Jolly Roger Arranging

Arranging for the Ukulele


You sure you wanna do this? It's gonna be hard!

This page is a work in progress and mostly advice from the tragedies I and others have created in the past. It should be a handy way to avoid repeating the same dumb mistakes I've already made many times.

If you'd like to debate any of these ideas, or if I've missed any important ideas, email me.


  • All of it is challenging and all of it will push you into being a better and smarter musician. It will also make you yell at your laptop and it will convince you all computer programmers are dolts.
  • I use Finale because it can do everything and I'm in this full time. It's expensive and probably NOT meant for the casual arranger. It took years to get good at it.
  • You should use MuseScore because it's great, it's free, it's constantly updated by a massive user group, and there are zillions of scores readily available for you to study.
  • A few people in the group use GuitarPro because Debbie uses it. It can be set to do a lot of stuff automatically, but this is a mixed blessing as far as I've seen.
  • There is other software out there, but you're on your own if you go that direction.

Your Brain:

  • I've been writing and arranging for about 30 years. Every single day, no matter how basic the song is I'm working on, I learn stuff. To pull this off, you'll need a pliable and adventurous mind and it will suck up lots of hours. If you'd rather be playing, then do that instead.
  • You will immediately find out that you don't know everything.
  • You need to be comfy not knowing everything and need to be willing to try to figureĀ  it out.
  • You will need to do lots of revising.
  • Just like learning to play, it's okay to be terrible and know nothing if you're willing to keep going.
  • And finally, there is NO RIGHT and NO WRONG in art. You need to make something that works for you. We have a handful of trained musicians who are quick to point out what they think is "wrong," but outside of typos, most of the time they're speaking from received wisdom that tends to stick music into a boring box. Igor Stravinsky was wrong when he wrote The Rite of Spring and it resulted in a riot on its premiere. This piece changed classical music forever. Don't be afraid to be like Igor.

Arranging for Large Group:

Most of this advice is specific to the Rocky Mountain Ukulele Orchestra, however it will be super handy if you are preparing an arrangement for any ukulele ensemble with three or more voices.

Basic checklist:

Download my current MuseScore Blank. It's not great, but it'll get you started.

  • Correct Stave Order:
  • It's probably best not to split up baritone and Low G groups as we typically only have 10 of each.
  • It's probably best to utilize percussion sparingly as it tends to drown out our beloved instrument.
  • Parts must include tablature. The conductor score does not need tabs, but I'm okay with them if it's easier.
  • Correct Order in the Score:
    • High G1
    • High G2, etc. (We've had up to six High G parts in the past)
    • Low G (Take advantage of the lower voicing by using chords and the 4th string with them.)
    • Baritone (Make sure to give them interesting things to play. They're good.)
    • Bass (The weirder you make this, the more likely the whole piece will fail.)
    • Any other instruments.
  • An EASY line?
    • Consider having a line for High G that is super easy for newer players. Perhaps keeping rhythm or helping with part of the chord.
  • Lyrics:
    • If there are lyrics, put them into the score. It helps.
  • Chords:
    • If you expect a chord to be played, there needs to be a little chord grid above it, especially if it is an unusual shape.
    • It's probably unnecessary to have a "chords" part as it will likely be eaten up by the sound in the full orchestra.
  • Keys:
    • Major keys you should probably stick to: F, C, G, D or A
    • Minor keys you should probably stick to: Gm, Dm, Am, Em
    • Transpose out of troublesome keys after you have the melody and chords done.
  • Sixteenth Notes:
    • Unless the tempo is slow, these have been the death of many pieces. Be a smart arranger and make them go away.
    • If you're trying to create a swing feeling, type in eighth notes and then leave a note about it. We'll try.
  • Ties:
    • Do you really need them?
    • What will happen if you eliminate the second note, or have it played. (It'll be fine either way probably.)
  • Rests:
    • Eliminate rests whenever possible. Add their value to the previous note. They're just visual noise.
  • Highest Fret:
    • Using notes above the 10th fret on string 1 will result in tragedy.
    • Using notes above the 8th fret on strings 2 and 3 is also a foolhardy plan.
  • Repeats:
    • Do not use repeats in large ensemble music.
  • Count-in Measure:
    • All songs must include a count-in Measure 0. Check your measure numbering. All measures must be numbered.
  • MP3s:
    • For the Conductor MP3, add a click track that clicks off quarter notes through the entire piece.
    • Make MP3s for each part, but only send Gary the full conductor's MP3. You will send the individual part MP3s only to those who request it.
  • The Computer Sounds Great, But Did You Play It?
    • Before you send your "final" to Gary, play through all of the parts or meet with somebody to help you.
    • Playability is usually the difference between more experienced arrangers and newer ones.

