Not dancing like a chicken

Earlier today I came across a reference to “Dance Like A Chicken Day”.

Before you get excited and start dancing like a chicken (although don’t let me stop you if that floats your boat), I should point out a couple of things:

Firstly, the occasion, as far as I can tell, is only celebrated in the United States (as “National Dance Like a Chicken Day” or “National Chicken Dance Day”).  Even there it doesn’t seem to have official status and there is no mention of it on the Wikipedia page about the Chicken Dance.

Secondly, it was yesterday (i.e. 14th May).  Don’t worry, though, as it’s an annual event and in any case there’s nothing preventing you from doing the Chicken Dance on any day the mood takes you!

I haven’t had time to do extensive research, but a bit of Googling turned up a few websites corroborating the existence of (National) Dance Like A Chicken Day (you can recreate the search for yourself if you are so inclined) and the aforementioned Wikipedia article has a reasonable amount of information about the Chicken Dance – it’s a specific dance, to a specific piece of music (originating in Switzerland in the 1950s under the name of die Entertanz (the Duck Dance) and probably better known in the UK as The Birdie Song as the music was released here under that name in 1981 – I remember it well from school discos in my youth!).  Apparently, and unsurprisingly, it’s topped at least one poll for “most annoying song of all time” (the only serious contender I can think of is Agadoo – another frightful song from the early 80s that I remember from school discos despite my best attempts to erase it from my memory – and I apologise if you now have either of these tunes floating round in your head).

Fortunately the name of Dance Like A Chicken Day reminded me of an album by solo bass artist Steve Lawson (whom I have had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions, albeit not recently), entitled Not Dancing For Chicken.  This was one of his earlier albums as I recall (from about 12 years ago) and remains one of my favourites – certainly the title is my favourite (I think it was a reference to his cat).  I’m currently floating that past my ears and hoping that this rather better music will displace the twin earworms of the Birdy Song and Agadoo (though, to be fair, if you did feel like dancing those would probably be more suitable choices).






The Non-Stick Penguins have now made it on to YouTube, twice!

The first video is from our first open mic night last month and is of the song called Lorraine.  I’m playing bass ukulele on that one (on the left of the frame).  As far as I’m aware, the bass was quite a bit louder in the gig than it comes across on the video.  It looks like the video was taken on somebody’s phone so I assume it couldn’t cope with the lower frequencies, or perhaps it’s just my computer’s speakers that fail to handle it. Certainly the bass line gets easier to hear later in the song as it goes higher up.

The second is an audio-only recording of one of Jon’s newest songs: Big Fat Hairy Monster.  This one is actually a collaboration between us and a chap called Ken that I’ve never met.  He and Jon have done some songs together online (I’m not sure that they’ve ever met in person either) and in this case he’s taken a recording that we made at my house and overdubbed harmony vocals and a second guitar part.  I’m playing (soprano) ukulele on this one, and it mostly blends in with the guitars.

We played a second open-mic night last week at which we did our first live performance of Big Fat Hairy Monster (without Ken).  It was actually only about an hour after we’d made the recording, which was the first time Rob and I had played the song.  The live performance wasn’t entirely polished, so I hope no one made a video of it!

Jon assures me that the song, which contains references to “a big fat hairy monster with big fat hairy legs”, is not about me!

Gloria in profundis

I have been a ukulele player for several years and a bass player for somewhat longer (at least 20 years by now!).

It was only fairly recently (probably a year or so back) that I discovered the existence of the bass ukulele.  A friend of mine (and fellow bass player) got one and let me have a go on it.  I was immediately impressed by how such a small instrument (it’s the same size as a standard baritone ukulele, which is roughly the size of a viola) could manage to sound so much like an upright bass (it’s even tuned the same – at the same pitch).  Although you lack the facility for bowing it, you can get a very good approximation of a plucked bass sound in a much smaller, more convenient package.

