The arrival of spring also bring the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to the United States for a series of dates in Midwest, Southwest, and California. The shows are happening now, so don’t delay if you’re near any of these venues.
The groundbreaking ensemble is known for its humor and engaging shows — check the video for evidence.
EXPLORATION “I try to reserve time to noodle and wander around the fretboard. This exploration time can be rewarding and educational, as it’s often a great way to hear the strengths and weakness in your playing.”
EXERCISES “When I am actually playing, my goal is to be free to go wherever my mind wants to go. By warming up with a few physical exercises (about 10 minutes) before jumping into my actual practice, I’m much more limber to do what I want to do and I’m able to focus more on musical concepts and ideas more than physicality.”
LISTEN “The instrument is an illusion; you are playing your ear, and the more you can exercise the muscle of listening, the better. This can be sitting down with your favorite album, a quick song on the radio, or even listening to the way the wind sounds bellowing through your favorite corner of your home. The more you can hear, the wider your auditory world will become.”
EAR TRAINING “When I learn a new song, I almost always transcribe it, because when I do this I’m training my ear to hear harmony and melody. If sheet music is easily accessible and available, I will only use it as a reference to compare to my transcription. When you transcribe something, not only are you training your ear to hear more, you also learn more about harmony and this increases your chordal vocabulary.”
NEW SKILLS “Technique comes to mind when I think of developing new skills. To me, learning a new skill takes time for the mind and body to absorb before it becomes part of your arsenal. This involves a lot of repetition and application. It’s been said before, but if you want to learn something in the shortest amount of time, have patience, and practice slowly and correctly before you increase the tempo.”
Uke Tales is an exploration of ukuleles with an interesting story, connection, or just a lovely instrument, available only at UkuleleMag.com.
I bought my 1928 Gibson Style 0 soprano ukulele about 10 years ago at Real Guitars, a crowded little independent shop in San Francisco. I strummed a tune or two before realizing that the other players there had stopped playing to listen. That’s not me, that’s all vibe. I’ll take it.
I didn’t know much except it was my first great ukulele and the faded “The Gibson” stencil on the headstock meant that it was 1920s. I’ve always been most excited about old instruments. And as my musical tastes veered esoterically back to ragtime and vaudeville, so too has my taste for the instruments from those times. In the guitar world “vintage” mostly means instruments from 1950s and ’60s. “Prewar” means 1930s. So we’re starting to stretch into “antique” territory here.
The allure of antiques is the craftsmanship and materials, and also the patina that comes from unknown people enjoying the thing for many years before it came to you. The dings are hints at people and stories that you’ll never know. On this “The Gibson” there’s lot’s of honest wear from many many hours of playing, the finish is gone on the top from years of strumming, plus scratches, chips and edges worn round from players who truly loved this uke.
Early Style 0 ukes included an elegant inlaid rosette.
As I paid, the guy behind the counter fished out a dusty little black case with magenta fuzz interior. If the uke didn’t give away its age, the case certainly showed it. Fraying rubbery exterior, rust covered hinges and latches, and a mostly worn-through stitched leather handle. “The original,” he told me.
I carry this ukulele in a sturdy new case, so it wasn’t until the editor of this magazine, Greg Olwell, asked to photograph the uke with the old case that I took it out and gave it a good dusting. That’s when I first noticed the traces of block lettering on the lid, probably painted with stencils or from letters that were glued on. Whatever it was, all that remains are dark impressions where the letters once were. I couldn’t make them out, but under warm afternoon sunlight Greg could read, “LT. RUDOLPH BAILEY” stenciled on both sides of the case along with what appears to be a partially legible service number.
We retouched the photo to highlight the faded stencil on this old case.
Google brought us to the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, library archive website and a digital copy of an old newsprint column from the Tuscaloosa News with the headline, “Rites are held for Lt. Bailey.” US Army Air Corps bombardier Lieutenant Rudolph Bailey, “was killed in a bomber crash over Lakeland, Florida, on April 23, 1943.” Two Martin B-26 Marauder bombers flying a low altitude training mission collided that day. One of the stories of this ukulele—concerning a musician and a very dangerous time during the second World War—instantly became very real.
