We’ll start off with a New Year’s treating, just to rhyme with the greeting.
For my friends and fans who are also ukulele aces, I’ve just finished a small document on lead playing for the ukulele based on the Pentatonic Minor blues boxes for guitar. This is five, easy to learn, interlocking patterns on the fretboard that allow you to play lead riffs and licks in any key. And, despite its name, there are other genres besides blues that these patterns will work for.
There are several pages of explanation and one page with all of the boxes diagramed out for easy visualization of them and their relationship with each other.
As is usual for my uke documents, this one is a pdf file and can be downloaded for free. Also as usual, if you like it and find it useful, the best way to say thanks is to drop a dollar or two into my online tip bucket (over there in the right column of this page). It’s the slow busking season here, kids, and you’d be surprised at how useful the occasional extra dollar is.
Several weeks ago I received a gift of cash. It maybe wasn’t large to some of you, but it was more than I usually have all at the same time. Knowing how likely it was that I’d just fritter it away, I decided to quickly invest it into my act. One of the things at the top of my list was a tenor guitar. I’d been lusting after one for some time (and talking about it to get the idea “out into the universe”) so this seemed to be my chance.
So on Thursday, November 13th, I went to Dusty Strings and picked up a 1961 Harmony tenor guitar. I’d actually paid for it the night before, but it needed some setup work done to bring it in line with what I wanted. (I’ll get to that later.) In the picture to the left you can see Harmony–yes, I named her Harmony… so sue me!–with Pierson the soprano ukulele in the shot to give y’all an idea of Harmony’s size. And yes, I named him Pierson. It’s a convoluted science fiction/ukulele joke and if you want the whole story behind it, leave a comment and I’ll tell it there.
Right now some of you might be thinking, “Why does Howlin’ Hobbit, Ukulele Ace, want a guitar at all, much less a tenor?” In fact, some of you might be wondering what the hell a tenor guitar is. Well pilgrim, I’m here to supply the answers to just such mysteries. I’ll start with what it is and move on to why I got one.
(Oh… and here’s where the music geek talk starts.)
The first production model of a tenor guitar was produced by Gibson in 1927. They were made because the popular music of the day was starting to transition from traditional Jazz (Trad Jazz is also called Dixieland) into a more big band scene that would later become swing. Trad Jazz used banjo as their rhythm instrument but the proto-swing cats were all about guitar in its place. The tenor guitar allowed the banjo players to double on guitar without having to learn a whole slew of new chord shapes. Tenor banjo “standard” tuning is in fifths, like a viola, and standard guitar tuning is mainly fourths, with one third thrown in just to mess with you. It’s no wonder the banjo players wanted to stick with a tuning they knew.
If you’re going, “Dafuq is with the thirds, fourths, etc.?” don’t panic. It’s just a way to describe the space between two notes in a given scale. (Of course, “space” isn’t fancy schmancy enough, so the official musicianer name for these spaces is “intervals.”)
Returning to our story…
After a time the tenor guitar had spread around pretty well. All over the place there were guitar players going, “Well, ain’t that just as cute as a bug? I want one.” Of course they were also saying, “But fuck a bunch of this tuning! The chords are too stretchy on my hands!” So somewhere–one could assume Chicago for reasons that will soon be obvious–some unnamed guitar slinger decided to tune it like the highest four strings of the guitar (the highest musically speaking, not farthest from the floor). This ended up being called “Chicago tuning.”
See. I told you it would be obvious. Our circle is nearly complete. Stay with me.
Now they could play the cute little thangs with more or less the same shapes they used on the 6 stringed versions they were accustomed to. They simply omitted the two low strings from the fingerings they usually used. And it turns out that the tenor is happy in various alternative tunings so it was fit into various musical styles.
So 90 years later I’m pondering how to expand my act a bit. It’s really great to be able to switch instruments occasionally. This is especially true if you’re doing a longer show, like a house concert for instance. (I really want to do more house concerts!) It changes the texture of the sound, it changes the visual, and it’s just a nice change of pace to keep the audience’s attention. I had Harmony set up for Chicago tuning because it’s also baritone ukulele tuning. (For you fellow musicians, the string gauges, low to high, are 35, 26, 17, 13. Guitar strings are cheap, so I may try a lighter set before calling the matter settled.) But the upshot is I can use all of the chord shapes I’m used to doing, the music will just be in a different key. In other words, I don’t have to learn a whole new batch of finger stretchy shapes.
So that closes the circle. First, you had banjo players that wanted a new instrument without learning new chords. Than it was adopted by guitar players who liked the size, etc., but they didn’t want to learn new chord shapes either, so they changed the tuning. And now a ukulele player wanted a new instrument without learning new chords, but his predecessors had done all the work for him, except for the practice part.
I’m still having a bit of wrist pain on one of the tunes I’m practicing. It’s gotten better though as I rebuild the wrist strength needed for steel strings instead of nylon. I want to “go public” playing a tune on the tenor (even if only in a video) soon, so I better get back to that practice part.
Last Friday Sketch and I went busking at Pike Place Market. We had a pretty lame first set but, hey, we’re troupers and we hung around a couple hours until our next turn came up at our favorite spot.
We were down to one more song in our second set, and it was promising to be more lame than the first one. We were all, “Yeah, it’s the season. What can you do?” and were about to launch into our last tune–It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)–when this guy stopped, said a couple of very nice things about the act, and tossed a bill into the case.
I said thank you very much and he wandered off. About that time I got a look at the bill and went, “That’s not a $1 bill!” Indeed, I was correct. Closer examination revealed it was a $50.
Boom! One generous person, at practically the very last moment, turned the entire day around.
A couple weeks ago I saw a new busker. She was playing accordion, and doing a good job of it, but her case was pretty bare. While I was listening she started to pack up. I said, “Quitting already?” and she explained how maybe she was just being impatient but the day hadn’t treated her well. This has happened to me countless times. But I’ve learned to do the whole set, even if it sometimes doesn’t pay off.
I don’t know why I didn’t let her know the moral of this story, even though I was familiar with it from previous experience. And the moral is: “Never give up! Never Surrender!”
Because you never know when that one person is coming by.
I’d sure like to get back to the point where I was able to post about the terrific recent gigs I’ve had or maybe something regarding the new music toys in my life. But what I’ve got is yet another test post trying to get back to how everything worked before.