The Ukulele and Bluegrass

by | 29 Aug, 2019

Mike from South Australia writes:

Dear Ozzie: I love to be surrounded by all sorts of musos that enjoy being in a bluegrass jam. A number of times there are mando, guitar, fiddle and banjo players in the jam circle that are also accompanied by gleeful ukulele players. Ozzie, should we unconditionally love our bluegrass loving ukulele brothers and sisters for who they are and what they play, or should we be quietly trying to encourage them to abandon their Hawaiian strings, get a mando, or God forbid, get a Martin D-18 or D-28?

Ozzie J Picker responds:

Hey Mike, that’s a really good question, and you are not alone in posing it. The short answer is to encourage the uke players to start playing bluegrass on bluegrass instruments. But that’s challenging, almost certainly because many uke players don’t really comprehend bluegrass and very few can play it on ‘grass instruments. The ukulele is a lovely little box, and its role in folk and jazz in the early years of the 20th century can’t be denied. But most uke players today have no idea of that pre-war history, or the tunes and songs, or of the ‘proper’ way that uke can be played with the right hand. The uke never played any part in the evolution of bluegrass, and the masters in the 40s and 50s who crafted the genre would never have abided the presence of a uke in the music. To be brutally honest, a uke player in the presence of bluegrass pickers is like a pumpkin in a pickle patch. You might instead encourage the uke players to specialise in the barbershop quartet approach, rather than trying to compete with bluegrass pickers. Quartet vocalists can deliver great harmonies somewhat similar to those old gospel song harmonies that the early guitarists liked to serve up. Bill and Charlie Monroe’s early (pre-war) material featured some of those ‘sacred songs’ and the instrumentation was minimal. It was all about the voices.
All of this advice may be useless if your local uke players just like getting into the jam because they just like… getting into jams. It makes them feel, as you say, gleeful. So if you want your grass genuine and uncompromised, you might have to find a jamming spot where your digital ‘uke detector’ cannot locate one lurking locally.

This column is dedicated to every Australian bluegrass musician who wants to improve his or her craft – and live to play another day. Ozzie J Picker is an Australian who has enjoyed more than 50 years of playing and singing bluegrass, as well as studying the long history of its roots. Ask him anything…