Wednesday, December 10, 2014

UE #127 Christmas - why do we do it?

As I get older I find I become less and less interested in the season of good will and all its trappings. I no longer race around looking for gifts. Two years ago, when my daughter was eighteen, she told my wife and me, "No gifts."
She said she didn't need any more junk or useless possessions and had no use for unwanted gifts. This release from the burden of gift buying came as a happy relief. We gave her a little cash instead - that was still welcome! Of course I still look forward to a gift or two for myself since I'm not quite so spiritually developed as she.

Christmas is the best time of year. And, it's the worst time of year, depending who you ask. It's a time when memories of either magic or tragic childhood Christmases are triggered once again. Emotions run to the surface and spill over causing us to wallow blindly in well worn feelings. 

My own Christmas memories tend to be of the cozy warm glow type but I've met plenty of people who don't feel the same way. One friend told me his mother passed away just before Christmas when he was eleven years old and the sights and sounds of Christmas reignite his deep loss on an annual basis. That can't be much fun. [or That doesn’t sound very merry at all]. Another friend said his father was a happy likable man all year round but exploded in rage and misery every Christmas day. Good grief.

You have to think what is the point of it all? Is all this Christmas malarkey really necessary? Why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we bother?

Every year as Christmas approaches I ask myself these same questions and every year I am answered in the same way. No matter how grumpy I am in the run up to yuletide my mindset gets completely turned around every year and for the same reason. It's the singing. This is the one time of year when a whole lot of people of all ages know a whole lot of the same songs and have a terrific time singing them together. It really is that simple. The joyful benefits of singing together are not to be underestimated. It's a powerful and friendly force.

I am so lucky to be an entertainer in December. I feel so good after my gigs that I can barely contain my joy. Kids, adults and old folk dress up, sometimes in silly santa hats, red noses and antlers, and sing and laugh and dance around. They smile and sing and jingle those daft little bells. It's wonderful to be the instigator of such hilarity. I go home and regale my family with stories of what I experienced. I think I get more of a festive feeling from these gigs than I do during Christmas itself which tends to be pretty low key in comparison.  

So my message to you this year is, no matter how you feel about the seasonal shenanigans, get yourself out to a place where you can belt out some songs with a bunch of friendly folks. I mean it - it's the best cure for the wintertime blues. 

"The only good thing ever to come out of religion was the music."
George Carlin, Brain Droppings

If you're near my city of Vancouver here are some opportunities to come and sing with me. Even if you don't play ukulele please come and enjoy the merriment at The Vancouver Ukulele Circle! As well as singing together there will be a wacky quiz plus wonderful performances too.

Friday December 12: 8pm to 11pm: Christmas singalong at the Billy Bishop Canadian Legion (1407 Laburnum Street, Vancouver)
They've had "an OVERWHELMING response" for the early evening dinner bookings so seating may be limited. It's a good time to jostle and rub elbows but if you wish to sit while you sing maybe you should consider coming to Tuesday's ukulele circle instead! 

Tuesday December 16: Vancouver Ukulele Circle, Christmas Party. Come raise the rafters of the St James Hall with song! We have drinks and snacks but no liquor license so you'll have to partake of a wee drinkie before you arrive. There are many nearby places on Broadway where you can do that.
St James Hall, 3214 W.10th, Vancouver (at Trutch)
Tuesday Dec 16, 7:30 pm - 10:00 pm (doors open 6:30pm)
Only $8 - kids get in free and there's a balcony too!!
Vanukes website

Sunday December 28 5:30pm to 7:30pm
& Monday December 29 5:30pm to 7:30pm
Burnaby Village Museum, 6501 Deer Lake Ave, Burnaby BC.
Visit the historic 1920's village: ride the vintage carousel, watch the blacksmith and sing and dance with Ralph Shaw out in the Main Street!     
Burnaby Village Website

This Sunday December 14 Christmas Workshop For Ukulele Players:
4.15-5.45pm there are a few places still left for the Christmas Ukulele Workshop with Ralph Shaw. Improve your picking and strumming while learning Christmas songs!
Workshop cost: $20. All ability levels welcome.
To Register: email Jen at the Cutie Circle
Location: Room 4, Pinetree Community Centre, 1260 Pinetree Way, Coquitlam
More Details Here
Bring music stand and chord chart. You may record the workshop for your own purposes.

