BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
From the moment Gerald Ross joined the international fraternity of ukulele enthusiasts, his playing immediately caught the ears of four-string fans. The reason? “I play the ukulele like a musical instrument,” he says. “I don’t see it as simply a four-string strumming machine to accompany songs. I put together arrangements that hardly use any strumming at all. I use a lot of fingerpicking techniques, sometimes using only one or two notes to get my musical point across. I don’t see the ukulele as a limited instrument. I see it as one with many possibilities.”
So how did he develop his insatiable desire to unlock the musical possibilities of the ukulele? “I remember tying a rubber band on one end, stretching it out, and playing it. I would change the tone of the rubber band by lengthening and shortening it,” he recalls. Although unaware at the time, young Gerald was experimenting with the monochord of Pythagoras, an instrument used to demonstrate the relationship between the frequency of the sound produced by a plucked string and its length. “I was able to play songs on my rubber band—not ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ but I was able to match up the tones of simple little songs enough of the time to catch the music bug.”
Gerald next graduated to a wind instrument. “I would borrow my brother’s school-issued recorder—he had no interest in it—and I would play along with songs on the radio. Again, I would try to match the pitches of the notes I was hearing.” Gerald’s innate skill of playing by ear led to his first non-paying job as a musician. “I became our family’s in-home vaudeville act. My brothers would put a song on the radio, give me the recorder, and I would play along with it.”
Ross was born in September 1954 in Detroit, Michigan, just five years before another musical entity was born in the Motor City—Motown Records. “I grew up on the northwest side of Detroit right at the beginning of the Motown era,” he says. “The city of Detroit was extremely proud of all the Motown artists—these were our kids, and the music they were making was incredible.” As fate would have it, “Little” Stevie Wonder lived just two blocks away from Ross. “I walked past his house every day on the way to school, and his little brother was in my little brother’s third grade class. Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, and Smokey Robinson also lived in our neighborhood.”
But it was the music of The Beatles that really grabbed the teenage Ross by the ears. “All my friends in the neighborhood were getting Sears and Montgomery Ward guitars,” he says. “A friend showed me how to play a C chord—which turned out to be an A minor chord—but he was in the right area. I would play that chord over and over again.”
As Ross’ 14th birthday approached, he began pestering his parents for a $29 Montgomery Ward guitar. They weren’t going for it. It wasn’t until he offered to pay for half of the guitar that they relented. “That was it! I started going nuts. I was learning from all my friends. I checked out every guitar instruction book at the library and became one of the best guitar players in the neighborhood.” By the time he was 15-and-a-half, he was in a rock ’n’ roll band. His first paying gig “was a teenage dance at the Community Center. We played the same four songs over and over for three hours. But the kids didn’t mind; they were just happy to be out on a Friday night. I had the time of my life! The girls were talking to me, and I had $11 bucks! I said, ‘This is the life for me.’”
The early 1970s found Ross at Eastern Michigan University, where he played guitar in a bluegrass/old-time band. “We played at an Italian restaurant every Friday and Saturday, and they paid each band member $50 a night. By the end of every weekend in 1974, I had $100 in my pocket! I was the richest guy in town!” The band was also a great training ground for hearing fundamental major-scale chord changes.
“Hearing chord changes was never a problem for me. I always knew when the chord was going to change—I could feel the change in the air pressure between the I, IV, and V chords.” Ross’ old-time band enjoyed moderate success playing festival dates in the upper Midwest and East, and they even played on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion on two occasions.
Ross’ introduction to the ukulele came in the late 1970s while working as a sales associate at the iconic acoustic music shop Elderly Instruments in East Lansing, Michigan. “If you worked on the sales floor, you had to be able to fake playing all the instruments,” he says. “The ukulele was one of the instruments we had to demo for the customers.” But it wasn’t until much later—2005—that he experienced true ukulele enlightenment. “In addition to my day job in IT at the University of Michigan, I played instrumental dinner music on guitar at restaurants in the Ann Arbor area,” he says. “So I would sit around the house working out ideas on my guitar, and one day I thought: ‘I need something small and compact—not to play professionally, but to use as a musical scratch-pad instead of always having to drag out a guitar.’” The die was cast: He bought his first ukulele.
