Thursday, July 30, 2015

UE #137 Give Up on Goals

Today's blog may not appear to be about playing ukulele - but bear with me...

I've been discussing goal setting and bucket lists with various people and everyone disagrees with me. This is because we live in a devout pro-goal setting society where if you're not terminally traveling towards worthy targets then it means you're simply squandering your existence away. But I have a real problem with the idea of setting and achieving goals:

At first it seems obvious that we need goals, otherwise nothing would get done, right? But I'm not talking about chores here. On laundry day you're hardly going to stop in the middle of loading the washer to have an existential crisis while you ponder whether the task really needs to be done; and if the end result will satisfy the goals and objectives you had in mind when you first took your socks and underwear out of the laundry hamper. No, life is full of those chores we need to do in order to just live. I'm thinking more of the life-goal type of objectives.

I am of the opinion that goal setting is completely unnecessary and that there's way too much of it going on. Goal setting is a concept that enables busy people to become even busier and achieve ever more by assiduously adding more activity into their already over-caffeinated lives. It's a disease.

Indeed it's a problem that threatens our very survival. There are way too many people getting way too much done in way too short a time. Millions of business people who set financial goals for themselves, their companies and shareholders are causing the obscene plundering of the earth's finite resources; not to mention the health of good people damaged beyond repair as they are forced to work in lung searing plastic factories, soul destroying mines and deadly sweatshops. The very air and water of our lives is being poisoned through the mindless pursuit of someone or others goals.

People set goals because they see other people getting ahead and moving quicker than they are going. So goal setting is really just a way of pushing harder and faster in order to get a bit closer to the tail ends of the front rats in the great rat-race of life.

I have to wonder, how on earth did we manage before goal setting was invented? And when was that exactly? I first became aware of people sticking their goals onto refrigerator doors during the self-help craze of the Eighties. Before that nobody I knew ever set a single goal. We just got inspired and then did stuff we liked doing.

When I was four I sang. At thirteen I found my Uncle Robbie's old harmonica and figured out how to play. At nineteen I learned to play an old banjo I found in the attic. At twenty-one, when my roommate Rob juggled three dice during a Dungeons and Dragons game, I decided to learn to juggle. When I first held a ukulele I knew it was something I'd do for years to come. When I was twenty-four I discovered I'd acquired enough weird skills to become an entertainer.

None of these were goals I wanted to achieve, they were all just things I did because a) they made me feel good or b) I felt an urge to do those things. The urge or need to work on a skill is not unlike the need to do chores. Practicing an instrument is a sort of chore. If you want to play more cleanly and with self respect then you need to practice. But you don't set a goal. That is twisted thinking.

You may wonder, "But Ralph, what harm can there possibly be in setting life goals?"
My problem with goals is that they are overly conscious and disconnected intellectual concepts which may be quite inappropriate for our true selves and our individual reality. Hitler was a great goal setter. Just because you set a goal to do something doesn't make it right or good.

How can you possibly go within and feel what your soul wishes you to do if you're constantly inventing goals and making your family miserable with your constant pursuit of stuff. I think a lot of people have taken up ukulele because they like the idea of doing it; why not indeed. But if ukulele is not really for you then you're wasting life's precious hours when you might be better working in a soup kitchen, going hill walking or lap dancing. You need to learn what really turns your crank. Don't quit ukulele right away but do figure out what it is you really want from it.

Get in touch with the inner guide that informs your actions. And until you can do that you may do best to do nothing. Some timely inaction could be in order since you won't feel that inner fire if every waking moment is spent being "productive" and "useful."

And don't get me started on bucket-lists. What an idiotic waste of time they are. So much effort spent on meaningless empty experiences just for the sake of ticking them off a list. Think of what great soul purpose you could be missing while you're trudging around crappy old Machu Picchu or hurling yourself off a bridge tied to a bungee or eating snails. Really, who cares about you and your stupid bucket list.

