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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Uking with the Stars

Posted By on Tue, Jul 6, 2010 at 8:00 AM

FOLK SCHOOL AND FIREWORKS

Regrouping from a fabulous Fourth of July weekend is not going to be an easy task. I celebrated the holiday in style: a small town parade, fireworks, and of course, a little ukulele playing with the fabulous Sam Ash Ukulele Group, then with friends amidst the crackle and pops of the fireworks.

My big day also included a look-in at the Blue Stone Folk School’s new luthier studio at the Judge Stone House, 107 South 8th Street in Noblesville. http://noblesvillepreservation.com/Historical/107S8.php

Geoff Davis has everything ready to go for this week’s Meat N’ Taters Ukulele Construction Workshop. I plan to stop in and check on participants’ progress, and I promise to report what I see. With this studio in place, plans are in the works for additional ukulele building classes—I am looking forward to making my own tenor ukulele sometime in the near future. You’ll get the chance to give it a try, too.

Folk School and Fireworks aside, I was also thrilled to be able to hang around with band members from the ultra-cool indy band, Tonos Triad on the Fourth of July. While the band doesn’t feature a ukulele in any of their music to date, I am going to start counting on my fingers the days till one of those suave and savvy gentlemen has a uke in his hand. If you ask me, the eclectic style of their music and diverse musicianship just begs for the addition for a ukulele. Plus, Rod Schindler can play that accordion and mandolin like a rock star, and that’s almost good enough for me.

UKULELES FOR ALL

Call me a crazy optimist, but I’m pretty sure that it will only be a matter of time till ukuleles dominate the music scene. It’s no secret that they are gaining popularity. I’ve even heard some folks say that ukulele sales go up when the economy goes down. Look how popular the little 4-stringed instrument was during the Great Depression. Here’s a 1929 clip of Cliff Edwards (a.k.a. “Ukulele Ike”, and the voice of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket) playing his swell Martin ukulele:

From what I can tell, it looks like history is repeating itself. While we’re not in another depression, the currently dreary economy seems to be driving people to extreme measures. And one of those measures seems to be taking up the ukulele. I can tell you that my cousin’s husband had a heck of a time tracking down the KALA archtop tenor uke she wanted for Christmas. Uke warehouses were empty, and the instruments were flying off store shelves like mad. Jon Martin, sales manager at the Castleton Sam Ash Music Store, says they’ve gone from just a few uke sales a year to several sales per week. In fact, the store made a $300 ukulele sale during our last meet up—and then we asked the guy who bought the new uke to join us for the group photo. I’m pretty sure he didn’t realize he’d be joining a community when he walked in the store to buy his new instrument, but that’s the way it goes in Ukulele World.

Fellow blogger Tim Szerlong of Ukeeku found similar stories across the board. He attended NAMM a couple of weeks ago, and had the chance to talk to plenty of ukulele manufacturers and dealers. According to Tim, many companies reported that ukulele sales have made up 75% of sales over the last few months.

http://ukeeku.com/

Some people say that the relative affordability of the ukulele explains the upswing in popularity, but I disagree. Sure, you can buy an okay, cheap uke for under $50, but what you end up with is a cheap uke that cost under $50. After playing a cheap ukulele for a couple of months, most people decide they want to upgrade. And, a decent ukulele can cost as much as a good guitar.

I like to think that the phenomenon is due to the “unplugged” nature of the uke. Sure, you can amplify your ukulele, but that really just makes it louder, not ELECTRIC. It’s a pretty basic, no-fuss instrument. I think people are gravitating to the ukulele as a means to balance the electronic, digitized addiction that has become a way of life for most folks these days. I once heard Geoff Davis, who learned how to play the ukulele from his mother, who learned how to play the ukulele from HER mother, compare the popularity of the ukulele in the 1920s and 30s to iPods in the 21st century—instant music anywhere you go! A ukulele doesn’t have any encoding, doesn’t need to be charged, downloaded or uploaded. You just pick it up and play it. Learn three or four chords and you can play hundreds of songs. Learn a couple different strums, and you can play those hundreds of songs hundreds of different ways.

