The Ukulele is a stringed instrument, commonly with four strings, and part of the guitar family.  Guitar family instruments have a long and storied history, and their principal use until microphones and amplification was as an accompaniment instrument for a solo singer.  In medieval Europe, the Troubadours, playing with guitar ancestors,  the lutes and vihuelas, were prime examples of why guitar family instruments have generally maintained popularity throughout the centuries.  While Troubadours played in ensembles from time to time, they generally played solo and sang.  This is the common perception for them, and so when we use that term in this part, it will imply that common idea of the Troubadour as a solo singer / player. ********************************************************* With its easy approachability, the Ukulele was once the most popular musical instrument in America.   In its heyday, the Harmony Company by itself produced over 500,000 Ukuleles in a single year, and for a country with half the population we have today. The Ukulele sold in such huge quantities for a number of reasons.  One of those was its small, portable size.  The Jazz Age was a time of greater freedom in almost every aspect of life.  The advent of affordable auto transportation had a lot to do with that, and the portability of the Ukulele fit in with the new sense of loosened restraints many felt with their new automobiles.  The Ukulele was small enough to “come along for the ride” and that sense of freedom people felt in the Jazz Age seems palpable even today.  In addition to that portability, the low volume of an acoustic wooden bodied Ukulele was also an advantage to the casual music maker.  That low volume is actually beautifully aligned with the volume of the untrained human voice.  A trained singer in the days of the Ukuleles’ ascent, a time before microphones and amplification were common, was not only trained for greater vocal range, but for greater volume as well.  That volume, and even the range, were skills of a trained singer that were unnecessary for the average player of the little Ukulele - a player who made music for more intimate settings. Then, the Ukulele was easy to play simply because of the physical make-up of the instrument.  Relatively small, both in total size, and in it’s fretboard, it was easy to manage.  With only four strings, it was easy to chord.  And this was the typical way to play the Ukulele - strumming chords and singing.  There may have never been a better combination of elements for the average person to sing popular songs, and that holds true to this day.  Singing and strumming is still “the essential Ukulele”. But at least as important as all those factors was the way most players learned to play the Ukulele.  Almost miraculously, for the first time unschooled musicians were able to pick up and play a musical instrument in a fraction of the time it took with the standard instruments of the day.  Again, Freedom!  This time freedom from the restraints of formal music training.  So how did it become so easy for unschooled players to use the Ukulele to make music?  How did this “Miracle of the Ukulele” occur?  *************************************** “Simplicity of approach” in its days of widespread popularity, best sums up why the Ukulele became the common man’s path to making music.  New innovations were the key in making things so easy.  First were a pair of innovations in early 20th century technology: the radio and the phonograph.  No longer did you have to read sheet music to learn the melody of a song.  You could hear a song “over the airwaves”, or buy a phonograph record, and learn a melody that way.  But once you knew that melody, you still had to have a way to learn to accompany yourself on the Ukulele.  This is where an innovation of the sheet music industry came into play.  In Part 2, we mentioned May Singhi Breen, the original “Ukulele Lady”, who established Ukulele Standard Tuning (the Key of D).  But she did much more than this.  In a truly monumental accomplishment, she was a driving force behind the introduction of chord diagrams onto sheet music.  These first began to appear in the early 1920s, and while guitar diagrams are also plentiful, it was the Ukulele that was the impetus for their introduction. Now, let’s illustrate the process for the players of that era with an example.  One of my Uncles, part of “the Greatest Generation” has loved and played the Ukulele since boyhood.  As is typical of the Ukulele Troubadours of that day, he doesn’t read sheet music or have any understanding of music theory.  We’ll use a song he often plays - purposefully one that few today would recognize - to show just how that process went.  It’s a song called “That Old Gang of Mine”.   