On the previous page we concluded by discussing how Ukulele players of the Golden Age played primarily through the use of “symbols”, the chord diagrams, as opposed to learning alphabetical names for their chords.  Also how they generally disregarded the tuning instruction in the process.  But that sort of approach to reading music almost inevitably leads to a particular approach to tuning as well. If you aren’t paying attention to the chord or tuning names, it means you also don’t have to pay attention to tuning to any particular set of notes.  And most players didn’t.   Remember, fixed note tuning for guitar family instruments was still a new concept, felt to be more for “formal players”. Also remember that this was a time before electronic tuners - tuning was by ear.  So why would a solo player need or want to inject an additional step, as for instance a “pitch pipe”, into the tuning process.  It’s still tuning by ear, so why not just skip the extra equipment – the extra step – and tune the instrument to itself?  Most Ukulele players of that time, in other words, used Interval Tuning Maybe we could even call it “Flea Tuning”, as Ukulele players commonly knew a little 4 note tune called “My Dog Has Fleas”, and many used that little song as a tuning aid - tuning their open strings. Simplicity, however, was far from the only reason for this sort of tuning.  Interval Tuning also gave the typical Jazz Age Troubadour a big advantage over tuning to a fixed set of notes.  For those largely untrained singers, it also meant you could set your tuning at a pitch that was comfortable to sing with. At this point we’ll bring back an important quote from Part 4.  From the Santos & Nunes “Original Method”: “For those familiar with the Tonic Sol-Fa system, the procedure will seem very simple.  Call the 1st sol (and get the pitch to suit the range of your voice)...” Note that last phrase (emphasis ours).  This is what can make Interval Tuning so useful for the Troubadour.  If the “essential Ukulele” is accompaniment for voice, and especially untrained voice, then the instrument needs to be able to adapt itself to that untrained voice to be truly effective.  And truly effective it was. So again, “get the pitch to suit the range of your voice”.  In other words, tune the Ukulele in Intervals, but at a pitch that makes it comfortable for you to sing.  “That Old Gang”, for example, requires a fairly wide vocal range, so it would be important for most casual singers to have it at a pitch they could handle.  My Uncle uses this song as a benchmark, so to speak. As an informal musician he has never heard the term “Tonic Solfa”.  But the common shared experience of the players of that day led him to the same methodology.  If you ask him to play, he’ll pull his old “Le Domino” Soprano off the shelf, dust it off and then instead of “flea tuning” he uses a fret tuning procedure.  He’ll also hum along, but instead of “Fleas” it will be a few notes of “That Old Gang”.  In less than half a minute, not only will he be ready to play, but his Ukulele will be tuned to a range of notes that’s comfortable for him to sing along with.  In other words, he’ll “get the pitch to suit the range of (his) voice”.  Apparently he discovered at some point, that the pitch he tunes to for “That Old Gang” works for him for a wide selection of his other favourites as well.  That’s why it’s his “benchmark”.  Other folks would do it using only the Flea song.  With either reentrant or linear tuning, the 3rd string is the root, so many people find it easiest to key in on that string for their vocal pitch and then tune the other strings around the 3rd. *************************************** Of course that system has its limitations.  Most players in those days had only one instrument.  The plain gut and nylon strings that the traditional reentrant tunings used on the common Soprano and sometimes Concert Ukuleles of that day had a certain range of flexibility, a bit more than you would have now, for example with a wound string set; but still, you couldn’t tune up or down enough on any single instrument to cover every arrangement for every voice and always get decent sound or tension.  So for those with one instrument, singing along with certain arrangements would still simply be too far out of their vocal range.  Not generally knowing how to transpose the arrangements meant that songs where you couldn’t “get the pitch to suit” had to go by the wayside.  But one well-known entertainer of the era found a unique solution to that dilemma.  George Formby was one of the most famous Ukulele players of his time.  Like most of the casual players, he also didn’t read music, but was a skilled and polished entertainer nonetheless.  As a singer, though, he had nothing even close to an operatic vocal range.  He primarily played Banjo Ukuleles.  That gave him two advantages.  First, the Banjo Ukulele has greater projection than a wood bodied Ukulele in a concert stage setting, and second, its drum  body isn’t nearly as restricted in regards to acoustics as a wood body.  