© Ralph Shaw 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

UE #125 Check Out This New Performer!

There's a new performer on the block. Today I take a look at this extraordinary new showman's skills and list 8 things we can learn in order to enrich our own shows. 

You may have noticed I don't write much about other performers. That's not really surprising; most entertainers feel it prudent and profitable to promote themselves at every opportunity - while mentioning others as little as possible. The performer's attitude in this dog-eat-dog rat-race is, "I work hard to get noticed, the others can find their own goshdarn publicity."  

If I've written about other entertainers at all it is generally because their fame and longevity has put their work in such a different category from my own that they don't pose a threat to my lofty career goals. Examples of these include firmly established icons like Lyle Ritz and Chalmers Doane or the equally iconic names of George Formby, Bill Tapia and May Singhi Breen who are perhaps even more firmly established and non-threatening by virtue of being dead.

So it is within this context you may be surprised to find me writing about a young new performer who has recently appeared on the scene; one whose abilities are extraordinary. Every show has people walking away with broad smiles and looking visibly moved.

The show itself is surprisingly static but rarely fails to be noticed and enjoyed. And it doesn't take place on a stage either. The venue is the street, always the same street and in the same location. Those who come across this quiet showman tend to find themselves stopping mid-stride to look and wonder. Even people already acquainted with the performance will often stop to spend a few minutes or simply feel the benefits of having their steps lightened and their spirits lifted as they go by.

A quick list of this young performer's abilities.
The Performer or Performance is:
-    Surprising.
-    Appeals to all generations.
-    The right thing in the right place at the right time.
-    Kind and comforting, yet what comes out is sometimes shocking, sad or hilariously funny.
-    Uplifts the hearts
-    Gives people a sense of having received real value. Everyone, it seems, walks away positively enriched by the experience.
-    Always on
-    Great looking and wears a cute hat.

Astute readers will by now have guessed, from the lack of personal pronouns in the above, that something is afoot. And you're right. Did you believe for a moment I was going to give a human performer some free publicity - ha!

I am talking about a clever creation that has popped up on our street called The Little Free Library.

The concept is simple enough. The library is a cute and well made box with glass fronted doors revealing several bookshelves (the lowest shelves are for children's books.) A sign on the library invites passersby to take a book and leave a book in return. It's really more of a book exchange than a library but let's not quibble.

Setting it up was the work of my neighbour Theresa and frankly I was wary of the concept. Having such a thing on a downtown street seems an open invitation to vandalism and theft as well as offering rich possibility for unseemly and unhygienic objects, besides books, to be deposited on its neat little shelves.

But the other day, as I trimmed the yew hedges out front of our community, I noticed people going by with smiles on their faces. It didn't take long to realize that the transformative effect was being produced by The Little Free Library. As my electric shears clacked away at the hedge I observed nearly every passerby stopping to check out the library. Most of them opened the doors to take a peek inside. Some people took a book. Not everyone left a book but I had the feeling they'd soon be back to return the favour. My neighbour's kids came down the steps to return books they'd read and to see what new offerings were in store. The feeling of delight was palpable. I have rarely in my life seen such a simple object create such universal joy.

As an entertainer I couldn't help but be impressed by the profound abilities of the library to touch so many different people. And I realized that any of us with ambition to entertain others can learn a lot from this endearingly simple device:

1) Be original, or at least be a new twist on a familiar theme. In this world of instant communication everything is coming to resemble everything else. Only by spending time away from our screen devices and other distractions is there any hope of cultivating qualities such as uniqueness, character and style.

