One thing I love about Old-Time music is that there doesn't seem to be a formula for what constitutes a "real" Old-TIme band. While groups will typically include fiddles, banjos, guitars, basses, and sometimes mandolins, no one would use the presence of cellos, dulcimers, harmonicas, accordions, concertinas, spoons, washboards, tin whistles, cajons, or musical saws, to question the "authenticity" of an old time band (yes, I heard all of these instruments in jams while walking around Clifftop this year : ). In years past (and today), people likely played "fiddle tunes" on whatever instruments were available; these eclectic variations in instrumentation help make Old-Time such a big tent, in which you're free to find your own niche for expression.
On that note of inclusiveness: enter the baritone ukulele! While these instruments are tuned like the top 4 strings of a guitar, its a mistake to think of baritone uses as somewhat-limiting diversions for guitarists. The wide string spacing and short scale length make these instruments unique in their own right; while I can play most of the stuff I play on the baritone uke on guitar, the music loses a lot in tone and fluidity in the transfer. On our first wedding anniversary, my wife surprised me with this beautiful baritone uke (pic below) and its become my go-to couch buddy, often even at the expense of the banjo!
A picture of the beautiful slot-head baritone uke that my amazing wife bought at Elderly for our first anniversary. Hard to say I haven't found my soul mate (yes, I mean my wife, not the uke).
Because they're pretty much constantly meandering through my head, absent-minded noodling on my new toy inevitably wandered towards fiddle tunes, and I came to a crossroads: Do I treat the uke like a tiny quiet banjo or do I treat it like a uke?
On treating the baritone uke like a banjo:
You'll notice that standard baritone uke tuning (DGBE) is pretty close to "open G" (gDGBD) on a banjo, but with the 5th string removed and the 1st string tuned down a whole step. In fact, the baritone uke can be tuned to 5th string-less variations of all of my commonly used banjo tunings; in this configuration, I already know hundreds of fiddle tunes. It can be played clawhammer style, though the lack of a 5th string to pluck/rest on takes some getting used to; you can put the 4th string in this role when the melody is on strings 1-3, but it does sound a little odd and you quickly get a little bit of dysphoria when the melody veers low.
As an aside, standard ukes (i.e.tenor, soprano, and concert ukes) have a re-entrant tuning that banjo players may have a bit of comfort with: gCEA. Clawhammer comes pretty naturally with a "high" string on the bottom, and you can find a bunch of clawhammer uke videos online. Once again, this works for tunes that stick to the high strings; when handed a standard uke, I can quickly pull out a clawhammer version of "Sandy boys" in C that sounds pretty solid : )
However, I have plenty of banjos and don't really need a "fake banjo" without a 5th string. To me, it s more fun to treat the uke like its own thing and learn some fiddle tunes in standard baritone uke tuning.
Treating the baritone uke like a uke
I decided I'd play D and G tunes in standard tuning and A tunes with a capo, pretending like they're G tunes (most of the time I don't bother to capo for A tunes since I'm playing alone). My clawhammer roots make me dissatisfied with unaccompanied melody; I wanted to bring backing chords into my uke playing as well. Since standard baritone uke tuning is not an "open tuning" (i.e. it doesn't make a pretty chord when strumming the open strings), this approach requires me to be constantly holding down a chord while I play. The fact that the uke is a 4 string instrument makes the acrobatics involved in this approach a little less intimidating than what travis-style guitar pickers like Chet Atkins do. A G major chord (A major if you capo) is available with just one finger (0003); a D major chord takes a bit more effort (0232). However, you don't have to hold down all of a chord if you're not using all of it, and notey sections of tunes require no backing whatsoever.
Right hand concerns:
Fingerstyle playing on guitar seems a little intimidating. While clawhammer has "rules" you can impose on an arrangement (e.g. index on down beats, thumb on up-beats; bum-ditty framework throughout), finger style guitar has always looked a little more "free-wheeling" as an observer....this is probably because I've never really looked in to how to play it properly : ) I decided to take my right hand inspiration for the baritone uke from what little I know about 2 finger "thumb-lead" banjo playing. 2 basic moves in this style are shown in Figures 1 and 2 (below). Note that "bracketed" notes in the following tabs are meant to be played with the pointer finger (actually, I use my middle...) and all other notes are meant to be played with the thumb.
