Smartphone Blues: The Fastest Way to Become a Better Ukulele Player


Devices like smartphones and tablets are the new Swiss Army knives of modern life. They can do just about anything, armed with powerful apps that can keep us in touch with friends and family, help with work and travel, and even keep our ukuleles in-tune and in-time with tuner apps and metronomes. This power comes with a high price though: our attention.

When staring into an iPhone, Android, or whatever device you have, you are being sucked into the biggest rabbit hole ever invented. Even useful music apps can spin into a huge chunk of time, not really teaching you anything but how to run the app. This lesson is all about keeping it simple, and making it a ritual to do so.

When I was growing up playing music, my brother showed me a great trick with our little cheap cassette recorder. All we did was press record, and play a few chords. Then when it played back, we played along with a melody. This is how I learned to both play and chase away the blues at the same time. It was so fun, and at the same time so revealing, and ear opening, that I have continued to use this method of practice all my life.

Before we start, I need to be clear and point out that there are many clever music apps out there that can be of great benefit to anyone learning music. Recording apps, music theory apps, chord boxes, and other music apps are programs that can be helpful to your progress, and I use quite a few of them, but in this lesson I want to outline the simple ritual and discipline of listening and playing along with yourself.

OK, let’s do this.

Put your device in airplane mode

This is the most important step in making sure you have the space and time to work without distraction. If your daughter is expecting and might go into labor soon, I’ll give you a pass on this, but it’s important to the ritual of practice to start with something that demands your attention and do it every time.

Open the Voice Memo app

This is sometimes called “voice record” on Android, and there are others, too, but you will want to find the simplest and easiest app to record yourself that takes little or no brainpower to run. I moved the voice memo app onto the easy access bar so I can just swipe up from the bottom and get to it like you would a calculator or the flashlight.

That’s it! We are ready!

Play anything you want. Just hit record and play something you know. Then simply play it back and listen. Practice this a few times until you are comfortable with recording, playback, and deleting or saving what you’ve done.

This is the ultimate learning experience in music. Hearing yourself play is amazing, humbling, and the most useful tool we have all at once. In an instant, we can hear our own tone, sense of time and rhythm, and every musical nuance in our playing that we like or want to change right away. This will open your ears, and keep them open.


12-Bar Blues

Now let’s play some blues! The traditional Chicago-style blues is a great way to learn form, rhythm, and feel all at once. It also makes it easy to put a single note melody above a simple chord progression, which loops around, giving us a chance to do it over and over, improving skill and awareness with every pass. It’s also one of the most valuable ways to learn how to improvise your own melodies over chord progressions.

In this example, learn the simple chords for blues in the key of A (Example 1), record a pass of the chords, and then play the melody along with your recording. Example 2 is a basic blues melody I’ve written that you can get under your fingers and get the hang of quickly. Once you can whack through the chords and get the melody going you’ll be able to do this kind of practice with any song you are working on. Playing just the chords and singing a song after can be quite revealing, too!

Smartphone Blues Ukulele example 1

Learning the Chords

Take a look at the chord example and notice there are only three chords: A7, D7, and E7. The first line is four bars long and starts with A7 for one bar, D7 for one bar, followed by A7 again for 2 bars. The second stanza starts with D7 for two bars, and then A7 for two. The last four bars are E7, D7, A7, and E7 and last just one bar each. Start at the top and go over it again and again until you feel smooth and comfortable with all the changes. This type of blues is in 4/4 time, but has a shuffle/swing feel. When you are ready, try recording the chords, see if you can make it through two or more times through the form. I also like to count myself in, out loud, at the beginning of the recording. 1-2-3-4… play.

Smartphone Blues Ukulele example 2

Learning the Melody

Example 2 is a simple blues melody in the traditional sense. It starts with a statement over the first four bars, and then re-states the melody again exactly over the next four bars. In the final four, it wraps it all up. Once again, the rhythm is a swing/shuffle, so all the moving eighth notes will have a “bouncy” feel instead of a straight-eighth groove.

When you are comfortable playing this easy melody, jump out and make up your own. The A minor pentatonic scale is a good start and the scale “box” is right in first position where the chords are.


Record and Conquer

Now it’s time to just have fun and lay down some tracks. Open the voice memo app, put it in record, and play your rhythm track as many times through as you can stand. Play it back (with your count-in) and play the melody along with yourself. You will quickly hear what you need to improve upon, as well as discover how much fun this can be. Don’t be afraid of deleting anything, as you are just working and tuning your ears. Remember, this process is not about trying to make a great recording, it’s about growing. This kind of practice will take your ears to a new level faster than most other kind of work, and can even help with performance anxiety and stage fright.

The more you hear yourself, the more you can shape how you play.

Ukulele player and flamenco guitarist Daniel Ward is a popular instructor and performer. His latest book is Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele. His latest record is El Ukulele