Friday, 31 August 2012

What am I Doing with this Tenor Banjo?

Yes, you read it right - a tenor banjo. It has been a really weird couple of days - I'll tell you about yesterday next time - but suddenly I find myself the owner of this rather large big brother to my banjolele!

As ever, it's Himself that's to blame really... LSH - he came in at lunchtime saying he'd seen a second-hand banjo in a shop for £50 - four strings...."That's a tenor" said I..."That's a good price for a banjo......"

Now, I've never had or played a banjo, but I've always had a soft spot for them; I love to hear one played well - the late great Barney McKenna of the Dubliners was a fantastic player of Irish tenor banjo. So - it was irresistible - by tea-time, it was mine. £60, not £50... but an okay price to have a banjo to have a go at - and all I knew about them was that they have four metal strings, and different tuning from the ukulele.

Now I'm a little wiser. The first discovery on Google was that I've paid the same price for this used instrument as I would have paid for a new one! It's a Swift - £60. Amazing. That just can't be right. But what the heck, I can sell it on if I don't like playing it, and hopefully not lose more than a few pounds. It's obviously a very basic banjo. That's fine. I only want to explore....

Next - tuning. Easily found by internet search; standard tuning, CGDA. Irish tuning, GDAE. So I think to myself - I'll tune it up to standard tuning til I know what I'm about... TWANG! Goes the second string..... so I start to loosen the others off again - and TWANG goes another. Now I only have two strings left on it.

This is a rapid learning curve.... I search online for new banjo strings - and learn that different gauge strings are used for standard tuning than for Irish - not surprising really, as Irish tuning is a whole fourth (four notes) lower than standard. Then it came to me - the banjo must have been fitted with strings designed for Irish tuning - and trying to pull them up five notes higher broke them straight away! So now I have to wait for some more to arrive in the post.

It's just as well - after all, I've got my handsome new Kiwaya soprano to play!

Meanwhile - it's not ukulele - but here's Barney.

I'm so glad we saw the Dubliners on their tour last year, before Barney shuffled off this mortal coil.... RIP Barney McKenna

It's the last day of summer, but......"Yes Sir, That's My Baby" - from Eugene Ukulele

Another stunning performance by one of my favourite ukulele players! Played on a custom Bruko curly maple soprano ukulele.

Popular standard written in 1925; music Walter Donaldson, lyrics Gus Kahn. Those two wrote wrote some wonderful songs that have lasted nearly 90 years...Another one is "My Baby Just Cares for Me"... see some more songs with lyrics by Gus Kahn here.

And for this wonderful morning, the last day of summer, when at 10.00 a.m in my garden the sky and the air were so beautiful it just took my breath away..... this video is just perfect.

The song has basic chords and a common chord progression - it's what Eugene does with them that's so, so skilful... the finger-picking between the chords and the "add-ons".... that performance is brilliant in my book, and it's one I'm going to study!

Thanks for sharing, Eugene! And a wonderful morning to you down under, too! Down there, spring must be in the air! Aaah.....

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A new Kiwaya KTS-4 Soprano for a very happy bunny

So much excitement - it seems a long time since I had a little fantasize about what my ideal soprano ukulele would be like, and I dismissed any ideas of owning a custom-built uke as quickly as I had dreamed about one. Why people have them is a whole subject for discussion in itself - suffice it to say, I'm not in the market. I'm still a learner and was brought up not to be extravagant. But I did decide that I wanted a soprano for a traditional sound, and that I wanted a good one - for quality of build, precise intonation and a beautiful finish, in solid wood.

When it came to factory-built ukes, there were three contenders, and I wanted to see them and play them. Whilst in London, I dragged poor LSH (Long-Suffering-Husband) off to a ukulele shop - yes, a music shop selling just ukuleles, and advertising the Kiwaya and the Bruko on their website - but no chance, they don't seem to actually stock them. I did spend a happy hour in there playing all the other solid wood ukes though, while LSH spent an equally happy hour in the excellent pub across the road, where the draft bitter was apparently excellent - but I was particularly interested in the Kiwaya KTS-4; I posted Ken Middleton'e reviews of the Kiwaya (made in Japan) and the Bruko #6 (made in Germany) on here, and low and behold, a few days later a used Kiwaya KTS-4 (solid mahogany, no laminates) came up on ebay uk! What a coincidence is that!

I watched that baby and drooled over it all week - LHS doesn't really get why anyone should want more than one wooden uke. And I like a peaceful life. But as the final minutes ticked away I got very twitchy... and he noticed. Doesn't miss a thing - not after forty years. So I told him about it. He must have been feeling particularly mellow - because he replied "You'd better get up the stairs to your computer then!"

