Whenever I start learning a new jazz standard, I try to listen to as many different versions of it as possible, including male and female vocal versions, and instrumental versions. I sing along to each version until I’ve got the melody, lyrics and structure internalized. Then I put away the recordings and start to work on the song on my own, trying out different tempos and finding the key that fits my voice.
At this point I like to play through the chords. In the jazz world, the chords for a song are usually referred to as the “changes” (or “chord changes”). The best and easiest way to start learning them is to play just the roots of each chord. It’s called a “root” because it is the foundation on which the chord is built. It is the lowest note in the chord, and it also gives the chord its letter name. So when you see the chord symbol “Dmin7”, the root is “D”. Usually, the bass plays the roots in a song (along with other notes that connect the roots to form an interesting bassline). If there is no bassist, the piano or guitar will usually play the roots. For the purpose of this exercise, you can play the roots on any instrument – a piano, a bass, a guitar, and yes, even an ‘ukulele! You just have to get used to hearing the bass notes played a couple of octaves higher. You’ll see an example in the video further below of how to do this.
For today’s example, I’ll be using the first half of the song “Look For The Silver Lining” by Bud De Sylva and Jerome Kern. This song is in the public domain, so I’m allowed to include the melody here. In case you want to follow along with me, I’m doing this song in the key of F. If you search online for the Real Book chart for this song, you’ll usually find it in Eb, but that key is too low for me to sing comfortably. Here are the first 16 bars of it:
Let me demonstrate how I’d approach this song focusing just on the roots to begin with. If you’re not yet comfortable locating notes on the fretboard, do a quick review of the lesson “Vocal warm ups on the first four frets“, which shows you were all the notes fall. In this video, first I’ll play the roots of the chords, then I’ll play the same section, playing the roots again while I sing the melody:
Of course, we wouldn’t think of this as playing a real bass line, because this isn’t what a bassist would play. Bassists are skilled at playing fluid lines that connect chords. And jazz bassists will play all sorts of interesting things to break up patterns and make their bass lines more melodically and rhythmically interesting, all the while keeping the pulse going.
But we’re not trying to be bassists! We’re trying to get the roots of the chords into our ears. This is fantastic training to start hearing patterns of chords that occur time and again in jazz standards such as 2-5-1’s and 1-6-2-5’s. I encourage you to try this with whatever songs you’re working on right now. Just play through the roots on their own, keeping time with a metronome if possible. Then sing through the song as you accompany yourself playing the roots. Make sure you really pay attention to those roots and how they work with the melody.
Once you’ve got the hang of this, we’ll start to train our ears to hear these roots as we start to play the chords. The reason this is so important on the ukulele, is that most of the time, the root of the chord is not going to be voiced as the lowest note, so you won’t hear it easily and its easy to loose track of the root motion if you’re playing without a bassist. Another challenge is that the same chord pattern can correspond to completely different chords. So the Bb6 chord is voiced identically to the Gm7 chord. You won’t know the difference unless you’re listening for the bass. And sometimes, the root note is not even in the ukulele voicing, because we’re trying to make room for more sophisticated harmony by adding 9ths, 11ths or 13ths. No matter what, you need to be able to hear that root motion in your head at all times, and this exercise is a fantastic way to do that.