This gave him the opportunity to tune a series of his instruments to a wide range of pitch, still get good sound from them, and be able to play simple effective chord progressions that he was comfortable playing at a pitch he was comfortable singing with.  He would have a number of instruments, and would write the name of a song on the drum head skin. He would know that a Banjo-Uke labeled “Washing Windows”, for example, would also be at a good pitch for singing “Leaning on the Lamppost”. Today, Formby’s system can work for a great number of modern players, even with wooden bodied instruments.  Now Ukuleles are popular and available in a full range of sizes, and many players have more than one Ukulele.  So - if you’re comfortable playing different scale lengths, then the obvious way to go is to tune your bigger Ukuleles to a deeper range of notes, and the smaller Ukuleles to a higher range.  A side benefit is that you should get better sound from your instruments - bigger wood bodied Ukuleles naturally accommodate deeper tunings, while smaller ones are more at home at a higher pitch.  So if you find yourself straining to sing the high notes of a song with one of your smaller instruments, for example, then just grab one of the bigger ones.  Play the same arrangement, and now the lower pitch fits that arrangement to your voice! A positive development we see now with Ukulele players is that more and more folks are playing instrumental music on the Ukulele.  This is something we see as a welcome expansion of the instruments capabilities.  Nonetheless, it seems sometimes as though “the essential Ukulele” is being diminished.  In some part, this trend might be attributed to the number of people who feel their singing is just not good enough.  Of course singing, like playing, improves with practice, but the beauty of the traditional Interval Tuning method was that getting started with singing became easier.  Unlike with fixed note tuning, the instrument adapts itself to the vocalists range - especially important if that range is limited.  So just like the false impression that the Jazz Age Troubadour had a better knowledge of music theory than today’s player, the idea that Jazz Age Troubadours were better trained singers is erroneous as well.  They may have been better singers, but that’s because they sang more.  And they sang more, because the way they tuned - in unfixed intervals - made it easier to get started.  So if you feel you haven’t got the voice for singing, consider it again and this time make it easy on yourself.  Then raise that joyful voice! *************************************** But we’d now like to say one final word about the sheet music of the Golden Age.  We’re not talking so much about the structure now, but the content.  With the development of any new instrument, a repertoire - something that people will enjoy playing, is key to that instrument’s success.  You could make a case for the Ukulele having the finest repertoire for any instrument when it comes to the classic American Songbook. Many feel that song writing was at its apogee during the Jazz Age.  Tin Pan Alley was in it’s glory, and the song writing profession attracted more people than it probably has ever had.  It so happened that during this period, the most popular instrument in America, and the one people used most to sing these songs was the Ukulele. As such, the writers in that day didn’t just consider the Ukulele when writing their songs - in the majority of cases they were actually writing for the Ukulele.  In other words, some of the greatest compositions of Tin Pan Alley and the Jazz Age were not adapted for the Ukulele, they were Ukulele compositions to begin with.  Most of the songwriters played Ukulele, and if they didn’t feel adequate in their arranging capabilities, they would often collaborate with people who knew the instrument well.  The name May Singhi Breen, for example, is listed on more sheet music than any other person in the history of American music, and her arrangements are always top shelf.  As a result of some of the finest composers in American song writing for the Ukulele, most of the arrangements can be truly wonderful.  Not every one of course, and you will likely modify some of them to suit your taste.  Still, so many manage to strike a fine balance between being beautiful and compelling while remaining simple to play.  There is nothing that complicated about the arrangement for “That Old Gang”, for example, but the turnarounds, and use of diminished chords are the little touches that can make a song much richer.  With the original music, you usually get the introduction as well, which adds a whole new dimension.  In contrast, much of today’s Ukulele sheet music often has nothing but the bare minimum verse with basic chords simply slapped on as rapidly as possible, with predictably dull and boring results.  Hopefully this part of our series has shown how anyone can play this classic sheet music, regardless of your tuning, and hopefully more will take advantage of the Ukulele’s wonderful classic repertoire.  