I believe I can be relatively confident that this is the same Lt. Bailey… or at least that’s as far as Google will take me. I also found threads that led me to his widow, who passed in 2010, and a daughter named Rudy. I’ve reached out to the family, just to share this very small part of his story. I’m also pretty confident, even if I’ll never really know, that the reason this ukulele sounds so great is the many hours of ragtime, vaudeville, swing, and hot jazz tunes played by the Lieutenant and everyone else who has touched this ukulele over the past 90 years.
Of course, the very first thing you will think of when you hear the word “gear” is all the electronics available out there. Though that part of being a musician is fun, I’m talking about something much more personal: your instrument.
I cannot stress how important it is to choose your instrument. Once you’ve decided that you are ready to dedicate yourself to becoming a musician, you want to ensure you have the best instrument you can afford. I’m not saying that you need to buy a $2,000 ukulele, but you want to find the best one for you because this instrument will be your best friend, helping you through good times and bad.
Depending on where you live, this can be quite difficult. However, if you can take the time to diligently search, it will be worth it.
In my ukulele journey, the first uke I bought was a Magic Fluke Flea. I adored that uke and it was perfect for getting me started (and for taking to the beach). Once I began to really get in deep with lessons, I realized that the instrument had limitations. I wanted to be able to play amplified and I found that the smaller size was a bit more difficult when trying to play jazzy chords. This led me to really think about what I wanted in my next instrument, and more importantly, the bigger issues that anyone can use when looking for a good match.
TRY THEM ALL OUT
Do not limit yourself on price when searching. This is a mistake most people make when they first start shopping because they are either too scared to try the more expensive models or they don’t feel they are “worthy” of such an instrument. Trying out all ukes, free from shopping by price, will give you an idea of what specs are ideal on your instrument. You will learn things that you like and things that you don’t like; then you can begin to narrow your choices down to an instrument that is closest to your ideal specs and price. Why is this so important? If you have a nice instrument, you’ll want to play.
Take the time to really examine each instrument’s neck and fretboard with your eyes and your hands. You’ll notice some brands have wider fretboards, while others have thicker necks. These variables could be important to you. For example, in my search, I found that I prefer ukuleles with a wider neck because it gives my fingers a bit more room on the fretboard. Once I discovered this, it helped me narrow my search, since not all brands make ukes with a wider fretboard.
Neck width, as measured at the nut, can be an important factor in deciding if a uke feels right for you. In this shot, the lower neck is wider, which some fingerstyle players find more comfortable.
Neck thickness, or depth, is another factor in fretting-hand comfort.
LOOKS AREN’T EVERYTHING
You may see a uke on the wall that you think is ugly, or just doesn’t seem special. However, once you play it, you might discover that its voice is amazing. Take a chance to play all the instruments that you can, even if you don’t think that any of the available ukes will be the one. If possible, bring a friend (who plays) with you on this search. I like to narrow down the uke choices to my top three or five favorites, and then have someone play each for me while I close my eyes and listen. Once you take your eyes out of the equation, you’re judging the uke on its sound, not by its looks. If I don’t have a friend to help me, I may just pick up each instrument, close my eyes, and play so I can focus on the feel of the instrument and its sound.
Don’t get hung up on the wood. Yes, koa is a beautiful wood and it’s traditional, but that doesn’t mean it’s “the best” wood for ukuleles. I know this sounds blasphemous, but have an open mind. I’m always surprised by what sounds great—and here’s the kicker—what I think sounds great might not be what you think sounds great. And, this brings me to my next point: strings.
Once you’ve chosen your instrument, you may eventually find yourself going on a quest for strings. Strings are incredibly tactile and subjective. Every person prefers a different feel and sound, which is why there are so many different string types and brands available. Not only do you have to take tone, feel, and playability into account, you also need to consider what materials make up your instrument. Certain strings may sound better on one uke, but not on another, so sometimes there’s no single answer, even for one player. This seems like it could be a long and arduous task, which is why I called it a quest. On the bright side, you’ll be a pro at changing your strings!
