Japanese are world-class hobbyists. Go to any bookstore in Japan and there are rows upon rows of how-to books and magazines for nearly every amateur pursuit imaginable. An industry has been built around helping Japanese amateurs get really good at their craft. Music, of course, is a popular hobby and ukulele is no exception. In my opinion, these books are as good or better than anything that can be found in the US.
The last time I was in Japan I went to the bookstore Junkudo in Ikebukuro-ward and on the 9th floor lost myself in shelf after shelf of ukulele books. I came home with two: Ukulele Jazz (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) and Movie Music: Jazz Arrangements for Solo Ukulele by Hiroyuki “Tommy” Tominaga. In this post I’ll review the first.
Ukulele Jazz is a collection of 27 well-arranged tunes in both notation and tablature. Each tune has a page or two of written explanation in Japanese complete with fingering charts, but unless you read Japanese they won’t be of much help. However, if you’re an intermediate player you’ll have no problem working your way through the pieces. Author and Arranger Kiyoshi Kobayashi was trained as a classical guitarist so I find his chord inversions to be very logically laid out on the fretboard and the melodies always come out the better for that. You can hear me playing Satin Doll from this book on the UKULELEjapan.com website.
The book comes with a CD with each piece played in full. It’s helpful to listen to the CD track before starting work on the piece. Then, after you’ve gotten fairly adept at playing the piece, play along with it to get the nuances that you might have missed on your own. You can also go to YouTube and search for Lami Jeon, a young Korean woman, who has filmed herself playing many of these pieces. Watch her left hand as she plays to get tips on which fingers to use.
All the pieces in the book can be played using a flat pick, your thumb, or by finger picking. Kobayashi appears to use his thumb and fingers to pick and strum the uke. I seem to cycle between all three methods depending on what I’m playing and the sound I want to create.
If you’re not planning a trip to Japan anytime soon, you can find a link at UKULELEjapan which will take you to CDJapan where you can place an order in US dollars.
Yours in uke,
I'm an amateur ukulele player who happens to be fluent in Japanese. I hope that I can inspire you to learn more about the ukulele, Japan, or better yet, BOTH!