Book review: Mel Bay Learn To Play Fingerstyle Solos for Ukulele

By | February 16, 2015

Mel Bay Learn to Play Fingerstyle Solos for UkuleleMel Bay Learn To Play Fingerstyle Solos for Ukulele, by Mark Nelson, was my first book of fingerstyle ukulele tabs, and the songs in it represent many long-time repertoire pieces that I’ve memorized and play regularly.

Overview

This is a good first book of fingerstyle arrangements, especially if you want to learn some Hawaiian songs. It comes with some basic introductory material, a CD of all the songs performed and 24 songs. About half of the songs are traditional Hawaiian tunes with the other half being a mix of traditional songs from Mexico, Ireland and classical composers.

Learning Fingerstyle

The book starts off with some basic introductory material and a tutorial for a very simple version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. It covers reading tablature and notation as well. Even so, I don’t think a true beginner at the instrument will be comfortable with this book. For someone comfortable strumming and maneuvering some intermediate fingering changes, it does offer an easy introduction to this style of playing.

As an aside, the term fingerstyle is a little tricky with books like this and with the ukulele in general. Technically, fingerstyle is a style of playing where the thumb plays an alternating bass line along with a melody on the higher strings. Some of the tunes in this book are definitely fingerstyle, such as the Hilo March, which is great fun to play and not too hard. Most, however, are better described as chord-melody where you’re finger-picking a melody between chords. Both styles of arrangement sound great, and the distinction really is a technicality. Traditional alternating bass fingerstyle is better suited to the guitar, as the high-G ukulele lacks the real bass notes needed to make it work.

Target Audience & Skill Level

As mentioned above, the songs in this book serve the intermediate player – someone who is comfortable learning some complex fingerings, doesn’t mind putting in some effort to learn the songs, and has some foundation of the basic mechanics of reading tab and plucking instead of strumming the strings.

Arrangements

The arrangements in this book are playable, sometimes clever and educational. In addition to how they sound, I also judge arrangements by how often I find myself rearranging them, finding a better way to do the same thing. This book provides arrangements that are pleasing to the ear and did not leave much room for obvious improvement.

That said, there is opportunity for some simplification. For example, parts of the Over The Rainbow arrangement feel needlessly complicated. While the book offers a beautiful arrangement, it uses altering fingerings of the same phrases when they repeat that all sound the same to an untrained ear (presumably, your audience). Changing up fingerings like this can help build your chops and realize the different ways to play basically the same phrase, and there’s value in that. But as a purely performance-oriented approach, it feels like extra work without much benefit.

Sample of arrangement

Because of these educational arrangements, this is a great book for someone learning this style of playing who is looking to put in some practice time and come away having learned more than the sum of the songs it has. Unless you can site read tablature, this is not a fun “sit down and play” kind of book. But your effort will be rewarded.

Song Selection

As already mentioned, about half the songs in the book are traditional Hawaiian songs that will be foreign to most mainlanders. If you aren’t so enamored with the Hawaiian heritage of this instrument and would prefer to play familiar songs, this does detract somewhat from the book’s value. Some of these songs are beautiful, and thankfully there are still plenty of familiar tunes here to keep you busy.

Included CD

The CD included provides performances of all the songs. While it’s not something you’re likely to listen to for its performance or audio quality, it does offer direction on what these songs should sound like in terms of melody, tempo and dynamics. Especially with all these Hawaiian songs you may not know, this is important.

Table of Contents

Here are the arrangements this book offers and some brief notes on them. In addition to the arrangements, the author includes fairly detailed playing notes with some background on the song itself and tips for playing some of the trickier parts. I’ve bolded the songs that I like most and, all by themselves, make this book worth the cost.

  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star – in two versions, for learning purposes
  • All Through The Night – not the Cindi Lauper song!, both easy and extended versions offered
  • Las Mañanitas – a traditional Mexican tune that sounds like a lullaby, slightly odd rhythm-wise but otherwise very easy
  • E Ku’u – traditional Hawaiian tune
  • Pua Sadina – traditional Hawaiian tune
  • Isa Lei – traditional Fijian tune, easy and extended versions offered
  • Aloha ‘Oe – traditional Hawaiian tune
  • Wehiwehi ‘Oe – traditional Hawaiian tune
  • Dona Nobis Pacem – a recognizable classical tune
  • Galliarde – a very pretty baroque tune, here’s a recording of me playing this arrangement
  • The South Wind – a pretty traditional Irish tune
  • Greensleeves – a nice arrangement of a song everybody knows
  • Hilo March – this is a Hawaiian song but sounds more like a ragtime march, super fun tune, here’s a video of me playing it
  • New Spanish Fandango – another pretty traditional tune, here’s a video of this arrangement being played
  • E Ku’u Morning Dew – traditional Hawaiian tune
  • Over The Rainbow – one of the nicer arrangements of this tune I’ve heard
  • Ahi Wela – traditional Hawaiian tune
  • Minuet – one of Bach’s most well known tunes, it’s a joy to play this arrangement
  • The Raggle Little Flea – a really fun ragtime tune, here’s a video of it being performed
  • Kaulana Na Pua – traditional Hawaiian tune
  • Planxty Irwin – a pretty Irish tune
  • Danny Boy – well known Irish tune
  • Blue Ukulele Blues – an original tune written by the book’s author, Mark Nelson
  • Mbube (Wimoweh) – the “In the jungle…” tune from Lion King
  • Gaviotas –  another original tune written by the book’s author, Mark Nelson

Buy the book from Amazon

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