I really seemed to have made some progress recently. With the ukulele it is difficult to attribute causality because it is impossible to decide whether the specific thing I am doing resulted in the advancement or whether it was the string of specific things over time that did it.

Regardless my knowledge of the fret board has undergone a quantum leap.

And I suppose I could call it applicable knowledge. I have always had knowledge. Early on I made flash cards and I memorized the fret board. I knew what each string played at every fret. However, that knowledge didn’t translate into music for some reason.

Here’s what finally worked for me.

1. while I was waiting a half year for my Yorkshire tenor to arrive, I was stuck with only a re-entrant Kamaka (poor me!). So I got cozy with the first three strings. I decided to focus on the key of E because E is so easy on the uke and because I had avoided E with its four sharps. E turned out to be a great choice as well because E is the highest note on my 19 fretted ukes. So I practiced all the modes of E, from the C# aiolian on the first fret all the way to the D# Lokrian which ends on the 18th fret. Since all the modes consist of the same notes, you always know what note you’re playing. I would say the note as I played it and watch where my fingers were so that I could identify the location. I reinforced this by improvising tunes using the modes. While I did this, I also was practicing my pentatonic shapes, which are nothing more than modes in their own right since the tonic shape begins on the tonic degree of the scale whereas the dominant shape begins on the dominant degree.

2. When my Yorkshire tenor arrived I started to take advantage of its linear tuning to play the modes of E and the pentatonic shapes from the G string. The patterns are basically the same except you have to deviate from “home row” to borrow terminology from my high school typing class. For example, with re-entrant tuning your index finger stays rooted at the same fret as you move across the strings. When you play the same modes from the low G string, you have to move your index finger down a fret on the C string. What I just said applies to the Ionian mode. Other modes were just the opposite. In re-entrant tuning the index fingers moves up a fret on the C string for the Lokrian and Aiolian modes whereas home row is maintained in linear tuning. Regardless, you get the point; the linear modes were the same as the re-entrant modes with some very minor tweaks. Now with the two systems under my belt I could play the same thing but in different places. E.g., I could play the E Ionian from the 4th fret on the C string or the 9th on the G string (or the 16th fret on the C string). All this also applies to the linear pentatonic shapes.

3. At this point something just clicked and I am now playing all over the fret board with ease. Obviously, this is still a process and I am still memorizing notes and remembering that I need to zip down to the fret below the 17th fret marker to play a certain shape, but it is coming along. The take away point is that although my knowledge is still imperfect, I can now go to wherever I want on the fret board and play. Of course my discretion and decision-making is highly questionable, as is my ability to turn this wanking into music. But that’s a different topic.

* * * *

The nib I have had for my entire life recently stopped working. This is very distressing for me—as anyone who has knowledge of pens will surely understand. A writer and his nib build a very personal relationship. I have ordered a new nib and when it arrives I will continue on my quest to convert a bunch of blues licks which are written in particular keys into formulae which can be used for any key. Many of the licks incorporate notes outside of the blues scales. I have taken my lead from this and I have been improvising outside of the pentatonic shapes. For example, a favorite of mine is to start in the Ionian mode, move to the Lokrian and then jump into the tonic pentatonic shape. When you first land in the pentatonic shape there is a bit of tension in the sound, but it smooths out quickly as I move toward the E. With resolution all things are forgiven.

As far as chords are concerned I have been strumming and arpeggiating a certain sequence derived from the harmonic minor harmonization: B9, Cdim7, G+, Am, B7, Em. I can really fall into the groove and get lost in it for a while. It is one of the unsung benefits of using straps: you can sway with the beats as you stand and make it a whole body experience. Also, the resonance it very much improved when you aren’t smothering the sound board. Of course, I have no complaints in that department anyway, since I play a Kamaka or a custom uke. Those things just ring out forever.

Lastly, before I take a nap for work, I was struck on how much I would not be considered a good musician. A lot of times when people ask you if you can play, they expect you to mimic a song that everyone knows. For example, when I was visiting my brother and he happened to pick up his Les Paul, he played “Crazy Train.” That’s what people expect and that’s how they judge you. I don’t do that. I suppose I could do it with some practice. For instance, under the duress of my drunk neighbor’s request I played the opening to “Stairway to Heaven” to appease him, but I almost never do that. I can improvise all over the fret board, but people don’t appreciate that so much. It is just another example of how out of step I am with everything.