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.
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?