Chapter 1: Arpeggiated chord solos
Lesson 1: A first solo piece
An arpeggiated chord is a chord where the individual notes are played in a rapid sequence (instead of playing them all at once).
With other instruments this requires quite some practice, however, with the ukulele it is easy-peasy: Just gently stroke all four strings with the index finger of your right hand.
Voila — you played an arpeggiated chord!
Conveniently, the last note of an arpeggiated chord will be perceived to be dominant. To try this, alternately stroke up and down with the index finger.
What you hear now, is a succession of the notes a’ and g’, with the other notes of the chords as “accompaniment”. So you could say: You are playing the sequence a’ g’ a’ g’ …, and at the same time each of these notes is accompanied by a chord.
This concept makes it incredibly easy to play melodies with self-accompaniment on the ukulele. I don’t know any other instrument that makes this possible in a so easy and almost effortless way.
Arpeggiated chord solos are of course not the only way of playing the ukulele — but they are a straightforward way of getting started, making it possible to play complex sounding solo arrangements with little practice. So the first steps are quite motivating — and that’s something I deem to be important!
Piece 1: “Kommet, ihr Hirten”: Arpeggiated chords with upstrums
Now we’re playing the first piece from the E-Book “Erste Übungsstücke für Solo Ukulele“. The following page explains how tablature works in general:
(Important note: Please ignore the chord names (C F C F etc.) above the notation staff of this piece! These are an alternative way of using the e-book and not used for this solo crash course!)
Slowly play the piece as indicated by the tablature. At first, ignore the notation, play at free tempo (and slowly)! Just be sure to hit every tone and arpeggiated chord correctly. Always play the arpeggiated chords with the index finger of the right hand. Play the other notes with the index and middle finger by touch. The notes on the 4th string should be played with the thumb.
The arpeggiated chords are indicated by the squiggly lines with arrow heads. These arrow heads show the direction for playing the chord.
All arpeggiated chords in this piece should be played with upstrums: The index finger plays the strings in an upward motion. Be sure only to hit the strings that are indicated by the tablature: In this piece, only the strings 2, 3 and 4 are used in the arpeggiated chords.
It may look a bit weird at the first glance that upstrums are indicated by arrowheads pointing downwards. But if you think about it, the arrows show the order in which to hit the strings correctly:
When the ukulele is held in playing position, the 1st string is in the lowest position, while the 4th string is in the highest position. However, in the tablature, the 1st string is represented by the highest of the four lines, and the 4th string by the lowest. So this means:
- A curly arrow pointing downwards represents an arpeggiated chord to be played with an upstroke.
- A curly arrow pointing upwards represents an arpeggiated chord to be played with a downstroke.
As soon playing all notes and arpeggiated chords works well, it’s time to think about playing it with the right rhythm. Please read the two following pages in advance:
Notes with stems pointing upwards are the important ones for the rhythm of the melody. In this piece we have mostly quarter and eigth notes. Quarter notes should be played with two times the length of eight notes.
In order to achieve this, we count in every bar: “One – and – two – and – three – and”. (The bars are indicated by the vertical bar lines that divide the the tablature and the notation staff into short segments.)
The first melody note of the first bar (a quarter note) takes as long as saying “One – and”. Then, while saying “two – and – three – and” we play one eight note with every word. This way you can work out the rhythm of the first bar. Then use the same principle “to tell off” the rhythm of the following bars: Every word (a number or “and”) represents an eight note. A quarter note needs two words.
There are also dotted half notes. These take three times as long as a quarter note, so they need six “counting words”!
Maybe you noticed the double bar lines (one slim, one fat) with two dots on the left side. Those are repeat signs. They indicate that the first part of this piece (up to this sign) should be played two times.
Here you can watch me playing this piece:
Lesson 2: Downstrums, alternate picking, changing metre
Material to read in preparation for this lesson: Metre
Piece 2: “Auf einem Baum ein Kuckuck saß” (A Cuckoo Sat On a Tree)
In this piece there are two metre changes. In the bars with 2/4 metre we count only 2 beats, while in the bars with 3/4 metre we count 3 beats.
Then there are 16th notes in this piece. These are two times faster than 8ths. A group of two 16ths has the same duration as a single 8th. For counting 16ths, use the following counting scheme: “one – e – and – a – two – e – and – a – three – e – and – a”
All arpeggiated chords in this piece are executed as downstrums, as indicated by the curly arrows in the tablature, which are pointing upwards.
