Why write and perform songs on the ukulele?
Now there’s a question.
So I’ve been writing songs long enough that I can barely recall when I first put pen to paper. That’s not me boasting about my ability. I also did springboard diving for quite a while but never managed to perform a dive that looked any different from a really clumsy burial at sea. What I am saying though is that I’ve been writing and performing long enough to know what most songwriters go through. I’ve bled my soul into a microphone only for some old soak to ask if I can play anything decent like Oasis. I’ve stood and played for hours in a room full of people where only one person actually acknowledges you exist like you’re a ghost appearing to Haley Joel Osmet (“I see dead people”). Being a singer songwriter can be the most thankless, invisible activity. If you want to break a narcissist, tell them to write and perform songs. Regardless of how good you are, you will at some point experience all of the above.
Up until about 5 years ago I was a guitarist who played the ukulele. I have to say however that since taking it up the Uke has turned things around to me being a ukukeleist who plays guitar. Despite my rock chick wife buying me a Stratocaster electric guitar to distract me, when I write a song, I always now reach for the Uke.
Now writing on the Uke hasn’t been some strategy to jump on the good ship Novelty. There are far too many ukes and their owners about now to say the Uke has novelty value. Those of you who demand a rendition of Van Halens Eruption on a soprano will be sadly disappointed. That said as a performer , I see far more interest in the Uke than I ever did when I played guitar. Is it a mix of people liking ukes like they did electric guitars when they first appeared? Is it that there’s an saturation of male sensitive flowers with acoustic guitars that a bloke playing solely Uke is something refreshingly different? I can’t really comment. I can only comment on my own perception of what it has done for me.
For the first time in 25 years I can safely sit here and say that I am really satisfied about what I’m writing at the moment. More so than I ever was with my six string friend. Maybe it’s simply that I’ve matured a little enough to get over myself and am no longer a pretentious perfectionist. Maybe it’s because I no longer write to try and meet a market demand. And maybe it’s a coincidence that whilst all this has happened, I’ve been playing the Uke. Maybe that’s all true but there are a few things that I know for certain which I think are worth mentioning and why, I think, any song writer should, at some point try writing on the ukulele.
Have you ever tried to park a car in an empty car park? Have you ever wondered why it’s harder to do so than it is in a car park with only one space left? No? Must be only me but when I park in the former I just can’t decide which bay to go for and when I do I nearly always park squiff. In a full car park, there’s less choice and more parameters. If you don’t park straight you’ll hit a car. For me the Uke is similar. It’s why it’s an easy instrument to get the basics sussed but it also means that if you want to play it well you have to play it well. If you don’t you’ll crash. You can kind of get away with playing relatively competently on the guitar. It’s why the acoustic is such a favourite for song writing. This isn’t the only aspect.
The ukulele is an easy instrument to start on but it places demands on you when writing and performing. I firmly believe that a bad song will never work on a ukulele no matter how good you are at playing it. That’s why when I complete a song on the uke and I’m happy with it, I know it’s going to be a song relatively strong enough to keep a crowd interested. I challenge any guitarist to spend a shirt spell only writing in a uke and see what happens.
The other aspect is that when you play a song on a uke, you have no choice but to perform. The ukulele somehow demands that you have to deliver your personality or alter ego alongside the song your singing. Don’t ask me why but you do.
All in all the ukulele is a bit like one if those special braces that runners fit to constrain their chest and build up exercise tolerances. The uke demands that you fine tune your writing, singing, playing and performing skills.
Now this is if course my opinion and mine alone. It may just be that I never wrote particularly great songs on the guitar. Either way, what I’ve said isn’t a general rule but I hope it gives some insight into this songwriters mindset
(Thanks to Matt Hicks for this guest post. Also see http://originalukulelesongs.com/redshirt/)