Guitar meets piano; guitar orchestra & ukulele club

When musicians meet, they want to play together. They exchange recordings of themselves. Playing together is a way to establish whether they are compatible, whether they want to collaborate, whether there is a future together.

Such was the case when I met a classical guitarist more than seventeen years ago. He copied a recording of his guitar quartet on CD as a takeaway gift.

The next time we met, I brought the only piano guitar piece I owned — an arrangement of Vivaldi’s guitar concerto for guitar and piano. Eager to find more pieces to play, I visited music bookshops in my travel as magazine editor. He arranged music for us to play. Before long, we had collected and arranged enough sheet music to give a concert. Soon composers started writing for our piano guitar duo.

The subtitle of our first concert at the Makawao Union Church in Maui, in December 2007, was “four centuries of music for piano and guitar” —- which comprised of arrangements, original compositions, and commissions. We released the live recording of the concert as a CD in January 2011.

Nearly two decades later, the guitarist is conductor of a guitar orchestra while I have founded my own ukulele group. How do we combine the two? Is it possible?

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Ukulele song sheets: prolong & add variety to a song

How do you make a song last longer and sound more interesting? I call it the three-minute rule. A song needs to last at least three minutes for it to register in the listener’s ears. That’s my rule, after testing my audiences in a variety of settings. A short piece simply doesn’t register. How to you prolong and add variety to a song? This happens often in our ukulele jam sessions, in which we prepare for our gigs. Here are some ideas for all songs, whether you accompany with ukulele, guitar, or piano.

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Three chord songs for ukulele and guitar

“What? I just need to know three chords to play a song?”

“Actually, you can play ‘Frere Jacques’ with just one chord. There are many songs with only two chords. I have identified at least thirty of these.”

I tell my ukulele students that 80% of all songs use only 20% of all chords. I apply the 80-20 rule to many situations, often to help with management of expectations.

So far I have collected over 60 songs that use only C, F, and G or G7 chords. My list of three chord songs that use three other chords, such as Riptide (Am, G, C), is nearly as long. This is wonderful news for beginners.

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Obladi Oblada chords

At well past our 9:30 pm ending time, we wanted to end our Beatles Carpool Karaoke on a high note rather than a depressing “Hey Jude.”

How about “Obladi Oblada” ? The song in C major is a tad too high for my voice. The original is in Bb major. No wonder.

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Love Me Do, another three chord song

After spending over an hour working on “Let It Be” and half an hour on “When I’m Sixty-Four” we spent comparatively less time on the remaining three from the 15 songs on the Beatles Carpool Karaoke. While we were familiar with most songs, playing them on the ukulele was another matter.

Our coach showed us how to make an illusively simple three-chord song like “Love Me Do” interesting. It’s sometimes the case that three-chord songs are not necessarily easy to sing or rhythmically easy to play. So far, I’ve compiled more than 60 songs that require only the three chords of C, F, and G. It will be another exercise to play them well.

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Let it be real good

As usual, I began our 7 o’clock ukulele jam session with an easy song, one that everyone knows with few easy chords. This being the Beatles Carpool Karaoke, I chose “Let It Be,” using  San Jose Ukulele Club’s version in the original key of C major, with just four chords, rather than the G-major transposition with nine chords in the version in Richard G’s Songbook.

What can you do with “Let It Be” if you already know it very well?

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From ukulele jam to gig

Also known as “from participation to presentation

Getting together to play music together is akin to everyone chatting musically at the same time. In my ukulele jam sessions, we accompany ourselves on our ukuleles to songs we pretty much know how to sing already. It may seem like sight reading, for we don’t usually practice or know what we will be doing beforehand. In one two-hour jam session, we could go through as many as thirty songs without a break.

There is a subtle difference between a jam and a gig. While there may be onlookers watching and hearing us from the sidelines, we aren’t playing to an audience other than ourselves. A jam session is participatory music making, where everyone is participating by singing and or playing. A gig, on the other hand, is presentational where we play to an audience.

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