Saturday, July 2, 2016

What key should I sing that song in?

While not uniquely a ukulele issue, the question often arises about the key a song should be sung in. The answer is not complicated, but it requires a critical piece of information
What is the highest note that you can sing?

Once you know the highest note you can sing, the answer is

Choose the key that makes highest note in the song
as close or equal to the highest note you can sing, but no higher!

For example, the highest note I can sing comfortably is D above middle C. Now, we need a song. How about "By The Light Of The Silvery Moon"?

  • The song is written in the key of C.
  • The highest note in the song is F ("Your silvery beams will bring love dreams...")
  • F is the fourth note in the C major scale (C-D-E-F), so...whatever key I sing the song in, the highest note will be the fourth note of the scale.
  • Since D is the highest note I can sing, I look for the key in which the fourth note of the scale is D.
  • That scale is A! (A-B-C#-D)

I'd begin by seeing how the song works in the key of A.

  • If the highest note is a passing note, I might be able to choose my key based on the second highest note.
  • If a song lives near its highest note, that is, most of the notes are high or there is a long passage of high note, I might have to pitch the song in a lower key (G or F).

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Oh, those wonderful *%)!# diminished chords!

[This is a draft. It's a pretty good draft, but it is a draft nonetheless. It may undergo some revision before being finalized, but I don't expect it to change much.]

As a hobbyist guitar player, whenever I came across a diminished chord I'd skip it. Six strings and a chord that requires 4 fingers in a cramped position is something I did not need, thank you.

That said, the sound of the diminished chord is really nice. A ukulele has but four strings and the position isn't that bad when there are only four strings. While there are many ways to form the same chord, it's easy to argue that there are only 3 diminished chords, all of the same shape but on different frets. Each one of the diminished chords can be named by any of the four notes in it. So, for example, (0,1,0,1) contains the notes G, C#, E, Bb so it can be called Gdim, C#dim, Edim, Bbdim.

Chord Notes
G C#/Db E A#/Bb
G#/Ab D F B
A D#/Eb F#/Gb C

What could be simpler? But, if it's so simple, why can't I remember it?!

The above table is correct. It has pictures of the chords and their notes. However, having thought about diminished chords and being frustrated by them for some time, I have now come to appreciate that, to master diminished chords, it is essential to know the first three frets of the fretboard as if by rote. As a result, I've become more enamored of this second table that displays the fret board:

Fret Notes
1 G#/Ab C#/Db F A#/Bb
2 A D F#/Gb B
3 A#/Bb D#/Eb G C

It is even better, as we shall see, when four notes are removed from the display

Fret Notes
1 G#/Ab C#/Db F A#/Bb
2 A D F#/Gb B
3 D#/Eb C

As was already mentioned, all that one has to do to obtain a particular diminished chord is move the diminished shape so that it covers the note naming the chord. For example, to obtain Bdim move the shape so that a finger covers a B somewhere. There's

string fret chord
2 1212
2 7 7878
3 11 10,11,10,11
4 4545

Notice that the diminished chord repeats itself every three frets. That is, if (f,f+1,f,f+1) is a particular diminished chord, then so is (f+3,f+4,f+3,f+4), where 'f' is a certain fret number.

Leaving the C and A out of the fretboard diagram was a breakthrough of sorts for me. Like most ukulele players, I've drilled it into myself that the ukulele is tuned gCEA, so, when looking for a C, I automatically think of the open third string. However, that doesn't work for diminished chords because there is no way to fret the first and third strings below the nut! 'C' is first string, third fret. Similarly, 'A' is fourth string, second fret. It is no accident that 'C' and 'A' are emboldened in the table.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Oh, those wonderful 9 chords!

As an amateur guitar player, I didn't have much use for 9 chords. However, they sound wonderful and become surprisingly manageable on a ukulele with its four strings.

If you check the chord building chart from the "Chords, and how to make them" note, you'll see that a 9 chord is just a 7-th chord with the 9-th note of the scale added. Think '2', but an octave higher.

Consider three cases:

  • Bb: the 7 chord is (1,2,1,1). The 9 note is C. There is a C on the third fret of the first string, making the Bb9 (1,2,1,3)...which makes it sound a lot harder than it is! Keep the bar! That is, finger the Bb7 the usual way by using the index finger as a bar across all four strings and your middle finger fretting the second fret of the third string. Add your ring finger to the third fret of the first string and you've got it!

