BY ADAM PERLMUTTER | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
During the swing era, guitarists played simple but effective accompaniment—mainly two- and three-note chord voicings, played squarely on downbeats, four strums per bar.
The guitar is a considerably larger instrument than the ukulele, so it might seem improbable that a swing-guitar approach would transfer to uke. Quite the contrary, the abbreviated chord voicings and the ukulele’s bright tones work splendidly well, as the swing musician Casey MacGill demonstrates in the video component of this lesson.
A THREE-PART APPROACH
Like the big band guitarists that came before him, MacGill strums in a swing mode by using all downstrokes, with an occasional upstroke embellishment on the “and” of a beat. Though it might appear that he’s using one fluid movement for each strum, there are actually three separate things going on:
1. Keeping a loose wrist, MacGill does a hearty strum—with his thumb and in a snapping motion, as if he’s skipping a stone. This helps him maximize the sound coming out of his uke, making for a driving swing sound.
2. Immediately after the strum, MacGill deadens the strings by resting his picking hand against the strings—not unlike the damper pedal on a piano.
3. At the same time, he releases pressure on his fretting fingers. These fretting- and picking-hand moves work together to produce a crisp, choppy sound.
To get started on swing strumming, pick one chord grip as shown in Example 1a. To play along with Casey’s accompanying video lesson, use a jazzy G6 voicing. Play through the example very slowly at first, paying close attention to the separate aspects of each strum: snapping a loose wrist, dampening the strings, and releasing the chord. Gradually increase the tempo until you can consistently strum in this style without thinking about the mechanics. Your strumming should be lively—and danceable.
Once you’ve got Ex. 1a down, go on to Example 1b, which illustrates the occasional upstroke embellishment. To swing those eighth notes, you’ll want to play them not evenly, as written, but long-short, at about a 2:1 ratio. Count “trip-uh-let,” and the first eighth note (downward strum) will take up the space of “trip” and “uh,” while the second eighth note (upward strum) will fall on the “let.” Try adding upstrokes on other random beats as well, to give the music a little hop.
Next, try Example 2 to work on the swing-style strumming in context. Ex. 2 adds the VI (E7) and II (A9) chords in a typical swing chord-progression. Be careful to avoid slowing down when you switch between chords. Also, note that the notation uses the fingerings that MacGill prefers. However, you might try fretting the G6 chord with your second and third fingers, as opposed to first and second. That way, you can move from the G6 chord to the E7 simply by placing your first finger on the first fret of the G string.
Once you’re comfortably swinging the previous figures, work through a longer passage with a greater number of chords. Example 3 shows how MacGill approaches a portion of an old ditty about a California desert city. Learn the figure as written, and then trying throwing in the occasional upstroke, like you did in Ex. 1b.
Notice how on the Gm6 chord in bar 5, MacGill lifts his first finger from the chord grip, for textural and tonal effect. Also note the seven beats of rests in bars 8 and 9, which give the ear—and the fingers—a little respite. Some musicians have a tendency to rush, especially in spots like this; using a metronome will help you observe the rests for their full values.
Your next step is to try out swing-style strumming on your own favorite chord progressions and songs. It’s definitely a great tool to have at your disposal—and you’ll know that it’s working if your audience is dancing.