Five years ago I first picked up a ukulele, having bought a wonderful Collings pre production concert uke in New York. After 18 months of playing around with it, I decided to get some proper instruction. I eventually found a local teacher, but I was amazed at the lack of available teachers for a 1 – 1 basis.
I have often blogged about how the uke can be mostly a focul point for social meet ups and strum alongs and there’s definetely a place for that. In fact this Friday I’ll be sound engineer for a local uke group playing an evening of cover versions. I’ve done this many times before and its a fun night.
I also read today that Sore Fingers were struggling to get more than four people to attend their skills development workshop in 2019. They need a minimum of ten people to make a class viable and so far only four have shown definate interest. In a country where there seems to be a “uke festival” every few weeks, this seems like a terrible response but it does confirm my theory that many who pick up the uke, do so just to learn a few chords and strum along with friends. Most festival acts play cover versions and some attempt the comedic quirky route which personally I’m not a fan of, but there seems to be a real appetite for that. Yes, there are some workshops, but these are usually 60 minutes only and at the last one I attended the presenter commented “I really thought we be a lot further on than we are” during his slot, clearly surprised at the lack of musical skills from the audience.
Matt Stead also is a driving force in teaching the uke in the UK and his Uke Room is a great place to learn and develop skills. You can find him here https://theukeroom.com/
Overseas James Hill has been a driving force in showing people the possibilities for the instrument and is once of the few ukulele players that crosses over to attract wider publci appeal.
Personally I think the ukulele is a brilliant instrument, and my hope is that the UK ukulele community can generate enough enthusiasm so a 2019 Sore Fingers workshop can take place. I guess we’ll know by the Friday deadline…
One of the “opportunities” that the Internet and social media sites have made available to songwriters as never before, is the songwriting competition. Some believe as Enzo Ferrari (the noted Italian carmaker) said, “Competition improves the breed” – that we as individual songwriters, and song in general, will become “better” through competition.
Others – and this is the camp I’m in – believe that, as an artistic means of expression and communication, songwriting doesn’t lend itself to a competitive evaluation of which is “best;” and that most songwriting contests do little if anything to improve one’s technical craft. Let me explain why.
The difference between Senior Ferrari’s field, and ours, has to do with the criteria used for judging. In the auto world (and I grew up in Detroit, and worked closely for years with the automotive industry, so I’ve had some exposure to the auto industry), and particularly in racing, there are objective criteria which can be used to measure and compare vehicle performance: which car is capable of the highest speed? Which crosses the finish line first? Which stops in the shortest distance? Which car sells the most units? These and similar objective criteria can be used to compare one car to another and determine which car is the “best” or is the “winner.”
In the music world, there are objective criteria as well – but they tend to lend themselves to performance, versus the creative act of songwriting. For example, between two trumpet players, who hit a given note more cleanly? Who better keeps time over the course of a given piece? Again, objective criteria, as in, “The tempo is 80 beats per minute – who better achieve that timing over the course of the four-minute piece?”
But in matters of artistic creation, objective criteria tend to fall away. Let’s think about cars again – which is more beautiful, a 1986 Ferrari or a 1936 Packard? Different, cars, different styling cues – and two different people can give two diametrically-opposed answers to the question of “prettier” based on their own tastes, judging criteria, etc
The same for a song – each listener hears and interprets a song through the lens of their own musical tastes and experience, to determine if they “like” a song or not.
There are of course some technical, “craft” considerations that we as writers may evaluate a song against – say, in structure, or in the avoidance of forced rhyme, or in the creation of a storytelling arc. We certainly employ those criteria when critiquing an individual song – but that’s to compare an individual song to those craft criteria, not to judge whether one song does so better than another. And of course, the average, non-writer listener doesn’t look to these craft criteria in judging whether they “like” a given song.
In the case of songwriting contests, while judges may to a degree use some craft criteria in evaluating a song (certainly, they’ll mark down a song that evidences poor craft, such as inconsistent structure, forced or cliched rhyme, etc.), how can one then say whether one song or another made “better” use of craft? That one tells its story “better” than another? The criteria become far too subjective to carry meaning.