I knew a woman in my village. She was in her nineties and had never traveled more than thirty miles. She never saw Paris or flew in an aeroplane or watched a bullfight or played ukulele. In fact, now I think of it I can't remember much of anything interesting she ever did. I just remember the way she talked. So wise and so entertaining - she was awesome. And she never lost her luggage.

I know of what I speak. I've been so busy my inner voice has become little more than a distant bleat. I've decided it's time to slow down and let some things go for a while. I'm still doing incredible performances at shows and festivals (a boy has to make a living after all) but I'm going to put this e-newsletter on hold for a while (yeah I know it's already been slowing.) I'll get back to it in a couple of months.

For now I'll say goodbye while I relax and take things easy. With all the extra time at my disposal I can get to work on my next book. That's right: Volume II of The Ukulele Entertainer is written and just needs to be edited.

My goal is to have it completed by the end of the year. For sure I'll let you know when I've ticked that little baby off the old bucket list.

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Monday, June 15, 2015

UE #136 The Bowtie Manifesto

Most people don’t expend much mental energy considering bowties. But they should. A performer must dress well and there are few items of clothing that make a bigger statement than the little bowtie...

Troy is a lawyer. A lawyer is a type of entertainer whose job it is to perform without the aid of a ukulele. This is why they’re paid so much. I last saw Troy about 10 years ago over drinks in a hotel lounge. I was wearing my performing get-up, which has always included a bowtie.

I never forgot our conversation that day as Troy lamented how he didn’t have the personality to wear a bowtie. He knew an older and respected lawyer who always wore a bowtie but Troy knew that he himself had neither the confidence nor gravitas to pull it off. This sentiment stayed with me. I wondered, “How can an item of clothing as innocuous as a bowtie hold so much power that someone would be afraid to wear it?”

Over the years whenever I meet a fellow bowtie wearer I always say “Hello” and find out about their attraction to this unusual item of neck wear. Everyone has a story. An antique shop owner in Australia told me he’s worn one daily since the age of seven. His sister was visiting one time and as he came downstairs without his bowtie on his sister took one look and burst into tears. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him without a bowtie.

David Hilton in Eugene Oregon has always attended my shows in a bowtie. We’ve spent many hours talking about the effect bowties have on people. We love the fact that when you wear a bowtie it makes people smile. Although, not everyone feels that way, I once wore one for my dad’s birthday party and he frowned when he saw me saying I looked like a salesman. Which, I guess, is what all entertainers are in a sense. But the idea that a bowtie can make one appear both charming AND an untrustworthy purveyor of snake oil surprised me.

It’s a complex and mysterious clothing accessory. I don’t wear one everyday but I consider it an indispensable part of my performance attire that many people have come to associate with me as part of my look.

Professional musicians need merchandise to sell at performances. The pay we get for gigs often barely covers the cost of touring. It’s the sale of t-shirts, CDs and other paraphernalia that keep us in business. So David and I decided it was high time that a “Ralph Shaw Bowtie” became available to my masses of fans. I considered this idea for a year without finding a way to make such an item affordable. Who would buy a $40 bowtie at a concert? I thought.

It was Victoria Vox who gave me the answer. Victoria has pulled off a succession of quirky promotional ideas: her most memorable being the screen-printed underwear she sells at her concerts. I told her about my unworkable bowtie idea and she had an immediate solution for me, “Make it out of paper,” she said.

And that’s what I’ve done (it’s thin card actually.) My graphic designing, uke-playing friend Jen Chang and I came up with a foldable make-your-own bowtie kit using artwork from another uke-player, Roan Shankaruk.

My bowtie was proudly unveiled at the first Canadaukes Festival (a.k.a. Weekend at Ralph’s.) It was an utter delight to see so many people buying, making and wearing my newest and most unusual item of Merch. Interestingly it seemed to be an even bigger hit with the ladies than with the men and one little sweetie (Macy) who had never seen a bowtie naturally assumed it was to be worn in the hair - this works too!