When searching for strings, you should ask yourself a few questions about the sound, feel, and texture of the strings you’d most like to play. Ask yourself: Do I prefer a bright and crisp sound or a mellow and warm sound? Do I like my strings to feel looser (low tension) or more taught (high tension)? Would I prefer the strings to be smooth or have a slight texture? Knowing the answer to these questions can sometimes help to narrow your search.
So many choices!
Many times, strings that have a brighter sound also tend to have a higher tension. So, if you answered that you prefer a brighter sound, chances are that you will end up with strings with a slightly higher tension. You’ll probably end up with fluorocarbon strings, which are made with a material that was originally used for fishing line. Many brands out there sell strings of this material, and fluorocarbon strings also tend to have a very smooth texture, which can be desirable for some players.
If you said you’d prefer a sound that is more mellow and warm, you will most likely end up with a slightly lower-tension string. In this case, I’d recommend taking a look at nylon strings. This Pandora’s Box will enter you into the world of nylon polymers. Basically, all this means is that another material has been mixed with the nylon to create the string. You will also encounter ground-nylon strings, which gives them a slight texture.
You’ll also come across other materials for strings, like titanium, wound-metal strings, steel strings, and more. If the set sounds interesting, give it try! The worst case scenario is, you don’t like how the strings sound or feel and you remove them. Luckily, uke strings aren’t super expensive, so it’s not too stressful to experiment.
With all of this said, don’t think too hard about it, and just try them out. And, once you’ve found the sound you are looking for, stock up! You want to change your strings regularly, to ensure your uke always sounds its best.
Sarah Maisel is an in-demand ukulele teacher and performer who, along with her partner Craig Chee, recently launched an online lesson series on artistworks.com. cheemaisel.com
Workshop Jedi and Ukulele contributing editor Jim D’Ville is swinging through Southern California for a mid-March clutch of workshops before returning to the Land of Enchantment for more workshops and an event with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
What if I told you that after hearing the first two chords of a song, you could reasonably guesstimate the remainder of the chord progression? People would no doubt begin referring to you as some sort of musical Nostradamus, able to see measures into the future! Well, there is a system that, when used in practical application, can hone your power to predict future musical events. I call it the “Logical Guesstimation System.”
Laying the Groundwork
The first step in harnessing the power of the LGS is to sing and play the intervals of the C major scale until you can recognize each of them by ear. Play and sing Example 1 as part of your daily practice.
Once you have the intervals of the C major scale embedded in your musical mind, add the associated chords of the major scale, seen in Example 2, into your daily practice routine. It is imperative that you can identify the chordal intervals of the major scale by ear before implementing the LGS. An easy way to do this (as I’ve covered in previous Ukulele articles) is to assign an emotional value to each interval. How does a major second (like C–D) make you feel when you hear it? Play each interval, listen, and ask yourself that question. Once you have practiced these exercises for a reasonable amount of time, you will be fully prepared to put the Logical Guesstimation System to use.
How It Works
Songs in popular music often begin on the first chord of the song’s key. We refer to this as the I (one) chord. Since most songs have multiple chords, we have to guess which one will come next. The good news is that rock, pop, country, and folk rely heavily on the chords of the major scale! Let’s guess what the second chord might be in a song in any of those genres. We can all but rule out the song going from the I to the viidim chord (seven dim). I can’t think of a single song that begins I–viidim (C–Bdim). That leaves us with a mere five possible choices for the song’s second chord.
The first and most logical guess is the V (five) chord. In music theory terminology, the V chord is referred to as the dominant chord. The interval of a root to a perfect fifth is the sound of triumph. (Think of the sound of an English hunting horn.) Most two-chord progressions are I–V–I or I–V7–I. In a three-chord song, the LGS predicts the song will either go from the I to the V or the I to the IV. Country music tends to use I–IV–V progressions. But, how do we know what the second chord in a country song will be? The LGS suggests that when she is leaving the relationship, the song will go to the V first. If she is falling back in love with the heartbroken cowboy singer, it will go to the IV.
We have already shown the emotional value of the three major chords found in each major scale. So what does the LGS tell us when minor chords show up in a song? If a song starts with the I chord and next goes to a minor-sounding chord, your first guess is the vi (six minor). A great place to hear the I–vi progression is in the doo-wop and pop music of the 1950s. Note also that in those styles, the ever-popular IV and V chords most often follow the I–vi change, which result in the wildly popular I–vi–IV–V progression.
