Jazz It Up! How to Make Your Own Song Arrangements, Part 2

BY DANIEL WARD | FROM THE SUMMER 2024 ISSUE OF UKULELE

In Part 1 of this lesson, I introduced ideas for making your own song arrangements, based on a simple version of the Tin Pan Alley standard “Ain’t We Got Fun.” Having a good handle on Part 1 will be key to picking up the more challenging material in this second installment, which focuses on jazzier and more sophisticated concepts. 

Even though the song is a jazz standard, the concepts of new harmonies, rhythms, and other special techniques are all useful tools in any style of music. These skills can even be used on the fly as you play through any song and added in real time. Taking a solo over chord changes is one way to improvise, but these concepts will change the way we play through the chords themselves. 

New Harmonic Movement

In this arrangement (Example 1) the melody of “Ain’t We Got Fun” remains
the same (you can find the tablature in the previous lesson), but with new harmonic movement. Even though it takes extra effort to learn them, it’s rewarding to get to know these new shapes. We start with a basic C chord, which is now in a closed movable shape, and then add a C6 in bar 2. Going back and forth between a familiar shape and one that adds motion is a great way to put new chords under your belt. Using moveable or closed position shapes means that you can quickly transpose them to any key you need.

Replacing a chord with a new harmony gives extra movement and spice, so instead of just riding a G7 for two bars, we have Dm7 and then G7. Before the first F chord in the song, the C7 is replaced by C13 and C9 in the same bar. These two shapes are identical and can be used to replace any seventh chord going to a major chord. It’s a slick little trick with
a sophisticated and groovy sound. The Bb9 is next, with the highest note in the chord matching the melody. In bar 23, there is half-step movement between the C6 and B6 that mirrors the melody as well. 


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One of the most interesting chords is right at the end, where a Db7 is used before the last chord. This is an example of tritone substitution, which is a fancy way of describing grabbing a chord that’s a flatted fifth (or raised fourth) away from your usual dominant seventh chord—in this case, G7. The super easy way to remember this chord sub is to go up a half step from your last chord and play a seventh chord, so C to Db7. 

A good strum for this arrangement is to use mostly downstrokes with your thumb with a few ups here and there with your index finger. Use an easy swing feel, and try stopping the sound of some chords short here and there, so you can create a combo of different articulations. It takes some time to develop a good swing feel and can feel mechanical at first. A good way to practice is to start with even eighth notes down and up, and then slowly move the ups over a bit until they create that bounce, which is an uneven triplet feel.

arranging songs for ukulele lesson music notation example 1

Slip Slidin‘ Away

In Example 2 we have an intro that involves a slide to the C6 from a fret below, and up to the G7 the first time but down to it right before the song starts. Moving in half steps like this can be challenging, but with a little work the technique comes quickly and is a great skill for any style of music. The slide is accomplished by approaching the chord from above or below with the same shape, so it moves right into position. Practice by striking both chords and sliding the shape on the fretboard. When this is comfortable, you can strike just once, maintaining pressure in your fretting fingers so the sound continues from one chord to the next. 

These slides can be right on the beat, or in a specific rhythm. They are used extensively in funk, R&B, and disco, to name a few styles. In this instance, the slides mimic the sound of a horn section. You can try it on any song you know by using a closed position chord and approaching from a fret above or below. 

arranging songs for ukulele lesson music notation example 2

Example 3 starts in the same spot as our tag from the previous lesson (bar 25). Here there’s a short, full chord-melody that mirrors the vocal. The melody should be the strongest voice, and at the same time try to hold the chord notes down so they ring as much as possible. Using an index and/or middle finger in between the chords to pick out the melody will make things much easier as well. When it all comes together, add your voice if you’d like. 

The final stretch adds some extra harmony using the common device of a ii–V progression that jumps up a step for the tag (from Dm7–G7 to Em7–A7), and then finishes with a single-note line that mirrors the melody again before sliding up a minor third to the final C6 chord. This slide is like the ones in the intro, but covers three frets, so practice it the same way. 

arranging songs for ukulele lesson music notation example 3

Take some time to review all the materials presented in both parts of this lesson. Learning all the possibilities gives you more control of your sound, and is a great way to grow musically. You’ll find that you have a greater skill set both in your hands and your ears. At the same time, remember that the choice to play something clean and simple can often be the best one.