Even if the music of this era is not your first love, the progressions and chords you become acquainted with through this music will stay in your ear, and can later be used to enrich music of other styles. To hear a particular composition, YouTube, as we mentioned earlier, is a surprising source.  For early 20th century song, the Vintage Recordings site has a great selection, including works by Ukulele artists such as Wendell Hall and Johnny Marvin:                                                   http://vintage-recordings.com/index.shtml Probably the largest selection, though the focus is more toward mid-century, are the various Jazzology labels from the George Buck foundation here in New Orleans.  They don’t have a lot of strictly Ukulele work, but you will find the famous Cliff Edwards solo sessions from the 1940s:                                                http://www.jazzology.com/index.php But don’t look at these sources so much as places for vintage Ukulele recordings.  If you’re a Troubadour style player yourself, then these are the places you can hear and learn the melodies of the classic sheet music.  Then look for the sheet music itself.  Ebay has literally thousands of titles, but there’s an incredible source that can cut your search down to nothing and save a tremendous amount of not just time, but expense as well. Ian Chadwick, Ukulele enthusiast par excellence, has put over 7,500 pieces of vintage sheet music onto .pdf files and offers them at a fraction of what I’m sure it cost him to acquire them.  A labour of true love, find them here:                                           http://www.vintageukemusic.com/index.htm *************************************** So those were the basic strengths of the Ukulele in its great flush of glory: portability, ease of play, adaptability to the untrained human voice and a fabulous repertoire that was accessible to the untrained musician.  And so as a result, when the Ukulele came to the mainland, new Jazz Age Troubadours sprung up everywhere!  But compared to other instruments, the history of the Ukulele has been very brief, and unfortunately, very fractured.  Since that great initial wave of Ukulele popularity, the instrument dropped almost completely off the map of public awareness – it left the scene for almost a generation.  Despite one brief revival, the sort of knowledge about a popular instrument and how it is played – the sort of knowledge that passes uninterrupted from one generation to the next when an instrument is an essential part of the culture;  that sort of knowledge essentially stopped with the Ukulele, at least on the U.S. mainland.  The knowledge of its capabilities and possibilities, developed from the experience of millions of players in the peak of its popularity, was largely lost. The recent revival is in many ways starting again from scratch.  Practically all sheet music now is written in a single tuning.  Almost all tuning is done to a single fixed set of notes.  The old approaches are not just largely unknown, if and when they are ever brought up, they are usually dismissed - generally for a prejudice that existed from the very beginning of the Ukulele - a prejudice that today might be even stronger.  In the beginning, there was widespread disdain among “Musicians” of the day to the titanic wave of Ukulele popularity.  Unwashed masses were suddenly “making music”, and while there were certainly some trained musicians in this horde of Ukulele players, most of them were like that Formby fellow.  They were completely unschooled and yet the “common people” seemed to be greatly entertained with their simple strumming and singing.  That such success should come so easily to this uneducated mob of new style troubadours obviously was, and still is, a bitter pill to swallow for those who have studied for years in the traditional path. May Singhi Breen was truly a contradictory figure in the establishment of the “identity of the Ukulele”, if ever there was one.  A brilliant arranger and player on the one hand, she was still part of the general movement in those days for establishing fixed tunings for guitar family instruments.  She did it with the Ukulele, of course, and may well have felt this was a step toward gaining respectability for her beloved instrument.  The American Federation of Musicians, for example, at first wouldn’t even allow the Ukulele to be considered as a musical instrument.  The Kazoo, on the other hand, had already gained that classification, so this gives you an idea of how strong the prejudices were.  Later when they relented on this point, they still wouldn’t consider mastery of the Ukulele as valid for admission to their Union since it was nothing but a “fun toy which isn’t allowed in orchestras, and anyone can make noise on it in a matter of days”.  May, along with Cliff Edwards and others eventually broke the resistance down, convincing the AFM at last, that the Ukulele could be played formally in the manner of standard musical instruments.  In the meantime “the mob” generally continued to take advantage of the conveniences May herself helped put in place with Ukulele sheet music and they continued on down a more informal path with little regard for traditional structure.     