2014 – Year of the Uke?

The ukulele is a musical instrument that appears to have been undergoing a bit of a renaissance in the last couple of years.

I have had a ukulele for quite a few years now.  I forget when I got my first one, but it was certainly well before they started becoming fashionable.

Since then I’ve played it (on and off) quite a bit and added a few more ukes to my stable.  Over the last few weeks, though, I’ve found myself playing it a lot more and taking a more definite interest in extending my chops.

One reason for this resurgence of interest is doubtless that my brother Wulf has also been getting into uke playing recently (largely due to a ukulele club he’s joined at his workplace) and I wanted to ensure my playing wasn’t too rusty when we met up at Christmas.

Another reason is that I’ve recently been introduced to the Bangor Ukulele Society (which is mostly, but not exclusively, a student group) by my friend Simon, who plays with them and also plays folk music (albeit not generally on ukes) with me and one or two others on Wednesday afternoons.  Unfortunately I’m not able to regularly attend their meetings, which clash with my Scottish Dancing commitments on Thursday evenings.  Still, the opportunity to get together with other uke players from time to time is a definite incentive to ensure that I can actually play the thing reasonably well.

My immediate musical interests tend to change fairly frequently, as there are so many instruments and genres to explore, so I can’t say for certain how much the uke will dominate my musical horizons this year.  However, at the moment I’m expecting it to feature fairly prominently in my soundscape over the next few months.


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).