I’m not a musician: I’m just someone who likes to make music. I hack away at it; I have since I was 14, back when the Beatles were still a new band. But I love to do it. I drive my wife crazy by playing along with her radio or CDs.
For a short while in my 20s and 30s, I was very serious about playing music; I studied, I tried many instruments, and I jammed a lot, sometimes daily, at least weekly, but because I don’t have any real musical talent or training, my enthusiasm generally outpaced my talent. Still, I enjoy playing, and perhaps learning even more.
In early ’08, I decided to add ukulele to my practice. It was not intentional. I actually wanted to learn to play the charango. I had heard buskers playing charango in Zihuatanejo at La Casa Cafe and I became very interested in the little instrument. I spoke at length (in my abysmal Spanish) to one of the performers, and he even let me try out his charango. I thought it would be fun to learn. How hard could it be, something that small?
So I ordered a charango from Bolivia. In the intervening six or seven weeks or so between order and arrival, I decided I could learn some ukulele because I read they’re tuned similarly. Besides, I had been brought up listening to George Formby on the banjo ukulele (or banjolele), and a bit of Cliff Edwards, and – as I later learned – my English grandmother played the uke – so it was in my blood, more or less.
I went to the local music stores for advice and to purchase (always shop local, first). I was shown some cheap $30-or-less knock-offs, and my inquiries for something of higher quality met with a shrug of the shoulders. I got the impression ukuleles weren’t treated as “serious” instruments, not serious enough to have a tuned one on hand at least. And certainly not serious for anyone to want to take more of my money for one.
I went online, looking for something a little better than the inexpensive brands I had seen locally. And I discovered so many brands, such a range of quality! Choices, choices, choices. I spent hours surfing uke-related forums, blogs and websites, trying to match my growing interests with my limited budget, trying to understand everything about ukulele brands, woods, strings, sizes and finishes, reading reviews and comparisons. A whole world opened up for me.
My original plan to spend at most $50 blossomed to $250!
I also spent time on YouTube and similar sites looking at the brilliant new performers – like Jake Shimabukuro, Mike Okouchi, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Brittni Paiva, the wonderfully inventive and entertaining Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and others – musicians who have returned the uke from a novelty into a serious musical instrument for a new generation, and in turn helped spawn the ukulele renaissance. And let us not forget Tiny Tim, whose novelty act hid a wealth of talent, and to whom most of us owe a debt because he kept the ukulele in vogue at a time when it had waned in popularity and there almost no manufacturers remaining. Their talent was an inspiration to me, although I could never aspire to anything that good.
It was also an inspiration to spend a whole lot more than I originally intended for what was then a passing fancy. I spent more than $300 for the ukulele, case, shipping from Hawaii, plus the Canadian and Ontario governments’ egregious tax grab.
My first uke was a solid-spruce top Kala tenor. It was a huge leap up from my first thought of a $30 ‘throw-away’ uke. I immediately fell in love with the instrument. It was beautifully made, sounded crisp and clear and played like a charm.
I was hooked, and couldn’t stop playing. I downloaded songs and tabs and practiced late into the night (much to Susan’s distress), trying to become accustomed to the instrument.
“UAS” – Ukulele acquisition Syndrome. It strikes all of us who start to play. I think it’s spread through Web pages that feature ukuleles. I got it early in my introduction to the uke. I ended up buying several ukuleles in quick succession, most from the same eBay seller. Every time a UAS sufferer sees a new model, he or she wants to get it, just to try it out… I met a chap from a nearby Ontario town with 45 ukuleles. Now that’s a serious case of UAS*!
Eventually (to complete my tale) the charango arrived. I spent a few hours tuning it and tinkering with it. It wasn’t nearly as well made as any of the ukes I’d purchased by then; it sounded thin and had rough fret edges. Not like I remembered it at all. I put it on consignment at the local music store a few days later and sold it. By that time, I was thoroughly hooked on ukuleles and didn’t want the distraction.
I even sold my Strumstick, some harmonicas and several flutes to purchase more ukes. My guitars went to consignment, too. But by then I had half-a-dozen ukes to play and continue to buy, sell and trade. Somewhere along the line, I got the notion to share my experiences online, so here’s my contribution to the ukiverse.
I’ve had more fun with the uke than I’ve had in ages. I’ve found that even a mediocre guitar player can sound pretty damn good on a ukulele. And it surprises a lot of people who never knew a ukulele could sound or look that good.
I’m completely taken by the sound of the uke. I have several good ukes now. I enjoy playing the ‘old time’ songs that have been resurrected with the ukulele renaissance, music from the 1920s through 40s and have collected a rather large number of old song books and song sheets that I scanned into PDF format.
Another pleasure is the challenge of trying to adapt favourite guitar songs for the uke. But pound for pound, the ukulele is hard to beat for putting smiles on your face.
In late 2013, I started the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group (CPLUG). We meet twice a month at the Collingwood Library, for lessons, singalong, jams and uke talk. And to meet other ukulele players. You can read a bit about us here. First and third Wednesday of every month, 7 p.m. Bring your uke and tuner!