For years, I didn’t use a strap on my ukulele. Why on earth would I need one on such a tiny thing? The uke wants to be clutched close to the heart, not strung on a noose. I sang and strummed without a care.
Everything changed the day I went to take Daniel Ward’s first flamenco ukulele workshop at McCabe’s, the legendary guitar store in Santa Monica, California. Apparently, the world was not ready; nobody else came—which made me the luckiest girl on earth: I got a private lesson in sevillanas, fingerstyle melodies, and sharp rhythmic patterns from the traditional Spanish guitar repertoire. Within the hour, I realized, “Oh my GCEA, I need a strap!”
Some see this as a divisive u’ke/uke moment, but don’t let high (or low G) anxiety get to you. If you’re wondering whether it’s time for you to button up and strap on, here are some honest answers and easy guidelines.
Paul Hemmings, photo by Bill Waldman
New York, NY “Most ukulele straps I find are too thin, and if you try to use a guitar strap, it’s usually too bulky. I’ve got the Goldilocks ukulele strap because it’s just right. I set the strap so that the instrument is in the same position, regardless of whether I’m sitting or standing—I usually practice sitting down—and I recommend Goldilocks straps to students for the same reason.”
Cathy Fink, left, with Marcy Marxer
Silver Spring, MD
“Using a strap means that neither of your hands are responsible for holding your uke in the perfect position. Many players, especially beginners, use the left hand to hold up the neck and the right hand to squeeze the uke in place. The strap takes care of that so both hands can be focused on playing.”
Daniel Ward, photo by Ron Grouper
Los Angeles, CA
“Liz Olney designed and made all my straps. They’re pretty swanky, but the core design is what makes it for me. The 3/4-inch width seems perfect for ukulele—balance is uniform, and the soft backing means no slipping at the shoulder.”
“A strap allows both hands to move freely with no forced support of the instrument. Try and play a single-note melody on the open strings without a strap while standing, and feel where you end up compromising to hold up the instrument. For concert and tenor sizes, it really helps.”
“I do pick up ukes without a strap all the time. When material is not difficult or I’m just strumming on a little soprano at a jam, it’s great fun.”
“Never have and I hope I never will. I play nothing but a standard size, which makes them manageable to hold. (I do play tenor sax, and I use a strap then!) I like my hands to be dancing across the top of the uke. Holding down a chord with my left hand, palm against the neck, keeps it place, and the gravity of up and down strums keeps it floating in mid-air in front of me.
“Without a strap, the instrument is moveable. I find that when I’m playing a Bb chord, I hold the instrument with the headstock pointing straight away from me, whereas on ‘double bar’ chords [i.e.: m7b5] I have to pull the instrument flat against my body. With different strums, I hold it differently, too—higher for fingerpicking, lower for a Pete Townshend rock strum, and I like to change it up during a song.”
“Like a violin, a lot of sound comes off the back of the instrument, and if you are using a strap, the instrument nestles down into your gut, and you lose it all. And, if you’re wearing a strap, you can’t spin it around like Roy Smeck.”
“I have always played with a strap, as I need all my fingers to pick (I can’t sing at all). This ukulele is a Mya-Moe tenor with Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” character (featured in director Sergio Leone “Dollars” trilogy) inlayed on the fretboard; the corresponding strap was made by Terry Misner, owner of Action Custom Straps. He has made all my straps that match my other ukuleles.”
Marsha “Grits” Gresso and Tammy St. Pierre
“When I first bought my ukulele in Hawaii, I didn’t get a strap because I wasn’t sure I wanted to have someone drill a hole into my koa uke. But I found it difficult to hold, and I got tired easily. I purchased an adjustable strap that had a J-hook clip-on, but it felt clumsy and my uke didn’t feel secure and safe as I moved around. When I returned to Hawaii and the shop where I bought my ukulele, I had the owner install a strap button. I also think it sounds better when I’m not clutching it tightly.”
TAMMY ST. PIERRE Traverse City, MI
“It is nice to be able to let go of the uke and walk around to talk to people at uke group. I bought a white Kala archtop ukulele so I could change color of my straps to match an outfit, special occasion, or holiday.”
WHAT A STRAP CAN DO FOR YOU
Help keep your instrument in an optimum position
Allow your right and left hands to play more freely
Give you confidence and independence of movement
Present opportunities for fun accessorizing and gifting
Ready for a strap? Some straps don’t require buttons, but most do. You can take your instrument to a respected shop and have strap buttons installed, but it’s not a difficult job to tackle at home if you have a few tools and some courage. Follow these instructions from Elderly Instrument’s head repair tech, Joe Konkoly:
A Here’s everything you need: strap, strap buttons with felt washers to protect the instrument, fine drill bit, Phillips head screw bit, and hand drill. (above)
BTake a look at the bottom of your instrument, known as the tailblock: That’s where the first button will go. Use a ruler to mark the midpoint of the center joint.
