Discovering the ukulele
I first became properly aware of the ukulele in about 2000. Of course, I already knew what a ukulele was – there had always been a cheap one hanging up in every music shop, looking dusty and uninviting even with a price tag of about £4.99. But I had always thought of it as a toy instrument, and had no idea that nicer ones existed, or that you could actually play real music on them.
Then I stumbled on something on the internet, about the ukulele scene in Hawaii, and something suddenly clicked. As a guitar teacher, I had been wondering about trying out some kind of easy access or training instrument with my younger pupils, to prepare them gently for the complexities of the guitar – and suddenly here was a ready-made solution! The ukulele was small, light, and had the same fingering as the upper strings of a guitar. It was visually attractive too, and seemed to lend itself to colouring, fancy designs and decoration. And there was at least one corner of the world (admittedly Hawaii was quite distant from Cambridge) where it was a cool instrument, not a toy.
But how to get started? In the UK, the ukulele was practically unknown*, as I found out when I searched for more information and tried to make contact with local players. Eventually I found the Ukulele Society of Great Britain (at that time they were apparently one of only two ukulele clubs in the country!) and drove down to Digswell Village Hall near Welwyn for one of their get-togethers. It was an extremely interesting afternoon, and I realised there was indeed a small but very enthusiastic ukulele scene in the UK**. It also gave me a chance to watch and listen to a wide range of players, and to hear for the first time the effect of a group of ukuleles played together.
I came back full of teaching ideas, and armed with a Brueko soprano ukulele (still very cheap and cheerful, but a step up from that dusty one in the music shop). It was a nice “student instrument”, simple and no-frills but properly made – of solid wood for £30! – and it had an amazing tone for the price. I ended up ordering a couple more Bruekos from the factory in Germany, and trying them out with a selection of very young pupils (they were in Year 2, so some of them were just six years old).
The ukulele’s unique tuning meant that that we could play real tunes, almost from Day 1, with only occasional fingered notes and mostly open strings. The teacher in me was definitely hooked at this point. I also remember that this was the first time I used the “colour string” idea that led on the Rainbow Guitar and Rainbow Ukulele books.
Around the same time, I read about the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (they were beginning to get some serious press attention, but had not yet hit the big time). They definitely sounded like something to check out. I saw them on stage soon afterwards (in a small theatre at a local secondary school – try getting that close nowadays!), and was blown away by the humour, the stagecraft and the arrangements. They demonstrated brilliantly that the ukulele was not about virtuosity, but was about finding the right material, playing simple things well, blending together and getting a lot out of a little. And the UKOGB put it across in a way that made this tiny “joke” instrument seem very cool and aspirational.
As I progressed in my own playing, I found the soprano uke simply too small for my fat fingers, so I splashed out on a very nice tenor ukulele from Stuart Longridge. It has a great sound and I love the visual effect of this wood (the body is made of “ripple ash”). This was my teaching uke for several years.
Later, I decided to restring the Longridge and convert it to a “low G” tuning, which I thought would work better if I wanted to develop some performing repertoire*** (as opposed to teaching repertoire). For my regular teaching uke, I now use a Big Island concert model (made of koa wood).
As a teacher, I love the ukulele to bits. Its simplicity and charm has been a constant revelation to me, and it has also completely transformed the way I teach and think about the guitar. The ukulele is the ultimate accessible parlour instrument, and long may it remain as popular as it is now.
I’ll leave you with a lovely ukulele clip from Youtube. I’m a big fan of this player, Lami Jeon – and she has a whole playlist you can check out if you want, called Ukulele Jazz. There are a lot of flashy, fast and furious ukulele performances out there on the internet, but I think the real fun to be had on the ukulele sounds more like this – simple, intimate, undemonstrative but clever and engaging. This is parlour music par excellence.
*The recent explosion in interest, which has made the ukulele the fastest-selling instrument in the world, seemed to start in earnest around 2003 or 2004. Nowadays if you go into a music shop you are likely to see half a wall full of ukuleles, and the range and quality of affordable instruments has increased enormously.
**The ukulele had previously had a wave of popularity in the UK, in the 1920s and 30s (one particular performer, George Formby, had been a household name at the time). A lot of the USGB members were into music from this era.
*** Interestingly (to me anyway), I have still never played ukulele in any performing band. One day … 🙂