2) Appeal to all generations. True entertainment is universal and has the potential to touch everyone.

3) Be the right thing in the right place at the right time. Find the audience/s and venue/s that work for you.

4) Be kind and comforting but don't be afraid to occasionally be shocking, sad or hilariously funny. In this crazy and jarring world people welcome gentle and soothing experiences. But within that established frame find ways to surprise their minds.

5) Look great. Exactly how you dress up will depend on your performance character but wear something that sets you apart from the audience and tells everyone that something special is in store. A hat should look good and serve a purpose: The Little Free Library has a precious little shingled roof making it look like a mini house while at the same time keeping the valuable contents nice and dry.

6) Give people a sense of having received real value. Just as every great educator is also an entertainer, the reverse is also true. What do people learn and take away from your performance? How will they be changed?

7) Define your stage character (how you look, speak and move) as clearly as possible. Make yourself appealing to others and live in that mode for the duration of the performance.

8) Uplift hearts. Who doesn't want an experience where you walk away feeling that there is hope for us all, that good people will one day be in charge and that maybe, just maybe, there is more glory and beauty in this world than we ever dared to imagine?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

UE #124 Seven Tips to Make You Want to Practice

Regular readers of this regular blog will have noticed that for two or three months my blog has not been at all regular. Since July, thanks to summer performances and other activities, my motivation to write has dwindled down to just about nothing. With this edition I'm aiming to break the ennui and get back onto a more regular writing schedule.

If you're feeling the need to revive your daily music practice habit here are some ideas to get back into it:

Earlier this month I was part of Tutti - an annual weekend of ukulele workshops in Langley, British Columbia, hosted by James Hill. As well as James and me the teaching staff included Chalmers Doane (Nova Scotia), Helene Beaulieau (Quebec), Paul Luongo (B.C.), Aaron Keim (Oregon) and Kevin Carroll (Texas.) As always it was a high energy time of full-on ukulele learning punctuated by regular gatherings in the school gym where all 120+ students and staff met as a group.

At one of these meetings the students had an opportunity to quiz the teachers on any ukulele related issues they had in mind. One student asked for a practice tip from each teacher. Here is some of what was said:

1) Practice for one minute - every day. This is a favourite tip from Chalmers Doane. All you have to do is commit to practicing for one minute every day (including Christmas and statutory holidays.) The only rule is that it be a full minute of concentrated and focused practice. No daydreaming! And the one minute begins AFTER the ukulele is removed from its case. Afterwards you may choose to continue practicing for longer than a minute. But that is up to you. 

2) Keep it fun. Remember it is called PLAYING the ukulele. So make your practice time enjoyable and playful. For example think of your scales as games. Find different ways to play them by changing the timing and the order of the notes. Also reward yourself with music and songs that pique your excitement and make you want to play them often.

3) Really listen to your instrument. This tip came from Helene Beaulieu. When you pick up your ukulele instead of getting straight on with the business of playing just strum the open strings and pay close attention to the sound. Truly listen. How do you feel? What does the sound do to your senses? Think about sound. Remember that practice is not about creating physical movements it is about making sound.

4) Any time can be practice time so keep your instrument/s within easy reach. I wouldn't necessarily suggest this for trumpet, timpani, double bass or bagpipes, all of which require a dedicated practice space. But ukuleles are fairly unique in that they can be transported anywhere and played at low volume in kitchen, car, bedroom, living room or waiting room without causing too much offense. 

5) Get a good instrument. Having a freshly strung ukulele that makes you feel great just to hold and hear will make a huge difference. The pleasure of a well made and great sounding instrument can make you want to spend as much time with it as possible.