And here’s my real rub with songwriting contests (and, yes, in earlier days I’ve entered a few): other than “winning,” there’s virtually no feedback to the writer on what the judges found “good” or “bad” about their song. Even if one wins or places (and, yes, I have), there’s no feedback as to “why” one did so.
How can a writer, or songwriting in general, improve through competition, if we’re not told what the judging criteria were, or how we stacked up against those criteria? If I win a competition, does that mean that I should write all my future songs in the same way as my “winner”? The next judge in the next contest may look at the exact same song as my winner, or my future clones, and subjectively judge that this one isn’t a winner.
Note that I’m making a distinction between contests, and peer review (as we find in some FaceBook groups, or songwriter associations). Peer review can provide meaningful feedback on songwriting craft – chiefly because (a) the criteria are somewhat objective and established (structure, rhyming patterns, etc); (b) individual songs are evaluated against the criteria, not against one another; and (c) the writer gets actual feedback from the critiques, not simply a “win/lose” notification.
Two final points: first, many songwriting contests are actually “singer/songwriter” contests – decisions are based not just on the song, but on its performance and even sometimes on the technical production of the audio/video recording used as an entry. So, from a writer’s perspective, some judging may have nothing to do with the quality of the song itself.
And, particularly in the FaceBook world, more and more “contests” are starting to be based on votes – which means that “winning” may be a factor of how many family and friends (and even yourself!) cast votes (repeatedly), not necessarily on the merits of the song itself.
In my view, the music world is already competitive enough, particularly if one is in the business end of album sales, gigging, touring, etc. That’s a tough enough row to hoe. Artificially creating more competition, through songwriting contests that don’t provide any meaningful feedback to help writers grow their craft, isn’t in my mind an effective way of developing as a songwriter.
Others, of course, may disagree – and there’s room enough in the tent for all of us. But I would suggest that, if one is interested in growing their songwriting craft, there are better ways – participating in peer reviews and critiques; studying other writers’ works; and writing, writing and writing – of doing so.
My name is Derek and I am a solo acoustic singer-songwriter. That is the story and I’m sticking to it… oh, also I perform with a ukulele.
People have written SO extensively about the problematic image the ukulele has with musicians that I won’t dwell on it However I find it interesting that even the primary and obvious use of ukulele in hits by Vance Joy, Twenty One Pilots, Train, Young The Giant and Bruno Mars haven’t really helped the public perception of the little 4-stringer. There is not a uke to be found in either of the official videos for Vance Joy’s big hits Saturday Sun or Riptide, which are both played on the uke. So we can assume that Vance’s management definitely understands the issue. Even though I applaud Vance Joy’s YouTube videos where he seems to usually be on one of his ukuleles, thank you James Gabriel Keogh! And YES, Eddie Vedder came out of the closet and released the Ukulele Songs album. Hooray! But not so much, here is what Rolling Stone said: “The ukulele doesn’t allow for the widest range of expression, which makes it a challenging foil for Eddie Vedder, who never met a feeling he couldn’t drive through a wall. But this uke-suffused album stands up because he adapts the instrument to his idiosyncratic needs.” When have you EVER read an album review that blamed the instrument for the shortcomings of the music? As a person who HAS released a solo acoustic ukulele album, much Like Eddie’s, I can attest that he did not even scratch the surface of what the instrument can do. Can we admit our lovely ukulele has a PR problem? Absolutely yes. Is it fixable? or does it really NEED to be fixed?, that is a bigger question that plays back to being a musician in the first place.
I don’t say I play the ukulele and the “U” word does not appear prominently on my website. But that is just so people don’t turn away before hearing my music. Once people hear your music it shouldn’t matter what you are playing ON if they find a connection with what you’re playing. If the songs matter the medium becomes a non-issue. And I think that is what a lot of online performers are missing. Learn your instrument, develop songs (original or covers), make them musical, dynamic and interesting. Then go play your music live and see what gets a response. Put yourself emotionally into your songs, be honest, be yourself and make the audience part of your music then you will find the people that “get” what you’re doing. A lot won’t get it but the ones that do are your fanbase, at that point, it becomes a numbers game. And there is no faking it when you are playing a three hour set of 40 songs because it is exhausting.
