Given my focus on non-realtime music, it is odd that my most recent obsession is with ukuleles.
Neither grade school piano lessons nor a University rock guitar god fantasy turned me into much of a musical performer. I can play a piano, of course – it is a very simple instrument – but just because I can press keys doesn’t mean I’m any good at it. Guitars require much more coordination and technique. I can play a few chords, and a C Major scale, but am jealous of really good guitar players.
The ukulele seems a little bit more manageable – only four strings – and lately, it seems, ever-present. Just search for ukulele on YouTube and you will find over 47,000 videos of people playing David Bowie, The Ramones, The Beatles, Britney Spears, Madonna, Nirvana, Tom Lehrer and Jonathan Coulton songs on the uke.
There is a degree of irony in the instrument choice for many of these, of course. But it takes enough dedication to learn the ukulele to the point where you can post a video of yourself playing it without embarrassment on YouTube to not have some respect.
And there are plenty of professional musicians playing the uke, too. Janet Klein plays songs from the 1920’s and 1930’s on her ukulele. Greg Hawkes of the Cars did a whole album of Beatles songs on the ukulele. Jake Shimabukuro is an amazing ukulele player, whose version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is awe-inspiring. If you haven’t seen the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra‘s version of “Hey Ya,” you need to go see it now. Dent May And His Magnificent Ukulele has a horrible MySpace page but his music is quite lovely.
And of course, my favorite ukulelist is Molly, aka sweetafton23, who plays originals and covers of Jonathan Coulton and Tom Lehrer songs.
My in-laws have a family heirloom Kamaka ukulele from their time living in Hawaii. Ben has been learning the uke – not a big leap from six-string guitar. His wife Kristina has been learning, and my wife wanted to learn as well.
Researching starter ukes, I discovered something that appealed to my music and DIY sensibilities – ukulele kits.
Grizzly Industrial makes power tools, but their president is an avid luthier, so the company offers guitar, violin, mandolin, and ukulele kits. The best part – the uke kit costs about $25 (currently on sale for $20).
We got a nice curly mango tenor ukulele for the missus, and I bought the $25 kit. At the very least, I’d have a bit of fun, I could try to actually learn to play the darn thing, and if I stuck to it, I could justify buying another nice uke.
The Grizzly kit was pretty easy to put together. The body is pre-built, the neck is already carved, the fretboard is pre-slotted, and the bridge is pre-made. All you have to do is glue it together, finish it, and string it up.
The kit has some issues. Some of the instructions don’t make sense. The fingerboard inlay dots do not fit the pre-drilled holes. It’s mostly made out of mahogany plywood, so it’s not a great sounding instrument.
Even so, it was a good first step in instrument building, and of course now I’m planning on uke number 2.
The best part of building an instrument, particularly from a $25 kit, is that I know how its put together and how to adjust and fix it. It’s a great practice platform.
While building uke number 1, a friend told me to check out a book called Clapton’s Guitar, about master guitar builder Wayne Henderson and the guitar that he built for Eric Clapton. It’s a fantastic book and it inspired me to believe I could make a very good ukulele with some practice, care, and careful choice of materials.
So I ordered a kit for uke number 2 from Stewart-MacDonald. They have a kit that costs four times what the Grizzly kit does, but its made from solid mahogany and requires the assembly of the body (they do supply pre-bent sides however) and involves a rosette around the sound hole. It should be a good second step, a little more involved, on the way to the ultimate goal of building a ukulele from scratch.