6) Practice with performance in mind. Some play music purely for personal recreation but most of us plan at some time to share our music with others. Practicing for performance can mean many things. It can hone the quality of your singing and playing to a higher level. Practicing as if an audience is watching can get you familiar with playing outside of your comfort zone. Make sure to become adept at the trickier parts of songs to prevent falling apart in those places. Working towards a goal of putting the song across to an audience will deepen your connection to the instrument and to your music.

7) Consider the future if you fail to practice now. Here is a slightly sad personal story. In 2002 I bought a white upright piano. My goal was for both my daughter Aletha and I to learn to play. I imagined a future where our home would be filled with Boogie Woogie, Ragtime and singalong parties. But over time Aletha gave up her lessons and I simply forgot to play the instrument. And there it stands to this day untouched and unplayed. And this next part may make me sound a little crazy but I feel sorry for the piano. I imagine it came to our home feeling as I did at the time: excited and eagerly anticipating the music it would be making. Instead it has become a forlorn feature of our household furniture; a despondent repository for old books and bric-a-brac that get loaded onto its sad little lid. For most of 12 years it has stood silent, yearning to be played.

So if you won't practice for you, at least do it for the sake of your instrument.

I'm excited to be communicating again through this newsletter. And I may even have inspired myself to have another crack at the piano before we send it away to "a better place." I'll be sure to let you know!  

© Ralph Shaw 2014

Sunday, August 10, 2014

UE #123 Notes from a Fifty year old Ukulele Entertainer

When I tell people I make my living as a ukulele entertainer their next question is: So what does your wife do? When I report that my wife has not had a paid job since 1993 many people are usually floored and proffer effusive compliments about how amazing it is that I have supported my family with a ukulele for nearly twenty-five years.

As I turn Fifty I find myself looking back at the sort of entertainer I used to be in the early days. I'm not the same as I was. It happened slowly, and in increments, but for sure a lot has changed.

For one thing I've become aware of how short life is. At this age I am realizing that there are things I will never get to do. The men in my family tended to live into their eighties. So I can reasonably expect another thirty years, give or take a few. This seems fine until you put it in terms of summers. I love summer and this means I probably only have about thirty more summers to enjoy. They come and go so quickly. How best to spend the time I have left? Do I want to be entertaining at small gigs, festivals and market squares for the rest of my days, or are there other things to do?

Fifty finds me in a state of limbo. Do I still want to continue what I'm doing? In most senses I've become the level of performer I always wanted to be. It took far longer than I expected to get to this point and the financial reward is less than anticipated -- but I made it. So now what?

These days my drive to perform mainly comes from seeing the positive effect my work has on others. I don't learn new songs with quite the same gusto as I used to and I rarely get the "inner high" that performing used to give me. In fact I've reached a point where I could take or leave this career that I've built. I feel that so long as I can put some good in the world while having the chance to meet and amuse people I could quite happily quit this musical treadmill and find some other job. But what?

Most of my university friends are looking forward to nice pensions. I, however, deliberately chose to live according to my own rules. I felt the changes within myself, learned new skills and then sussed out ways to leverage money out of my abilities. There's a scary component to knowing that I have to live this way for the rest of my life. But who knows, eventually all the little tricks I picked up from a lifetime of hustling for a living may ultimately give me an advantage over my friends who will be relying on outside sources for their livelihood.

Everything in my career has trained me like a commando for what I do now. I'm a musical warrior. A strumming SAS combatant; a singing Navy Seal; a soldier of fun tunes; a one man fighting force fully armed with instruments of distraction, capable of being sent into any stress filled situation; ready to disarm and amuse at a moment's notice; ready to free small groups of individuals from their fears and insecurities so they can take on life with a fresh outlook and a new perspective. I could quit but what then?

I'm in good health. I have a daughter who I adore. She lives life to the fullest and takes on challenges that even I find courageous. My wife Kathryn loves me with an open hearted care that surprises me with daily wonder. But aside from the basic needs of life it's the knowing that there will be another performance up ahead that really keeps me going. With or without a ukulele I will always be an entertainer. It's what I was put on earth to do.

