Monthly Archives: November 2013

Intonation, and why you should tune by ear

Restored from the deleted site. Originally posted on November 15, 2013.

I’ve been noticing the intonation of my ukulele is a bit off. Intonation is the tuning accuracy of strings going up the fret board. So a string can be in tune when open, but at some point up the fret board it stops being in tune. This can make chords played higher up the neck sound bad.

Strangely, two of the strings on my ukulele (1st and 3rd) are sharp at the 12th fret, while the other two are right on. It didn’t used to be like this, so I figure the change is caused either by the strings being old or that the wood is responding to the drier weather (November in New England).

Either way, a post on Ukulele Underground about intonation suggested relative tuning as a solution to intonation difference between strings. I tuned my guitar by ear for 25 years but for some reason everyone in the ukulele community seems to use tuners. I started using an app on my phone to tune my ukulele and haven’t questioned it until now.

Tuning by ear is the idea of tuning a single open string to some reference (like a tuner or a piano). Then tune all the other strings to each other by fretting strings to play the same note as another open string. Rather than reinvent the wheel, here are detailed instructions for doing this: Tuning the ukulele to itself.

The thinking goes like this: If you use a tuner you’re tuning the open strings. Unless your intonation is perfect, your ukulele will only really be in tune if you play open strings. By tuning relative to other fretted strings you’re taking into consideration the subtle differences in intonation across each string. The effect is that neither open nor fretted is perfectly in tune, but unless your intonation is way off, both should be close enough to sound in tune to the average ear.
Sure enough, I tuned my ukulele by ear and I can now play up and down the neck without it sounding out of tune. It doesn’t sound perfectly in tune, but it isn’t offensive either. And even if you’re intonation is great, it’s probably not perfect. Tuning by ear is a win either way.

How I learn songs: stumble through, site read, memorize, polish

Restored from the old site. Originally posted on November 9, 2013.

I’ve developed somewhat of a process for learning new songs on the ukulele. This really applies to finger style arrangements as sing-along chord songs I can generally play without much practicing. But finger style and solo ukulele tunes often require a good deal of practice to play through without stumbling or sounding clumsy.

While I can play lots of songs with music in front of me, I don’t consider myself to really know a song until I can play it by memory. Being able to play with tab is great, but I find its a crutch that ultimately holds me back in my ability to play the song as best as I can.

At any given time I typically have a few songs in rotation during practice at various stages of the following steps:

  1. Learn the song from tab. A this point I’m playing it very slowly, focusing more on the fingering than the rhythm and style. If its a hard song I’ll tackle it in small sections to make it easier. Depending on the complexity of the song, this stage might take from a couple of nights or up to a week.
  2. Once I can play it through with the tab, I’ll do this over and over again and practice it this way, essentially site reading the tab. My fingers have learned how to play the tune and the tab is really just reminding me what comes next. My eyes are focused on the tab, not my fingers. I do this until I can play most of it by just glancing at the tab once in a while. This usually lasts about a week.
  3. Then I move to memorizing it. By now I’ve basically memorized the song, so it’s not hard. I just take the song in parts and play them without looking at the tab. If I need to look at the tab, I stop playing, look at the tab, and start over without looking at the tab. If I’ve played with the tab long enough, I can typically go from needing the tab to not needing the tab in a couple nights doing this. If I get discouraged, I just go back to play with the tab for a while longer as doing so will eventually and effortless embed the tune in my brain.
  4. Finally, I practice playing the song without tab regularly. This is where I find my playing of the tune really goes from sounding somewhat novice to really polished. Without the tab to distract me, I can really focus on playing the song just right, and my fingers become very comfortable with the transitions. This final stage never really ends. As I own the song more and more, I can play it more perfectly and start to add some of my own flair to it.

This nuts and bolts of daily practice isn’t something I hear much about from other ukulele players and I’d be curious to. What do you do?