Monthly Archives: April 2015

How and why to memorize the songs you learn

Being able to play a tune with your eyes closed allows the half of your brain that would focus on reading the music to focus instead on playing it.

Danno from Uke Song of the Month wrote a post recently about memorizing songs that reminded me of this important topic. He suggests that memorization is a useful tool to build a stable of licks to draw on when improvising, to notice and take in the small interesting bits of a song.

The other night I went to a neighborhood house party and a teenage girl sat down at the piano and entertained us for about a half hour. I was impressed at her ability to play so many songs without using any sheet music.

The truth is, you don’t bring your sheet music or iPad everywhere with you, and having to fuss with and stare at it while playing certainly takes away from the experience for both the player and audience. But to me the greatest benefit of memorization is that being able to play a tune with your eyes closed allows the half of your brain that would focus on reading the music to focus instead on playing it. This creates a lot of mental bandwidth for expression and refinement that would otherwise be wasted.

I originally started this site as a motivational tool to keep learning and memorizing new songs by posting them here. The list of songs I used to keep on my wall is somehow gone and I don’t know where it is, so I needed this reminder to refocus.

Keep a List of the Songs You’ve Memorized

memorized-songsYesterday I made a new list of the songs I can play readily from memory. It has grown a good bit longer since I last did this, but I also identified several songs that I have learned very well and played a lot but haven’t fully committed to memory. I put a star next to these as songs to focus on playing from memory during practice. As I am able to play each from memory over a week or so, I will remove its star.

The whole list provides a quick reminder of songs to play during practice to keep them fresh. Playing these songs regularly is an important part of maintaining the ability to play them smoothly on demand.

As you learn new songs, add them to the list with a star or some other indication that you know it but haven’t yet fully memorized it. These are the songs to focus on during practice until you can confidently remove that star. I’ve also found that its easy to get overwhelmed if I learn too many songs without memorizing them. So I try to keep the number of new songs I’m working on at any given time – whether learning or memorizing – to 2 or 3.

How to Memorize a Song

Memorizing a song can feel like an impossible task, but its easy if you are patient and break the song down into smaller parts. Here’s what I do:

  1. First, I learn the song from sheet music until I know it well. I must be able to rattle off the song easily and without mistakes looking at the sheet music before going further. Doing this allows me to focus solely on memorizing the song instead of also trying to teach my fingers to play it.
  2. All songs are made up of phrases, and I memorize the song one phrase at a time. The boundaries of a phrase depend the song, but they are typically each 3-5 measures long. Don’t stress over this – just pick an arbitrary short bit of the song at a time if you’re unsure.
  3. Start at the beginning and play the first phrase looking at the music. Then look away from the music and play it. If you need to look back, do that, but repeat this process until you can play it 3 or more times in a row without looking at the music.
  4. Now play the next phrase and do the same thing. I find it helps to play a few phrases before the new one to practice them and also learn the new phrase in context. Do this without looking at the music! If you must look, do so, and then try again without looking.
  5. Repeat step 4 until you’ve worked through the entire song. Play the song from the beginning, without looking at the music, at least three times in a row before adding each phrase.
  6. Once you can passably get through the song without the music, its important to keep playing it from memory every day for several days to really let it sink into long term memory.
  7. Finally, keep the song on your list of memorized songs and be sure to play it once in a while to keep it from getting rusty.

If the song is long or you find it start to get difficult to remember more phrases, stop and come back to it the next day. I find sometimes my brain just gets “full” and giving it a day’s rest lets what I’ve learned sink in and free up space to keep going.

After successfully memorizing a song, I work on learning a new song next rather than trying to immediately memorize another song. I gather that learning a new song and memorizing a song use different parts of my brain, and it seems to work better if I alternate these tasks.

Hopefully these tips will help you over the hurdle of memorizing the songs you most enjoy playing. If you have any other tips or strategies, drop a comment here and share them.