    This is a moveable chord. For example, when you move your index finger one fret up the neck to (2,3,2,4) and you've got B9!

  • D: the 7 chord is (2,2,2,3). The 9 note is E. There is an E to be found on the third string, fourth fret, making the D9 (2,4,2,3)...which makes it sound a lot harder than it is! If you finger your D7 by using your index finger as a bar on the 2-nd fret and your middle finger at the 3-rd fret of the first string, then all you need do is add your ring finger at the 4-th of the third string.

    This is a moveable chord. For example, when you move your index finger down the neck and let the nut take its place, you have C9=(0,2,1,0).

  • E: the 7 chord is (1,2,0,2). The 9 note is F#. There is an E to be found on the second string, second fret, making the D9 (1,2,2,2), which again can sound a lot harder than it is! Two ways to obtain the E9 are by using four finger tips and by barring the first three strings at the second fret with the middle finer, say, and arching the index finger to fret the fourth string. However, since the E9 has the first three strings fretted at the second fret, it doesn't matter what is done with them on the first fret. So, a what some find as a much easier way to form the E9 is by barring all of the strings across the first fret with the middle finder and all four strings across the first fret with the ring finger.

    This, too, is a moveable chord.

The best software for ukulele players: Songbook

It would be unthinkable for a series on software for ukulele players to not include Songbook, not just because it does what it does, but also because it is available on so many platforms, including iPhone/iPad, Android, Windows, and Mac OS X. Songbook can be synchronized across your devices by using Dropbox or any other program that will keep files and directories synced. (I use BitTorrent's Sync, myself. Sync is different from the BitTorrent service for peer-to-peer file sharing because no peers are involved in Sync other than your own.)

If a songsheet is in two-line format, Songbook can convert it into the chordpro format it needs to work its own magic. Songbook can do everything necessary to create a personal songbook or a songbook for a ukulele club. Songbook can

  • convert files from chordpro to the easier to read two line text format,
  • transpose to a different key on the fly or permanently, and
  • add chord diagrams.

Highly recommended!

There are a few downsides. While I have not seen the program's source code, it is my sense that it recreates an index of song titles every time it is started. I am also guessing that it sorts the titles into alphabetical order and does it in an inefficient manner. I have more than 9,000 (nine thousand; not a typo) chordpro files. Songbook takes so long on to start on my tablets that it is easy to think that the program has frozen. As I type this, I realize that I don't like the inherent ambiguity in the phrase "so long", so I grabbed my older Asus MeMo ME301T and newer Samsung Tab A. It took 75 seconds for a list of song titles to appear on the MeMo and 70 seconds on the Tab A.

The other is for people like me who prefer to store song files in a directory structure rather than create playlists. Songbook for Android supports only one level of subdirectories. For example, if your chordpro files were stored in a directory called ChordPro, that directory could be subdivided into Rock, Pop, and Jazz, say, but Songbook would not be happy if Rock were subdivided into 60s, 70s, and so on.

SongBook costs $8 for Android, $19 for PC ($17 if you already own Android), $8 for iOS, $18 for Mac.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The best software for ukulele players: ChordSmith

Thus begins a series of occasional posts describing some of the best software for ukulele players. There's no better program to start with than ChordSmith. It's written in Java, so it will run on any platform that supports Java.

It performs a bunch of tasks that can be found in other programs.

  • It can convert lead sheets in two line text format (one line chords, the line lyrics) to Chordpro. It also converts Chordpro to two line text.
  • It transposes.
  • I can be used to edit song files.

WAKE UP! I know it sounds boring because so many other programs do the same thing. However, ChordSmith has a batch mode! It can transform hundreds of files in the blink of an eye. If you've never faced this problem, then ChordSmith is probably not of interest. Other programs edit, transpose, and change format quite nicely (stay tuned for Songbook). However, over many years back in the last millennium, I created a collection of 200+ songs from Tin Pan Alley that I enjoy. I wanted to be able to use them on my tablets with apps that requires Chordpro format. The thought of transforming them one at a time was distressing, not because I couldn't do it, but because I could! I could, but it would be an arduous task. Google led me to ChordSmith, which accomplished the task in minutes, including the time it took to download the software. ChordSmith is giftware. I sent a gift. I had to. If I didn't, I'd still be feeling guilty about how much work it saved me.

