Monday, April 25, 2011

UE #65 The Sensitive Banjo Uke Player

Banjo-ukuleles are so similar and yet so different from wooden ukuleles. Today I offer some pointers to help banjo-ukes co-exist peacefully within the modern ukulele family.  

Mirfield, Yorkshire, 1996. I'll never forget the broad smiles on my mum and dad's faces after walking into a meeting of the Yorkshire Ukulele Circle. I was there thanks to an invitation by Dennis Taylor, then president of the George Formby Society. My parents had come to drive me home. It was the end of the meeting and the YUC members plus myself were playing the closing "Thrash" (a raucous and cacophonic medley of Formby songs with about 30 to 40 banjo-ukes all playing at once).  

There are some individuals to whom my description of a "Thrash" befits a grievous punishment from Dante's circles of hell. But my parents and I were carried away by the tidal wave of exuberant joy that is produced by a roomful of smiling banjo-ukulele players. Unforgettable and inspirational. Its why I started the ukulele circle in my own town.

I had arrived there at the start of the evening with my wooden ukulele in my hand. One of the kind members examined it and said,

"That's a very nice instrument." He then added, "its no good here of course".

He meant that any instrument other than a banjo-uke would soon be rendered inaudible once the serious playing began, he handed me his own instrument and said, "Use this for tonight".

I don't remember what make of instrument it was; it may have been a "Ludwig"; but I'll not forget the feel of its substantial heft in my arms. It was beautifully set-up too. I could sense its well-balanced tension; one strum and the thing just rang.

Fifteen years on and everything has changed. Ukulele clubs featuring wooden ukuleles are everywhere now. At these gatherings banjo-uke's are about as welcome as a rowdy and uncouth uncle who noisily invades and ruins every conversation but who continues to get invited to dinner because he is "family".

There's a time and place for everything and the flamboyant shout of a banjo-uke is no exception. But playing with others requires special care; so here are some tips to help ensure that you and your banjo-uke continue to get invited to ukulele family dinners.

1) Make Your Banjo-Uke Sound as Good as it Possibly Can.

You'd think that banjo-ukes would all sound pretty much the same being that each one consists of 4 strings whose sound is amplified by a vellum (vellum is the name for the skin or head) - but you'd be wrong. The structure of an instrument is critical in having a good sound (see: hey this drum has a handle). However there are things you can do to optimize the tone of any Banjo-uke:

i) Make sure the vellum is nice and tight. You don't want a 'boggy' sound. Tighten the tension rods in small increments: a ¼ turn at a time, going all the way around. Always tighten opposite rods to keep the tension even across the head. Test the tension by bouncing the handle of a small screwdriver on the vellum. If you hear 'Top Top Top' tighten it some more. When you hear 'Tap Tap Tap' you're getting close. When it sounds like 'Tip Tip Tip' you can stop tightening.

ii) Placement of the bridge. Unlike with wooden ukes the banjo-ukuleleist gets to decide where he wants to place the bridge. Unfortunately there is only one correct place. The distance from the bridge to the 12th fret should equal the distance from 12th fret to nut. A misplaced bridge makes for poor intonation. A useful tip: If you find that your bridge keeps sliding around by itself while you play don't glue it down to the vellum. Instead get yourself some rosin (the stuff violinsts put on their bows). Crumble a small fragment and put the powder under the feet of your bridge.

iii) Use warm sounding strings. For most wooden ukes I would not hesitate to recommend Aquila's Nylgut strings. However I find that they sound far too brash on most banjo-ukuleles. I use black nylon strings instead. Make sure to buy strings that are long enough such as GHS strings. I notice that many of the Hawaiian manufactured strings are cut too short for banjo-ukes (unlike wooden ukuleles, whose strings are tied at the bridge, the strings on a banjo-uke get tied at the very end of the instrument).

iv) Try different vellums. The Vellum type can make a difference to the sound. Available vellums include calf skin, goat skin and man-made. Calf skin has been traditionally used by most banjo-uke players but try different ones to see what works best for you. The fitting of a natural-skin vellum is a bit of a process but its not hard. I learned to do it using Dennis Taylor's instructions on how to fit a vellum.

2) Play With Care and Sensitivity.

I was once playing my 1920's Ludwig banjo-uke in a music festival parade. An audience member afterwards commented that he could clearly hear me from several hundred yards away. Awesome!!! Unfortunately that sort of power is not so welcome in more intimate gatherings so we need to be very sensitive in our playing style:

i) Strum lightly. A single banjo-uke player in a group of 30 wooden ukes will be as unobtrusive as an orange penguin. Don't strum as you normally would. Be as light as a dieting fairy. Use the fleshy part of the thumb to strum. Listen to the overall sound and aim to be an integral part of it.

ii) Strum less often. Not just the volume but also the quality of a banjo-uke's sound is what makes it stand out. The very difference in sound type that the banjo-uke projects will ensure that it still comes through. Think of it as a percussion instrument akin to a clave or cowbell. If played all the time its sound will smother all the other sounds. Therefore don't play every single 'up' and 'down' beat. Try playing just 'down' beats. Or every other 'down' beat. Or every fourth 'down-up' beat. Sparse playing is cool and can provide a welcome addition to the group sound.

They say you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So when Uncle Ludwig comes to tea its nice if he can be welcomed with smiles and embraces. If you are that Uncle Ludwig then try bringing some sweet sounding honey to the party.  

© Ralph Shaw 2011

DVDs to help you learn ukulele and banjo-ukulele!:   

1 The Complete Ukulele Course gets you started with tuning and strumming. Then teaches you left and right hand techniques such as rolls, triplets, ornament notes, the Formby split stroke, waltz and jig time, playing chords up the neck and the basics of melody chording.
2 Essential Strums for the Ukulele gives you specific strums and a song to go with each one. These include: samba, blues, clawhammer, bossa nova, bo-diddley, reggae, march, waltz, syncopation, and much more. People tell me they come back to this DVD again and again.
3 Ukulele Play Along has the chord changes up on the screen and you get to strum and sing along. A fun way to practice!
4 The Complete Ukulele Course for Kids Get this dvd for the child in your life and it could change their life. Ukulele is a joyful introduction to music education.


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  2. Lovely storey.
    I play a 1937 dallas c model.
    George formby monogram etc.
    I love to play it softly but swiftly.
    Scats (IRELAND)