BY SARAH MAISEL WITH CRAIG CHEE | FROM THE FALL 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
In our previous article on making the jump from a beginning to intermediate ukulele player, we discussed setting goals and creating notation. With those ideas still in mind, it’s time to delve deeper and get into scales and warm-up exercises. These two tools sometimes get left aside to do more fun things during a practice, like strumming songs or playing chord melody. However, it is important to remember that scales and warm-up exercises are building blocks that, if not worked on, will lead to a weak foundation.
Practicing scales gives you more than just access to the notes that are friendly in the key you are playing. Scales give you other opportunities to practice a variety of techniques. We’ve already gone over the C major scale, so now let’s put some different ideas into motion.
In the first variation on the C major scale (Example 1), we are going to utilize our G string. This sounds best with a high G, but it can still be done with a low G. We will be adding in the G string in between every scale note.
Make sure to use your picking hand’s thumb for the G string only. You’ll want to use your index finger for the scale notes. If this is a new technique for you, I recommend practicing playing the open C string (index), followed by the G string (thumb), then move to the E string (index), followed by the G string (thumb), and then the A string (index), followed by the G (thumb). This will give your picking hand a bit of practice before trying to add in scale notes with the fretting hand. Remember, you will have a higher rate of success if you try to practice one hand at a time, as mentioned in our first article.
Looking at the tablature, you can see that we are starting with our scale note (the open C string), and moving forward, putting the open G string in between all of the notes going forward and backward. Here we are not only practicing the scale itself, but learning a new skill with our right hand: utilizing two fingers for picking. Now, on top of this, we can also work on speed and timing.
Make sure to practice this scale with a metronome to ensure you give all of the notes equal time. You can start by making the notes be quarter notes in feel, then they can speed up, becoming eighth notes. This is something that we demonstrate in the accompanying video.
Once you are feeling confident and comfortable with this scale variation, start to add dynamics, making parts of the scale softer and other parts louder. Dynamics are a small but incredibly powerful tool that all musicians need in their tool belt. We don’t speak in monotone, and we don’t speak in one volume, and your music shouldn’t either. Practicing dynamics with your scales will give you the opportunity to work on this useful skill.
For our next variation, as shown in Example 2a, we are going to practice playing the scale out of order, but using a specific pattern. This exercise will help us develop new muscle memory and is a great way to practice keeping your fingers down for as long as possible. Notice how we play three notes forward, then take a step back, then move forward three notes again, continuing the pattern of three forward, one back. When watching the video, keep in mind that your second finger should stay on string 3, fret 2, for much longer that it did when playing our original scale, because that is both the second and fourth note you will be playing. Keeping that finger down allows the note to ring for as long as possible and is the most efficient way of playing this pattern. You will also do this with the rest of your fingers, as demonstrated in the video.
When students start with this pattern, they tend to pause between the three notes forward and the one note backward. This is fine to do early on as your fingers get adjusted to the pattern, but you will want to work to get rid of the pause altogether. Once you’ve got this pattern mastered, without any pauses, you can start adding emphasis on specific notes. I find emphasizing the first note in the three notes forward gives a nice forward motion to your scale. This is another way to practice dynamics as well. Make sure, just like with your previous scale, to work with a metronome to guide your timing.
Once you are feeling confident with the pattern, try adding the alternating G in between every note, using your thumb, as shown in Example 2b. This allows you to practice a technique you’ve already worked on, but in a new way. It will probably be a bit tricky at first, but so is anything that you are learning!
Now we will spend some time focusing on hammer-ons and pull-offs, which are types of slurs, both indicated with curved lines in notation and tablature. Scales are a great way to practice both of these techniques. The key to both is accuracy, and in order to be accurate, you need to be consistent. You may think that you consistently put your finger in the same spot on your fretboard when you play the second note of your scale (string 3, fret 2), but try hammering on that note five times in a row to show how accurate, or inaccurate, you may be.
I find that with hammer-ons, people try to focus more on the power behind the “hammering” finger, as opposed to accuracy and consistency. The farther you pull your finger away from the fretboard, the more likely you are to be inaccurate (as demonstrated in the video). It may seem counterintuitive, but keeping your fingers closer will help you be more accurate, and you’ll have a better sounding hammer-on.
One other aspect that is important to a clean hammer-on is a solid hold of the instrument. You don’t want the instrument neck moving around when you go to put down your finger, otherwise you may miss where you’re aiming. There are multiple ways of holding the uke. In the method that Craig and I teach, your thumb is peeking out over the top of the neck with the bottom of the neck resting on your index finger in the curve of the headstock. This steadies the neck of the instrument, allowing it to stay in one place. It also gives you a bit of an angle so when it’s time to do a pull-off, it’s even easier.
