All Things Ukulele: Summer of uke



Earlier this week, I found myself squeezed in our family car, packed in amidst pillows, children, stuffed animals, snacks and two ukuleles as we embarked on a vacation to Northern Michigan. As we sped northward, I envisioned myself strumming tunes by the fire and pulling out my uke to accompany the fantastic sunsets that awaited us on Lake Michigan’s shore. After four hours of driving, I pulled out my uke and strummed my way through “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” It was a great feeling: we were on the road, going away, and I had my ukulele in my hands. I asked my husband if he wanted to hear me sing. Without taking his eyes off the road, he answered, “Not right now.” So, I continued to strum, now a little more quietly.

We didn’t plan on packing our best ukes for this trip. Spencer brought along his new Oscar Schmidt OU-26, because he is still passionately in love with it. I originally planned to take along his Lanikai LU-21 nato-top soprano, thinking the laminated wood would be a good choice for camping. At the last minute, I decided to pack my solid Mahogany Ohana SK35G instead—and I ended up fretting over it the entire trip. I was afraid it would get wet when it rained. I was worried that it would get too hot in the car. I wondered if it would be safe if I left it in the tent, that it might get stepped on or slept on. I carried it on my back along the treacherous causeway that led to the Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse, but it never left its bag at the beach. It was this trip that made me understand how urgently every uker needs a vacation uke.

Travel guitars have been around for awhile; I’m sure you’ve seen them: Those funny, small stringed instruments whose shape—intended to fit more easily into a backpack—resembles some funky Renaissance instrument more than a traditional guitar. The purpose is to have a guitar small enough to take anywhere with you, even if it looks and sounds a little funny. Following this notion, a few manufacturers have decided to make some shallow body travel ukes. Considering the already compact size of a regular ukulele, I can’t quite comprehend the purpose of such a ukulele. It seems to be a debatable question among other ukers, too. Some contend that the thinner body of a travel uke gives them more back pack space, while other old school ukers scratch their heads at the notion of making an already portable instrument even smaller.

Some like the sound of the Kala thinlinetravel uke, and I should point out that Kala is known for their quality ukes. Still, I am not too fond of the idea of a wafer thin ukulele shoved in my backpack—but you can judge for yourself. Here’s Mike from Kala, showing off the new 2009 travel ukulele.

I’m thinking that the thing sounds okay, but not great. It’s certainly loud, but I am not hearing a good tone. I’m also thinking that if I had an extra $200 to spend on something to take on vacation with me, I’d think about spending it on a regular-sized super cool plastic ukulele and maybe a pedicure. Besides being less sensitive to the elements, I’m pretty sure a plastic uke wouldn’t take up any more room than a shallow-bodied travel uke, and you’re sure to end up with a sound that’s not just loud but sweet as well.

Vintage plastic ukuleles make great traveling companions. You can get them wet, so they’re ideal for sailing and strumming poolside or at the beach. You wouldn’t want to get a skinny spruce top travel uke wet. That would be sort of like splashing water on a bathing beauty with a spray on tan, except the wafer thin ukulele might warp. Since they aren’t as sensitive or fragile as wood, you don’t have to worry about extreme temperatures if you need to stash your plastic uke in the car for awhile. Though, I should warn you that I did hear of one friend who left her TV Pal on the dashboard of her car during a hot summer day, only to find that the neck had melted. It might be best to maybe leave your plastic uke in the trunk.

In case you doubt the sound of a vintage plastic uke, check out these videos, featuring my favorite You Tube artist, the multi-talented Gus, first showing off his extensive collection of plastic ukuleles, then playing the WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE on one from his collection:

And, just because I’ve been shamelessly waiting for an excuse to post some Gus videos on this blog, here’s a weather appropriate clip of Gus and Fin. Notice that Gus is playing a vintage plastic TV Pal ukulele and it sounds fantastic.

TV Pal ukuleles are experiencing a surge in popularity. Unless you are fortunate enough to stumble upon one at a second hand store or tag sale, chances are you are going to pay a fair price for one. I found only a handful of vintage plastic ukes on eBay, including a plastic Beatles “guitar” priced around $1,000. If you hurry,you still have a few days to bid on a swell Maccaferri Plastic Island ukulele,though:

Other, more modern plastic/wood uke alternatives are Fleas and Flukes from Jim Beloff’s Flea market Music. While the tops are made of Austrialian pine, the bodies are constructed of sturdy molded plastic, making them a little less fragile for travel. I have wanted one of these ukes for quite awhile, but they keep getting pushed to the bottom of my list in favor of more traditional ukuleles. They are fun to play and they pack a great sound; there are so many colors and designs to choose from, you should have no trouble finding one that is perfect for you. I’m especially partial to the red Cowboy Fluke, but I really like the shape of the Fleas, too.

Here’s a guy I don’t know giving a brilliant demonstration of what a Flea can do. I really think it sounds a heck of a lot sweeter than that travel uke:

You can purchase your own Flea or Fluke locally at Sam Ash for around $230. Or, for a wider selection, you can go directly to the amazing Jim Beloff’s Flea Market Music:

Here’s Jumpin’ Jim himself, strumming a tune on a Fluke of his own:


Before hitting the road with his family for his own vacation, my pal Jon Martin couldn’t get Lindsay Buckingham’s HOLIDAY ROAD out of his head. He made the best of things and brought the chords along for the July 3 Sam Ash meet up. While he may not have chased the song out of his own head, he at least succeeded in implanting it into the brains of more than a dozen other ukers. We had a ball strumming it—it’s a simple song: F, B flat, C, A minor, F. We also found that we could chunk a little at the end to mimic the barking dog. You can get inspired and start planning some special time with your uke, too.


The Blue Stone Folk School Ukulele Society normally meets in Noblesville the second and fourth Thursday of each month.

The group won’t be meeting this Thursday, though, because the fantastic Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three will be performing at the Noble Coffee and Tea Company, 933 Logan Street, Noblesville. While the band does not feature any ukuleles, they are at the absolute top of my Must See list. The show starts at 7 PM. Tickets are $10 at the door. You really don’t want to miss this energetic, vintage rural blues experience. Plus, I am thinking, if you bring your uke along, we might be able to find a nice spot outdoors for our own after-show jam party. Think about it.