Two-Chord Christmas Songbook by M Ryan Taylor | Play Ukulele Now : an online course by Dan Scanlan

Ukulele Methods

Review: Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book 2

After playing through book one of this method in the morning, I took the opportunity to play through the Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book 2 in the afternoon. The format is the same as book one, and continues where it left off.

The Pros, Weakness and Cons for this Ukulele Method:

  • Continues to have you pluck traditional melodies, learning new keys, notes and bits of theory as you go.
  • Continues to include traditional notation & tablature for most of the pieces.
  • Teaches you three major moveable chords, very useful information. The author does not, however, back this up with much practicle application (though there are dozens possible).
  • Covers hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides, but only provides one piece to reinforce these important techniques.
  • Covers a few new strumming patterns and techniques: Ragtime & Calypso Patterns and the Five-Finger Roll & Triplet Stroke.
  • Introduces the chord families of D, Bb and A as well as further exploration of minor keys. At this point, if you’re using this method, you should be used to the fast pace of learning new, sometimes difficult chords.

Once again, I think this is an excellent introduction to melodic picking, but does not fully capitolize on the opportunity to add harmonic counterpoint and other techniques of melodic soloing on the instrument. Chording continues to move along at a fast pace, but that is just the author’s approach – though I’d prefer a more gradual approach, with more reinforcement of the principles introduced (a lot of lost opportunity here). However, if you choose this method and follow through with it, you will learn a lot that you can apply to whatever music you choose to learn later on.

M Ryan Taylor

Review: Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book 1

I played through the Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book 1 (with the audio CD) by Little Rev this morning. The fact that I played through the entire book in one sitting might be a clue to you that this is not a book for intermediate to advanced players (I nevertheless feel rewarded by picking up a strumming technique that was new to me). That said, let’s look at this from the perspective of a new player, the target for this book.

Pros for this Ukulele Method:

  • Covers the basic basics of how to hold the uke, right-hand positioning, tuning (with a track on the CD devoted to this), the staff, treble clef, note names, time signatures, measures, barlines, rhythmic values, etc. – all in 3 pages.
  • Gives the basics of plucking melodies, introducing two or three notes at a time and giving tunes like Ode to Joy or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Oh! Susanna to practice on. Very gradual – perfect for a first time player.
  • Includes traditional notation & tablature for most of the pieces. This is a great feature for beginners.
  • Covers basic strums: brushing with the thumb, down and upstrokes with the forefinger.
  • Introduces the common chord families of C, G, F, d minor and e minor.
  • Like most of these kind of books, a one-page chord chart is included at the back.

Cons for the Ukulele Method:

  • Unfortunately, when you get to playing with chords on page 23, you are pretty much thrown to the wolves. Like many experienced players who go back and write an ukulele method, Little Rev forgets just how hard a G7 chord is to a first time player and makes it one of the first three chords he introduces.
  • The common chord families (C, G and F) are not really the easiest chord sets to start learning with; this method gives them to you and then expects you to make the transitions between those chords fairly quickly. Sink or swim, baby!
  • The author gives the more difficult version of the e minor chord. While I can think of a couple of reasons why this chord may be preferable in the long run (doubles the fifth and offers a pivot to B7), it is one tough chord and is not level appropriate for an introductory method.

Good, but Needs Improvement:

  • Covers a couple of more advanced strums that will give your playing more rhythmic interest. It is hard to describe techniques like these on paper, but between the description and listening to the CD you may be able to figure them out.
  • The strum that was new to me was one he called the ‘Finger and Thumb Strum’ – a type of finger/thumb combination strum involving the sixteenth note before the third beat being played by a downstroke of the forefinger, followed up by a downstroke of the thumb on the third beat. I figured this out, but as someone who reads music notation, I would have preferred a more precise writing out of the rhythm involved. Good strum though.
  • The CD is adequate, but many of the tracks launch into the song without counting off first, which is annoying. Authors of these kinds of products should remember to ALWAYS count off.

Overall, I think this is an excellent introduction to melodic picking, but a less than stellar introduction to chord playing, with some good strum instruction if you can figure it out. New ukers will find the learning curve start out gradual and then jump into ‘alpine mode’ when it gets into chords. If you’re willing to be really patient and put in some hours on the chords to get up to speed on the songs in this book, great. I, however, think a more gradual approach to chord playing will be more rewarding to the learner in the short and long term – allowing players to build muscle memory and finger callouses over time.