Written in the 1920’s, my uncle more than likely heard this later version from the ‘40s by Peggy Lee:      Today, of course, you still have recorded music and radio as well as multiple other sources such as this YouTube posting to the right (and it’s amazing how many vintage pieces are posted on that resource).  So at this point, you also can learn the melody to this song simply by hearing it.  Then, as players did long ago, you can turn to the publishing industry’s innovation: “Ukulele Sheet Music”, for the rest of the process.  This new Ukulele Sheet Music was really nothing more than standard sheet music with the addition of chord diagrams.  But since the typical Ukulele Troubadour usually couldn’t read the standard musical notation in the clefs, all he or she looked for were the chord diagrams.  Those were then applied to a tune already learned from the radio or phonograph.  But take a look at the sheet music for “That Old Gang”.  Classic Ukulele sheet music was written in a wide variety of keys and tunings.  You’ll see with this one the tuning for the Ukulele is to the Key of D (a’ d’ f#’ b’), the most common tuning throughout the Ukulele’s history.  But notice that below the tuning diagram, there is the direction to place a capo behind the first fret.  That effectively raises the tuning to an E flat.  A lot of players who have learned from today’s methods take one look at all that and run away as fast as they can.  The assumptions are often that the chords will have to be transposed back to C tuning for today’s player to be able to play them.  This illustrates how teaching players to learn chords primarily by alphabetical names can sometimes limit flexibility and understanding when it comes to Troubadour tuning. Since the classic Ukulele sheet music could be written for D tuning, C tuning, E flat, B flat and more, the mistaken impression some receive from this music is that Jazz Age players were much more schooled in music theory than the players of today.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth!  What was always assumed in those days was that the average Ukulele player knew enough to pay no attention whatsoever to the tuning instructions or the chord names.  Those things were for that rare occasion when a player might actually be playing with a Jazz band.  Since microphones weren’t common then and the Ukulele’s low volume meant it wasn’t a great candidate for an acoustic ensemble to begin with, those arrangements were intended more for that rare bird, the “recording artist”.  So don’t think for a second that the huge majority of players paid any attention to any of the musical notation.  Although gut and nylon strings allow a lot of flexibility, players generally weren’t retuning their instruments for every other song.  There weren’t 4 versions of each song, so everyone could “play their favourite tuning”.  They weren’t avoiding their favourite songs either, just because they couldn’t find sheet music in their “preferred tuning”. The typical Troubadour in those days didn’t have the musical knowledge, the inclination or the necessity to figure out a transposed arrangement in another key. Those chord diagrams – the little tic-tac-toe boxes - this is all most people paid any attention to – those chord shapes.   Not to the tuning – not to the names of the chords.  After all, the chord names and tuning only mattered if - and only if - other instruments joined in. So combine the wide variety of tunings on classic sheet music with the incorporation of these new chord diagrams, and the unsurprising outcome was that most players didn’t associate the chord shapes with any particular chord name at allWhy would they, as there was little consistency from one piece of sheet music to the next in regard to tuning?  As a result, the average Ukulele player just tuned where they wanted, played whatever chord shape progressions were diagramed on the sheet music, and that was that. In the same way then, modern Troubadours can play “That Old Gang”, and play it with their instruments tuned anywhere.  If you’ve learned C tuning alphabetical names, for example, then look in the third bar over the word “fellows”.  You’ll recognize that shape as what you might know as a “C” chord, even though in this case it’s called “E flat”.  You’ll likely recognize the shapes of a lot of the other chords as well.  Just play those shapes, no matter where you’re tuned, and you can play the song.  You now are playing as the majority of Ukulele players did in the instruments golden age.  Now, no matter what tuning is called for, as an Ukulele Troubadour, you can play the song without ever changing your tuning or transposing the chords, simply by playing the shapes of the diagrams. Understanding this practice, however, is not even half the story of classic Ukulele Troubadour tuning.   We’ll look at the rest on page 2.       


Part 5: Tuning for the Troubadour (page 1)

Troubadour - Page 2 Troubadour - Page 2
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May Singhi Breen