I play a fair amount of Farmers Markets which sell locally sourced produce, meat, furniture, pottery paintings, etc… The “Local Grown” movement is big in these parts and as far as I’m concerned music is part of that. Just because you can post a video to thousands of people all over the world with social media tools you are not really building fans. Start local, the real fans come from an emotional connection with your art so get out and play for them. That is the work that goes into being a performing musician and it is and SHOULD be hard and occasionally frustrating. That’s how you learn. I think it’s a concept that seems to be losing ground because it is SO easy to just cut a 55-second video and post it. But there is no real connection to your audience in that format, no shared vulnerability of a live show. So if you get lots of online attention for your music try posting a lyrics-only video of a song and see how that affects your numbers. It’s a good litmus test to see if you have followers or fans.
So get out there and show people that your ukulele is more than just a gimmick or a social strum-along toy. It was born of an old Portuguese instrument and proudly honed for 100 years by Hawaiian artists and luthiers all over the world. It has a long and proud tradition so make real music with it, write songs on it, go play shows for people who really aren’t expecting what you are about to do, be brave. Get off the web attention-fix and make your OWN music. It’s not easy but it is definitely worth it and the whole ukulele community will thank you for it.
I started out playing ukulele just over 1 year ago and really enjoyed it but, I wanted to do more. I saw that people were building cigar box guitars and thought I would give a cigar box uke a try. The first one was cool but I enforced the face and it killed the sound. I talked to someone that repaired and worked on stringed instruments and ask for advice. He showed me a cut away of the inside of a guitar and explained that uke strings and steel guitar strings are very different. So back to the shop and the next one sounded a lot better and as I continued to build they got better looking and the sound was getting better. I have used several different types of wood for the neck and even built my own boxes. I have a 8 string with a ceder box and a cherry neck that i believe sounds great. I have even added pickups to some of my ukes.
A few months back we were in Maui and a friend said “Pick up some Koa while your there. It will be cheeper than here in Colorado.” I have also got pointers from several luthers and have continued to improve on my builds. I have now completed 2 traditional style ukuleles (1 tenor size, and 1 soprano size) they look and sound beautiful.
My next project is a Ubass of maple and walnut. I am not much of a player but am getting this build thing together. It has been very rewarding and great for stress management. To date I have about 35 cigar box builds and 2 traditional styles and I don’t see this ukulele addiction going away any time soon.
In 2017 I was lucky enough to be invited by Van Fletcher, Jake’s manager to his house in Nashville to listen to the latest mixes of the new Jake album. Interviewed Jake in the UK in 2016 and we had a fascinating discussion about music and it was clear to me that he has a great love of all kinds of music. Of course Jake is well known for his brilliant Queen and Beatles covers and I had his excellent Nashville album. Now he has released The Greatest Day and its excellent.
The new album is a brilliant choice of material with some fantastic guest musicians, including Jerry Douglas who is on three tracks – If 6 Was 9, Eleanor Rigby and Go For Broke
“It was such an honor to have Jerry guest on the record” He was only going to play on one tune, but we had such a great time that he stayed and played on two more tracks.”
I have long maintained that the ukulele is a terrific instrument, but often many (not all) ukulele players don’t explore more of its real potential. This album is a brilliant example of pushing the sonic boundaries and raises the bar for all ukulele players, but then Jake is far from just a ukulele virtuoso. In my opinion he is a superb musician who just happens to play the ukulele.
The album has a diverse range of material and kicks off with the great Zombies song “Time of the season” which has a fantastic melodic hook. The production is excellent on this track and throughout the album. The rhythm part reminds me of something Michael Jackson might arrange, a really great driving beat. The Greatest Day is a Jake composition and swings wonderfully with Jake’s part soaring in the mix. There’s also a great use of effects on the uke, which I’m not usually in favor of, but here it works really well. As with all the other tracks on the album, there is a real consideration to sonic dynamics which is essential especially for instrumental work. Few artists truly pull this off.