The upbeat of this piece is only one 4th. This is nothing out of the ordinary. When counting the bars, the upbeat is omitted. Usually, the last bar is shortened by the length of the upbeat. The idea is that when repeating the piece (and that is quite usual for songs with multiple stanzas), the last bar connects to the upbeat, resulting in a bar of regular length, so that the rhythm of the song isn’t broken.
In the 3rd bar the note F is played 7 times in a row in an irregular but rapid succession, four of these notes are sixteenth. Here you should play with alternate picking, alternating between the index and the middle finger of the right hand. When playing melody lines and rapid successions of notes, you should always try to use alternate picking!
Here you can watch me playing this piece:
Notes on the 4th string that are followed by a downstrum can be played with the index finger instead of the thumb. It shouldn’t be regarded as “rule” anyway to play the 4th string with the thumb. Sometimes it is necessary, sometimes you may want to avoid it. Generally you should be able to play any string with any finger of the right hand (except the pinky).
Hint: In order to exercise the pinky of the left hand (which will be useful for the next piece) you should fret the C5 (3rd fret on the 1st string) in this piece with the pinky, as shown in the video.
Lesson 3: Deepening what we learned
In order to get accustomed to what we have learned, we have to practice it. I prefer to use real music instead of boring technical etudes for this task. A few new insights are introduced as well.
Piece 3: Michael, Row the Boat Ashore
- The time signature “C” (“Common time”) indicates a 4/4 metre. Thus, we have four beats per bar, and every beat is represented by a fourth note.
- In the 3rd bar we have full notes as well in the melody as in the accompaniment. Since full notes don’t have stems, it’s more difficult to recognize the melody note here. One of these full notes (an A4) is displaced to the left, so this indicates here that it is the melody note.
- In the 5th bar we fret the E minor chord with the fingers 1, 2 and 3 (index, middle and ring finger). (This is also indicated by the fingering digits above the score.) Then the 2nd finger is lifted in order to play the note E4, and thereafter we put the 4th finger on the 3rd string in order to play the note F4, allowing the E4 to ring out.
- In order to play the D minor chord in the next bar, we can slide the 3rd finger on the 3rd string down into the 2nd position, and additionally put the 2nd finger on the 2nd string. This method of staying in contact with a string while changing position (as used here with the 3rd finger) is called “guide finger” technique, and it’s really useful especially with re-entrant tuning, because we don’t have any wound strings, so there won’t be any distracting sounds when using this technique. You should always check if it’s possible to employ this technique, since it makes most position changes much easier.
Piece 4: It Takes a Worried Man
- In the 5th bar for fretting the B minor chord we place the index finger flat over the strings 1 and 2. This is called a “small barré”. It’s much easier than a full barré where all four strings would have to be pressed.
- From the 5th to the 7th bar it’s not necessary to lift the 2nd finger.
- In the 13th bar the note G4 is extended to a total length of 7 beats by the use of ties. So, it extends far into the next bar. You absolutely have to count the beats when playing this note, in order to get the length right!
Lesson 4: Triplets, economical fingering
In the first tune for this lesson we’re again concentrating on tricky timing. We’ll also explore efficient left hand technique a bit in both tunes.
Piece 5: Amazing Grace
- This piece has a 3/4 metre, so we have three beats per bar. One beat represents the duration of one quarter note.
- Tap the beat evenly with your foot or your hand while counting out the note durations.
- In this piece we introduce triplets. The first one is in the 1st bar. This is an eight triplet. It’s a group of three eights, which are a bit shortened, so the whole group takes as much time as a quarter. In order to practice this, you should tap out a 3/4 metre with your foot (3 beats per bar). Begin by playing two eigths every beat (all the same note), repeat this for a few bars. Then switch over to playing a triplet every beat. That’s three equally long notes every beat. DON’T change the tempo of the beats! The eights in the triplets have to be a bit shorter than the regular eights, so that three of them fit into one beat. Repeat switching between regular eights and triplets a few times until you get the feeling for it. The triplets should be played with alternate stroke technique (as well as the regular eights).
- For counting out the eight triplets we use slightly modified counting words. In bar 1, we count: “One-and-two-and-three-trip-let”. This is quite a bit tricky at the beginning. Learn it slowly by counting and tapping with your foot or your hand (no ukulele needed). Tap three times per bar. So there should be one tap exactly at the words “One”, “two” and “three”. Keep a steady timing while tapping! For practice, you can alternate counting bars containing triplets only with bars containing regular eights only. So a triplet only bar would be: “One-trip-let-two-trip-let-three-trip-let”, while an eights bar would be: “One-and-two-and-three-and”. Of course the triplets bars and eights bars should have the same length! Try to learn to get the timing right to get a steady beat with nice and uniform eights and triplets.