I already wrote a bit about the bass ukulele a few weeks ago when I mentioned that I was due to be playing a gig with a jazz band, the Jazz Knights.  As I said then, I was borrowing a bass ukulele (the same one that I had previously seen, from the same person) for that gig.  The gig itself went really well and everyone seemed to like the bass uke.  We decided to keep going as a band.  At this point, I decided the time had come to get a bass ukulele of my own.

Looking around, I managed to find an attractive looking deal for a fretless bass ukulele at Thomann, a German online music shop.  Although evidently not such a nice instrument as the Kala uBass that I had been borrowing, this was substantially cheaper than the cheapest Kala ukulele I could find for sale (even second hand)  so I decided it would be worth a try.

My new bass uke arrived this afternoon and my first impressions of the instrument are generally positive.  Here’s what it looks like (click on the picture to see it in my Flickr photostream, where you will find other pictures of the instrument, most of them in colour):
Gloria 2b

As I suspected, it isn’t such a finely crafted instrument as the Kala but it seems to be pretty well put together nonetheless.  At first, I wasn’t at all keen on the white polyurethane strings (the Kala has black ones) but I’m getting used to them and beginning to think they actually go quite well with the white trim on the body of the instrument and the “fret” lines on the fingerboard.  It is probably just as well that the fretless fingerboard is lined, since the hand spacing is quite different from most stringed bass instruments due to the considerably shorter scale length.  Even with this visual aid to help, I’ll probably need to do a fair amount of practice to get the hang of it.  To some extent, there’s a similar problem even with a fretted bass uke (such as the Kala I was playing), but the frets are certainly more forgiving of slight inaccuracies in finger placement.

One feature of this instrument that was lacking on the Kala is onboard volume and tone controls, which could be quite useful for adjusting my sound in the middle of a gig (or muting the instrument temporarily, e.g. to put it down) if I’m unable to reach the amplifier.  The flip-side is that, while the Kala had purely passive circuitry, this one is active (powered by a couple of lithium cells) and evidently won’t work if the batteries are removed (or dead).

Having played for a number of years on a borrowed upright bass called Claudia (so named by its owner), I resolved that if ever I got an upright bass of my own I would call it Gloria.  Since it currently seems unlikely that I will be getting an upright bass any time soon (certainly while I live in such a small house) and since the bass uke is such a good substitute for one, I’ve decided to call my new uke Gloria instead (I’ve also got the name Bertha reserved for the – also highly unlikely – eventuality that I should ever get a tuba to call my own).

Jazz (K)nights

Jazz is one of my favourite kinds of music, both for listening to and playing, although I don’t often get opportunities to play it these days.  Therefore, I was delighted to be offered a jazz gig (as a bass player) this coming Saturday night.  This evening I met the rest of the band (for the first time) for a practice, which went pretty well.  There won’t be any further practices before the gig.

The band – The Jazz Knights – is newly formed for this occasion and (apart from me) is made up of members of Holyhead Jazz Club.  It is currently a six-piece band, with a line up of tenor sax/clarinet (doubling), soprano sax, trombone, guitar, drums and bass.  The programme for our concert on Saturday says: “Our music ranges from Traditional [jazz], through Swing, Bossa Nova and Tin Pan Alley/Show tunes”, which seems to me to be a fair description.  The plan seems to be to keep going after this gig and maybe try to get a regular residency (perhaps once per fortnight) at a local pub.  Hopefully I’ll get to be a part of all that too.

We have a set list of 22 pieces for this particular gig.  I have probably played about 7 or 8 of them before (including a few that I’m very familiar with, like Summertime, Satin Doll and Autumn Leaves) and I was at least vaguely familiar with about half the others.  Amongst the tunes that are entirely new to me is a bossa nova piece called Wave (by Antonio Carlos Jobim), which I particularly enjoyed playing this evening.  We didn’t have time to play through the whole set at our practice, so there will be a few that I’m sightreading on the night (which is just the way I like it).

