Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Sweet Baby James / How Sweet It Is – James Taylor

james-taylorWhilst we’re on that early 70s singer songwriter vibe with the recent Carole King post, it seemed an opportune time to get a couple of James Taylor songs out there as well.

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The paths of King and Taylor have been linked ones throughout their careers, in large part because of those songs and recordings of the early 70s. Playing regularly at The Troubadour club in West Hollywood, Taylor played guitar on King’s Tapestry, and King returned the compliment by playing on Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, his breakout album. Taylor’s first US number one single was a cover of King’s You’ve Got A Friend from Tapestry. IN 2010 the pair reunited for a tour together, using the same band they had used back in The Troubadour in 1970.

Taylor is renowned as an incredibly talented guitarist, not necessarily in a flashy way, but dazzling in the sounds that he coaxes from his acoustic guitars. Sweet Baby James is taken from the sophomore album of the same name, and is a song that Taylor has cited personally as one of his best. Set in a 3/4 waltz time, the apparent simplicity of the lilting lullaby-like tune deceptively hides a more complex structure and rhyming pattern that, whilst feeling totally natural, can take a little work when trying to play it. How Sweet It Is is a cover of a Motown song by the legendary writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, originally recorded by Marvin Gaye. Taylor’s version, from his 1975 album Gorilla, took a more relaxed, soft-rock feel to that song, and was a huge hit.

So two song sheets. Sweet Baby James, as previously mentioned, is a quite straightforward 3/4 time song, although you do need to watch the timing of lyrics and chords throughout the verses. How Sweet It Is is a little more complex chord wise. There’s a few little run downs in there that add flavour to the song, but you can make a very passable version of the song without these (I’ve shown these optional chords as subscript in the song sheet – the E11 can be replaced with a straightforward E). The song does need to swing, though!

Enjoy!

<How Sweet It Is> <Sweet Baby James>


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Lightning Bolt – Jake Bugg

LightningBoltIf his first album, and this song in particular, are anything to go by, Jake Bugg has (a) an old head on young shoulders, and (b) was born 50 years too late.

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Not that his sound is out of place. In fact, for me this song and that first album were a huge breath of air, a sound that – through its rawness, simplicity and back-to-basics approach – cut through so much machine-driven modern music. Obviously it’s not a radically new sound, it’s not going to win any awards for originality. But those qualities are highly over-rated in my book. What you get instead is the sound of young man (he was only 18 when this was released) reflecting on his own life growing up on a council estate in Nottingham, with an acoustic-based sound that takes in rock and roll, skiffle, folk and country influences, not a million miles from a young Bob Dylan at times.

Lightning Bolt is a classic example of that sound. A raw skiffle sound – strummed acoustic guitars, straight down-the-line drums and a cutting electric guitar solo – this will blow the cobwebs away.

All of which seems to make for a perfect ukulele strumming song. And it does (in my opinion at any rate). There’s only three chords here, and nothing tricky. I’ve transposed it up a semi-tone to F which (a) I find easier to sing, and (b) I think is easier to play. Try the Bb and C as barre chords, and it works really well. Note that I haven’t tried to fit all the chords in with the lyrics – I don’t think it helps and just clutters up the sheet. Just get that rhythym going, and it will all fall into place. Enjoy!

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P.S. If you want to have a listen to us playing this, here’a recording that The Flukes made of this last year.

 


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Sunshine Superman – Donovan

SunshineSupermanDonovan emerged from the 1960s folk scene with a sound that was influenced by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, but most noticably by Bob Dylan. That Dylan influence has proved something of an millstone around his neck, something amplified by the reactions of Dylan himself when he toured the UK in 1965, famously captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary film “Don’t Look Back”.

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By 1966, however, Donovan was starting to move away from the limitations of the folk scene, and began immersing himself in the emerging counter-cultural hippie scene. Picking up particularly on the psychedelic sounds emerging from the US West Coast (bands such as Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane), but also on jazz, blues and eastern sounds, Sunshine Superman – the start of a collaboration with successful produced Mickie Most – proved to be a huge breakthrough for Donovan, topping the US charts, and becoming a massive hit almost everywhere else.

The song sheet is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original. I’ve included tab for both the intro riff, the riff that occurs during the verses, plus an approximation of a solo. At some point I’ll get around to recording the latter to give some indication of what its meant to sound like. Enjoy!

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Get It Right Next Time – Gerry Rafferty

I’ve already posted one Gerry Rafferty song (Baker Street) on here, and if the web-site stats are anything to go by it’s the most popular song on the site. So in a totally cynical attempt to drive traffic to these pages, here’s another!

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“Get It Right Next Time” was the last time Rafferty bothered the UK Top 40 singles, although it only peaked at a relatively lowly number 30 in the late summer of 1979. In fact Rafferty was never really a mainstay of the singles chart, with only Baker Street and Night Owl ever being significant hits. As befits his time and background, he was more of an album artist, a “serious” musician coming from a folk background via. Steelers Wheel, best known for Stuck In The Middle With You, a song that seems to have gained some significant favour in ukulele circles, in part I suspect a reflection of the vintage of those playing the uke at the moment! After Get It Right… and it’s parent album Night Owl, Rafferty’s commercial fortunes declined, in part as a result of his reluctance to perform live. But that purple patch in the late 1970s left us with a number of bona fide classics as his legacy. And Get It Right Next Time, with it’s eternal pick-yourself-up-and-start-again message certainly ranks in that number.