About the song - Time of the Season - YouTube
The title track “The Greatest Day” follows and here’s Jake talking about it
The Greatest Day: About The Title Track - YouTube
I know Jake has a love of Beatles music and Eleanor Rigby is really well arranged and sounds great especially with Jerry Douglas. I’ll kill to see Jake and Jerry play live as they work brilliantly together. “If six was nine” is where Jake takes this album to a whole new level. The playing is superb and I suspect Jimi would have approved.
Jake Shimabukuro - "If 6 Was 9" from his new album 'The Greatest Day' - 8.31.18 - YouTube
The challenge for uke players in playing guitar classics is to do something new. Otherwise why not just play the guitar? On this version, there’s, a great arrangement and this could sit comfortably on “Electric Ladyland” which from me is the ultimate compliment. Jake’s playing throughout is wonderfully fluid with a lot of dynamics. He’s been described as “the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele”, but I think of him more as “The Eric Johnson of the uke” Both musicians are world class and have a very distinctive sound.
“Straight As’ is an original composition by Jake and has a great feel. Its good to see Jake writing his own original material and continuing to explore new sound combinations.
About the song - Straight A's - YouTube
The album concludes with Hallelujah another great cover of a classic song. Those who know me, know that generally, I favor original material, but Jake is a rare individual who has the talent and creativity to bring something entirely new to such great tunes. He literally set the world alight with “While my guitar gently weeps” and I was blown away by Bohemian Rhasphody on his Ted talk. The Greatest Day will in my view continue to showcase the magic of the tiny uke to a much wider public, which is most welcome. He’s also on a trajectory for exploring new territory and that is always the sign of a smart musician.
Clearly, a great deal of time and care has gone into this recording and it shows in the result. Jake is touring extensively in the USA and Asia and audiences are in for a treat.
I set up OUS almost 3 years ago with the purpose of bringing together ukulele artists interested in creating original music. The FB site was the initial platform and then we set up this main OUS site. This was from what I see the first site dedicated to this end and its a fair amount of time and money investment to keep it all live. In fact a few months back the main site crashed due to traffic as we blew the bandwidth.
I have always adopted a policy of thanking people for their work, no matter how busy I am or where I am on the planet. On average I am in a different country every 6 weeks, often in different time zones. Alan Thornton and Cody Reeson help administer the FB site. On the main site we welcome artists in having their own pages and to date 127 have taken up the offer. We also invite guest blogs and articles and many have contributed thoughts including Phil Doleman, Mike Turner, Percy Copley and many others.
The platforms are advert free and there is no pleading for PayPal contributions to keep this all live. OUS has also sponsored uke festival stages, give away samplers, live charity events, musician travel, musician accommodation and many other initiatives. All this is done to encourage new music creation. I think some people would be surprised at the amount of financial investment in creating artist opportunities, but I am happy to do this as longs as there is enthusiasm for people creating original songs.
Next year we’ll be launching “Music for the Head and Heart” which is much bigger than OUS and not confined to any niche instrument. Of course, neither OUS or new the platform will be to everyone’s tastes and that’s fine. In the uke world, there are all kinds of politics and of course commercial interests that shape opinion. This is often the main focus of social media, but its not the focus of OUS. I mostly stay away from all that nonsense but will always stand up for OUS if people hurl negative posts and especially when these are fabricated.
I always welcome discussion and of course, people can pm any comments rather than try to be the centre of attention in some flame war online that serves no positive purpose. There are plenty of online groups for all that stuff. There is also a small group of characters who seem threatened by the whole concept of OUS, which is a bit odd to say the least. The often fostered image of one “ukulele community” is IMO total fiction. In reality, there are many completing commercial and artistic interests and all too often there’s not plenty of selfless actions and genuine encouragement, which is a sad reflection. Fortunately, there are a few beacons of hope and that’s the good news!
Some of the comments on social media defy belief and at times it’s like watching the lastest walk back in current Trump based White House with a number of fabrications spouted online.
One recent example from a character who criticised OUS, was on the platform, left and then tried to apply again but was refused because of his history of online behavior commented –
“I was thrown out, because I didn’t agree with him.”