"What - to bid for it?"

"Yes if you like!"

Did I need telling twice? I do love that man of mine...the minutes ticked away while I fiddled about getting to the page... now what should my maximum bid be......?

Well - I got it! And yesterday it arrived. It's fitted with Aquila strings, which I plan to change very quickly, so I'm not going to talk much about the sound except to say that yes, the intonation does seem to be spot on, just as it should be, and when you pluck the strings, you can feel the whole body vibrate. The body is built of very thin wood - which, in a ukulele, is a good thing, as long as the internal bracing is adequate.

I just love the look and feel of this uke - it surpasses expectations. The satin finish on it just glows. The tuners are good quality friction tuners and the neck is nice and thin. Rosewood fingerboard, of course. And it is SO light - I'm going to weigh it and compare the weight with my little Mahalo soprano - just to see the difference.

So - that's my soprano story. I'm very happy with my concert uke, and I love this - and I can't really get into tenors at all..... so I'm a happy bunny. A very happy bunny......

Plan - put Living Water Strings on it. Aquilas are very loud, and I want to try the Living Water - because they are just beautiful on my Tanglewood concert uke.

Then - put a Living Water low G string on the Tanglewood to try it out. A low G set-up is great for the jazzy numbers...busy day tomorrow....

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Announcing The Ukulele Cowboy Society's Music Video....

And now for something rather different - how could I not share this!

Some video, huh? Uke playing with attitude..... I love it!

For more on the Ukulele Cowboy Society, see here.....

All rights reserved, I do not own this song or any part of it...

Monday, 27 August 2012

Coming up - New Uke Day!

Yes indeed, big news to report... a new uke will be arriving in the post in a few days time!

More later... got to get back to the garden before it rains again - filled two big bags with garden rubbish yesterday, a bit more this morning before the heavens opened ... I'm feeling SO virtuous! And SO excited about the new ukulele that's coming! I hope it will live up to expectations.....

Sunday, 26 August 2012

A Sunday in late summer, and the summerhouse beckons...

Late August equals late summer in the UK. Next month it will be early autumn in my book. My calendar book runs like this - September, October, November, that's autumn; December, January, February, winter; March, April, May, spring; June, July, August, summer. And summer will soon be no more.

It's Sunday morning and ten minutes ago at 11 a.m., our south-facing patio had a distinct feel of early autumn about it, the sky under thin cloud, the air just warm, the breeze carrying a hint of the cooler weather to come, the light definitely autumnal. Earlier this morning, LSH (Long-Suffering Husband) had declared on the phone to an aunt in another part of the country that autumn had arrived in the West Midlands. It's in the light, in the air...

The birds know it - three weeks ago in Brecon, South Wales, we had sat in a garden, the sun cracking the flags, watching the swifts zooming around above us in screaming parties - it was about 8th August, and it's a fact that by the 12th August, the last swifts have left our shores, headed south back to their winter quarters in Africa. In the next few weeks, the swallows will be following them. At least, we returned from Brecon with a prize - the old washboard. LSH will soon be playing it, when we have tracked down a supply of thimbles for his fingers.

Now, though, the sun has broken through, the patio is immediately too hot and I have retreated to my favourite place in the garden - my summerhouse. Airy, shady, sheltered, peaceful, private... where I can have fresh air and gaze upon the garden. Today it is gazing back at me reproachfully. This year I have neglected it, hardly done a thing. Four weeks of solid rain in April and a further six weeks of solid rain in June/July have much to do with it - the rest, I must admit, is down to my ukulele. The weeds and dead rose-heads stare at me sullenly - that is how I see them. It's guilt.

Last year, the roses and I fought a gallant battle together against the fungal disease "rust", but this year the roses have had to fend for themselves - I haven't even fed them.

It's no use, I'll have to get the old scourge and hair shirt out again...

On second thoughts, the garden fork, secateurs and fish, blood and bonemeal would be far more practical...

After I've run through my "Summerhouse Practice List" or new set of uke targets, that is...

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Today's musical ventures....

Today's great musical acquisition - a kazoo. Or rather, his 'n hers kazoos - got LSH one as well. Now we can do kazoo duets. It'll go with the old washboard we came across in Brecon the other week.... I spotted it, he grabbed it and laid claim to it... handed over the £12 asking price and tucked it under his arm with smug self-satisfaction....."Keep your filthy hands off it - that's mine!" was the loving remark as we left the shop. We talk to each other like that - that's forty years of marriage for you.