Now YOU can get yourself a Ralph Shaw Signature Bowtie right now: For the remainder of June 2015 I’ll give away a bowtie with any purchase you make from my website:

Or, another way is to make a financial contribution. Every donation of $20 or more gets you 4 bowties (Remember to include your address, price includes shipping to anywhere in the world.)

As for Troy the lawyer: I happened to bump into him recently in the very same hotel lounge. He’d just won an important case that day and was having a beverage to celebrate. I reminded him about our bowtie conversation from a decade ago. The funny thing was he had no memory of our discussion but he now ALWAYS wears a bowtie to work. It was a big moment for me to hear him say that. Troy the lawyer has come into his own, his confidence has grown and his gravitas is big enough to sport a bowtie. Amazing!

My Bowtie Manifesto by Ralph Shaw

Start Attracting Smiles

There are many reasons to wear a bowtie. It completes an outfit and makes it sing. To dress well is to own your self-respect and this in turn brings respect from others. People are more likely to remember you. Heads turn and strangers smile at you. A bow tie says you are a fun person who has many ways to charm.

Why Wear a Bowtie?

Now, I'm not saying a bow tie will make you into a somebody but I do say you have to be a somebody to wear a bowtie. Think of it like a monarch's crown or Batman's cape: not everyone can wear one with ease. You need to have a certain amount of gravitas and self confidence or you could end up feeling like a dork. At the very least you should be comfortable in your own skin.

Should a Woman Wear a Bowtie?

But of course! A funky outfit which includes a bowtie will enhance a woman's inherent femininity in a cool and offbeat way that will delight others. So, whoever you are, express yourself in whatever way you feel.

Be a Bowtie Wearing Babe/Boy Magnet

A bow tie sets you apart and makes you special. People who might otherwise ignore you may start calling you “Sir” or “Madam.” A bow tie can be a powerful babe or boy magnet. Who wouldn't want to spend time with someone whose bowtie demonstrates that they are a joyful, well-dressed, clean and fun-loving individual with a zest for living.

With a Great Bowtie Comes Great Responsibility

When wearing your bowtie out in public remember to hold your head high, enjoy those around you and above all smile! Few sights are more depressing than a sad bowtie wearer.  

Choose Your Bowtie Carefully

Some bowties are subtle. Other are large and colourful as if to scream HEY LOOK AT ME!!!So choose carefully. Before you leave the house pick a bow tie that matches how you wish to transform your world. For transform it you will. People snap out of their humdrum little lives. They forget their problems and want to know more about you. It's a wonderful life and a bowtie will help you get more out of it with minimal effort.

So wear a bowtie and live now!

and btw. Bow tie, bowtie and bow-tie are all correct spellings.

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

UE #135 The Jam Master

Most musicians are familiar with jamming; an informal musical get-together where people play instruments and sing simply for the fun of doing it. 
Steve McNie (pron. Mik-Nee) has elevated jamming to the level of art form. 

I arrived at the first ever CanadaUkes festival (subtitled Weekend at Ralph's!) in Ontario knowing the festival would begin Friday night with a three hour long jam session led from the stage.

"That seems a little long," I thought.

As fun as they are, being trapped in a room where a jam has gone way past its "best before date" is, for me, a dreary way to pass the time. But what I experienced was a ukulele jam that was both entertaining and enjoyable while at the same time bringing out a level of cohesive musicality in the participants that I've never heard in all my years visiting music festivals.

Lifting an informal jam to the level of performance requires a particular set of well honed skills and I found myself studying the elements of Steve's work that make it so frightfully good:

No Books
The first thing you notice is the big projection screen at the back of the room. There are no songbooks. A songbook has the advantage that you can take it anywhere, make notes in it, flip it open anytime and play your music any way you please. But, for group playing, the projection screen has several advantages. First of all, before the jam occurs, Steve creates charts of well chosen songs which show words and chords but also display key nuances of timing. He artfully manages this without making the charts look confusing and cluttered (an achievement you don't truly appreciate until you try it yourself.)