So for now, since there are no job offers looming, and since I cannot imagine the job that would have me joyfully waking up at some ungodly hour of every day of every week I suppose I'd better keep doing what I'm doing. Not only that but I hereby pledge to keep getting better at it. So look out! There will be more surprises up ahead. And thanks for reading this newsletter to the end. It means that in some way you support my work or at the very least it interests you. This is much appreciated and all I can say is Thank you!

But a pension would be nice too so please let me know if you hear of anything.

Happy Fiftieth Birthday to me!!

© Ralph Shaw 2014

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ralph's Tour Dates plus Mustang Ranch Story (April/May 2014)

My tour of California, Reno, Washington and England is now finalized! Note - some changes from last week's posting - Carmel is now on a different day and Roseville has a later start time than stated. Visit my website tour schedule  for further updates. 

Next week in Reno I'll visit my old school pal Steve who used to be the Handyman at the Mustang Ranch. That story is below so keep reading and I look forward to seeing you on my travels in the USA, UK and Canada...

Apart from a couple of chance meetings in local pubs I hadn't talked to Steve since he left school at the age of sixteen. As for myself I went on to higher education, eventually getting a degree in Applied Physics. Steve's path was very different.

At Penistone Grammar School Steve (aka. Wrighty), Pinch, Millie and myself were a pretty tight group of friends. We'd connected through swim classes before coming to the Grammar school. In a way we were each of us loners who felt some common bond and gave each other mutual protection in the Lord of the Flies type of atmosphere that was the norm in British school playgrounds. 

Over thirty years later I received a phone call in an unmistakable South Yorkshire accent: 

"Eh up Ralph - it's me, Steve."
"Steve - from School."
"STEVE! Where are you?"
"I'm in Reno, Nevada." 

We proceeded to catch up on the lives we'd lived in all the intervening years. I discovered with a sigh that my autobiography, without fleshing it out, was unimpressively short: "I did physics, got married, became a clown, had a daughter and then became an entertainer known as the King of the Ukulele. Which I still do."

Steve's post-school life seemed much more exciting; perhaps owing to his storytelling style. He'd always had a knack of taking an everyday event and making it into a comedic monologue. For example, describing his current colleagues at the pool table company where he worked he said, "They only have five teeth between the lot of them." 

About men in Reno bars: "They all talk like they're tough but I've only seen four fights the whole time I've been here. And I was in all of them." 

He'd worked in a Sheffield steel works, learned joinery/cabinet-making and at some point visited Reno. He liked the place and returned. Eventually he married an ex-hooker and found himself a job as handyman at the Mustang Ranch where he stayed for five years: "until the owner did a runner and bogged off to South America after not paying his taxes." Apparently a sad day for Steve. and these days he was employed installing pool tables and the armrest cushions on gambling machines.

I had to get him to repeat one of the last places: "You were the handyman - where?" I asked.  
"The Mustang Ranch, have you heard of it?"   

Indeed I had. Stories about Nevada's infamous Mustang Ranch: America's most famous 'house of ill-repute' came up on the news from time to time - even in Canada. Although, from the way Steve describes it, it's more a collection of trailers of ill-repute. And trailers don't have a lot of repute to begin with. 

Inspiration can arrive in many ways. Sometimes it seeps in like a fog and other times it appears fully formed as if it had always existed. Instantly I knew that The Handyman at the Mustang Ranch was a modern day George Formby song just waiting to be written. 

George Formby's songs were peculiar to the 1930's era. They often covered risqué material but with superbly quick and clever jokes that not only rhymed but were stated using only family-friendly words. Such songwriting is an incredible challenge. In applying for recording awards I've found that awards categories cover all manner of song types but nothing under which I can place my own work. I believe this is because, as well as being from another era, the style of songwriting is so hard to pull off that few people even try. It's deceptive because great comedy songs sound simplistic and straightforward yet are so difficult to create.