Other Thoughts You Should Consider:

  1. You should get good at arranging for solo and small groups first!
  2. If your piece doesn't play after two attempts by the full orchestra, it's likely you've done something crazy and I will pull it. It's not personal, it's about what we have time to finish.
  3. Know who you are writing for ... we're not the Berlin Philharmonic. If you want to write something intense, you're probably writing for a small ensemble. On the other hand, don't be confused about what the large group can do ... they're pretty good these days.
  4. You are writing an arrangement, not a transcription. You owe nothing to the original composer. Get the melody close, have the chords make sense, but for goodness sakes, you do not need to do "what they did on the album." Your job is to take the material and elevate it to a new and more interesting place. You're a chef adding your own spice and the spice of the ukulele to an old recipe. Make it yours.
  5. Rests are not your friend and they won't happen the way you think they will (probably). Our instrument rests automatically after a half note. Add the value of the rest to the previous note and make them go away. That's what our musicians will play anyway.
  6. The bass player is also our drummer typically. You make that part too hard, and you'll hear the rest of the orchestra struggling. Know what the bass is for and write appropriately for it. Most ukulele bands don't have a bass player at all, so consider this a luxury.
  7. Repeats ... please DON'T use them. We are in the process of moving to iPads and foot pedals. Those who stay on paper are quite capable of turning pages.
  8. Yes, your software handles MIDI, but do you have the musical knowledge to know how to fix the crazy things in those? You are far better off to type in the melody, add on the chords, and then YOU do the arrangement.
  9. Weird meters (ehem) ... those are (probably) for small ensembles. See #2 above.
  10. Your job is not to "teach" anything ... your job is to write something playable, creative and beautiful.
  11. Write in English and don't use archaic or obscure notation. I will make you clarify that stuff anyway, so no need to prove your wisdom. We already know you're a genius.
  12. Please think about dynamics and how to use them to our advantage.

Arranging for Solo and Small Ensemble Play:

  • Song Choice:
    • Find a song you can sing in the shower. If you can't sing a substantial portion of it with just your voice, it's probably not going to make a great solo song on ukulele. You want to find great melodies and then turn them into great ukulele songs.
  • Melody and Chords:
    • You can't use those "chords and lyrics" pages to make arrangements. Take those to the Hootenanny so you can sing along with an accordion player. You need to find real sheet music. I always look for sheet music with chords, lyrics, and melody. If it has a piano part, that's helpful. If I can only find a chords and lyrics chart, then I usually move onto the next tune. I use MusicNotes and MuseScore Pro and books to find most of theĀ  sheet music I use.
  • Software:
    • Use the same "Ukulele Blank" file every time. This will make your blank smarter over time.
    • Type in the melody and then add the chords. Press Play. It might sound a bit clunky, but mostly it should sound like what you're hoping it sounds like.
    • Once you're pretty sure you have the right melody and chords in the blank, now save it under a new name. This will preserve the wisdom of your blank and allow you to create your final arrangement without worry of deleting something from the blank.
  • Arrangement:
    • If you're writing a solo, you'll need to decide how much of the chord can be played at the same time as the melody.
    • If you're writing a duet, you are done. One person plays the melody only and the other person improvises in whatever way their skills allow on the chords. Switch sides when you play so you get experience doing both skills.
    • If you're writing for more than two people, write out what will happen with each player. The more specific you can be the better it will sound. Most players aren't great at improvising.