String Showdown: Worth Clear vs. D’Addario Pro-Arte

Worth vs Pro-ArteUkulele players love their strings. When I played guitar, it seemed there wasn’t much difference between steel strings. But a big range of tones is achieved with different strings on a single ukulele. The problem is, different strings sound and play different depending on the ukulele, so the only way to compare them is to try them.

The Instrument: Pono MT Mahogany Tenor

The Incumbent: Worth Clear

The Challenger: D’Addario Pro-Arte EJ65T

My Pono needed new strings – I change them about every 6 months – so I decided to try the strings that Jake Shimabukuro peddles for D’Addario, the Pro-Arte nylon classical guitar strings sold for ukulele. I’ve had Worth Clears on for a while. They’re OK but I definitely recall feeling like they were a step down in tone from the Martin strings I had on before that. They play nicely but I find them a bit thin on tone.

I made a quick recording of the Worth Clears before changing strings, and then made a recording of the same thing with the D’Addarios on to see if I’d notice any difference.

As I suspected, I definitely notice a difference in feel and tone. The D’Addarios are noticeably thicker and they sound warmer. I do like them better than the Worths. The D’Addarios add a lot of warmth, probably a little too much. I mostly fingerpick, and if I picked with fingernails, I think these strings would sound amazing. But I pick with the pads of my fingers. It makes these strings go from warm to a bit muddy. They do sound good, but I don’t think I’ll buy them again. If you’re a strummer or fingerpicker with nails and are looking for a lot of warmth without sacrificing volume, these D’Addarios are definitely worth a try.

On the other hand, as far as I can tell, they are indistinguishable in the recording. I used a Sure SM58 going through an M-Audio USB preamp into Ableton Live with no effects or additional processing of any kind. Listen for yourself:

      Worth Clears
      Pro-Artes

Can you tell a difference?

How and When to Humidify Your Ukulele

Solid wood ukuleles sound great, but they also need to be kept from completely drying out. Natural wood needs a certain level of moisture to stay structurally sound – no pun intended. Without it, your ukulele can warp and crack. While this is by no means a certainty, not using a humidifier is a gamble you don’t want to take with your more expensive solid wood ukulele. So how does this work, and how do you know when your ukulele needs a humidifier?

When to Use a Humidifier

Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear that humidity levels below 35% or 45% can be dangerous to acoustic instruments. This guideline refers to relative humidity, which is defined in terms I do not understand over at Wikipedia. Suffice it to say, it’s a metric reported along with most weather reports. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on the relative humidity provided in a weather report unless you keep your instruments outside.

There are two typical conditions that lead to low humidity in the home. The first is that you live in a naturally arid place like a desert or high mountain region. The second is that you live in a cold climate and the heat in your home sucks all the moisture out of the air. For example, I’m in near Boston, Massachusetts in early April. According to weather.com, current relative humidity is 77% – it’s been a rainy day – but inside my house it’s only 33%.

For this reason, it’s important to pick up one of these:

hygrometer

This is a little device called a hygrometer that goes right in your ukulele case and keeps an eye on what the relative humidity is for your ukulele. When you see that number on the right go down below 45%, it’s time to start using a humidifier. The batteries in these things last seemingly forever, so they’re very low maintenance.

How to Use a Humidifier

Oasis has owned the market on ukulele humidifiers for some time, and for good reason. There are other options, but none compare to the oasis for ease of use, performance or cost. The Oasis ukulele humidifier is a little cloth tube with water-absorbing beads inside. You fill the tube with water and the beads retain the water so that it is released slowly. The cloth around the tube features special pores that let water vapor escape, but not water. You definitely don’t want water spilled in your ukulele while its in your case – I’ve used a few of these humidifiers for years and have never seen a drop of water come out.

The humidifier hooks in between the C and E strings of your ukulele and remains suspended in the sound hole, like this:

oasis

The only mile hassle here is that the ukulele needs to be kept in its case, and on its back. If you pick up the case and flip it around with the humidifier in like this, it can come loose and fall into the body of your ukulele. That’s not a tragedy, but getting it out will be a bit of a pain.

Keeping the ukulele in its case as a matter of habit is a pretty serious downer for me, which is why I ended up buying a laminate ukulele to hang on the wall during the winter.