So a song for the ukulele? Well yes, and this time round I’ve got some solid-ish evidence that it works. We’ve been playing this with my band The Flukes for a little while now, and after a fair bit of practice (more of which later!) it seems to work quite well. If definitely benefits from the driving bass (thank you, Will!) and Doug’s harmonica really add something, but it still works with just the single uke if you want. If you want to hear what it sounds like, here’s us performing at a recent Southampton Ukulele Jam Christmas Cabaret.

There’s nothing too tricky chord wise here – even the Bb/G, A/G, Ab/G, G sequence is a very straightforward rundown the fretboard. The trickier bit was timing, and particularly the middle instrumental break. The best way to get this is to listen to the original (and maybe even to The Flukes version!) and get the feel for it – it is very much about feel on this, I find, and the key to that is playing some of those chords just before the beat. In the songsheet I’ve added a third page which tries to annotate how this works for that instrumental section. It may help, it may not, but it may be worth a look if you’re struggling with that bit.

Enjoy!

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UkeTunes Songbooks!

UkeTunes Songbook, Volume 1So I thought it was about time I pulled together all the songs that I’ve posted on here so far into one, single, UkeTunes songbook. And here it is!

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Somewhat optimistically subtitled “Volume 1”, here is the songbook nobody has been waiting for. From the ridiculously popular (-ish) to the willfully obscure (Our Daughters Wedding, anybody?) UkeTunes Volume 1 brings together an eclectic mix of punk and synthpop, folk and country, showtunes and reggae, soul and ska, in the songbook that will revolutionise the four-stringed world and have ukulele groups all over the world casting aside their battered copies of Folsom Prison Blues, Bad Moon Rising and Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue in favour of songs about the ethics of silk-worm farming, Dostoyevsky’s reflections on free will, and the recurring disasters of April 14th. There might be a few broken-hearted love songs in there as well.

Feel free to onward share the book. It’s been put together with the intention of being used, although I think it would be a brave group to perform all of these (I’m thinking of you, “The Mating Game”!).

And foUkeTunes - The 80sr those for whom the eclecticism on offer in this songbook is maybe just a little too much, I’ve also pulled together a sub-volume which collects together all the songs published so far on this site from the 1980s. Remember, though, this is *my* 1980s, not the one of popular imagination, so it still veers off into some obscure bywaters. Click on the image or link below for UkeTunes – The 80s.

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The Only Way Is Up – Yazz via. Stornoway

yazzstornoway-bonxieA couple of weeks ago I went, with my daughter, to see Stornoway play the opening night of their tour here in Southampton. It was a great gig, leaning heavily on songs from their most recent album Bonxie (go get it, it’s great!) but also taking in the best of their first two albums as well. Coming back on for the encore, they started up what sounded like a simple country-ish strum for a song I didn’t immediately recognise, but which at the same time felt kind-of familiar. It wasn’t until those “hold on” refrains just before the chorus that the mist clear and the song came into focus. Here was Yazz’s late-80’s dancefloor anthem reimagined. And I thought, “that would work well on the ukulele”!

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So here it is. The song originally started life in 1980 as a single by soul singer Otis Clay, with a funky,disco-influenced sound. The Yazz version, a poppy take on the acid house sound that was emerging at the time, was a *huge* omnipresent hit in 1988, the second best selling song of the whole year in the UK (beaten only by Cliff Richard’s execrable Misltoe and Wine!), and massive across the rest of Europe.

And then, 27 years later, new life is breathed into it by a folk-and-ornithology-influenced band from Oxford. And the song breathes.

So here’s the songsheet. This is very much the Stornoway version, and I haven’t tried to play this like Yazz or Otis Clay. I think it’s fairly straightforward – each chord on the sheet representa a bar – and play it with a simple strumming pattern (either d-du-du-du or d-d-du-du, or some combination of the both). Enjoy!

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I Shall Be Released – Bob Dylan

ishallbereleased<songsheet>

So here’s a clasic example of one of the reasons I started putting this blog together in the first place. This is hardly an obscure song. In fact I think the word “classic” is not really open to debate on this one. And yet could I find a decent, clear, consistent set of chords for it? No, I couldn’t. Probably there is one lurking out there, and probably I’m being a bit fussy, but here’s my take anyway.

Wikipedia starts its entry for this by saying that “I Shall Be Released” is a 1967 song written by Bob Dylan. Well, that’s factually correct, I’ll give them that, but it all seems a bit terse for what is such a sublime song. The song has a real gospel influence to it, both in the musical structure of the song and in its lyrics, which combine themes of religious redemption with that of a man unjustly prisoned, looking forward to his release. There’s some heavy existential stuff going on in this song, yet as with much of Dylan’s material it’s not quite as simple and explicit as it might be in lesser hands, and leaves itself open to all manner of interpretations.

The song was originally released in a version by The Band, who had acted as Dylan’s backing band on those infamous folk-goes-electric gigs. The keening, falsetto harmonies of that version give it an otherwordly feel that are echoed on the original Dylan version, later released on The Bootleg tape series. The song has since been extensively covered, with notable versions being made by the likes of Nina Simone and reggae band The Heptones, who lent it a lovely chugging rhythm, something repeated on one of my favourite versions by Beth Rowley.

I couldn’t find a Youtube clip of the original Dylan version (try the Beth Rowley version for one in the same key as Dylan and the songsheet, or this Spotify link), but meanwhile here’s the classic version from The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz. Featuring the massed ranks of Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins and Van Morrison – my what a concert that must have been!

And so here’s the song sheet. Nothing much to say about it, it’s a very simple song (three chords) with endless room for variation and improvisation. This is in the same key as the Dylan original. Enjoy!

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