I don't use ChordSmith as much now, but there are still occasions where it's the right tool for the job. For example, I might create a set of songsheets by cutting and pasting them in two line format from the Ultimate Guitar Archive. Then, I used ChordSmith to convert them to Chordpro format. However, for onezies and maybe twozies, I'll use other tools, including my modification of the Uke Geeks' Song-a-Matic editor. My modification retains any blank lines that appear in the songsheet file. The original Song-a-Matic strips them, which I find makes their resulting Chordpro file difficult to read.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Chords, and how to make them

If you lead a busy schedule, a chord is a set of three or more notes. If you have time on your hands, you can worry over whether two notes constitute a chord. :-)

Here is an outstanding chord construction table from Cheater Theory (v2) by Howlin' Hobbit. The entire document is worth a read.

Here are two of the many ways to use it.

  • Constructing a chord from the ground up. Suppose you wanted to construct an Am7. The table tells us we need a 1 and a 5 along with a flatted 3 and flatted 7. The A scale has three sharps and is
    A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A
    (remember whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half).
    Then (1,3b,5,7b) becomes (A,C,E,G)...the open strings!
  • Modifying a chord. We know that the A shaped C chord is (5543) or (C,E,G,C). Suppose we needed a Cmaj7, that is, a Cmaj7. The chart tells us to add the 7-th note in the scale, B. We've got two Cs-that's one to spare--while the 2nd fret of first string is...a B! So, Cmaj7 is (5432)=(C,E,G,B). The usual first postition Cmaj7 one finds in chord charts is (0002)=(G,C,E,B).

Electric Ukuleles (The Eleuke)

One of the appeals (some might say dangers!) of the ukulele is that it is so inexpensive compared to other stringed instruments. Add how easy it is to learn and it becomes easy to start collecting them, and not necessarily on purpose!

It might start with wanting a few different sizes, but then there's the all weather uke, the acoustic-electric uke,... The novelty ukes!
Doesn't everyone need a [your favorite color] ukulele? One with your favorite sports team's logo? Is that baseball, football, basketball, hockey? Or all of the above? I haven't seen licensed soccer team logos, yet. Can they be far behind?

Then, there's the solid body electric uke. They come in two types--steel string and nylon string (which will be my generic term for "non-metal string"). I have tried steel string ukuleles but I have misgivings about steel due to my quaint notion that anything that calls itself a ukulele ought to be able to be played like a traditional ukulele. Steel string ukuleles can be resistant to standard right hand strumming techniques. That brings us back to nylon string ukuleles.

I like the Eleuke. It's strung with Aquila Nylgut, so I don't have to modify my right hand technique to save my hand. One advantage of a solid body uke is it can be played unplugged without annoying anyone when an acoustic uke would be a problem, such as early morning or late evening. Many Eleukes have an mp3 input and headphone output, so you can mix the uke with your mp3 and only you hear it. However, I believe this wasn't true for all models, so anyone who finds these features to be important should check for them.

Closeout models are available at the Eleuke site. My first one came from China with battery leakage. Eleuke sent a replacement battery case. I was anxious about replacing it myself, but the repair was straightforward. It involved nothing more that removing a few screws and unplugging the battery case from the electronics board. When I ordered again, I was careful to specify that the instruments be shipped without batteries.

There was a problem with the tone control in the second Eleuke. I was sent a set of replacement electronics. Again, the replacement was straightforward. The volume and tone control knobs had to be pulled off to access the nuts securing them. Otherwise, it was about the same as for replacing the battery compartment. The only other downside is that shipping from China is slow, so it can take a while if there is an issue to be resolved. To put it in context, though, the problems I experienced would not stop me from ordering again.

The style changes from year to year. My favorite shape is the dark one in the left of the photograph. I'd been haunting eBay looking for one that never appeared. I found the closeout site during a web search. The latest model is the Peanut. I didn't care for it much when it first came out, but it's starting to grow on me. I'm at the "The last thing I need is another ukulele" stage. ...but, they're not that expensive on eBay...

The On/Off switch: One item deserves special mention-the on/off switch. There isn't one, or rather there is, but not one you would normally expect. It's built into the connectors. The Eleuke ON when is connected to an amp or earbuds. Otherwise, it's OFF. Once I learned this through an email exchange with Philip K, the mystery of why the Eleuke's battery would run down overnight sometimes but not always was solved!