot is still coming with you. You’re not going to get to the end and look back to find your other leg at the starting line going ‘did you forget something?’.  Now, that probably just gave you a somewhat gory mental picture, and I’m sorry, but my point is it doesn’t make sense to move one thing without the other, and that is essentially the dumbed down version of what transposing means. All the parts that make up the song are moving from point A to point B, and they are doing so at the same interval so the melody remains in tact.

Now, I barely can wrap my head around the difference between half-steps and steps. I understand how they work in terms of the fretboard, but when speaking in more musical terms, my brain implodes a little. I’m just too new at this to really understand on a deep level, because music seems to exist in a part of the brain that’s just hard to really put in words and handy little boxes that logic-brain can than label and color code and put on shelves. Logic-brain and I are old friends, so when it comes to reading about things like steps and half-steps, music-brain is like this strange interloper who comes into your house drunk, messes up your shit, flops down on your couch and says ‘I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?’  Logic-brain is too polite to kick Music-Brain out of the house, so they’re frenemies who need to learn to coexist, and that takes time and exposure that a newbie like me just doesn’t have yet.

So, I don’t wholly understand steps and half-steps on a deep level, but I do know how to count, and the good news is that’s really all I need to transpose. That, and ears. Conveniently, the ears are hard to leave behind.

The rule of ukulele is to move up five half steps, and it turns out, Ultimate Guitar has a handy little button that will transpose for you. Sweet! That’s going to save some time, and saving times means I can try a bunch of different transpositions really quickly to settle on the one that feels right.

Now, with these two bits of knowledge:

1) transposing means moving all the chords an equal amount of places.

2) the standard starting point for ukulele from guitar is up 5 half steps.

…I realized why the first song I learned never sounded quite right when I play along with youtube. I thought it was just me not being very good, but it’s a bit more involved than that.

A) I am playing in a different key. The original guitar chords are A D E.

B) Transposed with the standard +5 for ukulele makes that D G A.

C) But the lesson I’m learning didn’t transpose it +5, it transposes it +3, making the song C F G.

It doesn’t matter how good I get, playing a song progression in a totally different key than the other instruments is always going to sound off, and knowing that makes me feel better about my playing. It also means that I might actually be able to sing along without sounding like someone’s murdering a frog, if I transpose into a key that’s comfortable for me to sing. (Bob Marley and I have vocal ranges that are a LIIITTTTLLLLEEEE different. lol.)

I also figured out pretty quickly why the instructor chose to transpose 3 half steps up for the first ukulele lesson: she transposed the number of steps required to get an easy chord progression for someone who is playing ukulele for the first time.  It had boggled my mind before why she was playing it so much differently than any other tab I found. Now, I know. C, F, and G are all relatively easy chords on the ukulele. D is a little harder, E is harder than that. So, it would be hugely discouraging for a first lesson to learn a song with D and E chords right out of the gate.  The difference in chords was an unsolvable mystery until I figured out transposing was something I was going to have to learn about, and fast, if I wanted to learn the songs I wanted to learn.  Now I’m going to try that song with a +5 transposition in D G A, and compare the difference in tone. (let the mad music experiments commence!)

The next thing I’ve learned from ukulele that I haven’t noticed on guitar (but probably would have, admittedly, if it was my primary instrument):

Strumming patterns that sound good on an electric instrument, with a full band, won’t necessarily make any sense on acoustic. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out this strumming pattern yesterday. I could hear it, but I couldn’t seem to replicate it. I looked up videos on how to figure out strumming patterns, I even tried to cheat and see if there were any tabs with the strumming pattern noted (there weren’t). It was infuriating, because I could hear the strumming pattern – I could hear the difference between up strokes and down strokes. I could tap it out with my fingers…

…and then I realized there was actually a really prominent bass line that muddied up the guitar in a lot of spots and made it almost inaudible. That the guitar and bass were lending to one another in a way that often made them sound like one instrument if you weren’t listening really closely. A lot of what I thought was part of the guitar strumming pattern was actually the bass line washing it out. And that, because of that, driving myself crazy trying to find the original strumming pattern wasn’t really the best plan of attack. I know the overall flow of the song, and the strumming pattern I was hearing wasn’t working when I tried to play it. It was too busy, too muddy.  So, I threw that out the window and determined that what I really needed to do was break it down to a strumming pattern that, paired with the right chords, would sound good against the words. I needed to essentially rebuild this song in a way that made sense for the instrument playing it.  Now, that’s a hell of a realization for a beginner – that the way the song is originally played may not necessarily be the best way for the instrument playing it, and that allowances need to be made for the differences between electric and acoustic instruments.

I spent all day picking that song apart. ALL. DAY. I finally cracked at 2 am when my eyes started drooping and my fingers no longer wanted to play ball (or ukulele, or anything else). But, I’ve got a very solid start on reconstructing the song for the instrument I want to play it on, and that’s a huge step.

…and I learned that even a nylon stringed instrument can make your fingertips tender if you play it long enough.

And, that what I am playing on the ukulele actually sounds like music, if the roomie is any indication. He walked by my door and said “That’s the instrument you’re going to perfect first.”  I didn’t argue that there’s no such thing as perfecting an instrument, but with a sense of pride that I was making something that sounded good, I said “well, yeah, it’s the easiest to play.”

But, not necessarily the easiest to learn. If I’ve learned anything from deciding to learn multiple instruments simultaneously, it’s that each one presents its own unique challenges to overcome. With ukulele the challenge is mental and creatively stimulating. With bass, the challenge is not getting frustrated that every lesson I read is drilling the four fingers per fret rule, which, since I can only span 3, means I have to find ways to modify every exercise I come across, and that often defeats the original purpose of the exercise. With guitar…well, don’t even get me started on guitar. lol.  Sufficed to say, six strings is apparently more than my brain is ready to process, but I’m working on it.

All instruments present unique challenges, and working on three at once (with different levels of priority, admittedly) means I’m looking at music with a very broad scope that helps me big picture things pretty quickly. The smaller details will come with time.

Until Next Time, it seems for the time being, the ukulele has stolen my soul, and is not going to give it back until it can play the Flaming Lips. 🙂

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