Original Music – Why the Ukulele? by Mike Turner

I’ve been writing, producing and performing original songs for over five years. Virtually all my songs are original composed on, and frequently performed on, the ukulele (tenor and baritone) in both traditional and alternate/open tunings.

I’m frequently asked, “Why the ukulele?” The more I’ve reflected on the answer, the more I realize that my reasons for composing on the uke, are much the same as my reasons for writing original songs. Let me share a few:

* Originality – Obviously, original songs are, well, “original.” But that doesn’t simply mean that they’re “new,” or something that no one ever produced before. In my songs, I seek to tell a story, impart a message, evoke emotion. And I seek to do those things in ways that are extraordinarily personal – to say things from my own, unique point of view and experience, in ways no one else has ever said them before. I believe that’s the goal of all songwriting. By extension, I want the sonic component of my songs to be just as original. Using non-traditional musical instruments is one way to achieve this; and the sound of the ukulele is certainly non-traditional. In performing and recording, I use the uke as my primary instrument, and its higher chordal voicing helps the music to stand apart from music performed in more “traditional” formats like keyboards or guitar/drum combos. The ukulele’s tonal voice adds a unique tonal quality to my songs overall – which helps to highlight their originality.

* Authenticity – I believe that any song or performance, be it of original material or a cover, benefits when invested with something of the true self of the writer and/or performer. If I can put some of my experience or emotion into my songs, listeners will hear that authenticity, and respond to it. I want to show them a part of myself, so they can relate to that and see a part of themselves in the song. The ukulele becomes an extension of that authenticity, injected into the song. I don’t play the ukulele because I have to; I certainly don’t play the ukulele because it’s what people expect when they come to hear my blues, or folk, or gospel songs. I play the ukulele because, for whatever reason, it’s the instrument that has opened up music to me. I tried guitar, I tried banjo, I tried harmonica, and I had a limited degree of proficiency with all of them. But I took to the ukulele like no other instrument, and while I won’t claim to be a great player, I’ve not only developed a degree of technical proficiency, but also some strum and picking techniques that are particularly my own. I think that flows into the songs as I write and perform them, and listeners can sense that authenticity. They can tell it’s a part of me that I’ve really put into my music, and they respond to it – and that responsiveness is key to my hopes of relating the story, message and emotion I set out to convey.

* Uniqueness – I’ve already alluded to this, but the ukulele has a very unique chordal voice, different from the typical guitar/drum or keyboard that listeners are conditioned to hear in the blues, folk and gospel songs I write and perform. It’s a particularly good contrast from my other main instrument: my voice, which runs from a low- to mid-baritone (and I can hit a few deep bass notes on occasion, which doesn’t hurt when I’m doing my Johnny Cash impersonation!). I’ve found that the combination of 6-string guitar and my voice is a LOT of bass, both performing live and recording. The uke’s higher voice provides a nice contrast and a more rounded sonic experience for the listener, particularly when I’m performing solo. I also tend to write/sing a number of songs in the keys of A and Bb, which are great keys for the ukulele (thank goodness for capos!).

* Musical Choices – The ukulele has a great voice for a wide range of genres – from blues to folk, gospel, pop, rock, Americana, jazz. Granted, the guitar covers similar ground – but I find the ukulele easier to play, and more advanced chords (particularly in jazz genres) easier to form. That’s a great aid both in writing and performing. And my experience has been, once audiences get over the initial surprise over seeing me holding a ukulele instead of a guitar, they also appreciate the contributions the instrument makes to their sonic experience.

To sum up – I believe that as songwriters we all quest to be original, authentic and unique. The ukulele is a valuable tool in achieving those goals, and lends itself to a wide range of musical genres. In the end, as both a writer and performer, I’m trying to effectively tell a story, give a message and stir emotions in my listeners – and the ukulele is a part of the process and performance of achieving those musical goals

4 Responses to Original Music – Why the Ukulele? by Mike Turner

  1. Alan Thornton 19th July 2017 at 1:05 am #

    Thanks Mike,

    It’s nice to read another set of reasons to stick with uke’s much of the time some of which I hadn’t considered. Weirdly, I’ve just been enjoying noodling with guitars again after a 7 year break. I’m mostly noodling in DADGAD and your point about the balance with a vocal really makes me think again.

    • Mike Turner 19th July 2017 at 1:19 am #

      Thanks, Alan – I’d been doing the same with 6 string guitar (in standard tuning), and, as I say, I find it winds up being a LOT of bass when combined with my voice. Also, since I’m primarily a strummer as opposed to a picker, I find that I get more “highs” out of a 4-string uke, even a baritone, than I do with a 6-string guitar – on guitar, I tend to hit the high E string only on “up” strums, where I’m getting more of the high uke strings on both strums, up and down. I believe I’ll pretty much always use the uke, along with my voice, as my primary instruments.

  2. Harry Parker 19th July 2017 at 9:57 am #

    Thought provoking Mike. I recently realised that in the past my tendency was to write songs in the same key, often the same chords. At some stage I can’t pinpoint (I guess as my playing ability and musical understanding improved) I began writing in different keys, writing. then trying the song in different keys, changing the tempo, experimenting with fills, strum patterns, timing, syncopation and strumming. For me, ukulele is perfect for doing those things.
    I don’t perform in public but will at some point and I’m pretty determined to be able to show that ukulele is a cool and versatile instrument.

  3. Kristy 19th July 2017 at 7:36 pm #

    Hi Mike… lot’s of good points…. I’ve taken a little criticism of using the uke, and consequently pulled out a guitar to see what I thought…I hated it because, compared to the ukulele it’s way to loud and overpowers my voice…Plus, at this point I am better on the uke, and as Harry said, can easily change keys and do a little experimenting.

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