M Ryan Taylor

Review: Alfred’s Teach Yourself to Play Ukulele

I played through Alfred’s Teach Yourself to Play Ukulele by Morty & Ron Manus the other day. Here are my thoughts on this method.

  • Plus: Has a good 5-page introductory section that gives you a short history of the ukulele, an ukulele diagram, how to hold the instrument (falls short here by only illustrating standing position) & a felt pick, covers tuning and basic music theory.
  • Neutral: It may be a little overkill to show four diagrams, one for each of the strings, and then a fifth chord diagram to show the final construction of the chord each time a new chord is introduced, but it certainly leaves no room for doubt.
  • Plus: This method starts you off in the Key of F, which is a much better choice for easing into chord playing than the Key of C. The first chords introduced are C7 and F, requiring only 1 and 2 fingers respectively. I like this more gradual approach for the beginner.
  • Shortfall: This book never introduces tablature, which is a common and seriously important teaching tool.
  • Neutral: Like many of the methods I’ve looked at, this book uses common, public domain songs like Down in the Valley, Go Tell Aunt Rhody, Cockles and Mussels & Clementine (the first four tunes of the book), all notated in Treble Clef (some books just give you the words and chords with no melodic indication).
  • Shortfall: Unfortunately, the book offers no instruction on how to pluck these melodies out, so if you don’t know the tunes, good luck to you.
  • Plus: Continues to offer pertinent bits of theory that are introduced in the songs it uses: Time Signatures, Pickup Measures, Triplets, etc.
  • Shortfall: Quite a few of the tunes are pitched so low that they are not practical to be sung (Careless Love, Lolly-Too-Dum, When the Saints Go Marching In, Hava Nagila & Alexander’s Ragtime Band). This is just carelessness on the part of the authors, there are plenty of tunes out there to choose from to demonstrate the keys they are teaching without needing to pitch things in keys only suitable for a Bass Profundo.
  • Plus: Introduces the basic waltz strum (Streets of Laredo), the blues shuffle (Frankie and Johnny), the bluegrass strum (Lolly-Too-Dum), a calypso style strum (Mary Ann), and a march strum (Yankee Doodle Boy).
  • Plus: It also includes a chart of 15 basic strum types at the back of the book; though these are not reinforced with songs to use them on, this is a valuable quick-reference guide.
  • Plus: The back of the book offers a number of other mini-tutorials and guides that are a nice bonus; How to Play by Ear using Three Magic Chords, How to Determine the Key of a Song, How to Transpose (use this info to move up the keys that were too low in this book – would be good practice), a Ukulele Fingerboard Chart, and a 7-page Chord Dictionary (much larger than many books of this type).

This book does offer a more gradual approach to chord playing that will give your fingers a little more time to aclimate and develop callouses naturally – though like most slim volumes, it tends to rush it a bit. The guides at the back of the book are a great bonus to the other instruction – very cool. Unfortunately, this method offers no instruction in melodic picking and does not introduce tablature – I consider these major setbacks. If, however, you are only interested in singing and strumming, this may be a good method for you.

M Ryan Taylor

Review : Jiminy Kokopo’s Ukulele Sing & Strum Fun Book

I have very mixed feelings about this beginner ukulele method, Jiminy Kokopo’s Ukulele Sing & Strum Fun Book, written and illustrated by Jerrold Conners of Alligator Boogaloo. The kid in me says, ‘funny stuff’ and the teacher in me says, ‘meh.’ On the one hand you have your CRAZY POTATO COMICS, and on the other hand you have another ‘throw ’em to the wolves’ type of method (advanced players forget too easily how hard some of the ukulele ‘basics’ really are to new students). For example, it is unrealistic to think that a student is going to become fluent in 7 keys in under 50 pages of material (especially when quite a few of those pages are introduction, comics, word games, etc.).

The Good to Great

  • The introductory section is great, once you get past the actual introduction; we’ve got to stop calling attention to ukulele stereotypes of the past – no one under 40 even knows who Tiny Tim is.
  • There is a wonderful ‘About the Ukulele’ page that revealed a couple of bits of information that I didn’t know about the instrument (and I’ve read a lot these type of things). For instance, the name of the ship on which the braguinha (parent instrument of the ukulele) made its way to Hawaii on was named the Ravenscrag. How cool is that?
  • The ‘Choosing A Ukulele’ page points out that the pineapple soprano instrument is going to be a little louder than its guitar-shaped cousins – something I recognized when testing out Lanikai’s LU-21 series of ukuleles, the pineapple had the larger sound (and the nicer tone – we bought one for my wife) than the regular soprano.
  • I’ve never seen anyone take quite so much care in diagramming what goes into good downstrum/upstrum.
  • The cartoons and illustrations are top-notch and entertaining. The silly-leaning prose will appeal to the young and young at heart.
  • Chord diagrams, staff, sharps & flats, time signatures, note values, C scale & Chromatic scale are all covered adequately.
  • There is a nice arrangement of Aloha ‘Oe that beginners shouldn’t find too terribly difficult with a bit of practice.
  • The mystery tune puzzle on page 23 is a clever idea; I wish there were more of these in the book.
  • I like that the author encourages students to make up their own words for very good old tunes whose words have lost their excitement or are dated. It is a great creative activity which can lead into personal songwriting later on.
  • The author’s original words in ‘Pet Shop Hoedown’ (to the tune of Whoa, Mule! Whoa!) should be entertaining to the young set and illustrates the above point perfectly.
  • There is an adequate section on transposing – something everyone needs to learn about.
  • There are a number of fun activity-book-style sheets that kids will find fun.
  • The ‘Introductions, Endings & Flourishes’ section is a good idea, but there are a number of metrical (notated in 4 instead of 3) and rhythm errors (extra eighth notes in a measure), etc.
  • Encourages you to go out and perform at your local rest homes. Great idea!
  • Gives some nice tips on showmanship and getting past your nerves.

The ‘Meh’ Stuff

  • The first song, Little Brown Jug, has you plucking a tune on all four strings using all four fingers and even takes you out of first position. Sorry, way too fast for a true beginner.
  • The second tune, an original of the author, includes tricky syncopations that are only going to complicate things for a new uker. Again, too fast.
  • Our first chords are C, F and G7. As I’ve stated in other reviews, this may seem like the logical place to start, but G7 is not an easy chord for beginners. I prefer a more gradual approach.
  • An inserted errata sheet corrects the key/chord errors on ‘She’ll Be Comin’,’ but the corrected key makes the song much to high for the average singer (or too low if you sing it down an octave.
  • After just three songs in the key of C, we’re on to F and the introduction of the Bb chord, one of the hardest chords to get to ring out clearly without any extra buzzing noises.
  • Covers some very basic strums, but doen’t explore the potential of teaching and applying different strumming patterns. The Alfred method I reviewed before does a much better job with this topic.
  • Three songs in F and we’re on to D and another couple of tricky chords.
  • The author’s song, ‘My Love for You is Gaga Gugu,’ makes me want to gag. Sorry Jerry.
  • ONE SONG in D and then off to G.
  • Another original song, ‘The Mongoose Shuffe,’ is likely only going to appeal to the very young.
  • Again, ONE SONG in G and then off to A.
  • I think page 35 is in need of another errata sheet, the chords don’t seem to lineup or make sense with the melody, which rhythmically should have a pickup beat instead starting on the first beat of the measure. This seems to be in F, not A.
  • O.K. Where are the KEY SIGNATURES!!!
  • Introduces B major family of chords with no songs to reinforce this key. Immediately moves on to E. Neither of these keys are really beginner keys.
  • I’ve never like ‘My Grandfather’s Clock.” Just personal preference.
  • As several Amazon reviews noted, the book is poorly made and the binding cracked open on first use.

As a Fun Book, an Ukulele Comic Book, a Book to Pick up a Few Good Tips and Chuckles . . . I heartily recommend it. As a stand-alone method for beginning students, I heartily suggest you look into something else.

M Ryan Taylor

Review: Alfred’s Kid’s Ukulele Course 1

First off, the packaging/formating and cartoons of Alfred’s Kid’s Ukulele Course 1 will appeal to kids, they are cute. That said, I’ve seen, and reviewed, other books that were all fun and show, yet poorly thought out when it came to content. This book uses a sound (ha ha) approach.

  • This method takes a ‘strum first’ approach (as opposed to picking melodies), and because of that the CD is absolutely essential for the child to get the most out of it; the learner becomes an accompanist for the melodic picking on the CD. In the first section 4 chords are introduced, one at a time and reinforced with songs.
  • A little more than halfway through we switch over to melodic picking, one note learned at a time. One thing I like about this section is that it still mixes in strums with the melodies so that we continue to reinforce the chords with the melodies. I haven’t seen much of this in other methods.

I’ve taken one star off my Amazon review because the ukulele on the CD isn’t always played perfectly in tune (or perfectly in time), though I doubt that this will bother most students.

I have played through a lot of ukulele methods, looking at techniques and ideas for my own students. This method has a lot going for it for young players.

M Ryan Taylor

Review: Absolute Beginners Ukulele

I gave Absolute Beginners Ukulele 4 stars on Amazon; I would have given this book 5 stars if it was being marketed to intermediate players, but since it is supposedly for ‘absolute beginners’ that significantly alters my grade. If you’re already comfortable with a wide range of chords and want to delve into fingerpicking and more advanced strokes, this is a great book for you.

Part 1

I am not a fan of ‘methods’ that throw a new student to the wolves. A method should be ‘methodical’ and follow a logical progression of exercises to bring one to the mastery of a subject. In that sense, this book does not qualify as a ‘method.’

  • An ‘absolute beginner’ will have difficulty learning five new chords (not the easiest ones either) and implementing them on the first song, but that is what this book asks the learner to do: C, E7, A7, F & G7. This is a recipe for frustration.

We step back with the second song, “Waters of Babylon,” to C and G7, which is more realistic (though I am personally a fan of starting students off with F and C7). “Nobody Know the Trouble I’ve Seen” adds back in the F chord for the common C, F, G7 progression. This is all right.

  • After that, we’re already on to new chords: D, G, D7, C#dim and Am7.

The STRENGTH of this book enters at this point as you are introduced to a simple version of fingerpicking, “three-string technique,” with the songs “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Molly Malone.” This is great (if you can keep up with the chord changes). This is followed by a lovely fingerpicking technique that only uses the thumb and index fingers plucking the strings in a 142323 pattern which is very effective and won’t take long to get down.

  • The end of Part 1 gives you a description of some techniques you can use to vary your sound and then three additional songs with no specific instruction on how to accomplish the sounds demoed on the CD.

There is then a track of a song by the author (I liked it), and a collection of useful links.

The best of Part 1 is the fingerpicking tutorials.

Part 2

. . . is like a masterclass teaching you some great techniques to vary your playing.

  • The Hawaiian stroke or “double up strum” is taught and reinforced with “If you’re happy and you know it.” Fun.

Next we’re introduced to the Thumb roll, very cool, which is reinforced with “London Bridge.”

  • Time for more new chords: Am, Em, Dm, Dm7, Gm, Gm7, Bb, Bbmaj7, Cmaj7 & G6. Whoa! Hold on cowboy. Too fast for a beginner, even a ‘Part 2’ beginner.

Then we’re on to a new fingerpicking pattern that uses thumb and index (I’d add in the middle as well) – 14214232. This is reinforced with a set of those last chords that we were just introduced to. The pattern is nice, but again, our pacing is extremely fast – new chords and new right-hand technique on the same two pages.

  • On to chord inversions . . . Yikes! Definitely intermediate material.

Then, we have the best 2-page breakdown of the “Split stroke” (made famous by George Formby) I’ve ever seen – very methodically taught. This is actually a series of seven up and down strokes. This is reinforced with “Drunken Sailor.” SUPER COOL.

  • We then introduced to the “Fan Stroke” and the “Flamenco Stroke” – another two excellent combination strums. These are reinforced with “Oh Susanna” and “Scarborough Fair.” EXCELLENT stuff.

Lastly, we cover two left-hand techniques: slides and damping (reinforced with”Bobby Shaftoe”).

  • Some of these song choices are not my favorites (I know a lot of folk songs), but they get the job done.

In conclusion, I would not suggest this for new players, BUT I but highly recommend it for INTERMEDIATE players that are comfortable with most of your basic chords. The strength of this book is not learning chords (or melodic picking – it doesn’t even notate the melodies), but techniques – some of the best instruction on that I’ve seen.

M Ryan Taylor

Review: Chord Melody Method for Uke

I really love the time and attention to detail that went into creating Chord Melody Method for Uke, a book for advancing players. There are a few outright errors and some glaring typos (hence 4 stars), but on the whole, this book is full of good information.

Jerry Moore aims in this book to teach you how to make your own chord melody solos without teaching you much music theory or relying on traditional notation. As a player with a master’s degree in music composition, I personally don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to read music (the system we have has had hundreds of years to develop and is the simplest/quickest way to transmit the musical information of pitch and rhythm), but I know there are those out there that don’t want to touch it, and this book is for them.

Moore notates all the songs in this book with chord diagrams. I personally find a chord diagram for every note to be a little cumbersome, but for teaching the concept of a chord melody solo I can see the advantages – primarily that of designating fingerings on chords with added melody notes. The biggest drawback of the system is that you must know the timing for the songs in this book, as there is no mention of rhythm or attempt to notate it.

So, why four stars if I’m so put out by a ‘chord diagram’ method? Well, because this book will get you past the 5th fret, playing the higher inversions of all the common ukulele chords. Moore begins the book with a series of charts that are simply wonderful, charting all the common chords with inversions up to the 12th fret. Having it laid out so simply before you makes it easy to practice these inversions.

I’ve seen a chart of all the individual notes that can be found on the ukulele fretboard before (which can frankly be a bit overwhelming), but Moore gives you a seperate chart for each note, which is really cool (there is a mistake on the Bb/A# chart that leads you to believe it is notated traditionally where Ab/G# is, oh well). Yes, it takes up a few pages, but it makes it very clear and gives you something to practice rather than just a reference source.

The next set of charts help you transpose music from one instrument to another, offering common chord progressions side by side with charts for guitar, c ukulele, d ukulele and g ukulele (baritone). Useful.

Another set of charts shows clearly the concept of 8 moveable chord formations (4 major chord formations & 4 dominant 7th formations). Another useful reference.

Now that you know all the chord inversions and the various places to find all twelve notes on the fretboard, you’re ready to start the process of making chord melody solos. I’ve often complained that certain author’s ‘methods’ are not methodical at all, but Moore is ultra-methodical; he outlines every step of the process, really more than I needed (as a composer), but I can see the value for someone who does not have my background. Sometimes I feel things could be expedited/quickened up with the use of some traditional notation, but the chord diagramming is Moore’s method and it does work to illustrate this type of soloing.

At the end, there is a nod to tablature, which I think is a less cumbersome way of notating a song without using a staff, but as I said before, you’re then left without fingerings, unless you use the two together.

Anyway, I feel I got a keeper just for the awesome charts and reference materials.

M Ryan Taylor

Review: Understanding Ukulele Chords

Wow. At only 46 pages, Robbert van Renesse managed to blow my mind with Understanding Ukulele Chords (in a good way). First off, this is a book for serious players who want to master their instrument, not for someone who just wants to take it easy (there are plenty of books for that).

On the surface, this book is about learning how to construct new chords by altering several basic chord shapes, thus freeing yourself from chord charts. The premise being that if you know where the root-third-fifth of a chord is in these basic shapes, and you know how your desired chord is constructed (say a flat fifth), then you know how to alter the shape (which fret to raise or lower to). Sounds easy, no?

In truth, this is a book about theory (gasp!), specifically harmonic theory. The book doesn’t just tell you how to alter chords to get the chord you’re looking for, but explains many different kinds of chord and how they function in a piece of music (or where they go). He explains tension and resolution and how they relate to his three classes of chords (tonic, dominant and subdominant). He explains the 12-bar blues and expects you to play it in all 12 keys. He explains the circle of fifths and introduces pneumonic devices I’ve never heard of before. He explains substitution chords and why they work. He spends time on minor cadences. He introduces you to 9th, 11th, & 13th chords (chords most ukulele players will never use) and explains how you make them work on an instrument that only has 4 strings. He introduces you to a couple of chord runs to use as filler in those spaces where a song seems to hang out on the same chord for just too long. He introduces you to the principles of creating a chord solo.

In short, he gives an intermediate player enough information to keep him busy for a year, at least. The book is heavily influenced by Renesse’s jazz background; the book could have been titled, “THE Ukulele Jazz Primer.”

The book is not without its quirks and shortcomings. On the quirky side, he refers to Baritone Ukulele tuning as “Tenor Tuning” – though I’ve never met or heard of a tenor player who used DGBE tuning before (different circles?). On the shortcomings side, there is a ton of knowledge here, but very little supportive material to help you practice it – you’ll have to find your own (which is partly what the book is about enabling you to do). Regardless, neither of these issues can take away from the ‘five star’ value of this tome to a serious player, especially if you’re interested in Jazz.

For someone like me, with an advanced degree in composition (classical to avante-garde tradition – doesn’t include Jazz study), I loved looking into a world apart and getting a glimpse of how Jazz chords work. Absolutely worth every penny.

M Ryan Taylor

Review: Alfred’s Basic Ukulele Method

Alfred’s Basic Ukulele Method is a book for absolute beginners starting from scratch. It teaches notation and tablature, starting the student off with melodic picking and then eventually moving into chords and strumming. With the exception of “Over the Rainbow” at the end of the book, the student learns through folk songs that are the staple of most of these kinds of methods.

The production value on the DVD is top-notch and will be a great addition for those that need to see a technique performed as well as offering a pleasant personality to play along with and motivate your practice.

As one reviewer noted, practicing for 45-minutes a day will get you through this book in about a month. I do not see that as a negative, the same could be said of most method books and the cost is negligable with a book/cd/dvd all for the price of one movie.

Cons: I did find one typo (not a big deal). If there is something this is missing, more strumming patterns to practice, which I find make singing and playing together a little more interesting, would be nice.

Where this method excels: One of the better introductions to melodic picking and tablature that I’ve seen among the beginner methods. If you’re interested in doing instrumentals on the uke, this is a good place to get a foundation.

Review: Starting Ukulele by Steven Sproat

This review of Starting Ukulele by Steven Sproat is biased by the fact that I come from a music-reading background (my dad was a band director and I’ve been reading music since I was 5-ish), and that I’ve studied Kodaly philosophy in teaching music to children (I’ve finished 2 of my 3 years toward certification at the time of this review), which admonishes a gentle, slow, natural approach with lots of time given to ‘own’ the music. This book grates against the grain of both of those biases.

This book is about learning your chords and strumming patterns. There is actually no sheet music (or tablature for that matter) in this book, just the song’s words (which is a problem if you lose the CD and don’t know the song), chords (diagrams are given), and ‘up and down arrows’ to represent the strum patterns. The book introduces you to the chords at break-neck speed (whole sets of them at a given time); the only rhyme or reason seems to be that these are the most common chords – so learn them, NOW. As an aside, the author states that it may take you months or years to master some of these chords. To me, that is just not good pedagogy, especially for a book aimed at children. ‘Sink or swim, we’re moving right along.’

That said, for an adult or teen who does not want to be coddled, and is ready for a ‘no holds barred’ style of teaching, this book has some great information in it. The chords are certainly useful chords, as are the strumming patterns and left-hand techniques taught. The CD is very useful for practice (though a few of the tracks are very ‘midi’ sounding), and each song is given two tracks – one with the ukulele playing and a second without (so you can shine on your own).

Like most of the methods I’ve seen, this book relies almost solely on old folk songs to teach the material. As far as I’m concerned, that’s great. Others hate that. Don’t be a hater; folk music is at the roots of all other kinds of music – embrace it the same way you’d give a hug to your grandma.

Some of the highlights in the book are a ‘rock n roll’ riffing pattern (technically blues) that is a challenge (but very useful and interesting), a breakdown of the split stroke and a Hawaiian triplet strum, and a short tutorial that introduces you to fingerpicking.

Had the packaging showed teens on the cover and had there not been a few major typos (that will confuse readers) I would have given this book four stars instead of three.