Breaking barriers

Sometimes there are barriers in your way of learning the ukulele that you cannot cross easily at the beginning. It’s important to find the right moment to break these barriers.  If you try to tackle them too early, you will get frustrated or even get injured in the attempt to do so. On the other hand, if you wait too long, they will stall your improvement.

So, if you realize that it’s still too early for you, you might want to wait a bit and practice more easier material to gain more strength and dexterity in your fingers, but don’t wait too long: If you feel that you’re losing momentum, it may be the right moment to take another step forward.

Lesson 19: Introduction to barré

Barré is a very typical barrier of this kind. At the very beginning you’d certainly have a lot of trouble learning it. Although barré is a lot easier on the ukulele than on the guitar, it still requires a certain amount of strength and endurance in your left hand. It’s easy to get frustrated when trying to learn it too early. So it’s important to find the right time to introduce it. By now you have learned a lot of advanced techniques already and certainly gained some strength in your fingers, so the timing shouldn’t be bad by now.

For many beginners barré is really a big problem: The fingers are hurting, and it seems to be almost impossible to get a clean sound. You know by now that you need to build some strength in your fingers before you start practicing barré, but it’s also very important to take care of the setup of your ukulele. High action makes barré much more difficult than it should be! Good posture is really important too. Be sure to double-check these things before making your life harder than it should be!

It is also important to practice barré regularly, but not too intensively. A few minutes of practice every day should be enough. If your fingers start hurting, you’ve already overdone it! Your fingers will need some months to get accustomed to this new kind of strain, this has to be accepted. If you don’t overdo it, it will gradually get easier in the course of time, as your hand gains strength and endurance. You’ll also develop a feel for the best positioning. As soon you’ve overcome the start-up difficulties, you can extend the amount of practice — but in moderation, otherwise you still can injure yourself.

It’s amazing how much the fingers adapt to playing barré in the course of time. Eventually you’ll develop subtle calluses at the edge of your index finger which makes barré a lot easier. One fine day you’ll find it difficult to imagine that barré was ever a difficult thing!

The pieces in this chapter use barré only sporadically. This is intentional, so your left hand will get some time to relax a bit between playing barrés.

Piece 29: Auf de Schwäb’sche Eisebahne

A cheerful volkslied (German folk song) from Württemberg. Only in the 5th and 13th bar a very easy barré is used: The index finger is placed flat just behind the 2th fret in order to fret all four strings. When playing the arpeggiated chord, make sure that every string sounds good. Try to vary the position of your index finger a bit in order to find the best posture, but don’t despair if you don’t succeed at the first try. It’s much more important to practice regularly than getting it perfect at the first try.

You can support the index finger a bit by additionally placing the middle finger over it. This can help a bit in the beginning, but won’t be necessary any more later on. Good posture and good setup are much more important than brute strength!

In the bars 6 and 14 you’ll have to exit a barré. In this piece, you can do this by sliding down a bit, and fretting the following shape with the middle and ring finger.

Lesson 20: More barré

An important aspect of barré is how to integrate it into an arrangement so that it allows for fluid fingering and avoids unpleasant interruptions of the sound.

Piece 30: Mango Walk

This arrangement of a lively Jamaican traditional combines a lot of the techniques you learned so far in order to achieve a full sound and a good flow of the piece.

Please take notice of the barré bracket in the notation. It begins with the characters “Cv” and spans over the first 5 melody notes of this piece. The “v” is meant to be the roman number 5 and tells you to play the barré in the 5th fret. This bracket shows you exactly when to enter and when to leave the barré. In this piece, you will find a second barré bracket in bar 5.

So the first bracket tells you that the barré should begin right at the beginning of the piece, so the first single melody note is already played with barré. Before leaving the barré, the 2nd string is fretted with the middle finger in the 6th fret and played. For the next note you have to lift the index finger in order to leave the barré, so you can play the open 1st string now. However, while lifting the index finger, you leave the middle finger on its position, so the 2nd string continues to ring out while you pluck the 1st string.

You see that by playing notes on higher frets while leaving a barré, you can avoid unpleasant gaps in the sound of a piece.

For the transition between bar 4 and 5, you can slide up using the the pinky (which should be used for fretting the 1st string in the 3rd fret here) as guide finger. The sound of sliding up at this moment adds to the liveliness of the piece.