Also today - I've restrung my Slingerland banjo-uke again. I'd got some fluorocarbon strings on it, and had tried to tune it up to D tuning, but I could tell the strings didn't like it - sure enough, the 1st string broke. So I've gone for nylon strings this time, after recommendations from Johnny Foodstamp and others in the George Formby Society. They arrived today, I've put them on and they have gone up to D tuning without a grumble - so I think I'll be happy with those. Full marks and many thanks to the obliging folk who run the GFS shop online.

Been playing the banjo-uke and kazoo together... now that's what I call fun!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

"Bye Bye Blues" - Melody Style Tutorial, Parts 1 and 2 by Matthew James Richards

For months now, I have been watching and listening to good ukulele players playing songs and tunes in a style that plays the chords, but also picks out the melody - and wanting - no, yearning to be able to do it. The other day I was thrilled to discover that one of my ukulele heroes, Matthew J Richards, has done two tutorial videos on Bye Bye Blues as an introduction to playing this way. Matthew uses basic chords in this arrangement, and shows how to pick out the melody with the thumb, strumming the chords in the spaces between the notes. Watch the videos, you'll see what I mean. Matthew is a superb teacher. Following these videos has really helped me to begin to understand just how this technique of playing melody-style is done...

The song is the 1930 jazz standard "Bye Bye Blues" - the same song that I featured yesterday in a chord tutorial by that other great uke teacher, Mike Lynch. The arrangement is completely different, and I love both - Matthew's for the melody-style arrangement, and Mike Lynch's for the jazzy chords!

Now watch Part 2 to see how to play this Melody Style....

Matthew is a fine musician and a very nice person, I can attest. Piano tuner, entertainer, a stalwart of the George Formby Society (GFS) along with the rest of the Richards family, his banjo-uke playing is simply a joy, and he also plays keyboard with the band to accompany other players at the GFS Conventions in Blackpool. I'll be posting more of his videos. Read more about him here.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

"Bye Bye Blues" - Ukulele lesson tutorial by ukulelemike, Mike Lynch

I've been looking at the popular jazz standard "Bye Bye Blues", written by Fred Hamm, Dave Bennett, Bert Lown, and Chauncey Gray and published in 1930. More on the song here.

This lovely version, by ukulelemike, Mike Lynch, has quite a jazzy sound because of the chords chosen... lots of 7ths and minor 7ths. Mike puts the chords up on the video, which is really helpful when you're trying to follow it...

For ease, here they are in order

A - F7 - Em - F#7 - B7 - E7 - A - Cdim7 - Bm7 - E7

Next time .... another great version of Bye Bye Blues, a couple of tutorial videos by Matthew Richards for playing Bye Bye Blues melody-style, using basic chords. You can take your pick!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Roly Poly and Wildwood Flower, ukulele duet

So, folks, something to cheer and energise, this Monday morning - Tim Keough (ukuleletim) and Jim Beasley having a blast... you can almost see the smoke coming off those strings! This just has to lighten the heart...

"Wildwood Flower" is probably my favourite bluegrass piece and you'll hear a great version tucked in the middle of Roly Poly - a new one on me. Look out for the clawhammer passage....

Tim says "An old Bob Wills favorite paired with a popular old time American song arranged for ukulele duet. Jim Beasley on right, Tim Keough on left. We have a little too much fun in one part so I just spliced to the end to spare discomfort to audience and player."

Tim's website is where Tim tells "how to play ukulele like a badass" and has lots of articles on playing campanella style.


Now down to some serious Monday Morning stuff....

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

New short-term targets for playing my uke...

Right - my progress on the uke seems to have stalled for lack of focus. These targets need firming up - but roughly, this is what I think I need to do over the next four weeks....

Learn the notes for the ukulele fingerboard thoroughly up to the first five frets. Further if possible. (C tuning)

Learn chords in the 2nd position for the most common chords.

Practice chord changes to/from Em

Finish learning "Cherry Blossoms" (Mike Lynch piece)

Start learning a new chord solo - "Going Home" (Mike Lynch arrangement)

Start learning a new fingerpicking piece - bluegrass

Practice playing by ear

Learn the chords to one of my favourite songs, so I don't always have to find the sheet - eg "Til There Was You"

(Banjo-uke - sort something specific out)

More than enough there..... that'll do!

Good intentions - I'm so good at those...

I think I want a Kiwaya KTS-4 Soprano Ukulele - here's a review by Ken Middleton

The soprano sized Uke has grown on me greatly - I like the sound, and I like the fact that if I see a chord fingering that goes from fret three to fret ten, I can reach it! I was horrified to find such a chord in the tab for Music Box Waltz, by Roy Smeck. It's reachable on a concert uke, but barely - I've got long fingers - I don't know whether people reach stretches like this on a tenor... but that's another story.

