TUNING YOUR UKULELE

Part 6:  Tuning for the Group (page 2)

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On the previous page we were talking about what we called the “Flamenco” approach to the Ukulele.  On this page, we want to discuss something that we’ll define as the “Classical” approach.  We don’t mean that term, however, as defining a way to play “Classical Music”, but an approach based on the way classical stringed instruments in general are tuned and played. The Ukulele seems to us to be at a new stage in its development.  Throughout most of its history, the Soprano Ukulele was the dominant instrument.  As such, what we’ve here called the “Flamenco” approach, one that could also be called a “single tuning” approach, was a logical first step.  While May Singhi Breen first helped establish the single “Ukulele Standard” tuning as a reentrant form in the Key of D (a’ d’ f#’ b’), today it is usually shifted down a step to C tuning (mainly in two forms).  As we outlined in Part 2, however, the principal reason for the shift was to accommodate new Ukulele sizes.  It was mainly shifted down to continue that “Flamenco approach” in a way would include the Concert and Tenor sizes.  Now that the Baritone has started to gain in popularity, the Flamenco approach, in the form of C tuning, is being extended to that size as well (we ourselves have had a fair amount to do with that).  But with four Ukulele sizes now, it seems there is also room for another approach, especially when it comes to group play. ************************************************* What we’re calling the “Classical” approach in this series is not a “single tuning” approach.  Our definition of the Classical approach is one in which each instrument is tuned and strung to get the best tone and playability out of its size and scale. And while it’s true there are different sized guitars, guitars are justifiably played much more the like the Ukulele has been played throughout most of it’s history.  The guitar, like the Ukulele once was, is dominantly played in one size (and therefore the one tuning).  But it’s good to remember that while the Ukulele and Guitar are members of the same family and share many characteristics, there are differences as well, and the fact that there are four modern Ukulele sizes being commonly played today is perhaps the biggest difference of all.  The better comparison for acoustic group tuning for the Ukulele then, comes not from the guitar at all, but rather from the Violin family, and the structure of the String Quartet.  In the Violin family, like with the Ukuleles, you have four distinct sizes, though only three of them are customary in the String Quartet: a pair of Violins, a Viola and a Cello.  The tunings are in linear 5ths with the highest pitch on the Violins, and then descending down in steps on the other two members.  The principal reason for doing this is not only for the best tone and playability for each individual instrument, but to establish a group of instruments suitable for ensemble play.  It is to give each instrument a distinct voice, one that will allow a more complicated interplay between instruments, where they can take on different roles, play different passages and with those different voices, still be clearly heard.  This video shows an acoustic String Quartet playing a song made famous partly through the use of an Ukulele.  Of course there are a lot of differences between the two families.  The Violin family instruments make use of a bow, and this gives them more volume.  When combined with the plucking and strumming, they have a great variety in sound as well.  In this video, the lead Violin essentially takes the vocal part in the pop song; as such it’s then being “backed” by an instrumental trio, so to speak, but this is a common way to structure songs for a quartet.  Most importantly, the sort of dynamic with the interplay of instruments heard here would not be anywhere near as effective if all the instruments were tuned to the same pitch.  Because of the difference in volume, you wouldn’t want Ukuleles in a Violin family ensemble, but if tuned in this Classical style, the Ukulele family itself, with relatively equal projection among it’s members, could certainly be very effective formed in this general sort of acoustic group.  It’s an ensemble which uses graduated tunings or in other words “different voices”.  This allows the more complicated interplay.  It’s the kind of structure, after all, that’s used in most group playing, not just in classical music.  This is what we see as the potential for a new style of group acoustic Ukulele play.  Of course this sort of approach doesn’t currently exist with the Ukulele.  Still, we think it’s important to bring it up; we think it’s a key to the instrument’s continuing development.  Byron Yasui is Professor Emeritus of Composition and Theory at the Music Department of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, besides being one of the Ukulele’s finest contemporary players.  He has proposed a fixed series of graduated tunings for the Ukulele family.  Noted player, Ukulele historian and Luthier Joel Eckhaus has done the same thing.  If you look at the acoustics of the instruments, it’s not surprising Byron & Joel’s recommendations are so similar in pitch (we’ll also give some guides for establishing such things in Part 9).  And in point of fact, this is not truly a foreign concept to the Ukulele.  The foundation of the Ukulele wasn’t actually built on a Flamenco approach at all; the early designs were modified from instruments designed with the Classical outlook in mind.  When the first Ukulele builders arrived in Hawaii from Portugal, they weren’t building “Ukuleles”.  They were building Guitars along with the two instruments that were eventually melded into the Ukulele.  Those two were called the Machete (or Braguinha) and the Rajao.  They were often used as a duo, or as a trio with the guitar.  On the Open Tuning Strings page and on the Open Tuning letter on the Tips page we’ve posted videos of modern players using the two smaller instruments.  The Machete tuning is d’ g’ b’ d”, while the five string Rajao used the common modern reentrant C tuning with another reentrant 5th string: d’ g’ c’ e’ a’.   The smaller, brighter, higher pitched Machete was the melody instrument, while the smoother, mellower sounding Rajao played mostly rhythm. This style of play was common in the Ukulele’s ancestral home, though only a few composers works survive today.  Unfortunately, in spite of the efforts of some of the original Portuguese luthiers, on Hawaii this style of play probably died out in 20-30 years.  A single form of instrument “the Ukulele”, primarily a vehicle for strumming and singing took over and has completely dominated ever since.   In the video to the left, we have a song from the 19th century Portuguese composer Candido Drumond de Vasconcelos, written for those two instruments plus the even deeper voiced 6-string Guitar.  Vasconcelos surviving work is the primary source today for this style of play.  The tunings are far enough apart that the voices are distinct, though with the placement of the Rajao in the back of the room, it doesn’t fare well in this recording while the Guitar is playing.  This is the type of group play the Portuguese favoured, a guitar family string band for Parlour Music.  With their wide range of sizes, the modern Ukulele family members can now also be tuned in wide range.  If modern composers begin to write for Ukulele with parts tuned to a variety of keys, then this sort of ensemble could be ideal for acoustic instrumental group play with the Ukulele family today, in traditional classical style composition or any other. The players here likely use traditional sheet music, and so the formal training required for this sort of play would seem to make it more difficult at first glance.  We’ve mentioned earlier how the Solfa system, specifically the “tonic Solfa” or “moveable do” would make things easier when it comes to playing chords in different tunings.  But another option here might be even better, for it can be used for melody playing, chords, and a lot of players today are familiar with it.  This would be tab notation.  While it has it’s limitations as far as tempo and spacing, it could at least be a jumping off point for these Ukulele family acoustic groups.  This sort of notation shows only finger position, not pitch, so 3 or 4 different parts could easily be written in 3 or 4 different tunings, and anyone who can play tab notation could then tune to their respective pitch and play their part.  Who then, will be the first to break from the Flamenco approach and return to the Classical style; or to say it more accurately, to write for the modern Ukulele Duo, Trio, Quartet, Quintet, Sextet......Orchestra?  ************************************************* On page 3, we’ll continue the discussion of group play with a look at some considerations for amplified groups, touch briefly on the mechanics of group tuning, and sum things up.
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