Melbourne’s wonderful David Bowie Ukulele Tribute Band, The Thin White Ukes performed at the recent Port Fairy Folk Festival and have featured in a story on the ABC News with a great video of them doing Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes live. Here is the link.
Often when you have two or several ukuleles there is one that you play more than the others. It’s your favorite and it just feels and sounds wonderful. So how do you bring back the passion for your other ukes if they are being neglected?
To make the most of your collection it can simply be a matter of increasing your repertoire and playing the right song for the right uke. Some music sounds better when played on a particular size or type of ukulele (eg resonator or banjolele). But if, like me, you have two ukuleles of the same size and a similar type this won’t make much difference.
I have two concert ukes. I bought the second one because I love the feel and the sound it makes and the size suits me. It is so playable that I was not using my other concert ukulele, which seemed a complete waste. A couple of other members of our group have low G strings on their ukuleles which can give more of a bass sound to a song. So I replaced the high G string on my first use with one of the Aquila Red Series low G strings and it sounds completely different. It’s also great to play with a felt pick, especially on the “boom Dit-ty strum” (see earlier post) and makes the uke more resonant.
The low G works particularly well on a Tenor sized ukulele but you can even put one on a soprano uke. You will have a deeper sound while still playing the chords for the GCEA tuning. A Tenor ukulele with a low G is a great alternative to buying a larger baritone ukulele, especially if you find the fingering too difficult with the change of chord structure necessary for the DGBE tuning.
Have a look on You Tube as there are many videos with a comparison of low and high G strings, as well as reviews for wound and unwound strings.
Now I can switch between ukes depending on the song and am enjoying playing both my ukuleles. So if you feel you have been neglecting one of your ukes, try a low G for a change of sound and some renewed enthusiasm.
Ukulele performer Ryo Montgomery will be appearing at the Melbourne Ukulele Festival in October. Check out their website for more information. There is a feature article about Ryo and his father in todays Age newspaper (link below).
Is there such a thing as a Ukulele phobia? I was forced to ponder this question after the addition of a new puppy to our home.
As you have probably learnt from previous blogs on this site, I love to play my uke and interact with a dog. Our other dog, although being a bit naughty as a puppy, is never bothered by the sound of the ukulele. When we first brought the new puppy home, I practiced my uke while standing in the same room and everything seemed fine. A few days later when we had a guest, I got out my ukulele to demonstrate a song. I accidentally shut the lid of the case when she was standing nearby and she jumped. When I started to play the puppy became distressed and ran away. She would not come anywhere near me while I was playing the uke and I was not even playing loudly. I tried to show her the instrument on her level. She sniffed it but when I carefully plucked the G string, she ran away again. I wondered what I had done wrong as she was not bothered the first time I played when she was in the room.
When you Google “ukulele phobia” there is only one case of a human who has a phobia about ukuleles (because they thought it looked like an alien), but there is nothing about dogs being scared of this harmless instrument. It must be uncommon for dogs to have this particular fear as there are plenty of videos on You Tube with dogs trying to play the uke or doing a sing-a-long and they look perfectly happy.
How could I prevent the puppy’s anxiety about the ukulele from developing into a permanent phobia? I love to play my ukulele and it is a big part of my life, so I thought that the solution was to introduce it gradually. To get her used to the instrument I left it in it’s case on the floor. She sniffed it then walked away. I made the mistake of leaving the handle upright and she came back and began to chew it, but when I put the handle down she left it alone. The next day I decided to give playing another go but this time standing up again. I set up a music stand carefully, did some vocal warm-ups and then began to play and sing. No reaction. She completely ignored me and went back to puppy activities. So what was the difference?
I think that because I was closer to her level when sitting, the sound of the ukulele was much louder to sensitive puppy ears. Shutting the case suddenly startled her and made her anxious before I had even started to play and this did not help. Also the human-like shape of the instrument when upright could have been threatening. I don’t sit down often which is just as well and I won’t be doing this again until she is well and truly used to the sound of the ukulele and feels more comfortable in her new home.
It just goes to show that each dog is different and you need to be very careful when introducing them to new experiences. In the future I hope that she will be able to sing-a-long with our other dog, who really enjoys the ukulele.