Since we're reading from the screen all heads face upwards which greatly improves the quality and uniformity of the sound. Everyone is able to follow Steve's crystal clear direction, which would be difficult with eyes looking down into books. Intros, endings and cut-offs are crisp and sharp. Changes in dynamics, tone and style are communicated with simple gestures. All this is able to happen because everyone is literally reading from the same page.

Familiarisation with the Song
Getting scores of ukulele players of all abilities to play an informal song that hangs together like a rehearsed piece is achieved by first work-shopping the trickier parts of the song. This includes getting familiar with the start and the end of the song as well as running any chordal or rhythmic parts that may trip people up. But it also means spending some time "looping" certain sequences so that everyone gets familiar with the feel and pace of each song before it begins. He infects everyone with his obvious love of the music as we find the groove and sit there for a while playing a sweet chord sequence over and over again as our ears and bodies all synchronize with one another.

Adding Ear Candy
Steve is immensely musical (he's trained in cello and accordion) and he shares his relish of certain chords and chord changes that are like nectar to the ears. He often  makes chord adjustments to songs by replacing the original chord with, say, a minor or major seventh that he deems to sound particularly sweet on uke. Attention is also paid to the quality of the singing and basic harmonies are quickly taught and encouraged. 

Benevolent Dictatorship
To make it all work requires focus from everyone and Steve happily admits that his approach is somewhat dictatorial. But it's a very good-natured sort of dictatorship. First of all the soft quality of his voice makes the instruction come across as soothing and kind. With only gentle pressure and no hard words you automatically want to do as he says. The instruction is clear, focused and efficient while maintaining a bubbling sense of humour and fun.

Gentle Discipline
Before I ever met Steve I'd heard that his jams have a "no-noodling" rule. Noodling is a term for playing your instrument when your attention ought to be elsewhere - such as listening to someone onstage. But if it is a rule I never heard it invoked. Only a few times did he politely ask us to refrain from playing while instruction was being given, "because it will sound better if we all play it together."

Every song began out of silence (rare to the point of non-existence at all other ukulele meet-ups) and finished with a clear and unified ending. The theatre's professional sound technicians, who are used to audiences who sing out of tune and who can't clap in time, spoke of their amazement at the exceptional sound made by so many people. Admittedly this is partly due to the large number of attendees who regularly attend Steve's weekly jams and classes and who've become more skilled and cohesive than any large group of (mostly) baby boomers have a right to be. 

Steve makes the process of "getting good" at a song a complete joy and the results speak for themselves. My only regret about his work is that so few people outside of Toronto get a chance to experience what I now think of as the ultimate jam. Talking to him later I suggested he offer some version of the Steve McNie ukulele jam to other festivals. So if you're involved with a club or festival why not think about coaxing him away from Toronto for a while? Or, if you're ever in Ontario, Canada, head on over to the Corktown Ukulele Jam (Wednesdays 8-11pm) or The Annex Ukulele Jam (Mondays 8-11pm) and check it out for yourself.

Contact Steve McNie via 

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

UE #134 Hey! Leave Tiny Tim Alone

I've been feeling somewhat irked by things said about Tiny Tim. And, in today's newsletter (more of a rant really) I just want to say, "Lay off him!"

This year's Reno Ukulele Festival was better than ever. Doug Reynolds, the ambitious festival director, created an Ed Sullivan style variety show that was performed in the Nugget Casino Show Lounge. Unless you are close to someone who has put on a festival or a major show then you probably have no idea of the work involved in pulling those things off. That Doug attempted both in the same weekend was ambitious to the point of folly. Although he drastically increased his chances of success by having great help from volunteers, musicians and, in particular, his daughter Jessica who is both a talented organiser and a gifted performer.

I really enjoyed the show. As well as ukulele performances from myself, Dominator, Ken Middleton, Michael Powers and Victor & Penny, Doug also brought in Jacques: a Quebec magician who spent months creating a floating ukulele illusion that was quite breathtaking. Jacques also made Jessica appear from an empty cardboard box before making her levitate during a Phantom of the Opera sequence.