We now have only two final chords to deal with in our examination of the Logical Guesstimation System, the ii and the iii (two minor and three minor). Although next-door neighbors in the scale, these two chords, couldn’t be further apart in their emotional make-up. The I–ii progression is a very safe place. It’s the reason nothing bad is going to happen in the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It starts out I–ii, and since we know from the title it’s all going to work out in the end, the next chord should also be harmless, and by now we know the IV would never do anything to hurt us. Hence, the progression is I–ii–IV and is pretty happy-go-lucky sounding.
The last chordal interval in the Logical Guesstimation System is what I call the “Heartbreak Interval.” Most of the time, when the words heartbreak or heartache are mentioned in the first line of a pop song, you can put money on the progression going I to iii (one to three minor). By recognizing the I–iii progression, you can easily predict what may happen later in the song! Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”begins I–iii, and as we all know, it won’t be too long before Suzy runs off with some foreign guy. In the song “Different Drum,” Linda Ronstadt immediately tips her hand that she’s going to dump her boyfriend in just a few measures by leading with the I–iii progression.
You can further enhance your knowledge of the Logical Guesstimation System by paying particular attention to the titles of songs, their lyrics, and what chords the important words fall on. These are additional clues as to what is going to happen emotionally in a song so you may logically surmise what chord is coming next in the progression.
Some Logical Examples
I–ii “Groovin’,” “All About The Bass,” “Going To The Chapel,” “Be My Baby”
I–iii “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “The Weight,” “It’s A Heartache,” “Cruel to Be Kind”
I–IV “My Girl,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “In the Midnight Hour,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
I–V “Happy Birthday,” “Skip To My Lou,” “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” “Cielito Lindo”
I–vi “Blue Moon,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Teenager in Love,” “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”
Music educator Jim D’Ville is on a mission to get ukulele players off the paper and into playing music by ear. Jim hosts the popular Play Ukulele by Ear website playukulelebyear.com.
Craig and I are commonly asked, “How do I get better?” The traditional answer is practice, of course, but there is much more to it than that. Since so many players forget that they aren’t just playing the ukulele—they are playing music—we are going to delve into the many attributes that help you to become, not just a better ukulele player, but a better musician.
Of course, practice is one of the most crucial parts to bettering yourself, but it also may be the most daunting. What you practice, how you practice, and why you practice are all very good questions that we are going to dive into. To answer these questions for myself, I break my practice down into four main categories: warm-up, skill-building, ear training, and repertoire.
I always start my sessions with some type of stretches or finger exercises to warm up my hands. Playing an instrument can be a very physical activity, and it’s always good to prep yourself before you get going. Think of yourself as a runner, stretching before you begin.
I also consider going through familiar scales as part of my warm-up session. I may take two simple major and minor moveable scales and play them from the 1st to the 7th fret. This doesn’t take long and it allows my fingers a chance to become more limber. I also sing along to the scales as I go through them. It’s a great vocal warm-up, and for those of you that are also singers, you are practicing two skills for the price of one!
The meat of my practice is skill-building, and in this part I will work on something that I think is pretty difficult. The idea here is to challenge yourself—that is the only way you will ever grow as a musician. Here are a few ideas for practice.
WORK ON DIFFICULT TRANSITIONS
Let’s say you have been working on an arrangement and there are a few measures that you can’t seem to play in time. Forget about the rest of the song for the time being and work only on those troublesome measures for a few minutes. You’ll be surprised at how long those few minutes will feel when you’re doing something difficult. Do this focused practice for a few days before you try to put it together with the rest of the song. Once you put the pieces together, you can then begin to speed up your song. Be sure not to speed up too early, however. You want to be able to practice the song only as quickly as you can make the hardest transition.
Something else that goes into this category is playing in other positions on the instrument. How else will you learn your fretboard if you don’t spend time on it? Working through different positions of your C major chord, for example, is practice time well spent. Even if you just spend two solid minutes going through all four main positions each day, you will discover that the two minutes daily is immensely helpful.