C Gently drill the pilot hole.
D Screw the button in.
EYou will need another button on the neck heel, unless you opt to attach your strap to your headstock underneath the strings. For many, the choice between a strap on the neck heel or headstock is a question of balance and comfort. Lay your instrument upside down on a padded surface (a towel or carpet square) and locate and mark the location for the button on the treble side of the neck heel. Gently drill at an angle about 1/4-inch into the wood. (Note the solid “sweet spot” where the button goes in.)
F Screw in strap button.
GPut strap on buttons, adjust length to your liking.Voila! Go forth and conquer!
I have a fondness for objects that last, the kinds of things that are made to outlive their first few owners while also looking and feeling beautiful. When we talk about a ukulele, we add the condition that it must also excel in quality—and quantity—of sound. If it’s built too lightly, it may have volume but not fortitude; if it’s stout enough to withstand abuse, it may live its life tucked away in a case due to its weak sound.
“Voicing”—the process by which a luthier thins and braces an instrument’s top during construction—has been the heart of the matter for hundreds of years. I am by no means an expert on the history and science of voicing, but I have learned about what has happened in the past, and I watch carefully as others take this practice to new places.
My experience is a unique one that unfolded over eight years as I braced and carved tops for over 1,500 instruments at Mya-Moe and Beansprout. After inheriting a traditional bracing pattern from Gordon and Char Mayer at Mya-Moe, I slowly and subtly developed ways to alter and apply that pattern to different sizes, top-woods, playing styles, as well as the tone and volume needs of the player. As part of my daily workload, I braced two ukes and strung up a third that had been braced a couple of weeks earlier. This meant that I still had memories of the voicing process of each uke and could hear the results rather quickly, speeding up the slow process of refining the voicing of our entire output. We always had the same goal—produce a durable instrument that also sounded its best.
So, let’s get to it. I start with the top and back with the soundhole cut, rosette inlaid, and sanded on a drum sander to .080–.085 inches thick for the top and .085–.090 inches on the back. This thickness varies according to species of wood, the stiffness of a particular board, and even the pitch the wood makes as it goes through the sander. (This is just one of the many times that a musician’s ears can help during this process.) The idea is to leave the back stiffer than the top so it reflects the sound that the top produces. For this instrument, we are using old growth Douglas fir for the top and Oregon walnut for the back and sides. Figure 1
Next, I use a template to trace the bracing pattern onto the top and back—two cross braces and back strip for the back, and a bridge plate, three fan braces, and two cross braces for the top (Fig. 2). Bracing patterns are a deep rabbit hole to go down. I have seen builders try to learn and refine several patterns at once, which distracts them and slows down their progress. I suggest picking one and slowly refining one aspect at a time, giving you better data to use for future builds.
I use Sitka spruce for the braces, which is sawed from chunks I split from larger billets. They start out 3/8-inch high and 1/4-inch thick and I work them down from there. Before they are glued into place, the back braces are hand planed and then rubbed on a radiused sanding dish to help introduce a subtle arch into the back, making it stronger (Fig. 3). The ends of some braces are then scalloped on a jig on the sander(Fig. 4), to be refined with a chisel later.
The braces (Fig. 5) are then glued on using a go-bar deck: two wooden boards held together by a steel rod with fiberglass kite rods as clamps (Fig. 6). This step must be done pretty quickly so that I have time to scrape glue squeeze-out before it dries.
After several hours of drying time, I take them over to a board at my bench that is flat on one side and radiused on the other; it holds the plates for the next steps. I then use a small plane to taper the braces into a V-shape and a chisel to finish scalloping the ends, leaving a careful curve from full height to paper thin at the ends. Fig. 7
This is where I really start listening to the top, holding it near my ear and tapping it to listen for the two main musical pitches. (Fig. 8)Every stroke of the plane or chisel lowers the main sustained pitch away from the percussive tap, working towards a harmonious goal that is difficult to describe with words. I know from experience that carving too much off the top bracing to chase a lower pitch will eventually lead to a weak top with a “floppy” tap tone. You just need to know when to stop! Keep in mind that the braces still need to be sanded and the top will later get sanded from 220-grit up to 600-grit, also lowering the pitch a little.
When I am happy with the top, I sand the braces to remove tool marks and scrape off any dried glue with a razor blade. I am now ready to glue it to the sides and complete the body. Fig. 9
The bracing is just one of the many mundane steps that eventually add up to a finished instrument, but I always look forward to it, and I would argue that it is one of the most important for the instrument’s sound and durability. Like any other task in building an instrument, it really benefits from practice and experience. Just give me another 1,500 ukuleles, and maybe I’ll begin to figure it all out.
