You’d have to have been living in a coal mine not to have noticed the rise and rise of the humble ukulele in recent years. Around the world the once ‘for novelty acts only’ instrument is finally being taken seriously again and the list of guitarists who sing its praises is endless. Tempted to try one but don’t know where to start? Uke specialist John Howlett joins the Quiet Room team for the first of a two-part special on ukuleles, complete with reviews of some of the leading – and often temptingly priced! – offerings.
Ok, so you’re a guitarist who’s heard all of the kerfuffle about the popularity of the ukulele but you can’t be bothered to learn a whole new instrument and tuning, right?
You already know how to play it, and it’s sooo much easier to sound better than you actually are on a ukulele than with most other instruments and in a much shorter time. What’s more, for around 25 quid/40 bucks, you can nowadays get a pretty tolerable working instrument, if you know where to look!
Let’s get the basics out of the way. You play the same chord shapes as the guitar but without the two fat strings. So if you play a chord progression first of all using open chords that you are familiar with (let’s say A, D, G) the only difference is that some of your fingers will not have strings to land on. Strange at first, but you get used to it in minutes. Point made, and lesson over. You can already play it, and it’s easy…
It has often been said that it’s hard to think of the uke as a ‘serious’ instrument, and to that I’d say you’d be right and wrong.
If ‘serious’ means that you imagine that you can’t show virtuosity, imagination or expression then I would suggest that you YouTube Jake Shimabukuro playing ‘While my Guitar Gently Weeps’, or Derick Sebastion (with just about anything.) or the beautiful simplicity of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole strumming to ‘Over the Rainbow’ to see the surprising versatility of this (fairly) recently rediscovered instrument.
From simple vocal accompaniment (Mara Carlyle) or Djangoesque Jazz fretburning (Lyle Ritz ), to the gravitas of strict classical interpretations (check out Jake once more with his Bach interpretations. Damn him.) there isn’t a music style that hasn’t been explored and exploited by the overwhelmingly increasing uke community, that recently seems to threaten even the popularity of the guitar.
You want Soundgarden or Kylie or Elvis in uke tab? Well Google it then. Mozart, The Avengers theme tune, even JLS for God’s sake. It’s all there and growing by the pico-second for a very good reason. It’s easy and fun and cheap.
The reason that it’s also not such a serious instrument is that it is hard to hear a chord played on the ukulele and not smile. It’s hard not to feel a part of your hardened, cynical, shrivelled soul melt somewhat, and perchance even deign to grin involuntarily.
It just has that effect! Even when not totally in tune it evokes a sense of mirth and a state of forgiveness that a guitar in the same condition could never elicit. (The only other comparable instrument for creating such a positive reaction surely has to be the Celtic harp, which if you strum randomly also creates that sound of aural butter.) Safe and beautiful and pleasing and thoroughly inoffensive. With this in mind I challenge any one of you to End a sinister sounding chord on the uke. I’ve tried. Often. I just end up with a warm glow and a sunnier disposition.
So why the intense sudden popularity and where did they come from? Well there are many philosophical schools of thought, but mine (the important one) suspects that once the ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain started showing us that Nirvana and Kate Bush could be made to sound entertaining on an instrument previously associated with George Formby (not knocking it – it’s just not everyone’s cup of Chai Latte), the masses woke up to the uke’s hither to unseen potential.
The ukulele has been hanging around in the periphery of popular music for a long time but with nowhere near the recognition that it has achieved in recent years (you think ‘It Must be Love’ was a Madness toon? Ha!
Fools… Labi Siffre of the ‘Something Inside’ fame, in 1972. On uke, naturally.) George Harrison was a vocal uke fan (Joe Brown’s performance at the George Harrison tribute concert is definitely worth checking out), and if Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder can make an entire album (Ukulele Songs, 2011) spawned from a love of this instrument, then who are we to disagree?
Want to fight still? Then take it up with Mumford and Sons, Jason Mraz, Portishead, Noah and the Whale, Jack Johnson (blah, blah..You get the point. I suspect it’s here to stay. It has been the biggest selling instrument in the acoustic world for quite a few years now, with no sign of abating.