WORK ON ARRANGING
You’ve got this great song that you’ve been wanting to do as a chord melody. This is your time to sit and work on it. You might only work on one verse, or you might blaze through the whole song; either way, sitting and arranging songs on your instrument is great practice that draws on many skills.
Arranging doesn’t have to be just chord melody. It could also be creating introductions or endings to a song you strum. Taking the time to work on a piece of music counts as practice. If you have never tried to arrange a song before, spend some time listening to recordings of some of your favorite tunes. See if there are intros and outros you enjoy and try to re-create them. The time you spend listening and problem-solving with the instrument is just as helpful as working out a full arrangement.
Do you want to be able to play in multiple keys? The first step is making yourself do it. Take songs that you know and love and put them in keys you’ve never tried—like Eb or A. We often get locked into playing tunes in familiar keys because, well, they’re familiar and we don’t like being pushed. You might find that a song sounds better in another key, or that it’s easier to sing in that key. Transposing allows you to be a more well-rounded musician and will also give you the tools to jump into a jam a bit easier.
I like to take a tune that I know well and transpose it into at least three keys. You can start off with using a popular progression, like a I–V–vi–IV. It’s one of the first progressions people are taught on the uke, and in the key of C, it’s C–G–Am–F. Take that progression and try transposing it to the key of G, or Eb or A. Doing this will get you out of the “C Comfort Zone.”
Sarah uses index cards to keep her focus on her goals.
WORK ON A NEW TECHNIQUE
Whether you are working with an instructor or not, taking time out of your practice session to expand your playing techniques is crucial to making yourself a more versatile musician. Techniques can be as simple as learning hammer-ons and pull-offs, or as difficult as learning clawhammer. I’m not saying you need to learn all of the techniques, but take the time to reflect on how you’d like to sound, and see what techniques will get you there. The key to learning a new technique is consistency. Spending five minutes each day working on a skill is way more beneficial than cramming all that practice into a one-day session.
While each of these examples is a way I might spend the skill-building portion of my session, I may not do all of these on one session. If I’m working on an arrangement, for example, that might take up the entire time I’ve set aside. Or, it may be that I spend the bulk of my time working on difficult transitions, and then go to a new technique. Use this time how you see fit, but the biggest takeaway is you should use this time to push yourself. Once you’ve spent time working on skill building, have some fun with…
One very simple way to practice ear-training is to listen to your favorite songs and try to play along. As you do this, try to figure out the key by testing out some chords to see if you can follow along. If it turns out you didn’t establish the key, try again! If you have sorted out the key, try to emulate a solo section, or simply play along with the recording, focusing on listening and enhancing the song. You don’t want to overpower the recording, as it is your “jamming” band.
Practicing with backing tracks is extremely valuable. Before YouTube, I had (and still have) a whole collection of the Jamey Aebersold Backing Tracks. Working with pre-recorded tracks is much more fulfilling than working with a metronome. Not only does doing this help you with your timing (since the band was playing to a click track, they are in time), you can work on learning the melody of the song, try specific soloing techniques, or just noodle! You can find tons of free backing tracks, in a variety of keys, on YouTube. This means you have no excuse to try it out! You’ll be surprised how much fun you’ll have during your practice.
I always end my practice session with repertoire. This does two things: It makes me practice what I already know—to ensure I don’t forget it—and it’s fun!
Ending your session with something fun is important. It will help you remember your practice session fondly and that will make you want to practice. Part of why we play music is because it is fun—and you never want to forget that.
Finding ways to utilize your practice and to be as efficient as possible is what will set you apart from others. Honing-in on specific techniques and your goals is very important to good practice. To help myself with reaching my goals, I would write them down on an index card and read them to myself each night (or before a practice session). Doing this made me always remember why I was practicing. Eventually, when I would reach the goals on the card, it would give me a sense of accomplishment, and I’d make a new index card. Learning is not easy, but you can still have fun.