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments (thebeansprout.com) and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American. quietamericanmusic.com
The technique of solfège involves assigning the notes of a scale a particular syllable, and then practicing by singing different note sequences using these syllables. Italian music scholar Guido of Arezzo created the system in the 11th century. No doubt, the most famous application of the solfège (pronounced sol-fej) is Julie Andrews singing “Do-Re-Mi” in the musical motion picture The Sound of Music. One of the most important aspects in learning to play any musical instrument is ear training and becoming familiar with the intervals (distance between two tones) of the major and chromatic scales. Learning solfège will improve your listening skills if you incorporate its use into your daily practice.
Major Scale Solfège
The first step is to play and sing the notes of the C major scale using the solfège syllables. Go slowly, playing and singing each note.
The first solfege exercise is for daily practice and will have you playing and singing the ascending and descending intervals of the major scale (Example 1).
The Movable Do
This system is known as The Movable Do, which means that to play in any of the other eleven musical keys “do” is the note you start on that names the key. You then simply follow the major-scale pattern of:
To play the E major scale, for example, play the 2nd string open and then follow the whole-step/half-step pattern up the 2nd string. (Example 2)
The twelve notes available in any given key are called a chromatic scale. To play a chromatic scale, start on any note and go up the fingerboard one half-step at a time until you reach the starting note, one octave higher. The sharp/flat notes (non-major scale notes) in the chromatic scale also have solfège syllables associated with them. The accidentals have an “e” sound when ascending and an “a” sound when descending. [Chromatic scale pronunciation ascending: doe, dee, ray, ree, me, fah, fee, sol, see, la, lee, tea, DOE;Chromatic scale pronunciation descending: DOE, tea, tay, la, lay, sol, say, fa, me, may, ray, rah, doe.]
Note that when you descend the chromatic scale, as you do in bars 3 and 4 of Example 3, the notes change from sharp to flat to reflect the flatted nature of the non-major scale notes. If you played the C chromatic scale on a piano, the sharp/flat notes would be played on the black keys.
One of the most beautiful sounding intervals found in the major scale is the third interval, for example do–mi. Practice playing and singing the following exercises highlighting major and minor third intervals. Example 4a shows the C major scale, ascending and descending in thirds, with corresponding solfège syllables. Example 4b again ascends and descends the C major scale, this time using the pattern of going up-a-3rd/down-a-3rd. You might notice that the up-a-3rd/down-a-3rd exercise is the basis for The Sound of Music’s “Do-Re-Mi.”
The Solfège & Melody
Once you can comfortably play and sing the major and chromatic scales you can start using the syllables to sing melodies. Begin with simple major-scale melodies like those from nursery rhymes.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
do, do, do re–mi
mi re–mi fa–sol
Mary Had A Little Lamb
mi–re–do–re mi mi mi
mi–re–do–re mi mi mi
do re–re mi–re–do
Scales & Arpeggios
The solfège syllables are also great for practicing scales and arpeggios in different keys. Notice that in the minor scales and blues scale, we use the flatted solfège syllables, also known as blue notes.
Major scale arpeggio do mi sol DO
Pentatonic scale do re mi sol la (DO)
Minor pentatonic scale do may fa sol tay (DO)
Blues scale do may fa say sol tay (DO)
Natural minor scale do re may fa sol lay tay (DO)
Harmonic minor scale do re may fa sol lay ti (DO)
Melodic minor scale do re may fa sol la ti (DO)
Whole tone scale do re mi fi si li (DO)
Diminished scale do re may fa say lay la ti (DO)
To get the most from your solfège practice, be sure to sing the notes as you play them. Before you know it, these helpful syllables will be fully assimilated into your musical ear and you’ll be hearing and learning music in a new way.
Music educator and facilitator Jim D’Ville is on a mission to get ukulele players off the paper and into playing music by ear. Over the last six years he has taught his “Play Ukulele By Ear” workshops in the United States, Australia, and Canada. Jim is the author of the Play Ukulele By Ear DVD series and hosts the popular Play Ukulele By Ear website www.PlayUkuleleByEar.com.
Several years ago the filmmaker Jennifer Nelson set about to make a documentary on the most popular song in the English language, “Happy Birthday to You,” and ended up challenging the music-publishing industry on the legality of its long-standing copyright. After discovering that the copyright’s owner since 1988, Warner/Chappell Music, might not have had the right to collect royalties for the song, Nelson became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the company.
