One of my favorite aspects of playing the ukulele is the creativity that arises from being limited to four strings and two octaves worth of notes. Whether it’s trying out low-G tuning or experimenting with alternative chord shapes, there are a number of different strategies you can utilize to push the sound of the ukulele beyond what it’s known for. In this article, we’re going to learn some basic solo techniques to help you expand your playing even further.
One of the things that separates a great musician from a good one is their ability to express themselves on their instrument. While musical self-expression can take many different forms, one basic way of looking at it is to select a two-note interval — say, an A to a B — and then consider all the different ways you can play it. Do you pluck both of the notes in succession, or do you just pluck the first note and then adjust your fretting hand to create the second one? Are the notes played at the same volume, or is one softer than the other? What rhythm are the notes played at, and are they played exactly on beat or a little bit off of it? Even for something as simple as a two-note interval, the possibilities for how to play it are practically endless.
To start off, we’re going to equip you with some basic (and fun) tools you’ll be able to use along your journey towards musical self-expression. Each of the following three solo techniques presents a uniquely expressive way in which you can get from one note to the next.
A slide is achieved by plucking a note and then sliding your fretting finger to another fret without lifting it up. Since the string will continue to vibrate from the initial pluck, this second note will ring out when you slide to it. You can slide any number of frets up or down the fretboard, and even do combinations of up and down slides. The speed of each slide and how long you wait before sliding to the next note also play an important part in determining how the notes sound. It’s important to make sure that your fretting finger remains firmly pressed down throughout the duration of the slide. If it lifts up at all, the note will be muted.
Hammer-On and Pull-Off
A hammer-on is another technique that allows you to play multiple notes with a single pluck. To do it, start by playing a note, and then while it’s still ringing, sharply place another finger on your fretting hand on a higher fret on the same string. This will cause the second note to ring out.
A pull-off is the opposite of a hammer-on. Using two different fingers, hold down two frets on the same string. Pluck the string, and then while the note is ringing out, sharply release the fretting finger on the higher fret, which causes the lower note to sound.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs can be used on their own or in combination with each other. For example, you can play a hammer-on from one note to the next and then do pull-off back to the first note all on a single pluck of the string. Keep in mind that how firmly you hammer-on or pull-off will affect how clearly the second note rings out. In order to achieve the clearest possible notes, I like to think of a hammer-on as a “slap” (your upper finger is firmly slapping the upper fret) and a pull-off as a “pluck” (your upper finger is essentially plucking the string again on its way off).
Perhaps the most expressive of the three techniques, a bend is played by plucking a note and then using your fretting fingers to push the string vertically on the fretboard, causing the note to raise in pitch. Bends are unique in that they allow you to play microtones, which are essentially the notes in between the notes on your fretboard. A practical way to think of bends is by steps — quarter step, half step, whole step, etc. Each fret on the ukulele represents a half step. So if you play an A, a half step bend would mean bending the note up to an A#. To try this out, first pluck an A# so you know what pitch you are trying to reach with the bend. Then, pluck the A and bend the note until you hear the A#. With some practice, you’ll develop an internal sense of how far to bend a note in order to reach another note. A good tip is to use multiple fingers on your fretting hand to bend the string, which will allow you to bend strings easier and more accurately. Additionally, like with slides, the speed at which you play a bend will help shape the sound of the notes being played.
Once you’ve had a chance to try out each of the solo techniques, it’s time to put them into action. Below are three practice songs that incorporate the techniques. When learning them, it’s best to start out slow and then gradually build up your speed once you get more comfortable with the song.
The following notation will be used in the tabs:
- / Slide up
- \ Slide down
- h Hammer-on
- p Pull-off
- ^ Bend note
- ^(x) Bend to the note in the parenthesis
Do I Wanna Know? - Arctic Monkeys
The main riff from this song is great for practicing hammer-ons. There’s also a couple slides sprinkled in.
What I Got - Sublime
There’s a super fun acoustic guitar lick played partway through this song that incorporates all three of the techniques. Make sure to start out slow with this one. Also, for those who know the song well, the second half of this tab is played an octave lower than in the original in order to fit on the ukulele fretboard.
Layla - Derek and the Dominos
This classic guitar riff is excellent for practicing hammer-on/pull-off combos and whole step bends. Don’t be shy with the big bends — you’ll really need to push the string in order to get up to the right note.
Remember, take your time learning the songs and make sure to get the techniques down before building up your speed. With some consistent practice, you’ll be able to incorporate them into your playing without even thinking about it. Enjoy!