Sarah Maisel is an in-demand ukulele teacher and performer who, along with her partner Craig Chee, recently launched an online lesson series on artistworks.com. cheemaisel.com
If you set a dozen ukes on a table face-side down, it’s usually pretty hard to tell who made them; the basic body shape of Martins, Kamakas, Kalas, etc. are all pretty similar. But there’s one concert-sized vintage uke that’s easy to differentiate from all the rest: the Hollywood ukulele. Although its body follows the classic Spanish form (a figure-eight shape, with the lower bout slightly larger than the upper), Hollywood ukes have a more voluptuous rounded shape with a noticeably larger lower bout (in contemporary terms, this uke has a big booty!). I’m not sure how this body shape affects the instrument’s tone, but Hollywood ukes sound a bit warmer and mellower than other concert ukes I’ve played.
The Hollywood uke story starts in 1902, when brothers Jack and Nathan Schireson (pronounced “Sheer-son”) opened a small music retail store in Los Angeles. In the early days, they didn’t make ukuleles, but sold all sorts of musical goods, ranging from sheet music to guitars and band instruments to electric radios. In the following decades, Schireson Bros. expanded their business to include ukuleles, guitars, and mandolins they had manufactured under their Hollywood brand name. (Hollywood isn’t far from where their stores were in downtown L.A.) Building their own instruments was likely the idea of Nathan, who was an inventor familiar with the mechanics of lutherie. He experimented with magnetic pickups for guitars and in 1932, was granted a U.S. patent for a steel-cone guitar resonator device. Unfortunately, his design was similar enough to one patented by John Dopyera (founder of National String Instruments) that the case went to court; Nathan eventually lost.
Schireson’s Hollywood ukuleles were built by Robert E. Pearson, an English luthier who was once a well-known banjo-uke builder and also had worked for Martin Guitar prior to moving out to California to build for the Schireson Bros. The Hollywood uke line consisted of at least four models: #6, #8, #9, and #10. Their bottom-of-the-line #6 uke featured all-mahogany construction with a rosewood fingerboard and no bindings; just a simple black-white-black inlay around the sound hole and a Hollywood logo decal set diagonally in a red band across the headstock. Their premier #10 uke had features that rivaled Martin’s coveted 5K model: a curly koa body with abalone purfling and soundhole rosette and a mahogany neck with an ivoroid-bound ebony fingerboard with fancy pearl inlays. The headstock has two fancy pearl inlays as well as the “Hollywood” logo done in pearl. To top it off, this uke’s bridge and nut were carved from real ivory, as well as the bridge pins. (The fancy uke seen here lacks an ivory bridge and pins. It may be a model variation, or it had its original bridge replaced.)
Other Hollywood concert ukuleles sport a variety of different features, including models with spruce tops on mahogany bodies and those with rope bindings. (I contacted Jack Schireson’s grandson Gary, who, unfortunately, didn’t have any specific information about Hollywood’s model numbers and how they were specified or may have changed over the years of production.) Besides body shape, one thing all Hollywood concert ukes have in common is that their body sides were all bent from a single piece of wood—most ukes have a seam at the bottom of the lower bout where the upper and lower sides are joined.
Schireson also produced Hollywood banjo-ukes, mandolins, and guitars, although it’s unclear whether or not Pearson supervised construction of these, or they had someone else manufacture these and simply gave them the Hollywood brand. They even had their own line of Hollywood uke strings.
An interesting footnote to the Schireson Bros. story: Just after WWII, a man walked into one of their stores and asked to speak with Stanley Schireson, Jack’s son. He showed him a line of transistor radios that his company produced in Japan. Stanley liked the radios and agreed to carry them in his stores. That man’s name was Morita Akio and the company that he co-founded was Sony. Over the years, Schireson expanded its home and musical electronics business and eventually changed its name to Volutone. They’re still in business today, working as an electronics distribution company in Southern California and Nevada.
Sandor Nagyszalanczy is a regular contributor to Ukulele Magazine and a woodworking expert, an avid ukulele collector, and a uke club member living in Santa Cruz, California.
Breedlove Music shows off new ukuleles in this video shot at the 2019 NAMM show in Anaheim, California.
The Oregon-based company is known for its use of myrtle, a locally grown wood, in its guitars and they debuted it in their new ukulele line with the Lu’au series. The Lu’au ukes are available with solid spruce or solid myrtle tops and laminated myrtle backs and sides, with electronics. The line launched only in concert sized ukes, but expect it to expand to more sizes in the future.