In a ukulele group there is always a lot of debate about how to do a particular song. Some people think that imitating the original version is the only way to go, while others have their favourite cover version that they like better. Personally, I think that there is no right or wrong way to do a song, but as so many ukulele groups use identical song books and perform the same songs, I believe that a group should do it’s own arrangements. If everyone did things the same way it would be a very boring world.
Coming from a visual art background, I have learnt that it is more creative to develop your own individual form of self-expression. If you painted like Picasso or Monet it would hardly be your own take on the world. The same goes for performing songs. Unless you are a very good impersonator, nobody sounds the same vocally or has the same playing style as the original artist, so why try to replicate that version. Here is where a group needs to forget about the original and play around to find a way that enhances their own sound and gives some room for creativity.
A good example of this is The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s version of Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush. As a man, George Hinchcliffe has hardly the singing style of Kate Bush, yet he does a wonderful jazzy version of her song that suits his voice, uses the unique sound of the ukulele to full advantage and injects it with the personalities of the group’s members. It just shows that a great song allows so many possibilities for interpretation.
A song with a solo vocalist is also going to sound completely different when done by a large number of singers. If everyone sings the same melody together it could sound very monotonous and possibly messy, which will not add anything to the performance. This is where it pays to rearrange the vocals for a group. For instance, when The Langley Ukulele Ensemble did a ukulele take on Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl, the male ukulele players sang the main vocal together then combined in harmony with the female players. One member did a ukulele solo, while the others strummed and picked the rhythm. Their performance has great clarity and is very appealing. The arrangement makes the most of the large number of performers and enhances their particular sound.
So experiment with a song. Change it to suit the particular voices in the group, whether male of female. This can include altering the key and tempo, as well as introducing various harmonies. With the ukuleles you can change the rhythm patterns or do combinations of compatible strums, and create fingerpicking parts. The ukulele is never going to sound the same as a guitar so work with its particular feel good tone. Don’t be afraid to leave out solos meant for guitar, or if there is a member who feels confident with these, they can do a ukulele solo. The possibilities are endless.
Of course as you gain experience it becomes easier to do your own arrangements. You can start with something simple, like tempo, whether slowing a song down or speeding it up. The main thing is to have an open mind and a willingness to give it a go. If you have trouble, get together with someone else in the group. Two heads are better than one.
Don’t be stuck in a rut or a slave to convention. Try to be as innovative as you can and stamp a song with your group’s unique personality. It will be that much more enjoyable to play and your audience will thank you.