By Fred Sokolow
Contemporary ukulele virtuosos like Jake Shimabukuro, James Hill, and Herb Ohta have made it clear that just about any type of music can be played on a uke: rock, classical, jazz, you-name-it. So why not blues? Blues is the common denominator in American music; you can’t do justice to jazz, rock, country, or bluegrass unless you can play the blues. Besides, playing and singing the blues is one good way to lose the blues!
The blues is an improvisational, play-it-as-you-feel-it music, so in this lesson we’ll look at ways to ad-lib on the uke in a blues vein. We’ll learn some blues chords, licks, fills, and a few solos, so you feel comfortable the next time somebody says, “Let’s play the blues.”
Learn the Language of the Blues
The blues is like a language: you learn to speak it by listening and imitating what you hear. Chords and scales are your alphabet, and musical phrases built on those chords and scales are the words you use to express yourself. You can play the blues with a stranger you’ve just met, from anywhere on the planet, and if you both speak the language of the blues, you’ll sound like old friends who have rehearsed and played together for years.
Blues in the key of A is a good place to start, because the key of A on the uke resembles the key of E on the guitar. Uke chord shapes in A look just like E shapes on the guitar, if you ignore the guitar’s sixth and fifth strings (Example 1).
This is good news for uke players who like the blues, because many famous blues guitarists (Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Jimmy Reed, for example) played almost exclusively in the key of E. It’s a great blues guitar key, and the E licks these blues legends immortalized became the foundation of electric blues, rockabilly, and rock. You can steal their classic key-of-E blues guitar licks and play them on the uke in the key of A.
Thousands of blues songs in the key of A can be played with three chords: A, D, and E, or the sevenths of those three: A7, D7, and E7. But there’s more than one way to play a chord. Example 2 shows several A7 chords.
In the version of the old 12-bar blues classic “C.C. Rider” shown in Example 3, two up-the-neck A7 shapes are used as fills, musical licks that fill the spaces between vocal phrases. Notice how in several of the fills in this arrangement, you can create a bluesy lick by lowering a chord one fret and then raising it back up to its usual place on the fingerboard. The descending lick in measures 11–12 is a typical turnaround, a one- or two-measure instrumental lick that ends a verse and sets up the next verse. The arrangements that follow have other, different turnarounds.
These chords will get you started playing the blues, but there are some more up-the-neck chords you can use to create more chord-based licks and solos. Example 4 is a chord-based solo for “C.C. Rider” using some new shapes, including the D7s in measures 5–6 and the E7, E♭7, and D7 in measures 9–10. This example is an improvisation based on the song’s 12-bar chord structure. Like many blues solos, it doesn’t express the song’s melody, but it rocks!
Single-Note Licks and Fills
Many classic blues licks are linear: single-note, melodic phrases that are based on chords. Example 5 shows some one-measure single-note blues licks based on an A or A7 chord. Most of them are played while actually fretting the A or A7 chord.
The licks in measures 4 and 5 include string-bending, an essential blues technique in which you play a fretted string and bend it up or down with the fretting finger. Bend the string up toward the ceiling on the first and second strings and down toward the floor on the third string. As shown in the licks in Example 3, sometimes you stretch a string and stop it at the high point (as in measure 5), while other times you bend the note and then release it (measure 4).
It’s easy to play single-note licks based on chords if you build a vocabulary of licks for every chord shape you play. The organic way to do this is to play a chord shape and hunt for useful notes that surround it. Example 6 shows some one-measure E7 and D7 licks: the D7 licks are based on the two-finger D7 shape shown above the notation.
I’ve used “C.C. Rider” (notated below) to illustrate the blues in this lesson because it’s a typical 12-bar blues that has been recorded by countless blues, R&B, and rock artists, starting with Ma Rainey in 1924. It has been on the R&B or pop charts in every decade since then, notably by Chuck Willis, Elvis Presley, Mitch Ryder, and Old Crow Medicine Show. The tune has also been sung as “See See Rider” or “Easy Rider.” Let’s look at the second verse of “C.C. Rider,” complete with vocal fills, and the three solos that follow.
The second verse of “C.C. Rider” features lots of A7-based fills (similar to the ones in Example 3) played between the vocal phrases, while the first solo (measures 13–24) makes use of some A, D7, and E7 chord-based licks. The second instrumental solo for “C.C. Rider” (measures 25–36) is based on up-the-neck chords and licks stolen from the “key-of-E” blues guitar repertoire. The grids above the staff indicate the various chord shapes on which the licks are based. Notice the movable formation in measures 29–30 and 37–38. This chord shape is often a springboard for up-the-neck licks. The final instrumental version of “C.C. Rider” is from my Blues Ukulele book (Hal Leonard) and clearly expresses the melody. It’s in the “chord-melody” style, in which you play chords and melody at the same time.
Make It Your Own
Feel free to recycle, alter, reshuffle, and steal the licks and solos in this lesson when playing your own 12-bar blues songs. There are countless blues hits with a 12-bar format, such as “Stormy Monday,” “Everyday I Have the Blues,” “Re-consider Baby,” and “Crossroads.” Many early rock hits have the same chord progression, including “Hound Dog,” “Whole Lotta Shak in’ Goin’ On,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” And numerous pop, R&B, boogie-woogie, and jazz hits share this musical form as well (“Kansas City,” “Route 66,” “Fine and Mellow,” “Billie’s Bounce”). If you play any of these tunes on the uke in the key of A, the licks in this lesson will serve you well when it comes time to make up fills or solos.
FRED SOKOLOW is best known for the 150 instructional books and videos he’s written for guitar, dobro, banjo, mandolin, and ukulele.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Ukulele.
Ukulele Basics: Chords and Harmony is a collection of six easy-to-follow but in-depth lessons on the basics of chords and harmony. Instructors and Ukulele magazine contributors Jim D’Ville and Fred Sokolow, as well as the great composer/player Daniel Ho, will guide you through easy chord variations, harnessing the power of certain chords, demystifying the famous Circle of 5ths, and understanding moveable chord shapes.