She won the case in 2016 and the verdict is widely seen as a victory for the musicians, filmmakers, and other artists who’d been previously unable to incorporate “Happy Birthday to You” in their work due to prohibitive licensing costs. To commemorate the effective release of the song into the public domain, we’ve arranged it two ways: one a strum-along that even the newbie can easily master, and the other in the chord-melody style, for more intermediate players to dig into.
The strum-along contains the most basic chords—the I, the V, and the IV (in the key of C major, C, G7, and F). To transition smoothly between these open shapes, use an economy of movement: Don’t lift your third finger when moving from C to G7; just slide it down a fret. As for the pick hand, in Fred Sokolow’s strumming lesson, he includes a waltz pattern that’s perfect for this song.
In the chord-melody version, most of the melody notes are harmonized. The harmonies don’t stray too far from those in the strum-along, but are more detailed; in bar 5, for instance, you play the C chord in three different inversions. Throughout, the ringing open fourth string adds textural and harmonic color; the occasional sixth chord lends a Hawaiian flavor. Add a little emphasis to the melody notes, and really try to make it sing.
If you’ve ever built a ukulele from scratch, you know there are several tricky bits to tackle, from shaping the neck and installing the frets to the most time-consuming process of all: building the body from scads of separate parts. It’s no surprise that in the 1970s, instrument manufacturer Ovation simplified guitar and uke body construction by casting a one-piece body from ABS plastic.
But long before Ovation’s plastic ukes, Pacific Islanders were saving time by making the bodies of their ukuleles from coconuts. Abundant on the majority of Pacific islands, including Hawaii, coconuts have strong shells that can be cut, shaped, and polished much like wood. Island artisans and entrepreneurs have long used coconut shell for making all manner of tourist trinkets, from earrings, keychain fobs, and dishes to souvenir spoons and kitschy decorative items.
No one knows when the first ukulele with a coconut shell body was made, but Hawaiian examples of such instruments from the 1910s and ’20s are plentiful. These include higher quality ukes, like the Niu Kani shown here, as well as cheaper souvenir ukes made specifically for tourists. The construction of these ukes is straightforward: After cutting off about a third of a large, dried coconut, luthiers use the remaining part of the shell for the instrument’s body. A thin wood top is glued over the shell’s open side, and a simple fretted neck is attached, usually via screws, to the coconut. The rest of the instrument—tuning pegs, bridge, frets—is done much like a regular ukulele.
By the mid-1930s, an enterprising Maui native named Anthony G. Cox developed his own twist on the coconut-bodied ukulele concept. Cox glued two medium-sized coconuts together to form a body with a figure-8 shape, which not only expanded the size of the uke’s body cavity (resulting in a modest increase in volume), but allowed Cox to fit a koa wood top with a shape like a regular Spanish-style-bodied ukulele. He initially called his instrument a “Kokolele,” but later changed the name to “Cocolele.”
Cox’s design was unique enough that he was granted U.S. patent #2,098,701 in November 1937. In the patent’s text, Cox states that, “…the principle object of my invention [was] to produce a ukelele [Cox’s spelling] having fine tone, and I accomplish[ed] this by constructing a substantial portion of the main body… from cocoanut [sic] shells.” The patent showcases some interesting elements of Cox’s uke, including a wooden “connecting bead” that covers the mating seam between the two coconut shells, as well as a 1/4-inch-wide wood rim that secures the uke’s top to the shells which, Cox claimed, allowed the top to vibrate more freely.
Around the time his patent was granted, Cox and his brother formed Cox Brothers Cocolele & Curio Mfgrs. in Honolulu, which made Cocoleles for three or four years before the business disbanded. Production of the instruments continued, however—Cox licensed his patent rights to the Pacific Mfg. & Sales Co. Ltd. and the Automotive Service Company, both located in Honolulu. (Yes, it seems odd that an automotive company made ukes, but who knows—maybe they did it to pass the time between oil changes?) Automotive Service Co. made its own version of the twin-shell Cocolele, as did Pacific Mfg., whose three-shell Cocolele had a top shaped much like a Roy Smeck Vita-Uke (Cox’s patent covered uke bodies built with two or more coconuts). The larger body cavity formed by the three truncated shells gave this uke more volume and tone than a one- or two-shell Cocolele. All Cox patent ukes were produced in limited numbers, and since production all but ceased with the advent of WWII, these instruments are fairly rare.
You can still buy single-coconut-bodied ukuleles today, although most of these are inexpensive souvenir-quality instruments manufactured in the Far East. Coconut ukes are also currently produced on several South Pacific islands, including Rarotonga, where both local artisans and the inmates of the local prison in Arorangi make them. The tops of these crudely made ukes are often painted with picturesque island scenes.
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.