The show followed the format of a mid-sixties Ed Sullivan show complete with ads for products such as washing powder and Alka Seltzer. The goal was to recreate the feel of the show as if, say, there had ever been an all-ukulele episode. Playing the key part of Ed Sullivan was an impersonator called Tom LaGravinese. Tom had the look, the voice and the eerie ability to inhabit the persona of the dour TV star while improvising various bits of stage business. But Tom came with a bonus. Doug was delighted to learn that, among Tom's rich cast of characters, was Tiny Tim. Tom appeared as Tiny Tim for the finale of the show, when, to the music of Tiptoe Through the Tulips, magician Jacques produced him from an empty trunk.

It was indeed a grand finale - I thought. Tom is somewhat shorter than the towering Tiny Tim but in all other respects, thanks to wig and prosthetic nose, he climbed out of that trunk looking and sounding as if Tiny Tim had been fully resurrected. Wonderful!

But, at the moment when Tiny Tim made his appearance, it struck me that the audience reaction was somewhat muted. I had expected a resounding roar of approval. Firstly for the magic trick and then in joyful recognition of the iconic figure who had just been brought back to life. The fact that I didn't hear such a roar got me thinking that the memory of Tiny Tim is not as loved as it deserves to be.

And when I think about it further I know this to be the case. It has become common, often at ukulele festivals but other places too, that when Tiny Tim is mentioned someone will remark that Tiny Tim did a huge disservice to the ukulele. They say he single-handedly put an entire generation off the instrument because millions of people came to associate ukulele playing with being a weird freak. Whenever someone says this I always notice that the person saying it is usually a talentless nobody without any idea about entertainment and what it takes to make it to the top as a performer.

Who said it was Tiny Tim's responsibility to further the popularity of the ukulele anyway? As far as I'm aware that was never his motive or agenda. So by what measure can he possibly be held responsible for turning millions of born ukulele players off from ever picking up the instrument? If Tiny Tim put people off the ukulele then it is only because they were a bunch of herd-following brain donors who were too lazy or stupid to think for themselves.

People are such suckers. You see it in so many ways every day, all the time. I dare say that sports, politics, religion and nationalism all began as beautiful, and indeed, sacred ideals. But somehow along the way a few manipulative people figured out ways to get huge numbers of other people to shut down the thinking part of their brain and go along with what they were being sold.

And it used to be that ukulele people were not like that. You always knew a ukulele person would be a cool, intelligent, fun person to know because they could think for themselves. And you knew this because the rest of the unthinking herd was blind to the ukulele. To most people the ukulele was not worthy of attention. This was not the fault of Tiny Tim or Lyle Ritz or Don Ho or George Formby or anyone. It was a sign of the times. Rock and Roll was in and plinkety plink was out maan, I mean, waaay out.

So leave Tiny Tim alone. He was an extraordinary genius. His overarching goal was to achieve fame and he succeeded superlatively. Every part of his persona, every act and affectation was consciously added piece by piece to make him what he was: the ukulele carried in a shopping bag, the high voice, the long hair, the make-up, the suit, the blowing of kisses, the songs: all were contrived towards his goal of becoming famous. He put it all together and put himself out in the public realm until he succeeded. THAT is amazing. If you think it isn't, go on, I invite you to go ahead. YOU create a captivating and original personality and live in it until you become a world renowned star.

But it wasn't just a look. Tiny Tim was a magnificent performer. Numerous people have told me stories of seeing him live on stage in both large and small venues. They went to poke fun and jeer at him but by show's end his performance had them standing on their chairs yelling "Tiny! Tiny!" He was so dynamic.

So stop blaming Tiny Tim for the fact that a whole generation ignored the ukulele. It's not his fault. It's the fault of lazy thinkers who go with the herd and who are too self involved to look around and notice that what they believe is largely a pack of lies.

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

UE #133 The Best Way to Strum

I’ve taught hundreds of strumming workshops. But at the start of each one I always have to go over something very basic: namely, which finger should a strummer use to strum with? I continue to be surprised at the different ways players find to strum. What is completely natural and intuitive to one person feels foreign and uncomfortable to another.

