By Daniel Ward | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The term “chord melody” is mentioned often in the world of ukulele study. When we simply strum through a group of chords, there is always a bit of a melody that sticks out on the higher pitched strings. To truly have a melody winding through harmony though, we need to use our ears and do some extra work to reap the rewards. The musical payoff is huge in this case, and the work builds on itself as we go.
This composition, “You’ll Know When It’s Right,” is a slow jazz ballad from my Melodic Meditations book, and the harmony sounds fancy even though it’s quite easy to learn. Some of the chords may be new to you, and there are a couple of barre shapes, but with just a little bit of work this one comes quickly. “You’ll Know” is a great tool to get your melody and chords going together because by the time the song is learned, it is already as fast as it needs to be, and it doesn’t need to adhere to a strict tempo.
The benefits of playing chord melody on the ukulele are monumental. It really means that you can play a self-contained instrumental song all by itself with no extra accompaniment or singing. It’s a solo! The real magic comes from pulling the melody through the chords and letting it sing on its own. Simply playing a song as written can sometimes sound a bit clunky, as the chords and melody just ring together. It requires paying attention to individual voices within the harmony and connecting them to melody notes to really make the music happen.
Luckily, this piece is written in a way that naturally brings the melody to the front of the music and allows plenty of opportunity to shape the phrases in different ways. Here, I’ll cover several ways to approach this song and this kind of practice in general. The video tutorial will be quite helpful, too.
Begin by familiarizing yourself with the chords. The first line is Fmaj7, Bbmaj7, and F in two shapes. The first chord is normal first-position F with the fourth finger added to fret 4. If this feels like a stretch, pull your thumb back behind the neck and play right on your fingertips. The Bbmaj7 is just a Bb chord with no barre; the F with the barre on fret 5 is a C-shaped chord, and the next chord is a Dbmaj7 with first-fret barre. This is a very useful shape if you haven’t seen it before, and not the hardest to pick up, either. It will be used a few times at different frets in the song. Now look at the Bbmaj7 going to Bm7b5. This barre is with your third finger on fret 5, and the first finger moves from the third to the fourth fret to create this cool harmonic movement.
You can jump right in and learn the song after browsing the chords, but I recommend playing the melody by itself before going on to both. It’s an easy read in the tab to play the single notes above the chords, and this is a good way to get the sound of the melody in your head. Rather than strumming the chords and trying to find the melody, play the melody as smoothly as you can and let it pull you through the harmony. I had a teacher who put it this way: It’s much nicer to pull a melody through the accompaniment by a string than to push it through the chords with a stick.
There are also a few technical things that will help to get this song sounding its best. Pay close attention to the left-hand fingerings in the score. They are very important. Notice the line markings in a few spots, as well. These are slides and will enhance the movement of the melody from one note to another. For example, in measure 3, from a simple F chord to the C on the third fret, the slide takes your fourth finger all the way up to fret 8. The barre then comes down on fret 5 as the fourth finger arrives at fret 8. This is a bit tricky, as you need to hold the note down from 3 to 8 in a slide, and sneak the barre under to strum as your fourth finger arrives at the top note. It takes a few times around to get the feel of this, but the result is downright juicy. Let the fourth finger slide all by itself and slowly put the barre on under it as it slips up to fret 8. The triplets in the very first phrase are key to the sound of this song, and don’t need to be played fast at all. They can even be stretched a bit or played unevenly to give the phrase more weight. Connecting all the notes in a legato style and holding onto the chord tones as long as possible before changing will also enhance this and any song you are working on.
That’s it. As you work through, think of milking the melody for as much music as you can get to come out and you’ll be on your way. Practice slow and well, and enjoy!