Welcome back to this short primer on how to start learning the chord changes to any song by playing and singing the bass lines. This is a terrific exercise to do before you start playing the full chords on the ‘ukulele. I try to do it for every song I learn. This is helpful because the root might be completely absent from the chord when we play jazz chords with higher extensions (colour notes) like 9, 11, and 13. In order to make sense of what we hear on the ukulele, we need to anchor ourselves with the root. And if we aren’t playing the root on the ukulele, we still need to hear it in our heads.
Moreover, each chord shape on a ukulele corresponds to more than one chord. For example, the shape for CMaj7 is the same as for Am9. So knowing the bass note is the only way to correctly identify the harmonic motion as the chords go by, even if there is no bass playing at the time. Once again, we need to be able to hear that root in our head.
Making the most of ukulele voicings
Unlike a guitar, which can play bass notes on the bottom two strings, with an ukulele it’s not always convenient to find a root position voicing, so our lowest note played won’t always be the root of the chord. On a side note, a chord voicing refers to the way in which we arrange the notes in a chord, as well as the notes we choose to include in the chord. Some notes are ‘expendable’ while others are not.
If you’ve checked out the post on “What is a major 2-5-1” then you saw me play a version of Dm7-G7-Cmaj7 that had the root on the lowest note of each voicing. You probably noticed the big leaps I had to make to play those inversions, moving from fret 7 to fret 1 to get from Dm7 to G7. If you’re trying to use your uke to work through a song or to comp for yourself, it’s not always going to be convenient or even possible to do this. Also, the chords sound disconnected, because I’m not getting nice voice leading on the top string of the ukulele. A third problem with this approach is that, depending on what key you’re playing in, you may find yourself reaching into the highest parts of the neck, running out of fret room in the process.
The fact is, sometimes the root won’t even be part of the chord at all when you’re playing jazz voicings with higher extensions (i.e. 9, 11, 13 etc). Here’s an example of a ii-V-I sequence in D. The chords are Em7 to A7 to D Maj7.
Let’s focus on the A7 chord. Looking at the chord diagram for A7, from the left to the right, the notes are A, E, G, C#. With respect to the root (A) of the chord, these notes are: A=root, E=5th, G=7th, C#=3rd,
Now I’d like you to play the same sequence with a different dominant chord in the middle, the A9 chord instead of the A7:
Compare the two different voicings. In this A9 voicing, the root of the A9 chord is replaced by the note B, which is the 9th (a whole tone above A). So now from left to right we have: B=9th, E=5th, G=7th, C#=3rd. Even though you don’t hear the root anymore, don’t worry, because the bassist (or someone else) will be playing it.