To make matters even more exciting, I am playing this gig on a borrowed bass ukulele.  This is a small instrument (roughly the size of a viola) with polyurethane strings, which plays at the same pitch (and in the same tuning) as a bass guitar or upright bass.  When amplified, it sounds remarkably like an upright bass but is significantly more portable (and easier to fit in small bungalows or on cramped stages).  The only downside is that the scale length is very short (certainly compared to most bass instruments) and therefore it takes some getting used to the different finger spacing.  It’s probably just as well that it’s a fretted instrument I’m borrowing!

The gig on Saturday is a charity gig on behalf of the Anglesey Centre of Mission.  It takes place at St Anne’s Hall, Dale Street, Menai Bridge, starting at 7:30pm (and going on until about 10pm). Tickets cost £6 and should be available on the door, although it’s a fairly small hall so space is limited.  The Jazz Knights will be playing most of the music but there will be an interlude with music from a quartet drawn from the Menai Bridge Brass Band (as it happens both Tim, our trombone player, and I also play with the Menai Bridge Band but we’re not in this quartet).


Strung Out

One of the drawbacks of playing stringed instruments, which of course are far outweighed by the pleasures they have to offer, is the occasional need to restring them.

I once calculated that I had over 100 strings on all my instruments (admittedly, one of them is a harp which immediately adds 22 strings to the total; I’ve got rid of a few of them since then too, so the number may be slightly lower by now). Most of the instruments don’t get played incredibly frequently and I generally prefer the sound of fairly well worn-in strings to very new ones so I tend to only replace the strings when one breaks or the intonation noticeably starts to suffer. I usually try to change the whole set of strings on an instrument at the same time (although if I break one mid-gig, I usually only change the offending string at the time and then replace the rest of the set at my earliest convenience).

Fortunately, bass strings tend to last quite a long time since they are about the most expensive strings I use (roughly £25 for a 5-string set – about the same price as my violin strings and considerably better value considering there’s an extra string and a great deal more material in each string). However, they do break from time to time and last week was one of those times. My E string snapped in the middle of a band practice and I discovered that I didn’t have a spare.

I can’t remember the last time I got new bass strings. I think it was about 8 or 9 years ago, when I discovered half-wound strings. As the name suggests, these are a cross (or a compromise) between the more usual round-wound and flat-wound strings, providing a slightly brighter tone than the latter but giving some of their smoothness (and gentleness on a fretless fingerboard) compared to the former. As a fretless player, I found half-wounds to be just the thing for my bass.

I got myself a set of Status Graphite strings, which I seem to recall cost about £25 back then. Rather than waiting for my previous, flat-wound strings (probably the ones that came with the bass a few years earlier) to wear out, I swapped the strings immediately and then kept the flats as spares.

A few months ago, a couple of my strings snapped within a few weeks of each other, so I temporarily put the corresponding flats back on and made a mental note, which I unfortunately then proceeded to ignore, to get a new spare set. Of course, one of the strings that broke was the E, which is why I found myself without a change of string last week.

The Status strings, which are hand wound, were not the cheapest ones available when I got them, although they came highly recommended (and I’m not that sure that half-wounds are widely available in other brands), so I had expected them to be quite a bit more expensive by now if they were still available. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are still available and still about the same price that I remember. Actually, they were listed on the website at £22.50, but it later turned out that this was an ex-VAT price. I do wish that shopping sites would make it clear on the product pages whether prices include VAT or not, rather than (presumably) hiding the information away somewhere in the small print, but I digress…

I’ve now put the new strings on, after giving the fingerboard a bit of lemon oil treatment, and they are sounding fine. I decided to buy two sets this time, so that I have a change of string available the next time I break one – hopefully not for at least another 8 or 9 years.

This reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about the great Stax-Volt bassist, Donald Duck Dunn, who sadly died earlier this year. Apparently he was once asked, a number of years ago but at least 30 years after starting his professional career in which he was notable both for playing on a huge number of recordings (and presumably quite a few live gigs too, as well as the Blues Brothers film) and (I gather) for using a single bass throughout, what strings he used. His reply was “I don’t know – they were on the bass when I bought it”! I don’t know the source of that story, but I’d like to think it’s true.