A lot of the melody notes are distributed over all 4 strings, so they can ring out and create harmonies by overlapping, giving the piece a very campanella-like, full sound. In bar 2 you use the middle finger to fret the 2nd string in the 1st fret. In bar 3 I suggest to use the ring finger to fret the 1st string in the 1st fret. By using a different finger here you get a smoother transition between these bars and can let the notes ring out even longer.

A way to let the notes of the barré ring out even longer is to lift it only partially: I lift the lower part of the index finger so that the 1st string is no longer touched, but the 3rd and 4th strings are still fretted at the 5th fret. This is happening after the barré bracket is closed, so this is something that is not indicated on the sheet of music. This is something you can do to further enhance the sound of the ukulele and make your playing even more powerful.

Lesson 21: The D chord

Well, isn’t this amazing? We waited until lesson 21 in this crash course to get started with one of the most basic chords on the ukulele — that simple D chord!

But keep in mind, that only few players are able to properly fret a D chord right at the beginning. It requires some control of your left hand fingers to get that right. However, by now you should be able to do it:

  • Begin by fretting the 2nd fret of the 2nd string with the ring finger. Place it well so that it has good clearance to the other strings. Make sure no strings are damped when you pluck them.
  • Now place the middle finger at the 2nd fret on the 3rd string. It doesn’t matter if it also touches the 4th string. But make sure the 3rd string rings nicely.
  • Now place the index finger at the 2nd fret on the 4th string. It doesn’t have to be centered on the string. It’s ok if it protrudes a lot over the border of the fretboard. Just make sure the 4th string plays nicely.

So the trick is that it’s important to get the ring finger placed well and that it does not touch the 1st string. The other fingers will just fall into place. If they don’t, try to adjust the posture of your left hand. Rotate the whole hand a bit to the left, using the ring finger as a pivot, so that the other fingers get easy to place correctly.

Remember that the fingers should be planted perpendicular on the fretboard. For this particular fingering shape it makes sense that the thumb protrudes a bit behind the neck of the ukulele — usually this shouldn’t happen, but here we have a bit of an exception.

Eventually you will get used to fretting the D shape and wonder how you could ever think it was difficult. Here the same applies as for barré: Don’t force it. Regular practice and good technique is better than brute force. Never continue playing when your fingers are hurting.

Piece 31: Bolle reiste jüngst zu Pfingsten

A funny German song of a man who messes up a whitsun trip quite badly. It’s also nice for beginning with the D chord. Some playing advice:

  • Right at the beginning we have two fast notes. It’s absolutely necessary to begin with the index finger (of the right hand), and play the second note with the middle finger, so the index finger has enough time to prepare for the upstrum.
  • In bar 9 and 10 play a full barré on the 2nd fret from the beginning of chord 9 to the end of bar 10.
  • In bar 11, the A chord is played with the middle and ring finger. For a smooth transition to bar 11 prepare the fingers hovering over their strings over frets 3 and 4. For the transition now just slide the whole hand down two frets and let the middle and ring finger fall into place on frets 1 and 2.
  • Leave the middle finger on fret 1 of the 3nd string during the whole bar 11, use the ring finger and pinky to fret the two last notes of this bar.
  • For the transition to bar 12, just slide the pinky up one fret and then put down the barré with the index finger on fret 2.

Lesson 22: Some more D

Piece 32: Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär

Another German volkslied.

This arrangement is a D-chord overdose, so be careful — watch out not to overdo it. In this arrangement the middle finger can stay on the 3rd string from begin to end. If your middle finger begins to hurt, stop practicing this piece for a day.

Piece 33: Schneeflöckchen, Weißröckchen

This arrangement of an old German christmas carol combines arpeggiated chords with two voices. The transition from bar 5 to bar 6 is a bit tricky. Use the pinky as guide finger on the 1st string. Try to let the notes ring out. It can be a bit tricky to let the fingers stay on the strings. Can you play a D chord and then additionally fret the 1st string in the 2nd fret with the pinky and lift the index finger from the 4th string? This is essentially what to do in the 1st bar if you want to make it sound nice!

You may notice that I’m playing here more than the arrangement in the e-book. I’ve added some prelude, interlude and some final notes. Playing a piece doesn’t just mean only to play the notes you see. It also means to try to capture the spirit of the piece and to add a bit of your own interpretation.