NOBODY has ever been “thrown out” or off the forum for not agreeing with myself or anyone else.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite! Discussion and debate are always welcome as is honesty and good manners. I don’t think its too much to ask for.
I think it’s important to call people on such behavior as its the polar opposite of good manners and encouragement
The FB platform is growing faster than ever and the approved artist applications for this site are also at an all-time high. Part of the reason for this is that OUS is more than just an FB group that ebbs and flows, its a bigger creative movement for artist expression.
We will continue to promote artists at all levels interested in creating original music. OUS is inclusive and the FB page is a friendly place to share content.
The first article on this subject generated some useful and interesting discussion. Since setting up OUS a few years ago I have noticed that there are often two very polarised views when it comes to “ukulele music” Some people love to play cover songs and strum and its more of a social interaction which is fine. I have regularly supported running a PA for such groups and my wife attends a weekly strum along group.
My point is that as well as this, there is an opportunity for more diverse and ambitious sonic exploration. Good musical development means a willingness for critical evaluation. Of course, you never please everyone, but I’d like to think that its possible to aspire to greater creativity and OUS is a testament to that being totally possible. Without critical thinking, we never really develop as artists.
Developing your sound
One of the things I have learned from setting up bands is the importance of investing time and money. This means setting aside time for rehearsals and ensuring that you mean getting the best possible sound. Of course, will have time and money constraints but often a well-considered investment into a musical instrument rather than a “ukulele shaped object” can make a massive difference to your sound and enjoyment of playing. String choice can make a major difference and even a DI box choice can make all the difference between a sound and a really good sound. I have always promoted Fire Eye Development’s products for this.
Some artists use a multitude of effects but don’t explore how to set the effect parameters. This can result in effect saturation to the point where the sound loses any kind of dynamics. Of course, there is always the argument that people can have whatever they want, but a good musician knows the capability and limitations of equipment and s always seeking to refine and improve what they do.
The challenge with any instrument is that on its own there is a limit to its sonic range. Of course with a guitar there’s is the possibility of altered tunings and of course, typically a guitar is at least six strings. Ultimately its all about exploration and innovation. One of the best bands I ever saw was Morphine at The Pink Pop festival. The lead singer had a two-string bass and was accompanied by a saxophonist and a drummer. They opened the festival and blew everyone else away including Bjork, Crowded House, and The Orb.
As I mentioned in the first article, I absolutely love the ukulele as a musical instrument and even after a recent cull still own 20 ukes. I’ve written recorded 36 original songs on the uke and played this material all over the world. I admit to not being a fan of the quirky comedic uke image, but that’s a personal view. There are a few artists that have enough imagination and musical skills to connect with the wider public. These include Victoria Vox and James Hill among others.
I’m a massive fan of the ukulele as an instrument and especially as a songwriting tool and I set up the OUS platform a few years ago to bring together the best original ukulele musicians. The OUS FB page now has over 3100 members and on average we only approve one in 6 applications to join. One of the motivations for setting up OUS was that in my totally biased opinion a lot of what I saw and heard didn’t really inspire me. I admit that I am very picky about music and that probably comes from decades of playing and listening to some of the very best artists on planet earth.
One of the challenges for ukulele based artists is that the instrument itself has a specific sonic range. Yes, there are differences between soprano, concert, and baritone ukes, but even if we stretch beyond four strings there’s only so much of the same frequency that I can personally enjoy in one sitting! The instrument is a brilliant accompaniment for singers and artists like Eddie Vedder have really showcased how brilliant a ukulele set can be. I saw him perform his “Ukulele Songs” set in New York as well as the UK and it was a real masterclass in entertainment.
This is an exception of course and despite the superlatives bandied about online, few artists and songs are “awesome” “amazing” or “transcendental” to my ears. Those superlatives should, in my opinion, be reserved for the very few exceptional performances and songs. When almost everything is described in this way, we seriously run the danger of dumbing down music in an unhelpful manner. When everything is described as “awesome” nothing really is…
One of the best ways to expand the sonic range of material is to include other instruments and by “other instruments” I don’t mean just more ukuleles! There’s definitely a place for group strum alongs, but some of the most interesting material in my very biased opinion is where the uke is combined with instruments that make for a far more interesting and sonically diverse mix. James Hill is a good example of this and some of the bands on the artist page here also show what can be done. My first band “The Small Change Diaries” are not a typical ukulele based band and you probably won’t find us on the “ukulele circuit” as that’s not really our audience. My new band “the Caravan of Dreams” is even less uke based although I still write primarily on the uke.
