Uke in an ensemble/string band

Piecomics

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I am wondering about how to fit a ukulele into a group setting. not an all uke setting but, say a Texas swing band, or a folk/Americana context.

What skills are important to have and are there people who are doing this well? I know a banjo uke strummed works well to cut through a larger band, and a baritone can work well with one or two additional instruments to add texture/another voice.

(And I know any instrument can work in any context but curious about people who have actually been successful with this.)

Many thanks!
 

Nickie

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Good luck! I was asked to play in a "string ensemble" once. Nobody could hear my uke, it was covered up. An ukulele will almost always be the quietest instrument in any group. Ask if you can amp it up!
 

donboody

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Listen to Lyle Ritz album "How About Uke" and Ohta-San's album "Soul Time in Hawaii" and James Hill/Anne Janelle's album "Many a Moon." Each feature the ukulele with different types of accompanying bands.
 

RafterGirl

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Pre-pandemic, I was playing in my church worship band every Sunday. Piano, Electric guitar X 1, acoustic guitars X 2, bass guitar, cajon for percussion, and me on my concert uke. 6-8 vocalists. All the stringed folks plugged in, and everyone amplified through the church PA/sound board. Our sound guy had us pretty well balanced, so that my uke wasn't totally drowned out. Did my uke stand out in the crowd ? No, not really, but it added a nice sparkle to the overall sound. We play contemporary gospel music.

I think with the right sound system, a uke would fit in very well with a western swing or folk group. They often have a banjo,mandolin, and fiddle, so why not a uke.
 

VegasGeorge

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I'm thinking that you will need amplification, one way or another. I played in a church praise band, and was plugged into the audio board along with the guitar, bass, piano, and vocals. It was up to the audio guy running the mixer board to balance us out. I suppose you could accomplish the same thing individually with your own amp.
 

KohanMike

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You will definitely need to be amplified. Couple of ways to do that, have your own amp and mic the uke, or use a uke with built in pickup and/or preamp and plugin to your own amp or to the P/A. The leader of my uke group of about 25-50 when we met pre-covid, used an amp with her preamp uke in a large multipurpose room. She also had a headphone mic, both are on wireless systems.


This is Michael Kohan in Los Angeles, Beverly Grove near the Beverly Center
8 tenor cutaway ukes, 4 acoustic bass ukes, 10 solid body bass ukes, 14 mini electric bass guitars (Total: 36)

Donate to The Ukulele Kids Club, they provide ukuleles to children in hospital music therapy programs. www.theukc.org
Member The CC Strummers: www.youtube.com/user/CCStrummers/video, www.facebook.com/TheCCStrummers
 

Jim Yates

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The first group where I ever used a uke was the Maple Leaf Champions Jug Band. I usually play at least 3 or 4 songs a show on the uke and use a mic (not an expensive one, but usually an SM57 or a Beta 57 - both affordable and almost indestructible). It really depends on what other instruments are in your group. We have guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, washboard, trombone, mouth harp. . . not all at once, but in different combinations.
I step very close to the mic when I'm taking a solo and the uke seems to come through.
MLCwithresouke.jpg
With reso-uke

MLCatGatsby_zpsd1ee1f9b.jpg
Our biggest incarnation with a uke borrowed from my wife, Maggie. The three ladies at the right are a vocal trio called The Ukelillies. When they perform as a trio, they all play ukes, but when they play with us, they sing Andrews Sisters type back-up.
 
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merlin666

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Before covid I participated in two weekly acoustic jams one with traditional (including western swing) fiddle music the other Celtic style. Initially I brought guitars but lately have switched to ukes. And people like their unique sound and I think they provide a good contribution to the mix. I make a point to play them with uke strumming styles and unique chords such as rootless and not try to emulate other instruments that are already there such as banjos or mandolins. There is no amplification tolerated at these jams so I have to play hard but even with a concert uke can be heard in recordings, though my six string tenor seems to be most popular with the other players.
 
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Piecomics

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Thanks all, super helpful ideas! I will follow up with some specific questions later. Volume is a concern, though I do have a tiple that is loud as crazypants. Honestly initially I’m okay being quiet since I feel a little nervous about my ability.
 

VegasGeorge

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Of course, resonator instruments were invented for just such a reason. The mechanical amplification of a resonator may give you the additional "punch" you need to be heard. A Koa or Maple resonator will still have a distinctive Uke sound to the audience, even though it sounds quite different to the player.
 

Piecomics

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Well, I had my first experience playing with others. It was... dispiriting. For the most part as noted by some of you the sound of the Uke got lost, and worse, when it didn’t the delicate nature of it clashed with the overall sound. I don’t want to switch to a banjo or guitar but I am looking to be able to play in with others. Ahh well, I will keep thinking/trying.
 

KohanMike

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Well, I had my first experience playing with others. It was... dispiriting. For the most part as noted by some of you the sound of the Uke got lost, and worse, when it didn’t the delicate nature of it clashed with the overall sound. I don’t want to switch to a banjo or guitar but I am looking to be able to play in with others. Ahh well, I will keep thinking/trying.

I'm kind of surprised you say it clashed. Every Sunday from 12 to 2, I play with a group of about 8 to 12 acoustic guitars in a park, no amplifiers. I'm on a tenor all bamboo uke tuned reentrant, hi-G, and one or two others have concerts, we fit in pretty well. Did you use any kind of amplification? Since I played guitar for almost 50 years before uke, it is rather easy for me using a uke in this context. Maybe you just need to get more comfortable playing uke.

Aklot bamboo cutaway.jpg
 

Piecomics

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So, I'm very open to the idea that the issue is me or my comfort/skill level. At the same time, the mix of nylon strings with all other instruments being steel strung, the volume difference... I think there is a context problem at least with the musicians I was playing with. no amplification this time. I am going to play with a sitar player this weekend coming up and am thinking that will work better texture wise.

I'm a drummer and am super comfortable playing with others in a non-melody context. I have started listening to some early 20th century jazz to hear how the banjo uke fits into the mix...
 

Piecomics

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Okay, so I discovered Tiny Grimes today, who seems to address a lot of my concerns. He played a tenor guitar tuned like a baritone/chicago tuning/DGBE in a group. Obviously these were professional musicians who knew how to leave space for each other but it is helpful for me listening to him in this context.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7HX6bFQCvo
 

UkingViking

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I never played in an ensemble. But from the one time I played a bit for fun with my father who was on the guitar, and from when I have tried to multitrack at home, I think that this helps:

Try not to have both guitar and ukulele strum. If the guitar strums, play some arpeggios. If the guitar is fingerpicking, do some strumming. If you try to compete with a steel string guitar strumming, it is easy to drown the uke.
 

Jerryc41

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Good luck! I was asked to play in a "string ensemble" once. Nobody could hear my uke, it was covered up. An ukulele will almost always be the quietest instrument in any group. Ask if you can amp it up!

Or bring a resonator or banjo uke. : )
 

donboody

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Seeing a lot of banjo uke suggestions. I was really excited to get my banjo uke because I thought it was just going to be like playing ukulele only with a cool sound.

The reality is that it was very different from playing ukulele due to the more narrow neck and higher action. Not too high, for a banjo. But different enough that I feel like I’m playing a different instrument. There is a learning curve.
 
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Jerryc41

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Seeing a lot of banjo uke suggestions. I was really excited to get my banjo uke because I thought it was just going to be like playing ukulele only with a cool sound.

The reality is that it was very different from playing ukulele due to the more narrow neck and higher action. Not too high, for a banjo. But different enough that I feel like I’m playing a different instrument. There is a learning curve.

It sounds like that needs some adjustment. It doesn't have to be high.