In case you haven’t noticed, ukuleles are everywhere. Lately, it seems you can’t turn on the TV without hearing a bouncy little uke melody in a toilet paper or car commercial. And, it doesn’t hurt that there are ukes coming over the radio waves, too. In a land of digitized re-mixes and mash ups, the bright tones of a ukulele’s strings create an attention-getting sound that sets some songs apart from the generic-sounding Lady Gaga or Christina Aguilera blasting over the 2010 airwaves.

UKING LIKE A ROCKSTAR

Back in the 1970s, there wasn’t much uke action going on. I’ve heard folks place the fault of the near social extinction of the ukulele entirely on the eccentric shoulders of Tiny Tim, whose ukulele will forever be connected with his infamous falsetto version of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” One glimpse of the tiny one gleefully strumming on prime time TV, and thousands of ukuleles were unceremoniously removed from sight and secreted away in the deepest depths of spare bedroom closets and amidst the dust bunnies that breed under forgotten beds. So horrible were the effects of Tiny Tim on the general public that my sister still rolls her eyes with disdain whenever I take my ukulele out of its stylish tweed case.

Against my better judgement, I am showing you this clip of Tiny Tim, playing his uke on Laugh In. Watch at your own risk; may the ukulele gods forgive me.

After such silliness, it’s no wonder that there wasn’t much heard from ukuleles in popular music for quite some time. And, what was heard went pretty much unnoticed, as in Paul McCartney’s “Ram On." The stigma of Tiny Tim was probably still too strongly felt by most pop music fans to even consider that a Beatle, of all people, would be strumming a uke. The truth is, at least two out of the four Beatles were ukulele players, and it’s been said that the first chords that John played on the guitar were actually ukulele chords—not banjo, as some folks say—taught to him by his mother. Have a listen to Paul’s happy strumming, circa 1971.

Currently, there’s one song that I am pretty sure has done more to elevate the ukulele among the under 21 crowd. It's been around for months, but while Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” has plenty to advance it as a pop song, the ukulele elevates it to new heights. If a kid doesn’t know any chords but the E, B, C#m, A progression for this tune, he or she can still be a ukulele god or goddess for the foreseeable future, or till the song wears out its welcome. Thanks to Billboard, here’s a wonderful acoustic version:

Surfer Jack Johnson is another artist you are certain to hear on the radio. His ukulele in "Breakdown” is lovely. In fact, my students at The Children's House were incredulous when they learned I didn’t know who Jack Johnson is. I reminded them that I am not as cool as they think I am, then got a swift education.

But, for an even bigger dose of ukercoolness, you can let any doubters know that Pearl Jam’s own Eddie Vedder is a ukulele devote. Check out this clip and tell me you’re not suddenly, hopelessly in love. He talks a lot and fiddles around a bit before he gets to the good stuff, but it's worth the watch.

MEET UP UPDATE

So much coolness can inspire even the quietest among us to jam. Last week, I promised I’d give you the particulars on the Blue Stone Folk School Ukulele Society (BSFSUS) meet up and all-uke open mic scheduled for this Thursday and Friday.

First, I am pleased to be able to tell you that the The Blue Stone Folk School Ukulele Society will be meeting at the historic 1840s Federal Style Judge Stone House in Noblesville, from 7-9 PM this Thursday. Ukers will also have the chance to check out the luthier studio and see how this week's students' projects are coming along.

Friday night’s open mic will be held at one of the Folk School’s favorite haunt, The Noble Coffee and Tea Co., Logan Street, Noblesville, starting at 7 PM. The nice people at the coffee shop letting ukers to stay till 10, so everyone should get a chance for a good 10 minutes of stage time.

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