Left hand technique
- There’s no need to move your fingers more than necessary. In the bar 1, you don’t have to lift the 1st finger from the 2nd string. You have to lift the 2nd finger from the 4th string when playing the triplet, but just lift it a little bit, since you have to place it exactly at the same position again in the next bar (while also adding the 3rd finger on the 3rd string).
- In the 2nd bar, the 1st finger doesn’t have to be lifted again. For the 3rd bar, the 2nd and 3rd fingers have to “swap strings”. It’s not difficult when using the 1st finger as a guide. Practice it very slowly until it feels good.
Piece 6: Aura Lee
- Again you can use the 1st finger as a guide. Don’t lift it between bars 1 and 2.
- In bar 9, you can use the 3rd finger on the 3rd string for fretting the A7 chord. Doing so allows for using the 3rd finger as guide finger for the following D minor chord. In the transition to bar 10, just slide the 3rd finger up one fret and put the 1st finger on the 2nd string and the 2nd finger on the 4th string. For the following F7 chord, you don’t have to lift any fingers, just slide the 3rd finger one more position up to the 3rd fret.
- In bar 11, you can use the 2nd finger on the 3rd string as guide finger for the (incomplete) B flat minor chord. Just slide it down one fret and place the 3rd finger on the 2nd string.
- In the transition to bar 12, you can use a “virtual guide finger” technique. Lift the 2nd finger fully, but the 3rd finger only a little bit so that it still touches the 2nd string. Now move the whole hand so that the 3rd finger glides almost 2 positions up (while still touching the 2nd string lightly). Now the 1st and the 2nd finger can easily find the right positions for the F chord in bar 12.
- In bar 13, we have a “double guide finger”. Don’t lift the 1st and 2nd finger for changing to the D7 chord, just slide them up a fret simultaneously! For the transition to bar 14, the index finger can be used as guide finger again, slide it down a fret and then place the 2nd and 3rd finger for the G7 chord.
Lesson 5: Musical expression and easy pieces
This time we’re not going to learn new any new technical matters. Instead we want to think about a concept I deem to be utterly important:
Musical expression doesn’t come automatically. It has to be developed and practiced exactly like any other skill. When you are learning new technical concepts, you’re focused on many things, leaving little room for caring about expression. For this reason, I really like to play pieces which are technically easy. This allows to focus on musical expression instead on technical aspects.
I have to admit this is a huge topic that can’t be handled in just one lesson. Instead of explaining elements of musical notation concerning musical expression, for now, I just want to remind you what music is all about. Music is not a finger exercise. Music isn’t a competition. Music is art. That means that you can give your performance a deeper meaning than just plucking some notes in a given order. For example, music can be used to express your feelings. In order to achieve this, you can’t simply play notes like a machine. Make your music “alive”. It should breathe: When playing a musical phrase, it should have a “suspense curve”. Technically speaking, this can be achieved by slightly changing tempo and volume while playing. But don’t try to think this way. Just think about breathing. It will happen almost automatically, if you allow it. It can be helpful to imagine a mood you want to express while playing. Don’t try to force it. Instead, just try to enjoy the music you’re playing. For example, you could try to dream up a scene and imagine that you’re playing a soundtrack for it.
I wanted to explain this now, but not so much because I want you to apply it immediately. It’s more something you should always remember. You’re not making music just as an exercise. You’re making music because you want to enjoy it, and because you can make it alive — which is much more enjoyable than just playing a technically perfect sequence of notes.
Anyway, in this lesson I want to provide a bunch of nice easy pieces. You don’t have to learn them all. Pick one or two of them, and try to enjoy playing.
Piece 7: Es ist für uns eine Zeit angekommen
A joyful German winter song. You shouldn’t have much trouble playing it.
Piece 8: Im Märzen der Bauer
A happy German song about field work in spring.
A way to play the transition between bar 13 and 14 is as follows: Don’t lift the 3rd finger from the 3rd string. Play the Gm chord in bar 14 with the fingers 2, 4 and 3.
Piece 9: Zwischen Berg und tiefem Tal
A thoughtful song of the dangerous life of two hares.
Piece 10: Die güldene Sonne
A christian song about the sun.