Very little original material has been written for the ukulele, compared to the piano and other instruments. As such, most of the music for the ukulele consists of transcriptions. The journey to make a song sheet work for ukulele groups to read and use is one of reducing and simplifying the musical material to its barebones. After interviewing various transcribers who share their song sheets online for my research, I now share my way of transcribing songs for the ukulele.
Transcribing a song for a ukulele group to sing and play along and together requires more consideration than for an individual. You need to indicate how a group will start and end together, unless there is a leader who does this. Within the song, there may be places where the group needs to stop strumming and start strumming again. These locations must be clearly marked.
When you are transcribing for a group, think of the skill level. Less is more. The fewer and easier the chords, the more likely the player will be able to sing and play well.
One of my ukulele friends revealed that he has been trying to work on “September in the Rain,” using Dr Uke’s version which is quite challenging for him. Here is where I ask some pertinent questions regarding use. Is his goal to sound like the original jazz standard? Does he want to introduce the song to our ukulele group so we can all play and sing together?
There are so many versions of this song on Youtube. Where do we start? From the piano sheet music? From a guitar tab? Let’s see what has been done for the ukulele.
Dr Uke indicates every chord that’s been played in the original. For the average player, the fifteen chords look formidable. San Jose Ukulele Club has reduced it to nine chords in the key of C, more manageable if you keep it at a slow tempo. Neither are in my vocal range, so I searched further.
I found a guitar transcription of Annie Lennox’s version in G. As it’s a tad too high for my voice, I transposed it down a whole step to F and tried it a few times before sharing my ukulele version with my friend. Seven chords. Doable.
The song isn’t ready to be shared until it passes several more tests. In the case of “Autumn Leaves,” another jazz standard, I consulted with a fellow ukulele player near Paris about correct chord placement. I then asked a friend from Marseilles to visit and coach me on my French pronunciation. When he watched my live Facebook video recording, he thought I was making a joke. “Autumn Leaves is supposed to be sad and slow,” he said as he proceeded to play versions by Edith Piaf and Yves Montand. “Nah! This is for ukulele group — it cannot drag,” I responded.