Figure 1 - A 2-finger "thumb-lead" banjo "bum-ditty" rhythm (aDADE tuning)
Figure 2 - A 2-finger "thumb-lead" banjo "pinch" rhythm (aDADE tuning)
I think of "thumb-lead" style as backwards clawhammer. If you play Figure 1, you get the "bum-ditty" rhythm, but the 5th string pull is on the "di" instead of the "tty." Sounds pretty cool though, and you're still following the fiddle shuffle pattern. Figure 2 is base on the "pinch," where a single "long" string is picked in concert with the 5th string; there's not really a clawhammer analog for this but bluegrass banjo players do it a lot. The pinch is a little more "boom-chick" in feel and ties you pretty well to a guitarist. To make an arrangement in either of these styles, you simply work these patterns "around" the melody notes to fill empty space as you would for making a clawhammer arrangement. Examples from (wait for it!) the A part walk up of "Spotted Pony" below (context):
Figure 3 - A 2-finger "thumb-lead" banjo "bum-ditty" version of the A part walkup in "Spotted Pony"
Figure 4 - A 2-finger "thumb-lead" banjo "pinch" version of the A part walkup in "Spotted Pony"
Obviously you have to remove the 5th string pulls to apply these approaches to the baritone uke. I do this by simply putting an internal string pluck in the place of the 5th string in the tabs above. Baritone uke versions of the A part walk up to "Spotted Pony" (using the "bum ditty" and the "pinch") are shown below. Once again, I have to hold down the relevant notes for backing chords the whole time in addition to fretting melody notes to make this work. In this case, I chose to suggest D major chords for the first measure and a half, then a G major chord for the last half of the 2nd measure (note that I sometimes put an A major chord in the 2nd half of the first measure). I got to cheat a bit by ignoring the 1st string since I don't use it here (i.e. I fret a D major as follows: 0230).
Figure 5 - A 2-finger "thumb-lead" baritone uke "bum-ditty" version of the A part walkup in "Spotted Pony" (DGBE tuning)
Figure 6 - A 2-finger "thumb-lead" baritone uke "pinch" version of the A part walkup in "Spotted Pony"
Coleman's March on the baritone ukulele
If you've been paying attention to this blog, you know I love the fiddle tune "Coleman's March" (example). To cap off this post, I thought I'd play a finger style chord/melody version of "Coleman's March" on baritone uke. First, the audio:
"Coleman's March" on my baritone ukulele - pretty sweet-sounding instrument, huh?
For those of you who have, or would like to get, a baritone ukulele (even the nice one's are quite affordable!) I've written out a tab for you to play along:
----------------- Click here for a tab of "Coleman's March" for baritone ukulele -----------------------
Though this version applies the "bum-ditty" approach from Figure 5, you could easily convert this tab to a "pinch" version (i.e. more like what's presented in Figure 6) without too much work as well. Note that I used brackets to indicate notes that should be played with the index (or middle) finger here as well - all other notes should be played with the thumb. Also, I found a couple of pretty nifty chord substitutions (check out my chord substitution post here) at the beginning of the B part: rather than playing a D major chord for the first measure and an A major chord for the second measure, I play a B minor chord for the first measure and F# major chord for the second measure the second time through. Tab for this substitution is given at the bottom of the second page; definitely makes the tune a bit more interesting!
Thanks for reading along and indulging my exploration outside the "normal" bounds of old time instrumentation : ) My only regret is that finger style baritone uke is a bit too quiet to play in a group setting, though it may be loud enough to play with just a fiddler. If I go further down this road, I may look into something louder: a baritone banjo uke, a nylon-strung chicago-tuned tenor banjo, or even a resonator-guitar-like model for volume.
For now, I'm pretty content to plunk around on my couch : )
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.