‘Ukulele Lesson – Hawaiian Vamp = Hawaiian Turnaround

No matter what the genre of music I find it important to build up a basic vocabulary as to understand the fundamental elements of what makes that genre. When playing a style of music that is new to me I like to enter through form as to know which walls I need to keep up and which ones I can smash. Really emphasizing the: you need to know the rules before you can break them mentality.

On a sociological point of view, I find it interesting to find connections between genres of music and just how they are made. Such as Hawai’i’s rise in popularity during the Tin Pan Alley era of composers and writers in New York. These pop jazz tunes mixed with Hawaiian themes gave way to a now known genre of music called hapa-haole music which now includes other artists such Don Ho and songs like Sophisticated Hula. This was and still is very different from traditional Hawaiian music.

One of the common musical motifs that developed in both hapa-haole and traditional Hawaiian music is the use of turnarounds. Turnarounds are basically small instrumental passages of music that lead one section into another. While found in other genres of music across the board, I find the turnarounds in hapa-haole and Hawaiian music to be important to defining the genre as a whole. Traditional Hawaiian music started as religious chants before evolving into the many subtle forms that exist today. These chants were broken up into stanzas following a certain rhythmic pattern and inflections. Percussive beats continued to be played on instruments such as the ipu, ‘uli ‘uli, and the pahu drum as the chanter waited for the next verse of the chant. These passages gave way to the use of turnarounds as known by western traditions while Hawai’i and it’s modern music gained national attention. Many who play either genre now affectionately call these turnarounds vamps, so today we are going to take a look at two typical Hawaiian vamps and some quick variations you can add to your set to vary up your Hawaiian songs.


The first turn around is simple but elegant I-V7 chord progression. If you were in the key of C you would be playing a C major (I) and a G dominant 7th (V7). While easy enough to play, adding the right inflections or adding some techniques can really open it up to add variation. Two examples of this turnaround can be found in the Gabby Pahinui tune Hi’ilawe and Iz’s rendition of Henhene Kou Aka.

Here is the basic turnaround:

The first variation will be using chords in the second position (around the 3rd fret) and will be using the approach note concept. On the 4th beat, a chord that is a half a step-down from the one of the next measure is played. In this case Gb7 is played on beat 4 of the first measure and a B is played on beat 4 of the second measure. This gives it a bit of a swing feel like that of Iz’s Henehene Kou Aka.

Screen Shot 2016-10-10 at 1.00.41 AM.png

The second variation takes the element of a moving bassline from slack key guitar to add a different rhythmic feel. Hammer-ons and pull-offs can be integrated into beat 3 as there is a small melodic variation. Think of Hi’ilawe or even I Kona for this one.


II7 – V7 – I

The second turnaround is based on II – V – I chord progressions found in many jazz tunes of the day. For this particular variant in the key of C, we are going to use a D dominant 7th (II7), a G dominant 7th (V7), and a C major (I). You can add in similar variations like the ones found in the I-V7 turnaround. Since there is a little more harmonic movement in the progression it is also a good time to add some color tone and even apply some voice leading. Two examples of this turnaround can be found in the John Pi’ilani Watkins tune Noho Paipai and the Edith Kanakole song Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai.

Here is the basic turnaround.screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-12-50-01-am

In this variation, we are going to add in some color tones and sub out the D7 and G7 while keeping C in the second position for the second bar. Keeping your pinky placed on the 1st string 7th fret, you pedal an E above middle C adding cohesion between the two chords. The 3rd, 5th, and b7th (strings 2, 3, & 4) of the D7add9 move down a half a step to form a G7b9add6, effectively leading one chord to the other. The b7th and b9th of the G7b9add6 (strings 2 & 3) move down a half step again keeping the momentum of the first chord change.


Please do have fun with these variations and leave us a comment if you have any questions on the material. If you have any feedback on this lesson or any previous lesson, please check out our feedback page here!

-Neal Chin
‘Ukulele Artist and Educator


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