More weirdness on the Wagon Wheel…

So, after last night’s rant, I did some investigating on the transposition for Wagon Wheel for the ukulele, and turned up something kind of odd.

Your basic rule of thumb for transposing from guitar to uke is +5. That means go up five half steps. Well, when you do that, you get the C, G, Am, F of the lesson I learned.

So, why is it that there is only one lesson that seems to teach it that way, then? Further research reveals the Old Crow Medicine Show version has a notation ‘capo 2nd fret’. I don’t know if this is in the original, or just what one person on ultimate guitar did, mind.

But okay, if for uke you go +5, but you’re already at +2, what you need for a standard transposition is a +3. That would bring you to A#, F, Gm, D# – which I see used by no tutoral anywhere, but I did see a few done in A, so let’s go down from +3 to +2, and that gives you A, E, F#M, D.  As I sit here, I’m not quite sure why that became a thing that was standard enough that more than one youtube video decided it was the way to go, since it’s sort of a transposition for transposition’s sake…

So, it looks like what’s going on with this song is that the version I learned is an actual standard transposition for this tune. But, for some reason, no one actually transposes ‘Wagon Wheel’ for the uke, even though it’s pretty standard practice. I’m not quite sure why that is, but I have looked at oodles of videos trying to sleuth out what my ‘base’ should be, and for some unknown reason, it seems like almost no one does a standard transposition for the ukulele. The majority play G, D, Em, C – which are the guitar chords.  My best (wild) guess is this has to do with the instruments used in the Old Crow Medicine Show version of the song (which features banjos and occasionally a violin). Perhaps, in theory, since there are higher pitched instruments in this version – which for sake of expedience I’ll call the original version, with all due respect to Bob Dylan, who sketched the song, OCMS actually did the first completed version, I believe- the general consensus seems to be ‘why bother?’ when it comes to transposing. With a few outliers who transpose it normally, and others still who transpose it because… I don’t know, maybe they just like the key of A.

That leaves me with the dilemma of deciding whether to learn it in C or in G (I’m ignoring the possibility of A for now strictly because there is an E chord in that version, which is one of the harder chords to play on uke, and so I haven’t gotten around to learning it yet. So, for my purposes, I’m choosing to ignore the capo for the time being, even though it’s technically relevant.). I’ve already learned the chord progression for C, which would be a traditional transposition, but there is literally no other version of the song in C to play along with.  I can also learn the chord progression in G, since the original, and my fav version by Against Me! are both in G (for guitar), but I’ll be doing that with the knowledge that I am not actually transposing it.

I think the only thing I can do in this kind of awkward situation is to learn the chord progression both ways, and let my ears decide what I’m going to call ‘standard’, since there doesn’t actually appear to be a standard for Wagon Wheel on ukulele.  I’ve spent a bit of time tonight trying to play the progression in G, and while the switch from D to Em is a little rough right now, there is a very distinct tonal difference. Next to the progression in G, the version in C sounds downright peppy in spite of the Am. Given the overall tone of the tune, I suspect I’m going to prefer it in G.

It seems there’s two camps when it comes to transposing for uke: those who do it by default, and those who try the guitar chords and only reticently transpose if they don’t sound good. There’s no one specific answer, but there are the most popular answers, which seems to vary from song to song, or depending on which way the wind is blowing.

At the end of the day, I guess I’m learning this song both ways, since the standard version appears to be ‘there is no standard version’.  I guess that’s what happens when you start with an unfinished Dylan song, and then it gets covered by everyone who ever held an instrument.  Still, I do stand behind yesterday’s rant – because the root of it was that I can not learn the song effectively in C if no one plays it through from beginning to end that way. (I can learn it. Of course I can! But, I can’t get the most out of the lesson if I don’t have a decent point of reference.)

So, that’s where I stand. I am going to be learning the chord progression for Wagon Wheel in G, and probably the first verse, or the chorus, so I can compare the two versions and decide which one I want to learn from beginning to end. But, I can’t help but think the entire thing could have been handled in a much more coherent way than the way I’ve been forced to tackle it.

As an added bonus, it seems that no one can seem to agree on the  strum pattern.  My first lesson told me it was DD – UDU. Another lesson uses pretty much all down strums. Another uses that good ol’ DDUUDU…basically, no one can seem to agree on a single thing so far as Wagon Wheel is concerned. What’s a beginner to do? My best guess is improv the shit out of it. 🙂

Until Next Time, if we could all just make the words in our heads come out of our mouths, I wouldn’t have to do quite so much guesswork, but I guess all learning is learning. Even if sometimes all I’m learning is to just say ‘to hell with all of you, I’ll figure it out myself.’

2 thoughts on “More weirdness on the Wagon Wheel…

  1. Hi,

    I was intrigued to hear that you feel the need to ‘transpose’ from guitar to ukulele, as you play both instruments (as opposed to a guitarist who plays a uke as a one-off & does this as a quick fix to save having to learn new chord shapes).

    We’ve got a number of folk who play both instruments in our group but I’ve never heard any of them suggest that – we always go by the actual key (as that’s what the song sounds like), maybe changing it if it’s in a uke-unfriendly key (such as E or Eb which have chords more awkward to play for a ukulele) to something less finger-twisting or to adjust to the range of those singing it. A G chord is still a G chord whether played on a guitar, uke, piano etc…

    Maybe you have coincidentally picked a lot of songs in E to learn first? That’s apparently a really easy key for guitarists, hence a lot of popular tunes are written in it – yet has that ‘dreaded E chord’ on the uke? In that case, you might have seen folk talking about changing the key. But it’s certainly not standard practice to do so – just grab your chords from any old source & use them in that key, unless it suits you to transpose them.

    Sometimes it can be nice to play in the same key of a particular version, so you can sing along to the album track or YouTube. We play Wagon Wheel in G (ie using G, Dm, Em & C). I’m pretty sure that’s the key in which most of the main versions of the song are sung.

    (Amusingly, when we first started doing the song a couple of years ago, it was virtually unknown in the UK & we were unaware that anyone else was playing it. We knew there was a lot of baggage attached to it in the USA & that some places had actually banned it! But now more folk are playing it over here, too & it’s getting a similar reputation.)



  2. As for strumming pattern, there’s usually not just one pattern that fits a song – & most songs you can swap things around. For this, I think I largely play D – DU – UDU for each chord &, for the long C at the middle & end of each verse / chorus I do D – DU – UDU – UDU-UD. But others around me will be playing it slightly differently.

    Just use any patterns you see in lessons as a guide to get you started & do change them as you get your specific version together to fit your style & what feels/sounds best for you.


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