Rag That Uke!
By John Kavanagh
The intoxicating rhythms of ragtime lend themselves well to the ukulele. Whether you're a solo performer, half of a duo, or part of a larger group, rags new and old are within your reach
What Is Ragtime, Really?
When most of us think of ragtime music we think of Scott Joplin’s piano rags and the music of his generation (ten years either side of 1900, say). But the basic style is older than that and there’s good reason to think that it started with guitar and banjo music that wasn’t written down or recorded. In other words, the early ragtime pianists were likely imitating a style that had already been around for a while.
This style was almost certainly first played by people from West Africa who were brought to the United States as slave labour and were introduced there to European melodies and instruments (Joplin’s ancestors had been slaves and he studied music with a German piano teacher). Ragtime-and jazz, which came later-is essentially European melody and harmony salted with rhythms from West Africa. It’s one of the great accidents of world music that these styles were similar enough to blend easily.
The characteristic ragtime sound is a syncopated melody played against a straight, (usually) two-beat, accompaniment. The basic “gimmick” is this: displace a few melody notes by half a beat so that they fall between the beats of the accompaniment and voilà, you’re playing in “ragged” time!
Playing Ragtime Ukulele
Around the same time Joplin was writing rags like The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, banjo virtuosos like Vess Ossman and Fred van Eps were recording ragtime tunes. In fact, their banjo recordings pre-date early piano or ensemble recordings of ragtime. The “classic banjo” style of Ossman and van Eps-fingerstyle playing on five gut strings-has a lot in common with modern ukulele techniques so it's not surprising that many banjo rags work well on the uke. The tuning and range is similar to ours, so with some transposing much of their music is available to us (one place to look for tunes is www.classicbanjo.com; I first learned two of my current favourites, Honolulu Cakewalk and Kaloola, from this site).
Let’s start with a simple melody like this:
This could almost be part of a march by Strauss or Sousa, or maybe even a little dance piece by Mendelssohn. If we shift a few notes half a beat we have the beginning of a syncopated or “ragged” tune:
The second version has that attractive off-kilter sound which Joplin describes as “weird and intoxicating” in his 1908 publication School of Ragtime. In the same publication Joplin makes the important point that “ragtime should never be played fast.”
The piano rags follow the structure of 19th-century popular dance or march music; there are usually four different strains in the pattern AABBACCDD. My favourite piano rag recordings are those of Joshua Rifkin or John Arpin. The closest we can come to hearing what the unwritten pre-piano ragtime sounded like is probably in the guitar styles of blues artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Blake, or the Reverend Gary Davis.
What About Ragtime for My Uke Group?
It’s easier to play ragtime music in a group-even duo will do-because you don’t have to supply the basic beat and the cross-beat melody at the same time on a single instrument. There’s several ways to approach arranging ragtime for ensemble.
The best starting place with a uke group is probably to find or make some lead sheets (a printed score with a basic single-note melody line and chord symbols). A lot of rag tunes are available this way, or with piano accompaniments, in arrangements for flute, mandolin, violin or other melody instruments. A good thing to remember is that published flute and recorder arrangements usually work on the uke without too much adjusting, because middle C is the lowest note, the same as on a re-entrant C-tuned uke. One advantage of standard notation over tablature is that you can usually use the same music for either tuning. (Tuning questions? Click here. -- Ed.)
I’m providing you here with an excerpt from The Entertainer, more or less as I remember doing it in the 1970s with Chalmers Doane’s “A” group:
(Note: this is only the first two strains. Like most rags, the complete version has two sections or strains, then a repeat of the first strain, and then two contrasting strains in another key. In this excerpt we’re only doing AABBA.)
The melody is important and everyone in the group should learn it if they can. Two ukes could play it with one providing the chords. Although the uke can’t really provide a bass line, you can pick a low note on the beat and strum off the beat to give a steady two-beat rhythm for the melody to play against.
If you have a bass instrument-string bass, piano, or guitar-the chording ukes can mostly provide the off-beat, which will sound great. Make sure everyone can hear the melody! It can be a problem if there are only a few accomplished enough-or brave enough-to play the tune. Two lead ukes and sixteen rhythm players is not a balanced ensemble!
If there are enough good players, it’s nice to play in harmony at least part of the time. I’ve written a basic second part to go with the lead. If you have a bass, one or two chording ukes, and three or four ukes on the harmony part in a group of twenty it would balance out well:
It’s also a good idea to read from a score so that harmony players can see not only their part but also the melody part and the chords. It’s convenient for sharing music stands and it helps everyone stay, literally, on the same page.
You can write a bass line for the bass player if they can read, or if they learn best by ear have them listen to a piano recording to get a sense of the characteristic ragtime sound. Even though ragtime is composed music (as opposed to improvised music), it’s well on the way to becoming part of a folk tradition as well; rearrangements have been common from the beginning. In other words, have fun and be creative in your arrangements of ragtime melodies.
The above arrangement of The Entertainer sounds something like this.
Finally, here’s a link to a more ambitious, solo-style arrangement by Al Wood for you and/or your more advanced students: Link (PDF).
Solos with Accompaniment
Let’s take another another Joplin composition, Maple Leaf Rag, a hugely popular piano solo published in 1899 that made Joplin’s reputation and, you could argue, changed popular music forever. We’ll have a look at three versions of the piece: one by Al Wood, one by me, and one by Brian Heffernan. Each arrangement demonstrates a different way of adapting a ragtime tune to the uke.
First up is Al (“Ukulele Hunt”) Wood’s arrangement. Al has a ragtime e-book for sale, which I’d recommend. The tabs are for re-entrant C-tuned uke and use a lot of cross-stringing. The sound samples are simple midi renderings of the melody, which is what it’s mostly about. I’d like to hear a guitar or keyboard, or a second uke and bass, to accompany what he’s got, and my main quibble with the book is he doesn’t always give chord symbols:
My own favourite way to play a rag is as a duet with guitar:
You can adapt the classic piano rags this way, with the guitar basically being the left hand of the piano (the “boom-chik” parts: bass line and offbeat chords) and the uke being the right hand (the syncopated melody):
This is what I did on my CD Parlour Music. I started with the piano sheet music, but I tried to do some chording and strumming effects to make ukulele music out of it (which also meant transposing it to a ukulele-friendly key).
Brian (“The Fabulous Heftones”) Hefferan has a version of Maple Leaf Rag as well, with uke and bass accompaniment:
He uses the same basic approach as Al Woods’ fingerpicked, banjo-style version. It’s a smooth, driving sound similar to classic banjo and very natural on the uke. Brian’s a little freer with his interpretation, using the original melodies but adapting the accompaniment more and using a more flexible right hand. His versions are probably more idiomatic to the uke, and he’s using re-entrant tuning. I use low 4th, which means I don’t have to alter the original melody as much, but I can’t do the cross-string effects.
Now, Go Forth and Rag
Ragtime is an attractive, perennial style that's well-suited to the ukulele. As you can see, there are plenty of ways to arrange ragtime music for ukulele. Solo, duo, small combo, or large ensemble, it’s up to you. Just remember: it’s the tension between syncopated melody and straight accompaniment that makes ragtime work.
By listening to recordings and players on other instruments, we can get that “ragged” sound in our ears, and with a little woodshedding make it part of our own musical personality. It’s another door to open, and another path to follow
A professional multi-instrumentalist based in Kentville, Nova Scotia, John Kavanagh is a former member of the Halifax "A" Ukulele Ensemble. He has a great CD called Parlour Music: Ragtime & Classical duets for uke and guitar. Find out more athttp://ezfolk.com/audio/John_Kavanagh.