Feb 02

Let’s play some Blues

In a repressed society, artists fulfil a sense of harking back to instant gratification, or immediate expression, by doing things that function on the edge of society, or outside of what is conventionally accepted.
―Bat for Lashes
Instant gratification is like instant coffee, only it won’t keep you up all night.
―Jarod Kintz

The importance of instant gratification must never be underestimated, even as we shun the pitfalls. As a guitar student, I know I “both impressed and vexed” my teacher by practicing, and to a fair degree learning material he thought a year or more down the road, instead of what he assigned me (he told me so in so many words). As a guitar teacher in a music store there was also an economically practical reason to get kids “playing something” as quickly as possible, namely to keep them coming back every week, and their parents smiling. This week’s ukulele lesson will apply some of the approaches I came up with way back then, while hitting today’s (Ontario, Canada’s) curriculum expectations for the age group. 

Today they’ll hear some Blues, play some Blues and with any luck begin to feel their own Blues… in 12 bar cycles of 4/4 time! 

Musical content

I’ll use technology—the ‘TuxUkulele’ track introduced last lesson [video]— to walk them through counting and time signature. They’re already good at the counting part and today I’ll teach a 4/4 conducting pattern, showing patterns of other time signatures in the process. 

Image, conducting patternImage, conducting patternImage, conducting pattern

Conducting Patterns
3:4     4:4     6:8

We don’t have computers with our ukes at present, and I won’t subject them to a lecture with a software demo. I’ll always start with a hello and a review and teaser, but then we’ll get the instruments out and begin strumming and playing notes. 

I’m walking back one step from last week. My goal for today is to do a blues “vamp” on the Bb chord, and a “lick” (also “riff” and yes, “motif”) with a triplet feel over top of it.

With ukes in hand…

  1. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach vamp… with and without “swing feel”
    image, notation and tab for lessonimage, notation and tab for lesson
  2. Teach lick… Swing feel makes no difference. Why? Bends and slides cool, ambiguous major/minor 3rd
    image, notation and tab for lessonimage, notation and tab for lesson
  3. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach scale and fingering…
    Hand position… keep thumb behind, hand cupped; hammer on
    “Blues Major” and “Pentatonic Major” are different… how?

    image, notation and tab for lesson

    image, notation and tab for lesson

  4. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach scale and fingering…
    Hand position… keep thumb behind, hand cupped, pinky hovers over frets
    “Blues Minor” and “Pentatonic Minor” are different… how?

    image, notation and tab for lesson

    image, notation and tab for lesson

Those are nearby, convenient Bb major and minor pentatonic scale patterns that form a perfect segue into ‘TuxUkulele.’

On the SMART board

(keep this short, unless everyone has a computer with TuxGuitar on it)

  1. Launch TuxGuitar, then open ukelele template
  2. Add swing; tempo <= 60; key Bb 
    • Opportunity to show conducting pattern  
  3. Show scale; play 1st position pattern (2 notes/string) for and with the learners 
  4. Show notes;
  5. Show chord symbols;
    • Opportunity to use conducting pattern  
  6. Repeat for lick (if time and engagement allow)

Back in the real world

  1. turn off software (or use purely as metronome)
  2. listening time
    • Robert Johnson Crossroad Blues [Show lyrics]
    • Charlie Patton 34 Blues [Show lyrics]
    • Howlin’ Wolf Killing Floor [Show lyrics] Is this still “swing feel?” (“straight 8ths”)
  3. Identify lyric pattern, 2+1 form
  4. play, student conductors, etc.
  5. Easy Tux Blues, (using tritone relationship) [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file]



How to read music – Tim Hansen [TEDEd Lesson]


Jan 14

The Blues and human dignity

Samburu Women, Kenya, 1985 (Gluckstein)Dignity and respect. Self-esteem, “worthy” of being treated well, honoured for contributing fully. How can we convey those things? How can we teach them? Is there an opportunity here for a picture that’s worth a thousand words?

I’ll attempt to walk the class through a visual encounter with dignity, the role of the Blues before and after emancipation, the Robert Johnson “Crossroads” legend … and write some Blues. Musically, we’ll reinforce our counting, continue driving home the 12-bar form, figure out I-IV-V in additional keys. We’ll master some new chords—and write some Blues around the 2+1 structure of a traditional Blues lyric.