My default strumming method is to use my index finger but I've found that others, most notably many who play Hawaiian music, prefer to play almost exclusively with their thumb. And then recently I met one student who uses both her index and middle fingers together and another that uses all the fingers of the strumming hand. In Australia I met several who strum downwards with the index finger and upwards with the thumb. With so many ways to strum (not even considering use of the many picks available) how do we choose which is best?

Let's delve into the pros and cons of using differing digits for delivering music:

Index Finger Strum
Strum with the tip of the index finger and control the accuracy by pressing your thumb on the last joint of the index finger. It's as if your finger-end is the pick. Strum down with the back of the nail and strum up with the pad of the finger.
Pros - It enables fast and accurate strumming with a large dynamic range. It's relatively easy to switch from this strum to other types of strum or individual note picking.
Cons - Some people get pain from their finger hitting the strings or the edge of the fretboard. This is especially true for beginners who play overly hard or who haven't developed good accuracy. In some cases damage to the finger and/or fingernail may even occur.

Thumb Strum
Strum down with the pad of the thumb and up with the thumbnail. After the index finger strum it's probably the second most popular way of strumming that I've come across.
Pros - This is a strum generally favoured by players who like a mellower sound and a slower strum. Instead of strumming with the whole arm, accuracy comes from using the flexibility of the thumb while the hand, supported by the fingers on the uke body, is held stationary. 
Cons - It's generally hard to strum loud or fast with the thumb and I also find it difficult to maintain accuracy when strumming freehand (i.e. strumming with the whole arm.) For some of the techniques I teach, such as the syncopated George Formby split stroke or the fast samba, the thumb strum simply cannot keep pace as the tempo picks up speed.

Strumming with Two or More Fingers
Strum down with the fingernails and up with the pads just like the index finger strum.
Pros - This is a great way to play for people with smaller or weaker fingernails. The extra finger surface minimizes pain and finger damage. It's also good for louder playing.
Cons -It's harder to play quietly. 

Strumming Down with the Index and Up with the Thumb

I wasn't really aware of this technique until my recent visit to Australia where I saw several people using it. I met one teacher, Paul, in Sussex Inlet who recommends this to his beginners as a way to strum that prevents damage to the finger from overly hard and inaccurate strumming.
Pros - It's an interesting technique because you get additional control from the action of the index finger flicking down on the down strum and the thumb flicking up on the Up strum. It takes a bit of getting used to but you may also press the index and thumb together into a single point so that whether you strum down or up you always have a fingernail making contact with the strings.
Cons - Similarly to the thumb strum this technique does not adapt itself easily to faster and more intricate strums.

Use of Picks
Rest the pick on the top side of the index finger and hold it in place with the thumb.
Pros - A host of different kinds of picks can be purchased. These range from felt picks which make the strum muted and soft, to nylon, metal and other materials that provide a louder strum and sharper attack.
Pros - Picks offer great variation in available sounds. They also prevent pain and damage to fingers. 
Cons - They're easily dropped which is very inconvenient in the middle of a show. Keep spares close at hand. Using a pick makes it hard to switch quickly to finger styles of playing.

Which Strum is Best?
Would it help if I said all of the above? It's true. If you want your sound to be varied and interesting then you must vary your strums. Become adept at different playing styles. If you are a thumb-strummer I encourage you to go out of your comfort zone and try using one or more fingers. And, if you never use your thumb, try it now, it may add a whole new dimension to your sound.

Spending some time playing in ways that feel strange and foreign can pay off. Benefits include increasing your dynamic range as well as improving your strumming accuracy and your playing speed.

And... the many possible ways of strumming are not limited to the above list. If you have another way that works for you then go for it - and tell me about it too!  

