Tuesday, February 27, 2007

‘It’s like a little friend’

Once seen as uncool, the ukulele enjoys mainstream resurgence.


HOUSTON — For a little instrument, the ukulele carries a lot of baggage. The four-stringed member of the guitar family was tuned for decades to the most uncool connections and connotations in popular culture: dwarfed by the 1960s novelty act Tiny Tim, blinded by the bright Hawaiian shirts worn by Don Ho and smothered by the cleavage of cheesecake models posed on postcards. In short: It wasn’t considered a utensil for hip musicians.

The uke, though, is in different hands now — and enjoying a peculiar renaissance:

• Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam has an entire album of ukulele music (although he doesn’t plan to release it).

• The uke is heard on recordings by acts such as Jack Johnson, Jens Lekman, Nickel Creek and Andy Partridge.

• Family-oriented artist and former rocker Dan Zanes sells a uke on his Web site.

• Stephin Merritt, frontman for the alt-pop Magnetic Fields, plays only a uke on tour. Their albums, too, make great use of the ukulele, which has inspired a pair of Merritt songs — Ukulele Me! and This Little Ukulele.

• Bruce Springsteen is known to have recently played a uke onstage.

"It’s not perceived as a silly instrument anymore," said Jason Verlinde, editor and publisher of the Ukulele Occasional (with two issues printed in the past three years) and the more regular Fretboard Journal.

"You’re seeing it at more music stores. And the nice thing about it: The ukulele is the one instrument at a music store that you’re never too intimidated to pick up."

The most popular uke lore pinpoints the instrument’s birth as 1879. Traditional Portuguese stringed instruments mutated into the uke in Hawaii by immigrants who worked in sugar-cane fields.

The most popular account pegs the word ukulele as the native term for "jumping fleas" — an observation made about how one of the immigrants played the uke.

The instrument caught on stateside about 1915 and became a favorite with Tin Pan Alley songwriters.

The uke’s popularity waxed and waned, dropping in the 1930s, coming back in the ’50s with TV host Arthur Godfrey, then drifting into novelty songs in the ’60s.

Martin, the instrument company that once made more ukeleles than guitars, eventually ceased ukulele production.

But the uke never became uncool in Hawaii, where it remained the basis for lovely music largely untainted by mainland pop.

And even at its lowest points, the instrument made shy appearances in mainstream pop culture.

At least half the Beatles were uke enthusiasts. Three songs on George Harrison’s final album featured ukulele, and Paul McCartney, whose 1971 album Ram proudly showcased the instrument on a few songs, did a uke tribute to Harrison on his 2002 tour.

Harrison loved the uke.

"It sounds kind of corny, but (playing ukulele) gave him so much joy," his friend Tom Petty told Rolling Stone in 2001. "I was there when he first discovered it. The rest of his life was ukulele. He played the hell out of the thing."

Years after leaving the hardrocking Del Fuegos, Dan Zanes found a second life making family music. His main instrument is mandolin, but he also plays ukulele.

The uke’s simplicity and price — a starter model costs less than $50 — make it appealing, he said.

The Guinness Book of Records once cited the ukulele as the world’s easiest instrument to learn — a point that Zanes echoed.

"It only takes 10 minutes to learn how to play Sloop John B or Jamaica Farewell."

Something about the uke’s simple, small shape and simple, sweet sound is endearing. Unlike the guitar, it lends itself to strumming as you walk around the house; it doesn’t smother conversation.

"It’s like a little friend," said Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, who played a custom-made uke nightly on a 2006 tour.

"You can hide in a corner and play, it’s so unintrusive. It’s really useful for those kinds of songs when you’re hiding within yourself."

In the uke’s pop revival, that sadness comes through; its current vogue is distinctly different from the novelty peaks of its past.

Vedder’s album was, according to a source who heard it, largely informed by his split from his wife.

Merritt’s songs fuse big melodies with romantic melancholy.

Similarly, Harrison’s swan song, while upbeat in parts, was recorded after he learned he had terminal cancer.

At 99, the so-called Duke of Uke, Bill Tapia, has outlived most of his friends and family. He says playing helped him get past the deaths of his wife and daughter.

"The ukulele is a powerful instrument," he said. "It hardly leaves my hands."

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ukulele Playing Lego Robot

I stumbled upon this webpage while surfing the net this evening. At first I thought it was a joke but these college kids from Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont have really designed, built and programmed a ukulele playing robot. Their names are Mike and Jarvis and you can read more about it here.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Ukulele Noir

Craig Robertson is the founder of Ukulele Noir, which started as an open mic night which Craig was hosting. Craig writes:

I was hosting an open mic at the Sky Bar and more and more ukulele players showed up. So it just naturally evolved. The first Noir was going to be just a one time thing. But it was so much fun and so many more wanted to play that I kept it going. The next one will be number 24! Yow. Other than sex and beer, I don't do anything 24 times in a row. It's been a challenge.

One of these days I'm going to make the trip up to Boston for one of these shows.