But having said that, such songs are also enormously fun to write. There is warm satisfaction in coming up with verses then trying them out on friends who crease up with genuine mirth at each funny line. The Mustang Ranch song is a personal favourite from my own oeuvre. I find it giddyingly delightful to sing this song, so rude, so naughty and yet acceptable in mixed company because it is put across with phrases whose meanings are wrought with cleverness and subtlety.

The first time I sang it for Steve was at a show in Nevada. Afterwards he jabbed his finger at me and said, "There's more truth in that song than you'll ever know mate."  

Mention the Mustang Ranch to Steve and he still gets a wistful look on his face. "That was the best job I ever had." he says, "There wasn't a day went by when I wasn't happy to get up and go to work." 

It must look a little odd on his resume though! 

To hear the song for yourself you can order the album Laughter by Ralph Shaw from my website here or download it from iTunes.

and hello to everyone in Reno - I'll see you next week!  

  © Ralph Shaw 2014

Monday, April 7, 2014

UE #119 Tremolo and Vibrato - what's the diff?

Welcome to two of the most unconsciously used techniques in music. Today we see how the wobbling, warbling, pulsing sounds of tremolo and vibrato can be made vocally as well as on ukulele and, when used artfully, can add enormous nuance and feeling.
and...Check out my Spring Tour of the West Coast USA and United Kingdom. Whether you're in Reno, Northern California, L.A. or Yorkshire I'll be doing something near you! The Performance dates are at the end of this email or see the tour schedule on my website. Please tell your friends in those areas that they have a chance to see me. 

In my experience most ukulele entertainers use vibrato completely unconsciously in their singing and barely at all in their ukulele playing. Tremolo on the other hand (and it is played on the other hand as a matter of fact) is used predictably on ukulele but is barely understood as a vocal technique. Let's start with definitions: 

Definition of Vibrato   
Vibrato is a rapid alternating of pitch. When you hear vibration in a singer's voice it's usually because they are quickly sliding between two notes that are slightly out of tune with one another. Often both notes are also out of tune with the song but, being just above and below the correct note, the combined effect can make it sound correctly tuned. This is a useful covering strategy for those with trouble singing on pitch. The effect can come from nervousness, be deliberate or can develop as an unconscious habit over time.

Vibrato on ukulele is achieved by repeatedly stretching and slackening the string/s at the fingerboard. 

Definition of Tremolo  
Tremolo is a rapid alternating of volume. Vocal tremolo is made by producing a single sustained note and quickly changing the air flow using the stomach muscles. On ukulele this change in volume is created by the quick repeated playing of a string (or several strings) using the strumming hand. (A second definition of tremolo is the rapid alternate playing of two separate notes, most frequently heard on keyboards and hammered instruments such as marimba.) 

Tremolo and Vibrato From Your Ukulele
Tremolo is a way of sustaining notes. Ukulele has a disadvantage over violins, tubas and electric guitars in that each note dies away almost as soon as it's been plucked. It's impossible to make acoustic ukulele music with notes lasting more than two or three seconds. A way to get around this is to do what mandolin players have done for centuries: a string is played rapidly (usually with a pick) to create a long pulsating note. The strength and rapidity of the pulsations can be varied to create profound musical nuances.

Multi-string tremolo (strumming quickly up and down several ukulele strings) is the most commonly used song ending you'll ever hear in all ukuleledom. It's not necessarily a bad thing but permit me to suggest you take some time to work out other song endings and perhaps think about using tremolo technique in other parts of songs. There is no ukulele law that says you have to keep one type of strum going through an entire song. Change it up a little and put in some tremolo when appropriate, perhaps in a slower section or during a high point of the lyric's story arc. 

