Why are ukes simply best for writing songs?

Kath Burke talks about her love affair with the ukelele… 

Ukeleles are to songwriting what Thai chilis are to cooking – as I found out when I spent three years in Thailand. Those tiny chilis may be small but they pack a powerful punch. Known in Thailand as Prik kee noo – literally “mouse poo chilis” – they are hot hot hot. Likewise ukeleles give you a lot of songs for your money. Diehard guitarists will tell you the ukelele’s not a serious instrument – “Where’s the bass?” they ask.  Six strings good, four strings bad.

Its limitations are its strengths

Ah – what do they know? The uke’s musical limitations are exactly why it’s so good for writing songs. Eddie Vedder from punk-rock group Pearl Jam has described the ukulele as “an activist instrument” because anyone can pick it up and play it. Eddie V famously composed a whole album on his tenor ukelele – simply called Ukelele Songs. [ Check out “Without You”, my personal favourite]. Perhaps because they’re such humble, unassuming instruments you can relax and naturally start filling out the four strings with your own melodies.

Instant melody maker

Eddie Vedder famously bought his ukelele on impulse on a surfing trip in Hawaii. He was out buying some beers when he saw a tenor uke in a shop window.

“I walked out five minutes later with a great sounding ukulele, and had a chorus and a verse written a few minutes later. I was halfway through writing the bridge when a few people walked by and threw some money in the open case,” Vedder told the Calgary Herald newspaper. “I had a $1.50 from playing the ukulele after owning it seven minutes. I thought, “Hmmm, this has some possibilities.”

Cheers up sad songs

Another benefit is the ukelele’s bright sound lifts even the saddest songs. Much of Vedder’s ukelele songs album is about the painful ending of his first marriage.

“If these songs were written on a conventional guitar with drop-D tuning, it would send you off a cliff,” he told the Seattle Times newspaper. “So I feel like writing sad songs on a happy instrument is what keeps it in the realm.”

Songs on the run

And you don’t have to be the lead songwriter of Pearl Jam to write songs on ukelele. I discovered the beauty of ukeleles for writing songs about 4 years ago when I was in Thailand. I was on a teacher training course at a waterside inn with swaying bamboo, pagodas overlooking the lake and catfish gobbling up kitchen scraps. I was doodling on the uke when the atmosphere of the place inspired the beginnings of a song called Kissing Frogs. I had only brought the uke to do singalongs in the bar.

For me the uke has been a great travel companion because it’s small, light and cheap and you can get on planes etc for free as hand luggage. I’ve written songs on uke I don’t think I could have found on guitar and I think it’s helped me develop my songwriting craft, because I’m not distracted by the instrument. I’m just thinking about finding the song.

Sparse enough to hear the flaws

When I went travelling again to Mexico and Thailand I only had the uke with me. So in 2012 I was sat in a condo in Bangkok and I wanted to share my songs at an open mic – but I had no guitar to practise on.

So I transferred my songs to the ukelele. Hearing them again showed up flaws in the melody and the lyrics. This spawned about a year of rewriting. It was very satisfying because I was able to finally finish songs from 2 years earlier.

With lush guitar chords you can get lost in a wall of sound. So you may not notice that the melody or words are a bit boring. But the ukelele shows up all the flaws. Also with a ukelele you can move a song around the fretboard without having to use a capo – to see if this opens up the melody or suits the voice better. As Vedder says in an interview with Two Feet Thick:

 “I learned so much about music by playing this little, miniature songwriting machine, especially about melody. The motto is less strings more melody. I was able to apply it to whatever I’m trying to write. It’s become part of songwriting for me, the knowledge I gained from hearing the melodies come out, and then applying that to guitar or vocals.”

Good enough for jazz

While in that same Bangkok condo, I remember finding some chord loops I loved on the uke – I was improvising jazzy melodies over them. This later became a song called Bougainvillea. I don’t think I could have written Bougainvillea on guitar because some of the chord shapes would be difficult and the changes too fast.

Naivety helps you find songs

So should you throw away your guitar or piano in favour of ukeleles? No – but it’s worth having a uke on standby. Because something interesting happens when you switch a song to a new instrument. In an interview with newspaper UT Sandiego, Vedder says naiviety helps him write songs.

“By knowing nothing about the instrument it makes you think you’re inventing things that have never been thought of,” Vedder says. “If you don’t know it’s an African rhythm, or a ¾, you feel like you’re inventing it, which gives you confidence.”

Lost in performance

What about performing songs? I concede it probably does make sense to switch back to guitar or piano for sharing your songs. Because on a uke every song can end up sounding the same. I’ve paid Nashville songwriter and tutor Cliff Goldmacher to critique many of my songs. And – while he owns a uke  himself – he describes it as having a “unique sonic personality” that can make every song sound humorous or quirky. If someone gets on stage with a ukelele, he says, it’s “like they’re carrying a gun”– it’s such an unusual instrument that it commands the audience’s full attention. The danger then is that people will be so distracted by the ukelele, they miss the song.

Ok. So now I’m back home I guess it’s time to get the guitar out of the loft. Anyone got any surgical spirit?

Links to Eddie Vedder’s stuff

Sample Eddie’s Ukulele Songs album on Youtube  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDDB4Vyk5ZQ The Seattle Times interview  http://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/eddie-vedders-immediate-gratification-a-martin-ukulele/ The Two Feet Thick interview http://www.twofeetthick.com/2011/05/great-greg-kot-interview-with-eddie-vedder/ The UT Sandiego interview http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2011/jun/30/-depth-interview-eddie-vedder/

Links to the songs I mentioned

You can listen to Kissing frogs here or Bougainvillea here

Do you write songs on a uke? Or have you changed the instrument you write with – did it work  for you? I’d love to hear what you think – you can use the comment box below.

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