About once a week, the humidifier will start to run out of water and shrivel up. This shriveling up is a nice and simple indicator that you need to add more water.

needs-refill

The humidifier comes with a plastic syringe to help fill it up without accidentally soaking it with water. If you overfill the humidifier, the water-absorbing beads will float to the top and spill out, so do use the provided syringe.

And here’s another photo after I filled it:

filled

Humidifier Maintenance

About once a year, you should replace the water-absorbing beads inside the humidifier as they start to lose their absorbance. Amazon sells the Oasis Humigel Replacement Kit for about $6.

You can also pick up the Oasis Ukulele Humidifier and the Oasis Hygrometer at Amazon.

Kala KA-T Review

kala-ka-t-tenor-ukuleleHere is a review of my newest ukulele, the Kala KA-T. It is a laminate mahogany tenor ukulele that sells for about $120. My go to ukulele is a Pono solid wood mahogany tenor, but the hassle of keeping that instrument in a case with humidifier during the cold and dry New England winters got me down, and I found myself in the market for a less expensive laminate ukulele that I could keep hanging on the wall all winter long. While it sounds a little more plasticky than solid wood, laminate is tough stuff. I expect this ukulele will be fine without being humidified during the winter. If you’re like me and do a lot of your playing in quick 5 minute spurts between other activities, having a ukulele at hand without fuss is key. I also won’t fret as much taking this ukulele outdoors by the pool in the summer time. The Kala KA-T is my “beater” ukulele, for lack of a better term.

Kala makes a great ukulele at this price, and I’ll save you the trouble of reading this whole post by giving it my highest recommendation for a relatively inexpensive laminate ukulele. If you’re interested in all the details, read on.

The specs:

  • Standard tenor scale with 18 frets
  • Laminate mahogany top, back and sides
  • Mahogany neck
  • Rosewood fingerboard and bridge
  • Chrome die-cast sealed geared tuners

As of this writing, the listing for this ukulele on Amazon claims it has a “Solid Satin Mahogany Top” – this is incorrect. The top is definitely laminate. Confirm this if you like on Kala’s website.

I’m happy to report that this Kala KA-T plays very much like my Pono tenor. It has a nice fast neck, the strings are comfortably spaced and the action is good with no buzzing. Intonation is good right up the neck.

The KA-T is an attractive enough ukulele, but it won’t win oohs and aahs from onlookers. It’s a nice simple instrument, and the white binding gives it just the right amount of bling, in my opinion. I do find it looks better in person than it does in most of the photos I’ve seen online. The wood is lighter and not nearly as cardboard-brown as it looks in photos. Laminate doesn’t look any different – it looks just like solid mahogany.

The tone is balanced, meaning that there aren’t certain notes that resonate louder than others. Folks call these “wolf notes” and they drive me nuts. Unfortunately it’s common to have certain frequencies resonate louder than others in less expensive acoustic instruments, so I was very pleased to find this Kala so well-balanced.

My style of playing has lots of single notes, so any frequencies that are muddy quickly reveal themselves. Up and down the neck, notes ring clear. Sustain is what I’d expect at this price point: decent but not great.

Here’s a video of me playing a tune on this ukulele, Hilo March from Mark Nelson’s book Learn To Play Fingerstyle Solos for Ukulele

The Ukulele: A Guide for Guitarists

guitar and ukulele

There are too many introductory how-to’s for ukulele, but few if any cover what the many guitarists out there are looking for. Guitarists already know a lot about the ukulele, even if they don’t know it. This guide is for them – it leaves out what they already know and fills in the blanks to get them started with the ukulele on day one.

No Longer Considered a Toy

The ukulele has enjoyed this latest “boom” going on 15 years now. At first many assumed it was another fad, the likes of which the ukulele has enjoyed a couple of times in the past. But this time, ukulele interest is backed by a rapidly growing industry creating very high quality and affordable instruments, professional musicians pushing the boundaries of the instrument and an army of amateur musicians gathering for meetups and on Internet across the world. I think it’s safe to say, the ukulele is here to stay.