"Ask not what your country can strum for you, ask what you can strum for your country."
Ralph P. Shaw

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

UE #132 Clawhammer Ukulele - Part 3

In Part 2, I described how to make the “Bum-Shik-Ca” or “Claw-ham-mer” sound that is the basis of the Frailing or Clawhammer strum. Once that is working, i.e. when your rhythm is uniform and even, the next stage is to bring more melody notes into the strum.

Melody notes only happen on the “Bum”, that is when the fingernail strikes down, since the brush-down plus thumb pull (a.k.a. “Shik-Ca”) is essentially background sound.

You can imagine how playing a melody note only on every “Bum” would lead to somewhat predictable tunes. So, fingering techniques for the fretting hand have been developed that help us to get more than one note from every “Bum”. They are called Slides, Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs.

Two notes for the price of one: Playing Slides, Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs.

Slides are played by sliding your finger either up or down the string immediately after it has been played. Let’s say your finger is on the third fret of the first string. Immediately after striking the string slide the fretting finger from the third up to the fifth fret. Do so in the same time you normally play a single beat so that your “-Shik-Ca” comes in its usual place. You can reverse this by sliding down from the fifth to the third fret.

are played by “hammering” your finger onto the string as soon as it has been played. For example: play the open first string, then immediately hammer down on that string. Do so with the middle finger of the left hand in the space between second and third frets. Instead of Bum-Shik-Ca the sound is now more like: Bum-ba-Shik-Ca. (Or, if you’re now into rhythms named after woodworking tools (à la claw-ham-mer) might I suggest: Black–n-Dec-ker.)

Pull-Offs are the reverse of hammer-ons. But it’s not enough to simply lift your finger from the string after it has been played. You have to give the sound some extra help by plucking the string with your fretting finger as it comes off the string. For example: play the first string while pressing between the second and third frets. Then immediately pull the fretting finger off the string in a downward motion so as to pluck the string with the finger-end. This also gives you a Bum-ba-Shik-Ca / Black–n-Dec-ker rhythm.

Practice these individually and then alternate between hammer-ons and pull-offs while throwing in a slide here and there. Make sure to sustain the clawhammer feel throughout without changing speed.

Make More Melody by Double Thumbing

Double Thumbing is a way of adding ever more melody notes to your Clawhammer playing. Here’s how to do it (try doing this on a C chord to begin with):

1 Strike down on the first string with the back of your fingernail.
2 Pluck down on the second string with your right thumb.
3 Strike down on the first string as before.
4 Thumb the fourth string.

Double Thumbing is played to the same Bum-ba-Shik-Ca rhythm, the same as hammer-ons and pull-offs. What I just showed you is the most basic form. Experiment by double thumbing on different strings (first and third, second and third etc.)

At first you’ll play mostly Clawhammer rhythm with double thumbing only added in occasionally. But as the technique develops you can use it to bring more and more melody notes into your playing.

Melodic Clawhammer style has fewer brush-down strums and more individual note picking. Develop this further and melodies can be picked using the thumb and the back of a single fingernail with barely any strumming. The resulting sound is more comparable to multiple notes of Bluegrass than to regular banjo strumming.

There are countless arrangements of (mostly folk) tunes for Melodic Clawhammer style. The sound is quite similar to Bluegrass, though with fewer notes. Every note is the result of striking strings with either the fingernail or thumb as they work together in the double thumbing technique. It’s neat to be able to play melodic lines in this way but it’s a big step from basic Frailing to playing complex melodies and requires dedication.

In part 1 I talked about my earlier obsession with Clawhammer banjo back when I was a young man. So you may wonder why I haven’t devoted much time to transferring those skills onto ukulele. I’ve wondered that too.

I think my reluctance comes because that switch from banjo to ukulele (about 25 years ago) opened up an entirely new repertoire for me. I was perfectly happy to let the banjo songs go as my musical interest evolved. Nowadays if I use Clawhammer it's generally to add flavour to my sound. I rarely use it for an entire song. Also my body got so trained to play the Clawhammer repertoire on a big banjo that I find it curiously claustrophobic to play those songs on a little ukulele. 

