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Borrowing ukulele chords for "Isn't It A Pity?"


It's a well documented fact that George Harrison loved the ukulele. In the documentary Living in the Material World, Tom Petty tells the charming story of how George came over and gifted Petty with several ukuleles, which he apparently kept in the trunk of his car: "He opened his trunk and he had a lot of ukuleles in there, and I think he left four at my house. He said, 'Well, you never know when we might need them, because not everybody carries one around.'"

I decided to try my hand at the ukulele a few years ago, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the tuning of the four strings matches the tuning of the top four strings of a guitar that is capoed at the fifth fret. In other words, capo a guitar at the fifth fret, and the top four strings are G, C, E, and A, which is exactly how the ukulele is tuned. (The low G is an octave higher on the ukulele, but that's a minor quibble.)

With that in mind, I tried playing through several Beatles and Solo Beatles tunes on the ukulele, since I already knew the chord progressions on the guitar, and I discovered something about George's compositions: it's almost like his stuff was written with the ukulele in mind, or at least originally composed on the ukulele. Knowing his passion for the instrument, I wouldn't be surprised.

One such song is his epic tune (yes, I said "epic," the song is some seven minutes long) "Isn't It A Pity?", from his All Things Must Pass album. As a guitar piece, it looks somewhat daunting -- you see chords like C6/G, Cmaj7/G, Gdim, and the granddaddy of ugly chords, C#m7b5/G. Got that? C sharp ... minor ... seven ... flat five ... over a G in the bass.

Good luck.

On the ukulele, however, it's a breeze, and because the transposition takes you into the key of D (remember, guitar-capoed-at-the-fifth, G becomes D) there's the opportunity to work with the ukulele's open strings and simple two-and-three finger chords.

Now translate that back to the guitar (capoed at the fifth fret), and suddenly you've got chord voicings that match the original recording. Use a 12-string guitar, and it's even better.

The intro and first part of the verses utilize a D chord pattern (or, I guess, a G pattern if you're a ukulele player) with a chromatic descent on the G string (or the C string, again, if you're a uke person).

Capo up at the fifth, and try this (ukulele players, ignore the chord names and just focus on the fingerings):



The verse continues with a slight variation, using a D diminished chord and a fully open-stringed G6:



The last part of the verse structure mirrors the first part, with a few slight variations (the E9/D becomes a straightforward E7, the Gmaj7 becomes a standard G):



The chord voicings are easy, they sound accurate against the recorded version, and suddenly the whole song takes on a new life (which is saying something, for this particular song at least).

Want some homework? Do the same exercise of capoing at the fifth fret and transposing "Something." There's an entire world of possibilities there, but that's a subject for a future post.

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting! I'd always heard that George didn't get into ukulele until about ten years later, but who knows?
    As soon as I realised one could play fake ukulele (fakulele) with a capo'd guitar, I capitalized on it. Ruthlessly. 😁

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  2. Since I have those two extra bottom strings, I might as well use them, so I like to play it in drop D. The only real chord-shape addition is a second fret on the fifth string during the G6/D.

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