Because the tuning of the top four strings of the guitar was similar to a ukulele, Ross had no problem finding a lot of music on his new instrument. But the real shock came when he went on YouTube and searched for ukulele performances. “I thought I was the only one playing the uke! One search, and all of a sudden, I see all of these people everywhere playing the ukulele.” Further research led Ross to Jim Beloff’s Flea Market Music Bulletin Board. “People were posting videos of themselves playing songs, so I thought I would, too.”
He posted a blues tune he recorded on ukulele titled “Aboriginal Blue.” “Literally, within ten minutes of posting the song, my email box was full,” he says. “People were asking ‘Do you give lessons? Who are your influences? How long have you been playing? What kind of strings do you use?’ and on and on.” But one of those emails would change the direction of Ross’ musical career—an invitation to play at a ukulele festival in Indiana. Another turning point was an invitation to teach ukulele at the prestigious Augusta Heritage Festival in West Virginia. “At that point, my uke resume was looking pretty good,” he notes.
An essential part of Ross’ success playing the ukulele is his encyclopedic knowledge of multiple genres of music, from swing to old-time, Latin to jazz. He says the key to playing all those styles is in his right hand. “When people come to any type of stringed instrument, guitar or ukulele, they think they have to learn a ton of chords. No. It’s your right-hand technique; that’s where the music is. I heard an interview once with Reverend Gary Davis, the famous blues and ragtime guitar player. He said the left hand finds the notes; the right-hand makes the music. I truly believe that. And as far as right-hand technique is concerned, you have to make it second nature, and there are no books out there on how to make it second nature. You have to put the time into it.”
In essence, Ross thinks of his rhythmic approach to playing the ukulele as the drummer in a band. “Most of the bands I’ve been in didn’t have a drummer. As the guitar player, it was my job to keep the rhythm. So, I started thinking like a drummer. For example, I might add a little rhythmic triplet, da-da-da dum, at the end of a phrase. How did I learn to do that? By listening to what was happening in the music.”
A great example of setting a deep-pocket groove with a stringed instrument is the playing of Buddy Holly. “People think his guitar playing was very simple, but no, he knew his rhythm. He knew how to make the most out of a three-piece band. That’s why he could play dances and keep the audience’s attention—the rhythm.”
By combining his experience as a rhythm guitar player and the reentrant tuning of the ukulele, Ross created his unique style. “After playing with so many old-time banjo players, I realized that the high G on a uke served the same purpose as the high G on a 5-string banjo. An excellent example of using the high G on the ukulele for rhythmic elements is a song I recorded entitled ‘The Peanut Vendor.’ I’m constantly using the fourth string of the uke to hit all the quarter notes while putting the melody on top of it.”
The guitar player in Ross began showing itself again about five years ago when he switched to playing a low-G ukulele. “I still play a high-G sometimes because there are certain songs that only work with high-G tuning. However, with the low-G tuning, I realized that I could hit that low bass note and let it ring using it as a drone. I also found that using this technique I didn’t have to play as many notes.”
Since 2005 Ross has recorded six CDs of instrumental ukulele music. His first, Ukulele Stomp, showcased the diversity of his repertoire, which includes swing, blues, pop, Latin, and Hawaiian music. His next CD, Ukulele Hit Parade, featured all Number One hits from the 20th century. Other titles in his discography include Moonlight and Shadows, Swing Ukulele, Absolute Uke, and even a holiday recording titled Mistletoe Mazel Tov. On many of the recordings, Ross not only plays ukulele but accompanies himself on guitar, lap steel guitar, and bass.
In addition to being the CEO, CIO, CFO, and loading dock manager (nights and holidays) at Uke Tone Records, Ross can be found performing at ukulele festivals worldwide. geraldross.com.
Play along with The Beatles with The Beatles for Ukulele! Unlike many books of this type, each arrangement in this book includes every measure of the song, as it was originally recorded—nothing is left out. And when you come to instrumental sections, the chords are provided so you can keep strumming your uke.