But I cannot deny that I had some happy years playing Clawhammer and, if that’s your thing, I hope you do too!

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Monday, March 2, 2015

UE #131 Clawhammer Ukulele – Part 2

It’s the persistent drone of its repeating fifth-string that makes the 5-string banjo such a distinctive instrument. When you first see the fifth, or drone, string – as it’s often called – you never forget it because it’s a strange little string whose tuning peg is found standing alone by the fifth fret on top of the banjo neck. Fortuitously, for ukulele players tuned in the “my dog has fleas” tuning, a.k.a. re-entrant tuning, our instrument has a high-pitched fourth string which can be played just like the banjo's fifth string. It’s this quality that makes the Frailing and Clawhammer banjo techniques accessible for ukuleleists.

Frailing (or Clawhammer) produces a unique and engaging folk sound that combines melody notes with background strums – while continually sounding the bright plink of the high string. The terms Frailing and Clawhammer get used interchangeably for a strumming style that creates a “Bum-Shik-Ca” or, if you like, a “Claw-ham-mer” rhythm. All the melody notes are plucked with the back of the fingernail as the hand moves downward.

How To Do the Basic Clawhammer (Bum-Shik-Ca) Strum

1 Strike down on a string (just strike the first string for now) with the back of your index or middle fingernail. Either finger is fine. This gives you the “Bum” part of the “Bum-Shik-Ca” sound. Bring the hand up again.
2 The curled fingers of the hand brush down the strings using the backs of the fingernails. You may brush down them all or just a couple of the strings.
3 As the hand goes down, the thumb of the strumming hand rests momentarily on the fourth string.
4 As the hand comes up, the thumb pulls away from the fourth-string. (Note: this movement is not the same action as an independent thumb-plucking action. To frail smoothly and at speed the thumb pluck has to come as a result of the upward hand movement and not from a mobile thumb.) The brush-down plus thumb-pull combine to make the “Shik-Ca” sound.

To do justice to the above instructions you really need to hear failing/clawhammer in action. I teach the technique on my DVD Essential Strums for the Ukulele but there are many online examples of banjo and ukulele players using this technique. The sound is bright and cheerful and requires a flexible wrist, as opposed to the more rigidly straight wrists of most guitar and bluegrass pickers. It’s kind of interesting that the hand shape: thumb plus two fingers of the strumming hand also resembles a carpenter's clawhammer.

At first when making the “Bum” sound, aim to hit the first string only: that’s the one closest to the floor. Once you can hit that one consistently try making your “Bum” on the second string every time. Then alternate between the two. Move on to the third string and eventually you’ll be able to strike down on any string your mind wants your finger to go to.

You may notice that the clawhammer style is fairly simple to understand but difficult to do well. This is typical for most people. The basic strum can take months to sound rhythmic and musical. You’ll need to develop the ability to hit whichever string you want with the back of your fingernail. You also need to maintain a steady rhythm played at a consistent volume.

Open Tunings
So what is the left hand doing while this is going on? Let’s discuss retuning your instrument.

Banjo players generally play in open G tuning (gDGBD.) This means when they strum across the open strings they hear a G chord. Open tunings make less work for the left hand as the fingers can play melody while doing less of the full-on chord work. The disadvantage to open tunings is that they make playing in other keys more difficult. Win some, lose some.

Tuning a GCEA Ukulele to Open C

Lower the first string from A to G so your uke is now GCEG. (D tuned ukes similarly retune to open D by tuning to ADF#A.)

Many other open (or modal) tunings are also available. These are not unlike what the Hawaiians use for “slack key” playing. If open tunings are not for you then it is quite okay to use the clawhammer technique on your regularly tuned ukulele.

I think that’s enough for this lesson. Next time I’ll describe some right and left hand  techniques that add to the richness of the clawhammer and melodic clawhammer sounds. Keep listening to players that you like and absorb the sound they make. Clawhammer is not for everyone. It's challenging to do well but can be rewarding if that's the sound you want.

Practice with the goal of making your sound into one that you would want to hear!