Blues Up Your Ukulele with Lil’ Rev’s Lessons from Lead Belly

Posted by Kelsey Holt on

Posted by Lil' Rev

Excerpted from the Spring 2018 issue of Ukulele

The blues is where it all began, and Lead Belly’s legacy lends itself well to building a blues-based style. It also will teach important lessons every picker ought to know, like common eight-bar and 12-bar progressions, I–VI–II–V cycles, syncopation, riff-based grooves, boogie and shuffle patterns, pentatonic, minor-pentatonic, and blues scale study, as well as poetry. All of this was so powerful that people studying it gave birth to the British Invasion. Dare I speak for some of our finest ukulele-blues- playing colleagues like Del Rey, Manitoba Hal, Casey MacGill, and Paul Hemmings when I say that nothing tastes the same without the seasoning that a study of the blues can do to your style with soul, musical sensibility, and simplicity. Perhaps the most important lesson for all of us melody players is that, “It ain’t the notes you choose to play that matters, but rather the ones you choose to leave out that matters most.” We could all get our mojo working and use our happy instrument to quell a great-big world with a worried mind.

Basic Blues and Rock Strum Patterns

Lead Belly used classic boogie-woogie piano-inspired bass lines to color most of his blues songs. He also created many variations on this theme and spread them across the continuum of his repertoire by walking the boogie whenever he could. This strum pattern lends itself really well to any type of tune with a bluesy sound, be it rock ’n’ roll or straight-ahead prewar and postwar blues. Let’s look at how Lead Belly would have sounded if he had been a ukulele player.

Shuffle Patterns

Let’s start with a basic blues-rock strum on a G chord, as shown in Example 1a. Holding a basic open-G chord throughout the measure, add and remove the C string’s fourth-fret E (the sixth of the G chord) with your fourth finger. For a fancier version, try Example 1b, which brings the flatted seventh, F natural, into the equation.

Examples 2a–3b walk you through similar moves on C and D chords. Remember to hold down the chord throughout while adding and subtracting notes with the indicated fretting fingers. Also, keep your strumming hand moving in a constant down-up motion throughout, with a swing feel. Once you’re comfortable playing a swinging groove in each of these patterns, you can string them together to play a I–IV–V blues in the key of G major.

Excerpted from a lesson by Lil' Rev in the Spring 2018 issue of Ukulele:

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