Vibrato on ukulele is made by rapidly stretching and slackening a string after it is played. There are different ways to achieve the effect: one is to rock your fretting finger quickly from side to side on the string. This achieves vibrato but the degree of stretching is quite small. Another way is to push the string vertically up and down. This creates a much greater degree of string bend. A third way is to push the string directly into the fingerboard itself with the finger placed behind the fret. Again this allows only a small degree of string bend.

Just as vocalists often (unknowingly) combine the effects of vibrato and tremolo it is quite possible, although more rare, for ukulele players to do both at once since each of the effects are provided by separate hands. 

Vocal Tremolo and Vibrato
In truth it can be hard to distinguish vocal tremolo and vibrato as both techniques often get used at the same time. But skilled singers know when to use and how to control these two techniques. For an example of vibrato and tremolo being pushed to the hilt think of Edith Piaf. Her rapidly vibrating vocal sound was filled with an intense and urgent energy, stirring great emotion in her listeners. Widely used by French singers of that era the sound was emulated tirelessly by everyone from stage professionals to housewives. But be sensitive, this technique, as shown by many an aspiring chanteuse, can become irritating if overworked.

Frank Sinatra preferred a cleaner and more direct sound. Hence the crooner style of singing has very little warble to it. A capella harmony singers also work to eradicate all vibrato from their singing since the fluctuating pitch messes with harmonies. Interestingly, tremolo, being a single pitch with changing volume, is often allowable in a capella groups. 

Listen to singers you admire and notice how they use vibrato and tremolo. Try to figure out how much of each they are using. And then listen to yourself. A relentless onslaught of mindless über-vibrato can be annoying so learn to control it if you can.

The technique is used by experienced singers to make long vocal notes change over time and thus much more interesting. Hit a note without vibrato or tremolo and then add in some slow vibrato. Speed up the fluctuation as the note nears its end. Singer K.D. Lang describes this technique in terms of her homeland on the Canadian prairies. She holds the note flat and even (like the Canadian grasslands) for a long stretch and then towards the end the vibrations rise up like the Rocky Mountains in the distance. I don't believe for a moment that her singing style developed from the terrain in which she grew up. Rather she has acquired these technical skills and applies them with taste and care.

Sustaining a long note without vibrato or tremolo and in tune is a developed skill and one that all singers should work towards. Once you can do it try bringing in a controlled vibrato (or tremolo) and slowly change its rate of fluctuation. It's not easy. But it's good to be aware of the sound you are making and to caress and mold your natural vibrato into something that comes across as sensitive and discreet. 

And the payoff for all this work? Really not much, because when vibrato and tremolo are used well they won't even noticed by most listeners: the audience will simply have enjoyed your music. Isn't that reward enough? 

Monday, March 17, 2014

UE #118 A Tale of Two Ukes

Take a look at these two ukuleles. Both were made by Larrivée and are almost identical. But one is unplayable. Can you guess which one and why? The strange story of these two instruments is revealed in this week's Ukulele Entertainer.

It was the best of ukes, it was the worst of ukes; it was the mid 1990's; The renowned Larrivée Guitar Company was making high-end ukuleles for a Japanese market whose people were enjoying a ukulele craze so far reaching that ukes were even being used to keep rhythm in step-exercise classes. Japan's economy was in high gear and Larrivée soprano ukuleles were being purchased for around $2000.

I'd sent a copy of my newly released album King of the Ukulele to the Larrivée factory in Vancouver and was invited for a meeting with company owner Jean Larrivée and his son John Larrivée Jr. I was delighted when Jean Larrivée Senior told me he rarely listens to music but that he'd listened to my CD several times and loves it. His son John nodded his head saying, "Yeah, he never does that."

Seated in their office I was surprised when Jean took out a paper bag and dumped its mystifying contents: a vintage Martin ukulele (sawn into several pieces) onto my lap. It was shocking to think of them deliberately destroying a perfectly good Martin. But, as John told me, sacrifices have to be made if you want to learn to build a great uke. 

