Ukulele For Dummies
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Classical music is one of the last things people expect to hear coming out of a ukulele, which is what makes classical music so much fun to play on the uke. Perform a classical piece and people think, “I didn’t know you could do that on a ukulele!” This article shows you how to go about creating this surprised response in listeners. So, put on your best suit or classiest frock because you’re going to the concert hall!

Strumming Up the Classics

The strum up technique (that is, strumming down on a chord and adding the melody note at the top) is an effective way to arrange more simple classical tunes.

For example, the following figure shows the tab version for Brahms’s “Lullaby” (a tune familiar from every music box ever made). The melody is built around three main chords: C, G7, and F. At the start of each bar, the relevant chord is strummed down (using the thumb) with the melody note on the last string you hit.

After the opening chord of the bar, the thumb plays the single melody notes.

The fretting hand fingering is pretty straightforward, but bar seven requires a bit of thinking ahead. I indicate using your fourth finger (the little one) to play the note at the third fret. Although using your third finger may look more natural, you’d then be stranded for the next note.

Tab for Brahms’s “Lullaby”. Tab for Brahms’s “Lullaby”

The next tune, “Greensleeves," uses the same technique as Brahms’s “Lullaby” but adds a couple of elements.

The following figure contains the arrangement.

Tab for “Greensleeves.” Tab for “Greensleeves:"

Tab for “Greensleeves.”

First, this piece makes use of notes farther up the uke’s neck, which means a few big jumps in the positioning of your fingers. “Greensleeves” is a slow piece anyway, but don’t be afraid of practicing it even more slowly; make sure that you focus on playing slow enough that the large jumps don’t stop the flow of the music. When you can play it smoothly at a slow tempo, increasing speed is relatively easy.

The second thing to watch out for is the up-strum in bars 13 and 30. Here, instead of strumming down with your thumb, you need to strum up with your index finger. When you’re playing in this way, the ear interprets the last note you hit as the melody note. Earlier in the piece the last note was played on the E- or A-string, but here it’s on the G-string, and so that needs to be the last string played.

Also, in bars 13 and 30, the melody notes are hard to play while holding the E7 chord. So, you can break the rule about letting the chord ring through the whole bar and release the chord in order to play these notes.

Picking the Classics — Classical Guitar Pieces for Ukulele

Classical guitar tunes tend to transfer well to the ukulele. Quite often they contain picking patterns and arpeggiated chords (chords played one note at a time). The most famous example is “Romanza” (also known as “Spanish Romance”), which is shown in the following figure.

Tab for “Romanza.” Tab for “Romanza”

Here’s a really simple way to transfer guitar pieces to ukulele: just play the tab for the top three guitar strings on the top three strings of the ukulele. So, for example, if the guitar tab tells you to play the top string at the third fret, play the top string of your ukulele at the third fret. The top three strings of a guitar have the same relative tuning as the top three of the ukulele.

This technique, however, doesn’t work perfectly for every piece. One common problem is the lack of bass notes. To overcome this difficulty for “Romanza”, I add an A minor chord at the beginning. The tune is in the key of A minor and playing the chord at the beginning sets this up for the listener for the entire piece.

This tune uses three fingers – middle (M), index (I), and thumb (T) – on the A-, E-, and C-strings, respectively. The picking pattern is as follows:

The A-string of this piece carries the melody while the E- and C-strings provide backing.

Give the A-string an extra-strong pick so that the melody pops out.

Here are a couple of bits of fingering to look out for. In bar 7, make sure that you use your little finger to play the note at the eighth fret so you’re ready for the next bar; and in bars 10 and 11, use the tip of your index finger to play both the E- and A-strings. Doing so allows you to play the big stretch up to the eleventh fret.

One of the most famous composers for guitar was Ferdinando Carulli (a 19th-century Italian composer who wrote more than 400 pieces for the guitar). The following figure is an arrangement for ukulele of his “Andante."

This arrangement uses the same technique of transferring directly from guitar to ukulele as used to play “Romanza." Again, you lose the bass notes, but that doesn’t stop the tune from being rewarding to play.

Two elements are important to note in this piece: single note runs (picked using the “running man” alternate picking technique) and the pairs of notes (picked with index and middle fingers).

Tab for Carulli’s “Andante.” Tab for Carulli’s “Andante”

Playing Campanella Style

The method of directly transferring pieces from guitar to ukulele discussed previously doesn’t always produce great results and never takes full advantage of the uke’s idiosyncrasies. The campanella method of playing, however, uses all of the uke strings and produces a much more pleasing sound.

Campanella (meaning “little bells”) uses the re-entrant G-string of the ukulele to produce a harp-like sound of notes ringing into each other. In the tunes that I describe in earlier chapters, notes are played up and down the strings so that each string has consecutive notes played on it. In campanella, notes are played across the strings so that each string is never played twice in a row.

John King developed this technique for the ukulele, and you can hear him using it with wonderful results on his album, Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita No. 3, BWV 1006 for Unaccompanied Ukulele.

The following two figures illustrate how the campanella idea works. Both figures are of the same tune: the opening line of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The first figure shows how this piece is usually played, with consecutive notes sometimes being played on the same string.

 “The Star-Spangled Banner” standard version. “The Star-Spangled Banner” standard version

 “The Star-Spangled Banner” campanella version. “The Star-Spangled Banner” campanella version

But the E-string, third fret, is the same note as the open G-string. So, you can replace the E-string third fret with the open G-string to produce the preceding figure.

Now every string of the ukulele is being used for one note only, which allows all of the notes to ring into one another, producing a C chord. When you play this figure, hold down the familiar C chord shape and make sure that all the notes ring as long as possible. Assign one picking finger to each string (thumb on the G-string, index on the C-string, and so on).

Compare the two methods and I think you’ll agree that the campanella version sounds much richer.

As good as campanella sounds, the downside is that it can be much more difficult to play. Compare the following two figures. Again, these take a familiar tune: “Gran Vals” (much better known as an annoying mobile ringtone). The first figure below takes the standard approach of transferring directly from guitar to ukulele, while the second figure takes the campanella approach.

 “Gran Vals” standard version. “Gran Vals” standard version

 “Gran Vals” campanella version. “Gran Vals” campanella version

As you can see in the standard notation, the notes are exactly the same. But in the preceding figure, each note in the bar has its own string, which allows all of the notes to be ringing at the same time.

For the campanella technique to be effective, you must hold down the notes as long as possible. To do so, you need to prepare your hand into the correct shape. Look at all the notes coming up in that bar and position your fingers ready for them at the start of the bar.

So, for example, at the beginning of bar 1, you hold the following down:

  • G-string: Ring finger, tenth fret
  • C-string: Middle finger, ninth fret
  • E-string: Index finger, seventh fret
  • A-string: Little finger, tenth fret
And keep that shape held until the end of the bar. The usual technique in playing single note passages is to stop the note playing when you move to the next note. In campanella style, however, you’re playing more like you do when you’re strumming by holding all the notes down and letting them ring into each other.

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