For pull-offs, as mentioned, having a slight angle to your fingers can be helpful. When you are pulling off, particularly on the first fret, it can be difficult to do it cleanly. However, with this hand and finger placement, you can just rotate your wrist to get a clean and solid pull-off, as shown in the video.
Note: It’s important to practice using a scale you are comfortable with. This will allow you to concentrate on the fretting hand technique instead of having to also think about where to put your fingers. Make sure the scale itself feels like second nature before adding too much to the mix.
Moving forward with the scale, as notated in Example 3a, you’ll see there is only one hammer-on for your C string. This is one of the easiest—plucking your C string and then hammering-on that second-fret D note. Going to the next string, you’ll see a double hammer-on. It’s natural to want to try to play this quickly, but remember, you want each note to have an equal amount of time, so you need to really focus on accuracy. Your hammer-ons will never have the same volume as a plucked string, but you still want them to be relatively strong.
Craig goes over several tips in the video, discussing the ideas listed above for hand position, to help you get clean and consistent double hammer-ons. These techniques will also be used on the A string, which also contains two hammer-ons. I recommend practicing this one with a metronome.
In Example 3b, you’ll see we use pull-offs to descend our scale. It is very important to prep your fingers for going backwards. Have your third and second fingers already placed on the A string, so when you pull each finger off, you ensure the correct note is ready. When pulling off, try not to completely pull the string down. If you’re pulling too hard, you’ll end up yanking the string off the fretboard (the A string in particular), or accidentally pulling off two strings. There needs to be just the right amount of touch to get the E and C strings to sound clean. This takes practice and time. Craig and I recommend practicing one string at a time, trying to get each to sound consistently clean before diving too far into the scale itself.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are fantastic techniques that, when executed cleanly, can give your playing extra texture and color. The next step is moving on to chords—adding and taking away notes from chords to create movement. You hear this done frequently in folk music from artists like James Taylor, but that’s for another lesson.
Much like our dusty metronomes, warm-up exercises often get set aside for other more fun things. However, their benefits can be immense, so it’s always a good idea to work them into your practice sessions. Warm-up exercises are exactly what they imply—drills to help get your hands get ready for playing. These can include strumming, picking, or even just working the fretting hand.
The 1-2-3-4 exercise (Example 4) is one that Craig adapted to the ukulele from his days of playing cello. This works the fretting hand, making the fingers work in specific groupings, as well as promoting efficiency, as you need to keep all of your fingers close to the fretboard for when it is their turn. For your picking/strumming hand, you will be focusing on tone. Though Craig teaches this exercise using his thumb to pick, you can use your index or middle if that is more comfortable. The key is ensuring each note has the same clarity and length as the next.
You’ll notice that in the video, Craig purposely has you keep your finger groupings together, so when you put down your fourth finger on fret 4, all the fingers go down on their respective fret on the A string. When you depress your third finger on the fret 3, you will put down your first and second fingers as well. This helps build muscle memory so you can get more comfortable putting down multiple fingers at once.
The other part of this exercise you’ll want to really focus on is your tone. It may mean that you try out different ways of picking, or shaping your nail, in order to get the tone that you are looking for. Because the exercise is fairly simple for your fretting hand, spending some time really listening and trying to work on your tone will be very beneficial. Many beginners don’t really think about how each note sounds when played, and if you take the time to really focus on how you pick, it will make your overall sound much more complex.
For intermediate players, some of the things you can do while going over these exercises include working with different right-hand fingers to strengthen them; playing through an amp to really focus on tone and dynamic control; trying to maintain a consistent speed (both slow and fast!); and adding extra hits in the 1-2-3-4 exercise.
Example 5 shows two alternating-thumb patterns that I used when I was learning how to do arpeggiation. I found them very helpful for not only learning how to pick, but also learning how to relax my hand as I played through them. I was taught to not plant my fingers on the fretboard; however, you can plant if it is more comfortable. In both of these exercises, you will have fingers assigned to specific strings. The thumb is always in charge of the G string, with the index, middle, and ring fingers sometimes changing roles. It is good to be versatile, which is why I like using both of these patterns for warm-up.
With this, you can see that you are moving back and forth between the G and the C strings with your thumb. As you play, really focus on getting your hand as relaxed as possible. You don’t want your hand or fingers to hop when plucking the string. It just wants a gentle touch, as I demonstrate in the video. I used to practice in front of a mirror and really watch my hand. Since you aren’t holding chords, it’s a great time to really just concentrate on the one hand.
Once you are feeling confident with Ex. 5, try adding chords. It starts to sound beautiful and almost meditative! But keep in mind that you would never play a whole song using either of these patterns—they are just exercises.
Watch the video lesson and start working on your C major scale variations while making sure to add the two warm-up exercises to your routine. If you do this for a month, you’ll be surprised at how much better your picking and chord transitions will become.
Coming next issue: We conclude our “Making the Jump” series with tips on chord positions and transitions.