The nature of the tuning throws your natural expectation of the order of notes with what is called “re-entrant tuning”, which means that the notes of the strings (or “courses”) does not progress from low to high as the guitar does, but starts with a higher note than
So if you want a ‘C’ chord, play ‘G\ (C,D,E,F,G). Play the guitar shape of ‘G’ and you have the chord of ‘C\ Want D minor, then (D,E, F, G, A) just play the A minor shape and you’re there…
The uke (spelt either ukelele or ukulele, depending upon your mood) is often thought of as being Hawaiian in origin, but originally came from Portugal in the guise of an instrument called the cavaquinho, which traditionally has metal strings, one note tuned differently (gCEG, with the small ‘g’ indicating that it is an octave higher than you would expect). Those crafty Hawaiians used gut strings, called it a ukulele (dancing flea) and tuned it gCEA (though an alternative is a ,D, Fsharp B’). The relationship between the strings is the same as the top four strings of the guitar, but where you would expect the lowest pitched string it is tuned an octave higher. Because the entire instrument is tuned to a higher pitch (like placing a capo on the 5th fret) all of the chords are transposed. Sound heavy? Well check this out instead.
Just think five notes higher than your guitar chords.
And seeing that you can play it already, what have you got to lose by giving one a go in your local music shop. Eh?… expected. In this case the string that you would expect to be the lowest one is actually an octave higher. The chord shapes are completely the same but happen to often sound surprisingly different, especially if you fingerpick a familiar pattern that you would do normally on a guitar. Notes spring out from nowhere. Everything sounds a little more complex.
Lively. Unexpected. And it implies that there’s more going on than there actually is (the 5-string banjo does the same thing, as it happens – and we may get there too in the Quiet Room one day – Ed)
Around the 1920s the uke was a popular instrument of entertainment and accompaniment in the music halls and vaudeville circles of Britain and the USA, but due to the increasing size of venues, the ukulele could no longer project enough sound to be audible. By using a small banjo body with a calf-skin front, the ukulele banjo was born, and thanks to George Formby it etched its way into British musical history, by cleaning windows and spying on the sexual exploits of unsuspecting victims that would surely invoke a restraining order these days!
Rumour has it that George only knew a few chords and so had a number of banjo ukuleles on the stage in various tunings to make things easy. Formby may have been a comedy act but his influence in the North of England, in particular, was huge and it was clearly impressed onto the impressionable mind of Liverpool’s George Harrison when he was a child, later to emerge in unpredictable ways in his playing and as one of the first ambassadors of the uke for the Rock era. Rumour has it that Harrison used to carry spare ukes around and give them away to his friends as encouragement to play the instrument!
Ukuleles, as do so many instruments, come in four sizes. In this case called soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The first three are tuned exactly the same (gCAE) and the baritone uke is usually tuned to the same to the top four strings of the guitar, DGBE.
There are exceptions in each case, but this is a brief and by no means comprehensive overview.
Although it may appear odd to have identical tunings on three of the four instruments, the differences are quite apparent when you hear and play them. As the instrument’s body and neck increases in size, so does the tone and volume and neck access. The soprano, although quite fiddly to play, has a trebly charm that we all often naturally associate with our concept of the uke. The concert uke is probably the most popular, as it retains that ukey tonal quality, but with the larger fret spacing it is easier to play without cramping your fingers. The tenor uke almost moves into the arena of the classical guitar, with a wide tonal range and easy neck access that is usually the preference of the virtuoso performers that often lean more towards expounding the virtues of the actual instrument than using it as accompaniment. The baritone ukulele would often be used in the many ukulele orchestras that became prevalent in the late ‘20s onwards in order to provide a bassier balance to its treblier counterparts, although they now often simply accompany voices that are tonally complimentary, or act as a portable guitar substitute.
Martin, Gibson, Regal and Harmony were amongst the Big Gun American guitar manufacturers that realised the potential of the popularity of the ukulele, especially from the ‘20s onwards, and became instrumental (sic) in the myriad of ukes that were subsequently produced (around eight million by Maccaferri between 1940 and 1960 alone!)
And although this is a brief, and very incomplete introduction into the uke world (I didn’t even mention Roy Smeck, or Tiny Tim) the ukulele popularity is clearly no fad. It’s here to stay whether you like it or not, so you may as well go and see what all the fuss is about.
It’s quite mesmerising to take the familiar guitar patterns and songs that you know so well, and then play them on a uke.
It just changes them… You have to try it out in order to understand and appreciate it.
There are now specialist ukulele dealers around the world who can give you plenty of impartial advice – and, of course, you have to check-out our Quiet Room reviews in this and the next issue of Guitar Interactive. So what are you waiting for? Go on then. Go clean some windows…
Guitar Interactive would like to thank retailer Hobgoblin Music in the UK for the loan of John Howlett. You can have him back, guys. When we’ve completely finished with him
This is great post from iGuitarMag Edition!