Sometimes when you buy a product it does not always fulfill your expectations or ends up creating unforeseen problems. I have found this to be the case with the Ukulele Straps that I have purchased. Luckily I was able to come up with some creative solutions.
My first Ukulele was concert sized and did not come with a strap button at the base so I bought a common lasso type that hung around my neck with a hook to support the ukulele at the sound hole. I thought that this was the best option, as the ukulele did not have the internal support needed to drill a hole for a strap button. After playing with the lasso strap for I while I found that the neck of my ukulele would wobble around as I played and always felt unstable which did not help my left hand fingering. I thought that if the strap anchored the neck in some way that this would resolve the problem. I had seen the type of straps designed for classical guitars where one end of the strap was tied to the neck and the other end came from behind the guitarists back to hook into the sound hole. I decided to change the lasso strap so that it supported my ukulele in this manner.
First I undid the strap from its buckle, removed the hook and turned it to face the opposite direction. Next I reinserted the strap into the buckle and adjusted it so that it was long enough to go diagonally over my back and under the ukulele to connect to the bottom of the sound hole at the front. Then I sewed the free end of the strap back on itself to form a loop and ran a strong shoelace through this and tied it to the head under the strings. (a word of caution: don’t let go of the neck or the ukulele will flop forward, come adrift from the strap hook and fall to the floor). Now with the ukulele supported in this way the neck no longer wobbled when I played and I did not need to buy a new strap.
My second ukulele does have a strap button and I first bought a thin leather Mandolin strap, but this always slipped around on my back and drove me crazy. Fortuitously I received a colourful brocade strap as a birthday present that was wider and less likely to slip. It had leather fittings to attach to the neck and strap button. When I went to attach it I found that the leather was very stiff and thick and it was really hard to fix it around the button, which is also the output jack of the electric pick-up. Eventually I managed to get it on. It was quite a tight fit because the jack button was not very deep. Over time the tightness of the strap started to unscrew the jack and that was not very desirable, so I took off the strap. As I really liked it, I decided to shave off some of the leather on the back of the strap with a scalpel blade to reduce the thickness by about half around the jack button. Now the end moves freely without undoing the jack and I can still use my favourite strap.
You don’t need to put up with these irritating problems. There is always a solution and a bit of simple DIY can customize a strap or you could even make your own. So get creative!
You’re on the stage, your throat and mouth go dry, you have shortness of breath and a sick feeling in the stomach. You fumble the chords on your ukulele and the audience seems to morph into a scary monster. You don’t have a virus. You have Stage Fright. If you have never experienced this before, don’t panic. It can happen to anyone, even professional musicians.
After a couple of years occasionally playing with a small group, I experienced a sudden attack of stage fright. At a small community event I made the mistake of focusing on a grumpy looking member of the audience and started to imagine that there was something terribly wrong with my performance. This made me really tense and nervous and I found it difficult to concentrate on my playing. At the time I did not consider that the grouchy faced person may have had a bad day or was unwell and it probably had nothing to do with me.
Once it had manifested I found that this type of anxiety kept happening, so I searched for information about coping with the problem on numerous websites. Here are a few strategies that I find helpful, as well as some I worked out for myself:
Thoroughly practice so that you can play a song under pressure because you know it so well. This is the most important factor for a good performance.
Make sure you are well hydrated so that you can produce some saliva to wet your lips and swallow if your mouth and throat become dry and keep a water bottle handy on stage.
Allow time for a good warm-up before a concert and go out there smiling. After the first song it is usually easier to relax. If you do make a mistake through nervousness, don’t stop but keep playing. You don’t need to be perfect for others to enjoy your performance.
If it is obvious that you have forgotten the chords or the words of a song when performing alone or as a lead player in a group, don’t freeze, but laugh or make a joke. Many professional performers use this technique. It diffuses the situation and puts the audience on your side. If this happens when you are with a large group, stop playing, mime and where possible, move behind other players while you get yourself together.
See the audience as benign and friendly. Concentrate on entertaining everyone and ignore any grumpy faces. Many more will be smiling and tapping along. If it helps, you can imagine the audience as happy little furry creatures, like Wombles (Google it) or as anyone else who is non- threatening. Whatever it takes for you to feel comfortable.
Remember to smile and have fun as this is contagious and the feel good aspect of playing the ukulele will prevail.
Someone once told me “you can never have too many ukuleles”. I heartily agree.
For a long time I have been considering the purchase of a second ukulele. The first ukulele I bought was a concert, and I still find it enjoyable to play, however sometimes I have thought it would be nice to buy a second ukulele with a different sound.
The trouble with buying another ukulele is there are so many styles and makes available that it became difficult to make a decision. It is not just about the size of ukulele to buy, whether soprano, concert, tenor, baritone or bass. Or whether it is an acoustic or acoustic/electric. You must also consider whether you want a commercially manufactured ukulele from Australia or overseas, or do you want your ukulele custom made by a luthier to your own specifications. Maybe you would like to build your own ukulele just for fun? In any case you must choose how your ukulele is constructed. This is where buying a ukulele has became more complicated and I referred to several buying guides.
I found this information very helpful but it not make my decision any easier.
My next line of enquiry was to look at ukulele players to see how they have built their collections. For a start, does the collection show the progression in quality from a cheap ukulele to an expensive ukulele as the collector’s playing ability improved? Or does the collection seem a random mix of ukuleles with different body shapes, woods, finishes and construction methods? Ultimately does the collector continue to play each ukulele? On the Internet you can find many ukulele collections, but I find the most interesting sites are of collectors talking or writing about their ukuleles.
Both of these collectors seem very passionate about their ukuleles, and I think it is inevitable for players to develop an emotional attachment to their instruments.
As I already owned a concert size ukulele I did not really want to buy another one. I could have looked at a resonator, but another member of our group has one and I thought that two could be too loud at the one time. I ruled out buying a soprano ukulele, as my two arthritic fingers would have trouble negotiating the shorter fret-board and I ruled out a baritone ukulele because it uses guitar tuning. So this narrowed it down to buying a tenor ukulele.
After my research I finally decided it was the moment to buy my second ukulele. I knew I did not have the patience or skill with tools to make my own and I did not want a custom made ukulele from a luthier as my skill as a player is not good enough justify the cost. Also I did not want to buy an instrument online because I wanted try a variety of ukuleles to find the one that was comfortable to play, had a good tone, was visually appealing and was an acoustic/electric. Sometimes it is nice to be loud.
After checking out several music sites online to see what was in stock, I went to a local music store to look for a ukulele. The selection was between three good quality tenor acoustic/electric ukuleles. I did not want to be indecisive and go from store to store so I knew it was between these three ukuleles. There was an eight-string ukulele that sounded rather impressive. In the past I had considered an eight-string ukulele for the different sound it would bring to the group. It was not for me. Unfortunately I found it difficult to play, as I could not always evenly press both strings with my arthritic fingers. Also there was the annoying thought of restringing the eight strings. The other two ukuleles had the usual four strings. Both were beautifully made with a good tone, with fingerboards of the same dimensions and they were the same price. The difference came down to one having slightly deeper sides on the body than the other. This was the one I chose. It has a good tone, is easy to play, it produces a good volume of sound and is pleasant to hold and to look at.
I will not reveal the manufacturer’s name because that is not the point of this article. When you choose a ukulele it is a totally subjective decision that should not be based on advertising and brand recognition. When choosing a ukulele you need to use both your head and your heart and buy the instrument of the best quality you can afford. After all, you will be spending a lot of time together. Happy hunting!
Recently one of Bayside Ukes members attended a local rock band gig where the lead guitarist said something like “ukulele players should have their fingers broken”. What! The performer may have been joking, but I have also been in music stores where sales people have made snide comments about ukulele groups. Why the hostility towards such a harmless genre of music?
Treating the little ukulele as a bit of a joke is not a recent development. In a 1939 Pathé short film about music and musical instruments, the sneering narrator, after praising the piano and various other instruments, refused to believe that the noble Greek Lyre was the father of “this instrument” as the film displayed two young women happily playing ukes. Some of the instruments mentioned in the film have for years become highly institutionalized, with structured teaching syllabuses and exams. While you can have paid lessons, the ukulele has always been an instrument of the people, where knowledge is shared between players and beginners so anyone can learn. You can also play any style of music you like from rock anthems to classical melodies. Maybe this is threatening to some elitist musicians and traditional educators who like to have control over their forms of music. Or maybe the uke is considered to be too cheeky for serious music, hence the snobby attitude towards the uke. Well that’s their problem.
We as ukulele players can be proud of our heritage that includes legends such as George Formby, Tiny Tim and George Harrison. Like other musical genres we have our virtuosos: Jake Shimabukuro; Taimane Gardner; The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, to name a few. We have our rock and pop heroes like Eddie Vedder; Vance Joy; Amanda Palmer and many more. There is a history of actors who have promoted the uke, like Marilyn Monroe and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. So there is no need to apologize for being a uker.
All ukers should be congratulated for being part of a grass roots cultural and social movement that has grown from the ordinary person’s need to make their own music and is not directed by “the powers that be.” This is one of the reasons why the ukulele has become so popular. Another reason is that members of the ukulele community enjoy giving their time and energy to entertaining others and this is very rewarding. Think of all the small communities that have benefited from the free ukulele performances in shopping centres, seniors’ facilities, local festivals etc. At a period in history when there is so much gloom and doom in the media, it is wonderful that there are so many people who want to generate some joy.
Let’s ignore the naysayers who are probably envious of the ukes success. There are countless more fans of the ukulele so the detractors have no real power. Individually we may not all be brilliant musicians, but as members of a ukulele community, we can enjoy both the benefits of making music and sharing it with others and after all, that is what playing an instrument is all about.
We can all play our ukuleles with pride. Power to the Uke!
On Anzac Day, the 25th of April, we remember Australians at war.
Although the ukulele was introduced to Australia before 1915, there is little evidence that it was played during World War One by Australian troops at Gallipoli or on the Western Front in Europe. It was not until after 1918 that the huge popularity of the ukulele in America ensured it spread to the rest of the world Ref. 1 . By World War Two Australian soldiers adopted the ukulele as part of their unofficial kit, as they tried to bring some cheer to their lives at camp and at the front.
In America during the 1920s and 1930s, Buster Keaton (and his ukulele), was an established star of silent movies and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards was famous as a singer and ukulele player in Vaudeville. Both starred in the film “Doughboys” (1930), that loosely depicts Keaton’s wartime experiences during his service in France during WWI Ref 2. One great scene shows Buster and Cliff playing the same ukulele while Cliff sings and Buster scats.
In Australia the ukulele gained popularity during the interwar period. It was appreciated as an entertainment by soldiers in a hospital for war veterans. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic, 25 May 1932, p.6) newspaper reported that Lady Chaytor entertained the patients with her ukulele at the Caulfield Military Hospital. Lady Chaytor was from County Durham, England and had flown to Australia as a passenger in a two seater Gypsy Moth to commence a series of lectures on fashion. Her only luggage was one small suitcase and her ukulele. She visited Caulfield Hospital saying “she felt that she was of the A.I.F., for her brother, who at an early age ran away from home, had enlisted from Queensland”. She visited each of the wards, sat on the piano and sang many songs playing her ukulele and accompanied by the singing of the men.
Lady Chaytor with her ukulele in Sydney, Australia, 1932
During World War II George Formby is well-documented entertaining British and allied troops at the front with his banjo ukulele. It is much harder to find photographs and videos of Australian troops being entertained by Australian ukulele performers. Unlike Britain and America, Australia had only a small contingent of entertainers for the diggers during World War Two. The ukulele appears to have been a more private instrument that men could take with them to the battlefield.
Sheet music for the ukulele became prolific and patriotic during World War Two.
The ukulele and music were very important to many American soldiers during their time in Australia. Jack Earle an American gunner, was recovering in Perth from shell-shock. For him music was “half his life”and he appealed for an instrument in the newspaper after losing two while on active duty. It was quickly replaced the next day by an anonymous female donor (Daily News, Perth W.A. Tues. 16 Sept. 1941, pg. 16) which was only possible due to the popularity of the ukulele in Australia.
U. S. Marines with ukulele, Ballarat, circa. 1943, Charles Edward Boyles (National Library of Australia).
World War 2 Australian Soldier
P.O.W. Whittling Starts WA Ukulele Industry.
Boredom-killing whittling in Changi prisoner of war camp has started up an in-dustry in Western Australia that might become a dollar-earner. Partner in JMG Industries at Jolimont Les O’Connell, filled in his spare time at Changi using a knife on coconut shells and pieces of tea chests to make a ukulele. Heartened by his success he made a carved top ukulele which musicians in the camp hailed as a topline instrument. O’Connell decided to go into the business on his liberation. This story was told today by his partner Jack Maskiell who was with O’Connell in Changi. He said that it took six months to produce the first local ukulele. From then on the ukuleles were marketed throughout Australia with great success. ‘We got a bit cheeky,’ said Maskiell. ‘We sent them to Singapore and Ceylon and now dollar-earning samples are in the U.S.. ‘We also have them in Britain.’ The firm has now produced 3000 ukuleles and 700 guitars…… Maskiell lost a leg in Changi. (The Daily News, Perth, 16 May 1950, pg. 9)
Rats of Tobruk ukulele 1943
After the siege of the Garrison at the Libyan port of Tobruk in 1941 Ref. 3, this ukulele (pictured above) was adopted as a permanent record of the West Australian Battalion known as The Rats of Tobruk. It was owned by a Corporal Smith and played before and during the siege, but became a memento of the event. Pictures of rats were scratched at the headstock with the word Tobruk, then 200 signatures were scratched on the front and back of the ukulele by the men of the unit. It was returned to Western Australia after Corporal Smith was taken prisoner (Daily News, Perth, W.A. Wed, 21 April 1943, pg. 7).
More ukulele stories, photographs and artwork of Australian soldiers can be found in the Australian War Memorial.
For ukulele aficionados out there, I have discovered a very old uke music book. I was going through my late mother’s music collection and found this:
” The E easy Z
METHOD FOR UKULELE AND UKULELE-BANJO
A very easy and practical system
containing just the necessary material for
Mum was a classical and Jazz pianist in the 1930s and played professionally. I am not sure why she had a uke book. It was probably for someone in the band. It cost four shillings and sixpence or eleven pence posted. This edition was published in Australia by J. Albert & Son Pty Ltd, Sydney, circa. 1935. While the manual has the original copyright for W. J. Smith Music Co. Inc., New York for 1924, it also has two illustrations with the copyright for 1934 and 1935. It must have been an effective teaching method because it is still in print and new editions of this book can be found online.
Interestingly, the tuning of the strings was different: ADF#B. Apparently this was popular in the 1920s and 1930s and considered to make the uke sound brighter and more compatible with guitar chords if you were playing in a band. This would be like playing from the third fret of the soprano ukulele tuned to GCEA.
The book contains a mixture of traditional and old popular songs, including Play It On Your Little Uke.
The EZ method was also considered suitable for other instruments such as the Tiple, Uke-I-Tar, Guitar-Uke, Taropatch. In the book it says that the Guitar-Uke and Uke-I-Tar are other names for the Tenor Guitar that is played like a ukulele. The Taropatch has 4 pairs of strings, each pair tuned to the same note. The Tiple (Tee-plee) is a ten stringed instrument played in pairs or triplets.
A story aside… On the same day I discovered the uke book, I was looking at an old book of Mendelssohn Concertos that my Mum played and three fifty-dollar notes fell out. Paper notes in fact and probably from the 1980s. Imagine? A voice from the grave I reckoned.
Now I am a pretty average uke player, so my tips are not really for the experts, but I play ‘easy’ as they say. My sorry old fingers don’t always reach with appropriate pressure to give a good sound. So I cheat a little. I frequently only play the bottom 2 or 3 strings of a chord, making sure to only strum those strings accordingly. It works very well for say an F Minor or B Flat, or B and many others. This depends on your own fingering capabilities really. Really handy for quick changes and not really noticed in group playing!
Another tip I’m working on is Substitute Chords. Playing at home some of the chords I read are seemingly impossible, or infrequently used and easily forgotten. You can play around and get ‘close’. Once again I’m cheating. For instance G Minor instead of B Flat 7, or C9 instead of EM7 Flat 5. I’m sure many folk know many more. But have a play and see how you go!