A friend of mine who attended a well-known uke festival this year commented that for him it all got a bit dull hearing one solo artist after another mostly paying cover versions of songs. “Its all as Britain’s Got Talent” he commented. I reminded him that the public love that show but agreed that also in my personal opinion it would be nice to raise the bar for sonic exploration. Here is a wonderful example of how good the uke can be when incorporated with other instruments
Ukulele Sessions: James Hill & Anne Janelle - YouTube
A few years ago I had the total pleasure of interviewing Bill Collings of Collings Guitars. Bill has now passed away but throughout the interview, he constantly talked about the need to care about what you create. I mentioned to him that in my travels across the globe I had played countless instruments from his company including all manner of acoustics and electrics. Every single one was superb in playability and sound. This is one of the reasons why Collings instruments are so highly regarded by musicians.
I have always had a policy of striving to create the best possible end result. Often this means being stretched a bit financially and spending more time in any creative work. I came across some almost unlistenable video on social media of some uke artists. The sound was so bad you couldn’t really make out what was being played. In this day and age, you don’t need cutting-edge equipment to create some really good music. Often it’s simply about having some interest in quality control so anyone watching/listening can see and hear what is going on.
Of course, everyone will have their own views on this subject and some folks become extremely defensive about this whole issue suggesting that there are only two options – super slick crafted videos and homemade efforts. Of course, this is more than a bit simplistic. Its totally possible to capture great sound and vision with really basic gear, if of course, you care about the end result.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview with Bill May 2016
As I was saying to Alex, (Bill’s right hand man who was kind enough to show us all around the facility at Collings)I’ve been all around the world, New York ,Japan and everywhere ,and I’ve never played any of your instruments which don’t sound great, and I can’t say that for any other builder.
Yeah well, that’s what we try to do, so we’re supposed to care!
The other day I heard from a dealer about electric guitars, that nobody cares about fit and finish in an electric guitar ,and I thought “you know, well I guess the world is done” I mean to say that if you don’t care about something like that , you’ve given up, you know?
Well I don’t think that is the universally accepted view
I hope not
Bill’s passing was a great loss to the music world and especially the ukulele world, where he made many superb instruments. I fully endorse his philosophy about caring and paying attention to the quality of what we produce. It requires more effort, but then why settle for anything less?
I remain fascinated by the songwriting process, which is one of the reasons why I set up the OUS platform. Next year we launch the Music for The Head and Heart platform which is much bigger than OUS. This also has an element that looks at the creation and delivery of original music, but is not confined to any individual instrument.
Recently I was getting ready for a rehearsal for “The Caravan of Dreams” ensemble, playing the wonderful Gregor Nowak guitarelle. I found a really simple haunting riff that really stuck in my head. With 20 minutes before other band members turning up I scribbled down a couple of verses. This was one of those moments where the first draft is great and there’s a whole stream of consciousness going on where I’m writing as fast as I can to get down the ideas.
Instead of rehearsing what I had planned, we launched into this new track, literally hot off the press. My violinist and double bass player created an intro harmonizing both instruments which sounded amazing. We ran through the track 3 times with Agi on vocals and harmony vocals and it sounds so good, I putting it to the top of the list for July’s recording date. This is the fastest piece of writing ever, even faster than “There’s only one of you” which is on the first Small Change Diaries album and a favorite track for many.
My experience is that its helpful to be in a particular state when creating new songs and crucially not to start editing too soon in the writing process. This is a strategy used by Walt Disney when he created his films and Disney still adopt this way of working today. When the muse turns up its truly a fascinating process and its in my experience being like a channel for something to appear. Sometimes once the song forms I think “Where on earth did that come from?”