> Chord voicing and fingering for tenor ukulele
Shadow

Chord voicing and fingering for tenor ukulele

The chord voicing which textures Jake Shimabukuro’s fascinating arrangements—including covers of While My Guitar Gently Weeps and The Star Spangled Banner—has dubbed this Hawaiian native the Jimi Hendrix of ukulele. Here, he takes time to share left-hand techniques that lend his tenor ukulele its signature voice.

Chord voicing and fingering for tenor ukulele

Taking Advantage of Tenor Ukulele Tuning

Shimabukuro plays a four-string, tenor ukulele. His is a handcrafted instrument by the Kamaka Company in Hawaii. The ukulele may look like a tiny guitar with four strings, but its tuning requires a completely different approach to chording.

The strings of a tenor ukulele are tuned G, C, E, A starting from the string closest to the player’s head. Unlike a guitar where strings go in order of pitch, the lowest pitched string on a tenor ukulele is actually the C, tuned to a middle C on the piano. “When you’re working on your chord voicing,” Shimabukuro comments, “it’s interesting because a lot of times, you play the root of the chord on the C string rather than on the outside string. The thing that makes the tenor ukulele’s sound most unique is having the two highest strings on the outside. Your first string is A and your fourth string is G, so they’re only a whole step apart. A lot of times, you can use those two outside strings to play the melody, or the top voicing. It gives you more options.”

Playing Tenor Ukulele Without a Bass String

Shimabukuro doesn’t see the absence of bass strings on the tenor yuke as a disadvantage in chord voicing. “I think the high pitched nature of the strings is very relaxing and easy to listen to,” he remarks. “I also think that the absence of bass notes makes the sound very unique. It’s not a heavy sound. It’s light—almost like a music box.”

There are definite pros and cons when it comes to the tenor ukulele’s upper-register tuning. Overall, Shimabukuro feels the tuning is easier to master due to its unique lack of bass. “It’s like playing way up on the right side of the piano with all those high notes,” he observes. “Everything seems to work nicer than if you play on the extreme left side of the piano. A lot of times, it’s the lower notes that start to clash with each other. On the other hand, it makes your arrangement and your playing a lot more open to interpretation because you don’t have a solid bass note in there. What you’re hearing in your head, can effect your playing. For example, I could be strumming a C major chord on the ukulele and hearing it as a C Major chord, while someone else could be hearing it as an A minor 7 chord. It depends what bass note you’re putting in there. So, if I’m playing with a bass player, and he plays a C, then yeah, it’s a C chord. If he plays an A, it becomes an A minor 7 chord. If he plays an F, then it becomes an F major 9 chord.”

Shimabukuro on Playing Tenor Ukulele Like a String Quartet

tenor ukulele

A breakthrough in chord voicing came for Shimabukuro as he decided to treat each string on his tenor ukulele as a voice in a string quartet. “On the ukulele, you actually have two lead strings,” he explains. “Your first and your fourth strings are your two high strings, and they’re only a whole step apart. I look at that as my two violin parts. The second string, which is an E, becomes my viola. And the third string—the low C–which is the lowest note of the four, I treat as my cello.”

As Shimabukuro works out chording for a new arrangement, he puts this quartet method into practice. Before moving his left hand to a new position, he treats each finger independently by asking, what finger has to move? “I think of the strings as a quartet,” he says. “So, if I’m holding a chord, I think where does the third string need to move? Where would the cello go? If the cello would move a half step down, I move my finger down just on that string. Maybe the melody is moving up a whole step, and the viola remains in the same place.

Trying to think of it that way rather than just jumping from string to string to string, you can see a line moving rather than going through stock chord positions. If you sit there and actually visualize each string as its own instrument, you start playing these lines, and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s cool…okay, so this one’s going to move here and it becomes a flat 9 and this one becomes a sharp 11.’ You see all these nice chromatic movements from chord to chord.”

ukulele

Shimabukuro says the more he practices this method in his arranging, the more new possibilities he unlocks. “The more you play, the more your ear hears different things, and passages evolve,” he remarks. “There are some arrangements I worked out a few years ago, but as I play them over and over, I find places where I say, ‘Oh, I should do it like this.’ It’s never-ending.”

Musicians can learn more about the Ukulele Master in related articles where Shimabukuro discusses ukulele strumming and fingerstyle technique, his thoughts on playing ukulele for beginners, and his tips for playing ukulele outside the box.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *