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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

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