I’ll ask what they already know about dignity, and whether the people in photos have it … how do they know?

: Being treated with respect, regardless of the situation, and having a sense of self-esteem e.g., having a sense of self-worth; being accepted as one is, regardless of age, health status, etc.; being appreciated for life accomplishments; being respected for continuing role and contributions to family, friends, community and society; being treated as a worthy human being and a full member of society.

Samburu women 1986
The last image I’ll show is Robert Johnson. What’s he wearing, how’s he sitting, what’s he got to be so proud of? What if the suit, hat, guitar and a few more clothes—enough to fill one suitcase—are all he owns, and he carries it by bus and hitchhiking from town to town along dirt roads?

We’ll stand and do some “dignity awareness studies.” We’ve already beat our chests with the swing video; this will be introduced in similar fashion. These can be posturing and funny at the start (it’s likely somewhat related to rock star posing) but I need to bring back seriousness and wrap it up … ultimately the point is to try to feel increased confidence and self worth associated with feeling dignity and recognizing that of others.

But wait, there’s one more association to make. I’ll promise to tell them the Legend of the Crossroads after a movie clip. We’ll watch the first 3:20 of Does it Swing? An Introduction to Swing Jazz for Young People (Part 1), to where it talks about slavery and the blues. (I’ll stop it before Basin Street Blues which will watch if there’s time at the end, and learn next visit.) We’ll reflect on that briefly and then take out the ukuleles to learn some Robert Johnson tunes.

Robert Johnson and the Crossroads Blues

The learners will…

  • Hear Cross Road Blues [or this one] and the Robert Johnson legend. [Here’s a movie trailer.]
    • Lyrics
    • Who’s Willie Brown?
      [Trigger alert: Willie was lynched by a white mob in the Omaha Race Riots of 1919.]
  • Learn the chords F Bb & C and joining Blues lick (these are the chords for Sweet Home Chicago and Ramblin’ On My Mind) and Eb (for Crossroad Blues and Come On in My Kitchen).
    1. Come On in My Kitchen (Compare with Stones’ You Got To Move)
    2. Sweet Home Chicago
    3. Ramblin’ On My Mind
  • Identify the 2 + 1 pattern of Blues lyric.
  • Perform call and response style imitation and improvisation


Tux Guitar files/chord diagrams, lesson sundries. Bb Blues for ukulele

  • How to set up TuxGuitar as TuxUkulele
    360p Video  or   720p Video
  • Full chart [TuxGuitar] [PDF]
  • Just standard notation [PDF]
  • Just tab [PDF]

For more links and resources please see this concept map

Unit Concept Map

Ontario Curriculum connections, content, rationale, resources
Please see this concept map


DIGNITY for the Seventh Generation Coming

Dana Gluckstein, Photographer & Activist [Museum Collection]
See also: Archbishop Desmond Tutu on “Dignity”

Complete Recordings

Robert Johnson – The King of Delta Blues

    1. Kind Hearted Woman Blues
    2. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom
    3. Sweet Home Chicago
    4. Ramblin’ On My Mind
    5. When You Got a Good Friend
    6. Come On in My Kitchen Compare: Stones’ You Gotta Move
    7. Terraplane Blues
    8. Phonograph Blues
    9. 32-20 Blues
    10. They’re Red Hot
    11. Dead Shrimp Blues
    12. Cross Road Blues
    13. Walkin’ Blues
    14. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
    15. Preachin’ Blues
    16. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day
    17. Stones in My Passway
    18. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man
    19. From Four Till Late
    20. Hellhound on My Trail
    21. Little Queen of Spades
    22. Malted Milk
    23. Drunken Hearted Man
    24. Me and the Devil Blues
    25. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
    26. Traveling Riverside Blues
    27. Honeymoon Blues
    28. Love In Vain Blues
    29. Kind Hearted Woman Blues
    30. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom
    31. Sweet Home Chicago
    32. Ramblin’ On My Mind
    33. When You Got a Good Friend
    34. Come On in My Kitchen Compare: Stones’ You Gotta Move
    35. Terraplane Blues
    36. Phonograph Blues
    37. 32-20 Blues
    38. They’re Red Hot
    39. Dead Shrimp Blues
    40. Cross Road Blues
    41. Walkin’ Blues
    42. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
    43. Preachin’ Blues
    44. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day
    45. Stones in My Passway
    46. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man
    47. From Four Till Late
    48. Hellhound on My Trail
    49. Little Queen of Spades
    50. Malted Milk
    51. Drunken Hearted Man
    52. Me and the Devil Blues
    53. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
    54. Traveling Riverside Blues
    55. Honeymoon Blues
    56. Love In Vain Blues
    57. Milkcow’s Calf Blues




Nov 24

What makes “social learning” authentic?

