This Is What Distinguishes The Guitar & Ukulele
I’m in a polyamorous relationship with my instruments. My ukulele dominates my Tuesdays and Wednesdays while my guitar has my attention for the rest of the week. Sometimes I treat them to a box of chocolates, or in musical parlance, gear.
I’m kidding about all of this, except for the last part. I changed my strings on my guitar back to thick metal ones because I missed the sound of copper. My fingers cry in pain and have deep calluses, but cela vaut la peine. I never treated my ukulele to such a gift, maybe they’re jealous of my guitar?
Regardless of how my uke feels, we collectively agree that we’re all in this together. Though my uke gets jealous of my guitar whenever I play it. Sometimes I just need a fuller sound, you know?
Okay, my dumb ranting has gone on long enough.
I actually clicked the “Write” button because today I want to point out some observations I had on my instruments.
Playing the ukulele has given me the benefit of being more comfortable with barring strings. Barring strings is what it sounds like: I hold the same finger on multiple strings of the fretboard.
There are various use cases for barring strings. Maybe you’re playing an F#-major chord (pronounced “F-sharp”) and you want to “arpegge” it, which is nothing more than playing individual notes within that chord. If your guitar is tuned in standard tuning, aka open-E tuning, then you’re going to need to bar that chord. You’re also going to need to bar all six strings on an individual fret.
To give you an idea of what this looks like, consult the pictures below.
In Western music theory, chords like F#-major are made up of “triads,” or chords that contain three notes on F#’s major scale. The F-sharp-major triad contains three notes: F-sharp, B-flat, and C-sharp. A triad on the major scale is made up of the first, third, and fifth notes of that scale. On the major scale of any note, whether it’s F-sharp or A or any of the twelve tones, the major scale goes from the root note (in our case F#), to a whole-step (two tones above), to a whole-step (to tones above), to a half-step (one tone above), to a whole-step (two tones above). I stopped at the fifth note because this is what we’re dealing with.
To make it easier, however, I wrote below what the F-major scale looks like. I wrote down all twelve tones of the Chromatic scale which comprises the twelve notes we use in Western music. I un-italicized the notes that are in the F-sharp-major scale. The notes that are both un-italicized and bolded are the three notes that make up the F-sharp-major triad: F-sharp, B-flat, and C-sharp. Notice that what’s below aligns with the preceding paragraph: One whole step from F-sharp is G-sharp, and so on and so forth.
F-sharp, G, G-sharp, A, B-flat, B, C, C-sharp, D, E-flat, E, F, back to F-sharp
What’s interesting about the acoustic guitar is that there are six strings. So if you’re playing a chord like the F# bar chord, which contains all six strings, you are playing three additional notes to the triad of F#. This is actually, from my ear at least, what makes the acoustic guitar’s signature “full” sound: Additional notes in tune provide more harmony. Yes, the size difference between the ukulele and the guitar is there in providing a “fuller” sound. However, if I were to play the F-sharp triad alone, without any harmony notes, it would sound empty for what I’m expecting an acoustic guitar to sound like.
Of course, the only three notes that are being played on an F-sharp bar chord are the three triad notes. But what makes the sound full is that these three notes are repeated in thicker and thinner strings. An F-sharp on my bottom string sounds completely different from an F-sharp on my top string. But in harmony, along with the other harmonized notes in this chord, they sound fucking fantastic.
So this is why we bar chords. Take a chord of three notes and slap three additional harmony notes on it. It’s the difference between a paper-thin White Castle patty and a steakhouse burger.
Also, arpegging/arpeggiating an instrument is remarkably less boring if you’re playing a harmonized triad like an F-sharp bar chord than the sole three notes of F-sharp.
You’re probably wondering then, what about my ukulele?
My ukulele has four strings, so most chords still have one additional harmony note in them. What’s cool though is that, like the guitar, there are different ways to play the same chord and those different ways have various harmonies. Take a G-major chord on my uke as a case this time.
In the pictures below, I show you two variations of playing a G-major chord. Keep in mind that a G-major triad is G, B, and D. The first one is an “open” chord, or a chord on a lute instrument that is not barred. I have my fingers on individual strings without having to bar multiple strings. The second demonstration is a G-major bar chord, where I bar the entire second fret of my uke and place two fingers on individual notes. If you play them side by side, they sound the same overall but there’s a slight difference: The open chord is playing two G notes while the bar chord is playing two B notes.
Music is freaking amazing. The fact that there are so many variations to playing the same chord, with molecular nuances in the sound, makes me more motivated than ever to keep going.
The more I learn, the less likely I will stop.