An Obvious Second Instrument for Guitarists

With its similarity to the guitar, its no surprise that many guitarists are drawn to the ukulele. A competent guitarist can pick up a ukulele and make music on it right away. Guitarists turn to the ukulele when seeking a simpler instrument that is more fun than work, when they want a cheap and portable instrument to bring on vacation to noodle on, or are just looking for something different to keep things fresh. Current and former guitarists make up a huge part of the ukulele playing population, myself included.

Why I Sold My Guitars for Ukuleles

I played guitar for 25 years before ever picking up a ukulele with the intent to play it as an instrument. When my daughter was two years old, I bought her a $30 soprano ukulele on Amazon for her to use as a toy guitar. As a serious ukulele player, the thought now makes me cringe a little as this is exactly how many guitarists view the instrument. She beat the hell out of that thing for years and we had fun with it. When she was five or six, someone at the UU church I attend offered a ukulele class and I decided to go just for the hell of it. I hadn’t played the guitar much for a while and thought maybe the ukulele would get me out of my rut. I showed up with my daughter’s soprano uke and haven’t looked back. I now play a considerably nicer ukulele (Pono MT) that sounds and plays like a real instrument. While I can still play the guitar, I don’t actually have one in my house any more and the ukulele is my primary instrument. Along the way I’ve learned everything I can about the ukulele, and thought it would be fun to collect it all here – a reference I wished I’d had a few years ago.

Intended Audience: Guitarists

To be clear, this is not a guide for non-musicians. There are hundreds of those. As a competent guitarist, you know all that basic information and just want to quickly understand how the ukulele is different, what of your guitar knowledge you can use, and what you need to leave behind. So let’s get started.

Part 2: Ukulele Sizes

Part 3: Tuning

Part 4: Chords

Part 5: Buying Guide

Part 6: Playing Styles

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Book Review: The Beatles for Fingerstyle Ukulele

beatles fingerstyle ukulele bookUntil now all my fingerstyle ukulele books have been classical and traditional tunes. These are easy to publish since the music is in the public domain and there are no license permission issues to contend with. What luck to find an entire book of ukulele fingerstyle arrangements of Beatles songs!

The Beatles need no introduction. Their music is the foundation of half a century of popular music. It is full of phrases and progressions that are as familiar as an old pair of shoes, but somehow stay fresh in their music.

Fred Sokolow is a prolific author of guitar, banjo and ukulele books. He’s co-author of the great Fretboard Roadmaps – Ukulele: The Essential Patterns That All the Pros Know and Use, which I’ll review soon, and has written many instructional ukulele books from beginner to advanced.

The Beatles arrangements in this book are for intermediate players. Advanced beginners who are willing to put some work in could also play several of these tunes without killing themselves. I find the arrangements sufficiently challenging to be interesting and sound good without being so tricky as to be discouraging. Experienced uke players will get rapid gratification with a relatively small effort.

My only criticism is that some of the arrangements tend towards more of a chord-melody style than true fingerstyle. I imagine this was done to keep the skill-level of the book approachable to a broader audience, as purist fingerstyle arrangements of these tunes could get quite tricky and would probably require a low G tuning. Fortunately, this doesn’t detract from how they sound and your audience will be none the wiser.

There are 25 songs included altogether:

  • And I Love Her
  • Penny Lane
  • If I Fell
  • Lucy In the Sky
  • Here Comes the Sun
  • Strawberry Fields
  • Hey Jude
  • Something
  • Yesterday
  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  • Help From My Friends
  • When I’m 64
  • Can’t Buy Me Love
  • Across the Universe
  • You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
  • Eight Days a Week
  • We Can Work It Out
  • Michelle
  • Here There & Everywhere
  • Please Please Me
  • Hard Day’s Night
  • She Loves You
  • Norwegian Wood
  • Lucy In the Sky
  • I Feel Fine

Here’s Fred himself playing a medley of the arrangements included. This gives you a good feel for the skill level of the arrangements.