When a beginner first picks up a ukulele, they normally start by learning to play chords and progress to playing songs with those chords. After a while they may learn to fingerpick notes from those chords. Once that’s accomplished, what is the next step? Ukulele chord melody!
A chord melody is a combination of strumming and fingerpicking. You strum the full chords while at the same time picking the melody. This allows you to play songs in interesting and unique ways.
If you’re not particularly fond of singing while you play, then this may be a great option to ‘spice up’ your playing. Many very progressive and famous players prefer this style, including Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill.
Before you start attempting to play chord melody you should be a very good strummer and fluid with different fingerpicking patterns since you’ll need to combination to play.
Now, arranging chord melody is an advanced topic, and this article will only give an understanding of how to start. Becoming good at this will take practice, but once you do, you’ll be able to develop your own signature style.
The Building Blocks of Chord Melody
We’ve already said that you need to be a fairly advanced player to learn to play the chord melody style of ukulele. It will also be very helpful if you have some knowledge of music theory and especially scales.
Once you have the basic skills needed to play chord melody, we’ll dig into the different building blocks that make up all songs.
In the next section we’ll dive into each of these topics in more detail.
We are going to start with the rhythm because by the point where you are able to start playing the chord melody style playing on time should be almost second nature.
Since chord melody can become quite complex it is very important to stay on time, don’t rush or fall behind. Make sure you’re not missing beats or adding in extra ones to hit particular notes.
When many of us were learning strumming patterns, we had to practice at very slow BPM, and you may have to go back to that as you’re learning new arrangements.
The melody in a solo arrangement should always been the highest note singing out from your uke. This means that you’ll normally be playing this note on you’re a and E string, so you have two harmony notes ringing out lower than your melody.
By playing the melody higher than the harmony you allow it to be easily picked out by the human ear. If it’s played on lower notes it can blend into the mix and be harder to hear for the listener.
Assuming your rhythm is correct and you’re playing in time, the melody is the most important part of the solo arrangement.
When picking your first song you should pick a song you already know and ideally one that you can find sheet music for.
As we stated earlier, knowing your scales, in particular your major scale is very helpful here. With the combination of sheet music and scale knowledge you can find the melody for any song.
For many songs, especially basic or simple ones, would be very boring if you only played the melody. That’s when you throw in the harmony to really add some sound and spice to the song.
Now, lets clarify that when we say harmony, we are referencing the chords of the song.
One of the tricks to arranging great chord melody is finding triads. These three note chords allow you to find chord shapes where the melody note is the highest note. You can do this in root position, first inversion and second inversions to harmonize in the best way possible.
Dynamics are not specific to the ukulele chord melody style, but apply here just as much as in any other form of playing.
When you emphasize a note, chord, or section of a song over others you’re using dynamics. This can be used in many different ways to let certain notes really ring out and stand above others, or slowing building your strumming from soft to loud to introduce a chorus.
To practice this skill simply spend time strumming soft to loud, picking out notes with differing volumes, and changing tempo during a piece of music.
Your First Chord Melody on Ukulele
You now have all the knowledge, and hopefully playing skill, you need to arrange your own chord melody!
Just like anything else with the ukulele, you won’t master this style of playing overnight, it will likely take you a lot of practice.
We recommend you start with a very basic song; Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle, little star, or something along those lines. Or if you started with really simple songs when you first picked up a uke go back to one of those.
While this is a difficult style of playing, once you get good it will open up endless options to add to, change, and make songs that you once were tired of playing fun and exciting again!