Inside the ukulele shop I was shown approximately fifteen ukuleles on a workbench and invited to try them out. It was a time when good quality ukuleles were rare and the chance to play so many perfectly built little instruments was an unusual privilege. I asked John about how the building process compares to the manufacture of guitars. He replied, "It takes as much work to build a good ukulele as a good guitar, just less wood."

I floated out of there with two ukuleles: a mahogany concert uke and a koa soprano, each with ebony fingerboards plus abalone and sterling silver inlay. That soprano uke got, and still gets, a lot of use. It was the instrument I played on my 2003 DVD The Complete Ukulele Course and to this day hangs by my desk always ready for work. 

About six years later I learned that a local pawnbroker and music store was selling a Larrivée soprano for $600. It was in immaculate condition. By then Larrivée had quit making ukuleles. John told me that the ukulele boom in Japan had cooled off and, despite my repeated protests to the contrary, they felt that the high-end ukulele market didn't offer a profitable future. I bought the pawnshop ukulele figuring $600 for a pristine Larrivée was a fair investment. I could either sell it for a profit or hold on to it in case some calamity befell my present instrument. When I got home I made the jaw-dropping discovery that the new uke had serial number 32348 whereas my own was 32349. They'd likely been side by side on the ukulele shop bench that day I visited. I put my new Larrivée on a shelf and that's where it remained for several years.

I hardly looked at it again until 2011 when I landed the job of providing ukulele sync work for two separate Hollywood movies. In each case the actor was playing ukulele quite adequately but, because of some Musician's Union issue that was never made clear to me, the movie-makers needed to get the ukulele parts re-recorded outside the country. The uke in one movie was tuned with a high G string and the other with low G. Not having a ukulele with a low G string I retrieved my spare Larrivée from the shelf, restrung it for low G and proceeded to play. That's when I realized something was very wrong. 

My initial reaction was denial. It didn't seem plausible for a Larrivée ukulele to sound so profoundly bad. But my ears did not deceive me: the intonation was off, but not just a bit off (like a badly made cheap uke) it was way off. I looked at both instruments from every angle and only when I held them face to face did I discover that the bridge on the new one was about 1cm closer to the sound hole than the bridge on my original uke. 

My wife Kathryn was incensed that I'd been ripped off by the geographically misnomered San Francisco Pawnbrokers. Her reaction was futile however (the store closed down some years before) and was in contrast to my feeling of quiet delight at being the owner of a rare bird, that is, a renegade Larrivée that had cunningly gotten through quality control unchecked. Over time my joy in owning a collectible mistake (akin to finding a postage stamp with the queen's head printed upside down) was replaced with the annoyance of owning an unplayable instrument, inflamed with chagrin, as I realized my wife was once again right; though I believe the store was as ignorant as I was about the flaw.

And so, in March 2014, while visiting local music shop West Coast Guitars I told my story to owners Glen and Shannon. While showing them my uke, and its unplayable twin, Glen had a compelling notion. He suggested that if the bridge on the bad uke were unglued, turned around the other way and glued back down in the same location this would place the saddle towards the back of the bridge (exactly at the point where it needed to be) and incurring no tell-tale mark on the front of the instrument showing that the bridge had been moved. We both thought this was a sterling idea. Unfortunately his luthier didn't agree, citing the lack of space for the necessary string slots: a vital feature. 

And so, it is a far far better thing that I do: I have asked the luthier to move the bridge. Sure there'll now be a mark on the face of the ukulele divulging the instrument's imperfect past. And I'll forfeit the cachet of owning the ukulele equivalent of a misprinted sheet of Penny Black stamps (should there be any future trade in misbuilt ukuleles.) But at least my instrument will now be playable and, after all, isn't that the most important thing. 

[The top ukulele is the unplayable one - notice that the bridge is slightly closer to the sound hole.]
[On the homepage of West Coast Guitars you can see a photo of owner Glen with Jean Larrivée Sr. at the NAMM show.]