Graphic. Social learning theory inside an equilateral triangle. Arrows imply interaction between the three points, which are labelled ‘modeled behaviour,’ ‘innate person,’ and ‘learning environment.’Educators everywhere agree that learning is social, but what does that mean—what does it look like? To a large degree it means we can learn by watching and emulating others who already do the things we wish to learn and have in some way demonstrated mastery. It also means we can learn from others at and around our own level—in fact there’s substantial evidence that we need this element of peer-to-peer engagement. It’s my especially good fortune, and not a day in my life has passed that I haven’t felt grateful, to have been born with at least some degree of musical talent, raised in a household that valued it, located in a time and community that enabled it (middle-class Bethlehem, PA, 1960s). So my learning, especially early on, has largely been situated amongst family and friends who also play and love music. The social aspect always looked a lot like hanging out with good friends figuring out parts we held in high regard, jamming our own music and other people’s—or “busting some licks.”

[learning music] …always looked a lot like hanging out with good friends figuring out parts, jamming our own music and other people’s …“busting some licks”

In every topic there’s also a vital social element in agreeing upon the criteria that make up what we call a “good,” “better,” or even a “magnificent” performance. When it comes to curriculum-based planning and performance criteria, I’ve again been thankful my main teaching field is music. While the sequencing and relative importance of day-to-day content is widely open to creative license, people generally agree on what sounds “good.” As yet another bonus, to a large degree we can explain what we’re thinking and doing (or not) when it sounds good.

The short video below is a music lesson I learned in the early 80s from my friend Reggie Evans, who was also my room-mate and, as he is to this day, a superb musician and songwriter. His main instrument is the drum kit, and one of the performance criteria by which I choose the word “superb” is his sense of meter. This means you can hear and feel the evenness of his beat, even in the parts (subdivisions) of each beat when he plays, and he doesn’t speed up or slow down the tempo (unless he wants to—in which case listeners remain convinced he’s in control the whole time). Reg wanted me to play a simple three-note motif on a 4-track cassette demo of an idea he had. We both expected it to take 2 or 3 minutes. But then he told me I was playing it wrong. We didn’t have a woodshed but we had a back deck.

The first image below is the funky lick, after which I’ve transcribed how Reg was able to illustrate his thinking about beats, and I was able to transfer that “picture” from drum sticks (or hands) to guitar pick. This lesson was among the most important anyone ever gave me when I was “coming up” as a musician. Why? Because it solved a problem I was having at the time and I’ve been able to apply it, in both teaching and learning, over and over since, in multiple contexts.

music and text describing what to do.
“Melody” works best with Firefox. MIDI requires plugin

Sometimes among aspiring musicians informal social learning—especially any in which the the word “wrong” is said out loud—looks a lot like an argument. When it comes to interpreting a passage of 16th notes, bands have probably split over far less! Fortunately Reg just wanted to hear the part played well, and I just wanted to be the one to play it. That’s called “intrinsic motivation.”

more music and text describing what to do.
“Handclap” works best with Firefox. MIDI requires plugin



Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Thickening the learning situation

…or, “practising what I preach.” This is the long-overdue first instalment of blog-post metaknowledge. My intention is to develop something analogous to “the making of” chapter on your favourite DVD. It sounds like a project that needs a database and template, but doing it manually will give me great insight on what will go into a database.

The video has been updated since publishing, links and link info added, and some sentences have been edited for clarity.


Mar 31

When the Diddlies overstay their welcome

or… staving off Pull-off Syndrome

I created this article using My VexFlow, and it appears here in an embedded iFrame. “My VexFlow lets you publish content with beautiful music notation, guitar tablature, and chord diagrams, without the need for special tools. Just type away! ”


Further discovery

My VexFlow lets you publish content with beautiful music notation, guitar tablature, and chord diagrams, without the need for special tools. Just type away!