NUkeS on the Prowl in East Nashville

The Nashville Ukulele Society, in conjunction with Mothers Helping Others, made their third public appearance today at Cornelia House Nursing Home, located in East Nashville. Tim, Tom and I arrived a little early and played a couple of tunes in the hallway for the residents which seemed to go over quite well. There were lots of smiles and I believe I heard a smattering of applause. When the Moms and the children arrived we followed Ms. Rita around the building to visit with anyone whose birthday was this month. We sang a Dr. Seuss song titled "Happy Birthday to Little Sally Spingle Spungle Sporn" and the children handed out home made birthday cards.

My favorite moment was when we visited with this sweet little old lady named Carrie. She was so excited to see all of us and to have us sing to her but she especially loved having all of the children around her. She was pinching cheeks and squeezing hands and giving hugs to all of them. And then I heard her say to one of the Moms "nobody remembered my birthday, nobody did . . . but you all did, you all remembered."

We will be getting together with Mothers Helping Others again in March (not sure of the date yet) to sing the Seuss birthday song so if you couldn't make it this time I hope you'll be able to next time - it's really a lot of fun.

Cool Music Books on eBay!

If any of you are interested in classic 20's & 30's ukulele music (and who among us isn't), check out this link to eBay: (click here).
Three, count 'em THREE Ukulele Ike songbooks. They look in excellent condition, too! As of this posting on Friday morning, the bid is at $30.00. The auction ends on March 2 at 1:36 Central Time.
If a member of the Nashville Ukulele Society wins this auction, you are required to bring these books to the next meeting to show them off to the rest of us!!

If you are unfamiliar with Ukulele Ike (aka Cliff Edwards), he was a popular ukulele virtuoso, and the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney's "Pinnochio".

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Altered Baritone Part I

A few weekends ago I took my cheap ($20 junk shop find) Hilo baritone down off the wall and started plunking away on it. It just sounded so flat and dead and I've never been able to embrace the baritone sound like I have the standard C-tuning of the soprano, concert and tenor. So I decided to to do something about it.
At first I thought I would just buy some new strings, and while shopping for strings online I discovered that Aquila makes a set of C-tuning (GCEA) Nylagut strings for baritone. I ordered a set and then waited impatiently for them to arrive.
I strung up my Hilo with the new strings and was really pleased with the result, I could now play my baritone and not have to transpose chords in my head. However, now I was not happy with the string height of my bari so I took the uke to my workshop and began the process of lowering the action of my strings.

First I had to remove the strings. Then I popped off the nut by using a small, very sharp pocket knife - I slipped it under a portion of the nut that wasn't quite flush with the wood and carefully pried it up a little at a time until it popped off.
Next I removed the saddle. This was easy - it is held in place by the tension of the strings so it just slipped right out of the bridge.

I then began sanding the bottom of the nut and the saddle. I would sand a little and then slip the nut and saddle back into position, and then tighten up the strings a bit to gauge my progress.
One tricky part was trying to keep the slight angle of the bottom of the nut so that it would fit properly once I was finished. I did maintain the angle; however, I sanded too much off of the bottom and so had to add a shim under the nut to bring it back up a bit. I discovered this error when I tightened up the strings and they were buzzing horribly on the frets.

I sanded the saddle and got it down pretty low and then I thought that I would just completely remove it but when I did this I was getting a slight buzz from the bridge so back in it went and the buzz disappeared.

The action on the uke is much, much better and I really love the sound of it, but it doesn't really sound like a baritone anymore. It sounds more like a big Tenor, and this if just fine with me because I've been wanting to get Tenor uke and now I basically have one and it sounds and plays great.

Before the bari alteration I almost never played this uke but now I'm pulling it down off the wall everyday. But I'm still not completely satisfied. I have a few more things I want to do to it before I'm done with it.
Eventually I'm going to replace the nut with either a rosewood, ebony or bone nut - same goes for the saddle. I've toyed with the idea of making my own ebony bridge for it and I probably will but that's on the bottom of my want list.
I would also like to drill string holes in the bridge, all the way through the top. This would allow me to run the strings from under the bridge (inside the uke), and just tie them in a knot to keep them from slipping out. This will help to alleviate some of the pressure being exerted upon the bridge and make it less likely for the bridge to pop off or for the top to bow.
The frets also need to be filed down a little bit. Currently the frets are rounded on the top and sit up fairly high above the fret board. I'm going to file them down so they are flat and smooth on top.
In the meantime I'll be playing it as is and keeping my eyes open for more cheap baritones that I can convert to big Tenors.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Baritone Uke Forum

I thought the NUkeS Baritone ukulele players (I was really thinking of Andy E.), would appreciate this Baritone only forum.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Little Grass Shack pronunciation help

This might be helpful (or not), but this is how I broke out those long runs of hawaiian words in order to learn them:

1. Ke - a - la - ke - kua

Easy one; sort of sung like:
"kee-alla kekoo-ah"

2. ko-mo-mai no ka-u - a i - ka ha - le we - la - ka - hao

I broke this one up this way:

(I started by practicing them in two chunks of three lines each.)

3. Hu - mu - hu - mu Nu - ku - nu - ku a pu - a - a

Much easier than it looks. I broke it up like this:

hoo-moo, hoo-moo
noo-koo, noo-koo
ah-poo, ah-ah

Good luck. --tn