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Ukulele Song Writing
By Matt Hicks
So you’ve been playing the uke for a while. You’re pretty happy because every time you video a cover of a song YouTube fires back that it recognises it as a possible infringement on copyright. You’re there. You’ve arrived; but something is missing. You find yourself thinking that you’re just churning out the same songs as everyone else.
Now there is nothing wrong with churning out the same old songs. The ukulele is best as a community instrument on many levels but occasionally you’ll feel you want to do something different. What better way is there to turn peoples heads at the uke club or even on YouTube than by writing your own song?
I know that many people will think that is a near impossibility. Many people think songwriting is a skill that only a few people are blessed with. Well I’ll let you into a little secret: For every great song even the best songwriter creates, there will likely be about ten really bad ones. No one is born a great song writer. It takes a lot of persistence, bloody mindedness and a bit of cheek.
A bit of cheek? What could I possibly mean? Well writing a song is a bit like learning a magic trick. Most people who learn how to do an illusion are usually a little disappointed that the explanation for how the trick is done is very simple. It’s the delivery that makes it astounding. Writing a song believe it or not is very similar. Have you ever learnt to play a song by your favourite artist and, once you’ve mastered it thought “Why couldn’t I have written something so simple?” The truth is that most people can and the following guidelines I hope will help you.
Three Chord Wonder: You may have heard this term before. Most of the early Beatles songs and many great hits consist of just three chords. The first stumbling block of anyone aspiring to write on an instrument is getting the tune together. Believe it or not it’s not necessarily about having an ear for music. There are some specific rules which, if you follow, will help you come up with a tune.
All chords follow some specific rules in that the notes that make up the chord will sit at specific places within the scale of that key. Many simple songs are made up of chords in the 1st position and then use the 4th and 5th. Take the chord of A to start a song. The next chord will be the 4th note in the scale which will be D and then the next on the 5th will be E. AD and E are a popular mix for the twelve bar blues. Below are some chords with their 4th and 5th position chords. I’ve chosen them because they are fairly easy to play on the uke.
A D E
C F G
D G A
E A B
G C D
Now depending on what kind of song you want to write, it’s always worth having a play with the many variations of those chords to give the uke song a bit of variation and make the listener think you really are the mutt’s nuts at song writing. A great way to do this is by playing a 7th chord rather than the basic version. That means playing, for instance C7, F7 and G7. Or you can just put in one 7th chord such as the G7. Take a look at the video below. It’s a cover of an old Hank Williams song. The chords are C F and G7 is immensely simple but very effective.
So forget about the amazingly complex chord run downs, the ukulele is an instrument that is both forgiving to the player but also demands that the song is strong enough to stand on its own. Often the simpler the music, the stronger the song.
Now to writing lyrics. Well now I can’t teach you about what to write. To be honest this will be your most daunting task because not many people are happy to put their necks on the line by writing something and then putting it out there for people to love or not love. Here are some rules that I go with when I write on the ukulele.
Limericks- Start off by writing lines to fit into a limerick. This is whether you are writing a serious song or a jokey song. If you’ve not written a song before frankly the more practice you get using a format that you have grown up with the better. Perhaps you were brought up with gospel music or country etc: Use your roots to fit your words into. It will come a lot easier. Using limericks means that you can fit in quite a few words but you only need two of them to rhyme. i.e:
The boy stood on the burning deck
His trousers made of cotton,
The fire travelled up his pants
And made his mother feel just rotten.
Rhyming couplets such as the limerick above means you can put a lot of information in the lyric with only minimal rhyming needed. You’ll find that you can fit this format into most genres and music styles.
Cliches-Don’t avoid lyrical clichés. You may think they can be cheesy and vomit inducing and mind numbingly unoriginal but the simple fact is that clichés are clichés because they work and they continue to do so to convey what the writer wants to say. Even if you find a better way to say it later on, just go with the flow with some time honoured imagery. Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire is a perfect example. Simple, a huge cliché but one of the best three chord wonders ever written.
Accept it for what it is-Whatever you write accept it for what it is. It is the best reflection of your talent and ability at that moment in time. Don’t be ashamed of it. You may not want to play it in front of anyone for the minute but you have made your mark and you have begun an infuriating but exceptionally fulfilling process. Remember that when you play something on a ukulele, more often than not most people are not expecting to hear great things. They either think it’s a toy or they just think there is no way you will get a decent tune out of it. In other words you just can’t lose. If your song crashes, it doesn’t matter. If it does well it’s a real bonus. Regardless, most people whether friends or in an audience are often very receptive to the fact someone has shown balls enough to not only write their own song but play it in front of someone else. That takes guts and most people know it.
What you write about is up to you of course. I tend to like writing a story in my head and often the words then follow sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. For instance last Christmas I decided to write a song. I chose to write about a Turkey. Turkey starts with a T so that means the name of the bird has to start with T. I chose Tarquin. Turkeys get eaten at Christmas so I thought I’d inject some human relationships into the mix and discuss how his Mum uses euphemism to hide the fact that he is destined for the chop i.e. he’s going to be Santas Little Helper. Helper rhymes with Belper which is somewhere in the North of the UK which happens to have a lot of poultry farms.
When you get a bit of practice, you’ll be amazed at what comes together. Don’t force it. Don’t start with a preconception of the sort of song you want to write. I started trying to write serious, off the wall, philosophical songs and ended up writing about Turkeys and online gambling. The trick is to conserve energy and go with the flow. Don’t wear yourself out putting conditions on a song which will write itself if you let it. Don’t burn yourself or take yourself too seriously or you’ll get writers block before you’ve started.
The last tip is don’t write for yourself. The ukulele is a community instrument. It is made for playing to other people. In pubs and gatherings there is nothing worse than a self indulgent songwriter pouring out complex lyrics about their love life that only he or she understands. It’s a real turn off. If you can show the audience that you wrote the song for their enjoyment then you have won them over already. Singing and playing a song is a bit like giving a sales pitch. If you look convinced the audience will be convinced. That takes some balls to do if you can pull it off but it works a treat.
Below is a little song I wrote a while back which you may like. Go get writing and all the best.
About Matt Hicks