Blues Up Your Ukulele with Lessons from Lead Belly

BY LIL’ REV | From the Spring 2018 issue of Ukulele Magazine

Want to add some blues to your ukulele repertoire? A good place to start is with one of blues’ greatest guitarists and performers, Lead Belly.

I’ve often heard it said, “The ukulele reeks of nostalgia.” The instrument’s sprightly bounce and lilting charm rarely seem misplaced, regardless of the tune, tempo, or era. Even if we were to stand at the mythical crossroads, in the land where the blues began, our quest is not unlike that of other stringed-instrument players—we’re all searching for the kind of inspiration that could power a steam train or fuel a life of musical learning. Enter the legacy of the late, great Lead Belly, which offers all of this and much more to a worldwide ukulele renaissance sorely in need of some good old-fashioned blues power.

With almost every ukulele club in the world singing songs identified with Lead Belly, like “Goodnight Irene,” “Midnight Special,” and “Rock Island Line,” we’re left with one simple question: What if the 12-string guitar-slinging Lead Belly had been a ukulele player?

It’s a question that’s haunted me for years, even as I’ve come see that Lead Belly’s voice, story, and style, stand like a stepping-stone for all of us who aim to become strong performers. Lead Belly’s life story has been told many times elsewhere, so instead, I’d like to share important tips that ukulele players can—and should—learn from the legendary folk-blues musician.

Learn to Power your Voice with Confidence

To hear Lead Belly sing is nothing short of a study in conviction. Lead Belly was born Huddie (pronounced HUH-dee) William Ledbetter, on the Jeter Plantation in Mooringsport, Louisiana, January 20, 1888, of African and Cherokee descent. He came of age at a time when work and song were inseparable in the rural South and his booming voice was forged in the fire of farm and field, and only then did it move to the sukey jump, juke party, prison farm, street corner, and stage.

To gain that kind of vocal mojo as a ukulele strummer, you needn’t do 90 days of hard labor. Instead, earn your stamps by practicing your singing in public: on street corners, at nursing homes, front steps, park benches, schoolyards, bus stops, subways, corner coffee shops, town squares, or in flash-mob situations, where praise and the promise of tips, are secondary to the art of learning how to project your voice above the din of everyday traffic. You’ll gain confidence by throwing yourself into the public sphere, where the masses might seek refuge, but for a moment, in your song. We might play one of the smallest stringed instruments, but we still need to come out swinging, whenever and wherever we may be.


How to Be as Musically Authentic as Lead Belly

Much like today’s internet-savvy ukulele players, who are as quick to learn from world music as they are from Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” Lead Belly’s repertoire was incredibly diverse. He absorbed the regional influences of Cajun and Creole cultures in Louisiana, as well as ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and beyond, all while staying rooted in the blues and folk traditions to which he wedded his boogie-woogie bass lines. This unique mix made him both a stylist and a consummate troubadour. I bet Lead Belly would advocate for all of us to be like sponges and soak up everything we can—to have “big ears,” as they say. He might also say that at least once in your life, you should pick a style of music that really moves you and try to learn as much as you can about it while building a repertoire through emulation. Ultimately, the real you will come through and your influences will shine ever so much brighter.

The Blues is the Foundation Upon Which Everything Else Resides

The blues is where it all began, and Lead Belly’s legacy lends itself well to building a blues-based style. It also will teach important lessons every picker ought to know, like common eight-bar and 12-bar progressions, I–VI–II–V cycles, syncopation, riff-based grooves, boogie and shuffle patterns, pentatonic, minor-pentatonic, and blues scale study, as well as poetry. All of this was so powerful that people studying it gave birth to the British Invasion. Dare I speak for some of our finest ukulele-blues- playing colleagues like Del Rey, Manitoba Hal, Casey MacGill, and Paul Hemmings when I say that nothing tastes the same without the seasoning that a study of the blues can do to your style with soul, musical sensibility, and simplicity. Perhaps the most important lesson for all of us melody players is that, “It ain’t the notes you choose to play that matters, but rather the ones you choose to leave out that matters most.” We could all get our mojo working and use our happy instrument to quell a great-big world with a worried mind.

Basic Blues and Rock Strum Patterns

Lead Belly used classic boogie-woogie piano–inspired bass lines to color most of his blues songs. He also created many variations on this theme and spread them across the continuum of his repertoire by walking the boogie whenever he could. This strum pattern lends itself really well to any type of tune with a bluesy sound, be it rock ’n’ roll or straight-ahead prewar and postwar blues. Let’s look at how Lead Belly would have sounded if he had been a ukulele player.

Shuffle Patterns

Let’s start with a basic blues-rock strum on a G chord, as shown in Example 1a. Holding a basic open-G chord throughout the measure, add and remove the C string’s fourth-fret E (the sixth of the G chord) with your fourth finger. For a fancier version, try Example 1b, which brings the flatted seventh, F natural, into the equation.

Examples 2a–3b walk you through similar moves on C and D chords. Remember to hold down the chord throughout while adding and subtracting notes with the indicated fretting fingers. Also, keep your strumming hand moving in a constant down-up motion throughout, with a swing feel. Once you’re comfortable playing a swinging groove in each of these patterns, you can string them together to play a I–IV–V blues in the key of G major.

Play ukulele blues like Lead Belly music notation example 1–2a
Play ukulele blues like Lead Belly music notation examples 2b–3b

Boogie-Woogie–Inspired Bass Lines

The boogie-woogie–style bass line is one of those things that always shows up in Lead Belly’s playing and it’s a great tool for anyone who wants to play the blues. Examples 4a and 4b show the line over the basic I–IV–V chords of a 12-bar blues. Example 4a shows this boogie-woogie line in the key of C, going from C7–F7–G7; Example 4b shows it in the key of F. Check out the music, watch the video, and play along.


Play ukulele blues like Lead Belly music notation example 4


This article was last updated in November 2022.