Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ukulele Hymns for Congregational Worship

Scott Wells asked me about my plan to accompany congregational singing on the ukulele this summer.  This was a timely request as I am collecting the likely musical suspects today so I can start to get them ready for the Sundays I am in the pulpit.  As of now I am scheduled to preach four Sundays in July and August.  Last year I also came in and played for one more Sunday solely as "Church Musician".  This may or may not happen again, but either way, I think I have a good list to choose from.

First, however, there must be a bit of explanation as to how I put this list together.  The primary concern, honestly, has little to do with the instrument and more to do with the folks who will be singing with me.  The fact is, many aspects of our Burbanian culture point toward musical performance by a professional, rather than musical participation.  I have written about this elsewhere at BP.   We are part of a professionalized culture.  In hymnody this makes us uncomfortable, often, with a) singing in general and b) singing without the words in front of us.  Singing together in public can make some Burbanians tense. Most of our congregations are to some extent (or entirely) Burbanian.  If your congregation has many rural folks or hipsters (I grew up with rural hipsters) then this is less of a problem. 

So...why not just use a hymnal and play along to that?  The problem with having hymnals is that they were written with the organ and the piano in mind.  This brings us to our second concern.  The uke is a stringed folk instrument.  It can be used to play many of the same songs, but it goes about it differently.  The uke swings a bit more.  It puts gaps and pauses in different places.  In essence, the hymn becomes a "cover" of the more formal song they know.  Even though many covers are better than the original, it does create confusion at first.   For example, a couple of times last year I found that the congregation, rather than following the music being played, followed the music in the book and I had to catch up or slow down.  It works, I guess, but the uke makes a lousy organ.

What to do?

Good question.  First, you make sure your introductory sermon is about Reverend Doctor Adam Tierney-Eliot's firm belief that worship is a folk art.  It is, even with a paid choir and music director.  People (even in the most dry and sleepy congregations) are there to experience and participate in worship.  They are not an audience.  That done, here is the method I developed over last summer and during this year...

A) Introduce the hymn
B) Play and sing the first verse alone (even if you have a hymnal or printed words)
C) Start again now that folks have a sense of the rhythm with the first verse
D) Any tips you can give the first few times you sing a hymn are a good idea--like shouting out the line before singing it (Arlo Guthrie calls this the "Pete way")

OK, Now the Hymns

I have played all of these at some point or other.  About 90% of them have seen action on the uke either at church or at the nursing home.  My experience with them may not be the same as yours, though, so feel free to disagree, modify your own list, etc...

Hymns That You May Need Printed Words For
(Still sing it through and use the "Pete Way" when you can)

Abide With Me
All Things Bright and Beautiful
Amazing Grace
Be Thou My Vision (Yeah, I know...but you don't have to do the bad guitar version)
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing (Think Bluegrass...which could be said for many of these)
For All the Saints
Holy, Holy, Holy (This one is awesome using a finger-picking style, be sure to play around with it)
Rock Of Ages
Take My Hand, Precious Lord (title sometimes reversed) (This can also be put in the group below)

Full on Noteless Folk Way
Were You There? (This sounds very different--and much, much better--on the uke)
Oh Freedom! (A good one to start with because people know it)
This Land is Your Land (OK, more "folk" than "hymn" but good to break-in a Burbanian church)
I'll Fly Away
Just a Closer Walk With Thee

Use At Your Own Risk (and yes, I may risk at least one of these this summer)
Joyful, Joyful
Onward Christian Soldiers (Forward Through the Ages)
We Gather Together
All Creatures of Our God and King

Three for the Nursing Home and Some Congregations
I Love to Tell the Story
In the Garden
What a Friend We Have in Jesus

Ok, my final advice is--after a while--to use some of these that your church doesn't know.  You will want to introduce them as "Special Music" first.  I am intrigued by "I'll Fly Away" in this respect.  My church does not know it, but the chorus isn't hard and people could chime in when they feel comfortable...

If you have further questions, feel free to check out my "ukulele" posts under "Labels".  You will find some info about the different types of ukes and a bit on the whole "folk worship" thing.


  1. Knowing naught about playing the ukulele, I wonder if those hymns with guitar chord markings can be adapted?

  2. Yes they can. Many of the hymn chords I use come out of various Hal Leonard publications and the web. They are usually made with guitar in mind I think many of these songs sound better on the uke and the change from the usual clergy-with-guitar thing is compelling to some. That said, the chord progressions are the same. Just the fingering is different.

  3. 'For the Beauty of the Earth" sounds good on the 'ukulele (easiest in F). Alas, I'm not good enough to play it in a Sunday service.

    There's some nice Hawai'ian himeni (that's "hymns" to us haoles) that I've never been brave enough to try with a congregation. Check out "`Ekolu Mea Nui" (there's even a music clip on this Web page so you can learn it):

  4. For guitar players learning ukulele: the four strings of a ukulele are tuned like the bottom four strings of a guitar (except with one string tuned an octave higher than a guitar). It takes a little practice, but you can play ukulele chords as if it was a guitar with the top two strings missing. (That's the two lowest-pitched strings; E and B) If you play guitar by chords, it's REALLY easy to learn ukulele.

    I was so excited as a 6th grader when I figured that out for the first time!

  5. Marty, this is certainly true for the Baritone. The intervals between the strings are the same on the others but the key is different. That is, the chord forms are the same, but the chord it makes is a bit higher.

    You probably knew this, but I thought I would clarify for other readers anyway...

    Also by "bottom" I ssume you mean the high strings...

  6. ..>That would be Baritone Uke of course!