That disdain for the mere “Ukulele Player” still exists today.  It’s taken a bit different form, however.  Now, the very possibility of the untrained Ukulele Player is called into question.  There’s often not even an understanding of how such a thing can exist.  The idea of free-style Interval Tuning is completely foreign to almost everyone who has learned from modern methods.  Methods in general need some sort of structure in their approach, but today’s methods take the approach that to learn the Ukulele you need to learn it as if it were primarily a band instrument.   The easiest way to approach that sort of a situation is through fixed note tuning and at least some knowledge of music theory.  In other words, the idea with modern methods is to make all Ukulele players into more traditional “Musicians”.   Unfortunately for some people taking up the instrument today, those who want nothing more than the skills of the Troubadour, the modern methods lead people to believe the whole process has to be a lot more structured.  And so some Ukulele players, who in general still love the instrument in part because of it’s simplicity, are now presented with a series of unnecessary obstacles. A modern player wanting only a fun and convenient way to make music for the “essential Ukulele” today finds he has to take on the skills that are really only necessary for ensemble playing.  You learn unnecessary chord names.  You may find you struggle with an uncomfortable tension.  You may now feel that since you are locked into a set of notes for your tuning, you’ll either need to start training your voice, learn to transpose, train and study for both those skills, or just forget about singing altogether.   And so the old prejudices of the “Musician” have now taken the field.  If you don’t learn the “right way” (whatever that is), you’ll have trouble “down the road”.  That road presumably leads to what “real musicians” do, which is to play in a band.  You may be grudgingly allowed to deviate if “you just want to play by yourself”.  Obviously the ability to be a good solo player is considered by many to be a very secondary skill.  *************************************** But there’s no need to feel any way of playing is “inferior” if it pleases you and those who listen.  Among musicians, the tendency to vilify someone else’s approach to making music is seen all too often.  “Band Musicians”, those who most often feel the need to point out the “shortcomings” of the old-time players, should really be the last to do this sort of thing.  In the world of the classical guitar, for example, it is these very same ensemble players who have often been marginalized as the “lesser musicians”.  The true master or “Maestro”, after all, is usually a solo player.  While he may occasionally play with an orchestra in the background, or in a small ensemble, it is his dedication to pure acoustic sound, and the subtle tones and colours it produces that some say puts him at a higher level.  The delicate tone and flourishes of the virtuoso simply aren’t best appreciated in a group setting.  Thus the common prejudice that goes the other way: that “band players” are an inferior form of musician.  They’re simply pedestrian performers, not capable of the breadth and depth of expression that merits interest or can hold attention in a solo setting.  They’re serviceable in their chorus role, but “not good enough to be soloists”. None of these prejudices are useful at all.  What we stated was our intention in this series at the end of Part 4 was to show what approaches to tuning could prove useful for various “jobs” - in other words for various goals in playing the Ukulele.  And make no mistake, we are not in any way, shape or form against Ukulele players becoming formal musicians.  Being able to read music in a formal sense and transpose arrangements is essential for many types of playing, and lots of people will find the acquisition of that knowledge rewarding in and of itself. But for the goals of making music Troubadour style, those things just aren’t necessary.  Transposing on the Ukulele, for that matter, will often lead to less than satisfactory results.  When working with only four strings, transposed arrangements often won’t play as easily or sound as nice.  It’s easier to work around those problems on the longer scaled instruments, but then again maybe that Formby fellow wasn’t such a clod after all.  Consider that millions of players in the instruments golden age might just have had some idea what they were up to.  Consider that they may have mainly been about “having fun”, and wanted to get there as quickly and easily as possible.  We’d love to see a massive new wave of Ukulele Troubadours take the stage, and the simpler the process the more will join in; so look at this part of the series as our contribution to the Community Chest. Now we’ll move on to look at some other “jobs”, and ways to tune for them.


Part 5: Tuning for the Troubadour (page 2)

Next Part Next Part
George Formby
Troubadour - Page 1 Troubadour - Page 1