There are no shortage of fancy techniques you can learn that will improve your ukulele playing: campanella picking, split strokes and roll strums. But there are two quick wins that don’t require hours of practicing. They just need you to be more conscious of how you’re playing and to take control of it.
Dynamics refers to how loud or quiet the notes you’re playing are.
So you create a quiet strum by playing very softly and brushing the strings as little as you can. And loudly by digging into the strings and giving it some well. Similarly when you're picking you can softly tickle the string or really pull it before letting go. I'm going to be mixing up strumming and picking examples here but the ideas can be applied to either.
This isn’t completely practice free. It does take some control. Try strumming or picking as quitely as you can then gradually get louder and louder until you’re strumming as loud as you can. Then play softer and softer until you’re playing as quietly as you can.
If you play a repeated line loudly the first time and quietly the second you create the impression of an echo.
In this example I’m playing two different bars. Each followed by a quieter repeat:
You can extended this idea all the way to playing entire sections of a piece loudly the first time and more quietly the second. It adds a nice bit of variety to your playing and stops the audience getting bored.
You can also use differing dynamics to give the listener the impression of a loud call then a quiet response. Like this:
Otherwise known as “sledgehammer dynamics”. You can separate out sections of a song by how loud they are. So you have a quiet verse and a loud chorus. The classic example of this is Smells Like Teen Spirit.
This technique isn’t subtle but it is very effective. It's not just Nirvana who have used it, you hear it all over the place. For example, the Adele’s Hello uses exactly this technique.
As well as changing dynamics over an entire song, you can also change dynamics within a phrase or a strumming pattern (there’s a guide to strumming notation here).
Here’s a simple d u d u strum played straight:
And here it is played with emphasis to make it d u D u:
And here’s the pattern D u d u D u d u:
So you can get plenty of variety out of the simplest strum using dynamics.
Swells and Fades
You can make the piece you're playing swell by slowly increasing the intensity of your picking or strumming and make it fade by playing gradually more softly.
This technique is more subtle than the previous ones (here's where that practicing really pays off) but is very effective.
Swells are a great way to create anticipation. I used swells in the Spooky Ukulele post to build up tension in the Jaws example. They can lead the listener into a big chorus or create a crescendo to end your piece with a bang.
Penguin Cafe Orchestra use swells and fades to great effect on Paul's Dance (more on that tomorrow). The swells and fades change what is a very simple picking pattern that could sound robotic into an emotional and interesting piece.
Creating Melodies from Picking Patterns
This is the trickiest technique of all. By playing certain notes more strongly than others you can tease a melody out of what would otherwise be a picking pattern.
So take a picking pattern like this:
Here it is played completely straight:
Here it is with the notes on the C-string emphasised to create the melody there:
And here it is played with the notes on the A-string emphasised to create a melody there:
Even though most tunes will have a set tempo, there's room to speed up or slow down around that tempo to give the tune some emotion or mark out different sections.
Pacing changes are easiest to put into place when you're playing solo. Then you can change the pacing on a whim if you like. It also works well when one person is leading everyone else (like a conductor of an orchestra). But they can also work well in a group if everyone is very in sync (look at the Paul's Dance example again) or you have the tempo changes pre-arranged and well rehearsed.
The most common way to use pacing is to gradually slow down and bring a song to a close. It's the perfect way to indicate to an audience that the song is ending and they should start cheering, screaming and declaring your genius.
Here's an example of tktk using it:
Slowing down doesn't have to be done just to end a song, it can also be used to end sections within a song.
When you've been practicing a tune for days on end you get to know it incredibly well. And it's easy to forget your audience won't know it so well. It's useful to give them clues to the structure of the piece by slowing at the end of sections to separate them out more clearly.
By increasing the speed of your playing you can create a sense of excitement, peril or being out of control. Or all three in the case of Devil's Gallop.
It can be very effective but you do need to be careful how you use this technique. If you don't keep it controlled it can end up with the piece galloping away from you.
I’m looking at you, Jake Shimabukuro.
Putting it Into Practice
Soixante Croissants – How I Felt at 2am (Tab)
To put these techniques into practice I chose How I Felt at 2am by soixante croissants. Like Paul's Dance it has just a couple of picking patterns and uses basic chord shapes so there's plenty of room to play around with dynamics and pacing.
Also the meaning of the tune makes it ideal for using these techniques. The way I interpret it, the tune is about not being able to sleep due to an anxious, racing mind in the middle of the night (although Jess might doing something more exciting and less neurotic at 2am than I am).
The idea is that the swells represent the thoughts swirling in your mind and getting more intense. Then the fades are you relaxing a bit and dozing off before they come back again. That cycle goes all the way up to 11 in bars 27 – 30. As well as increasing the volume I increase the pace as well until at last you slow down and fall asleep at the end of the tune.
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