Anyway, I really fancy one of these, the Kiwaya KTS4, or even the KTS5 with more frets, although that one is considerably more pricey. The laminate version, the KS1, has great reviews, but I would love a solid wood instrument, one with a thin enough top to give it the volume and sound that I want. In my dreams, I reckon.

But, I'm hoping, this weekend, to get to a shop that sells these ukes and try them out - the Japanese Kiwaya KS1, the KS4 as above, and a Bruko, a German-made uke which also has gained a great following. I'm expecting the sound to be very different, from what folk have said - it'll be interesting! And there are many more factors to take into account when playing a ukulele; the necks can vary in thickness, some being thinner than usual, and some being thicker; so can the width at the nut (where the strings go through slots at the top before they attach to the tuning pegs). These things can make a lot of difference to personal comfort and preference, and it's one good reason to try to get hands on and play before buying, rather that buying unseen online. The other reason of course is the sound.

I can't finish without a word for Ken Middleton's review. This one is from 2008 and is as thorough and well-considered as ever.

Whoops - I've actually just this minute found a review from Ken where he compares the Bruko 6 to the Kiwaya! It's here....

Thanks, Ken for the music, for the reviews, for the tabs, for the strings.... you are the man.

I planned to do something completely different this morning - this is my trouble, you see..... lah-di-dah.......

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Grinding to a halt, ukulele-wise

Suddenly, ukulele-wise, I feel that I am wading thigh-deep in water with the current against me - and it's because I've suddenly lost direction and focus.

The reason is clear; I'm faffing about too much on the internet. I'm reading the Forum (Ukulele Underground Forum) and watching Youtube uke videos instead of playing and practising. Silly, silly...

So I know what I need to do....

Set limits on internet time; play more ukulele.

Set targets again - particular pieces to work on and learn - for me, that works.


You've read it before and here it is again.... the only way to get better is.....

practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice
practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice
practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice
practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice
practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice

Meanwhile, someone has to wash up, do a bit of housework.

In the doldrums....

Better get on with it.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A GENTLE WAVE - Ukulele Improvisation by Ken Middleton

Just the thing for a peaceful Sunday - tranquility, a calm sea and beautiful sounds from a ukulele. I've already listened to this three times - the usual, when I have really enjoyed a piece of music.

Ken Middleton is a dab-hand at improvisation. I wish I could do it - I know that I could, if I knew my way round the uke fret-board - and there's only one answer to that - work at it.

You have to know your way round the ukulele the way that you know your way round your own house - blindfold. To know where everything is. On the ukulele, that means every note, every chord, every progression, every movement by step up and down an scale, every leap to the note you want... and it means work, concentration and application, and exercising your memory. If you rely completely on chord charts and tabs, you never learn to master the instrument, because you don't know it intimately enough - it's like knowing something only second-hand, somehow.

You also need to know something about structure - structure of a musical piece. If you play, you know that most pieces are played in one key - and the most common key for the uke is the key of C - because that's the easiest key to play in for the ukulele. But a piece of music also has a musical form or shape - and a very common and basic one is AABA.

"Whaaat?" Don't panic. Think of a song - better still, look here, at how music works. I don't believe in reinventing the wheel - this chap explains it very well..... AABA song structure is actually very, very familiar to all of us!

For more detail look at 32 bar form.

AABA is just for starters, but it's a very good start, and enough to keep you going and thinking for a while.

So, knowing a bit about structure in music helps when you want to improvise. Is it essential? Well, it certainly gives you a framework, which you can build on.

Trying to remember how to play pieces without the papers in front of you is a great starter - keep the music nearby to go to when you're stuck, but remember, memorising the musical pathways is a great learning pathway to knowing your instrument. And anyway, it's so much nicer to be able to pick up your uke and just play it, instead of always having to have the music up in front of you.

So - if you want to be able to improvise, know your instrument. I resolve to get to know mine. And start looking at how pieces of music are structured. It's really interesting!

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

World's Smallest Playable Ukulele? Will Grove-White demonstrates....

The soprano ukulele is a small instrument, it goes without saying. New players often buy a soprano and find it tricky to get their fingers round the chord shapes on the fingerboard. They think that it's going to be a permanent problem to them, and swiftly move on to one of the larger sizes, a concert or a tenor. But in truth, these fingering problems are pretty soon overcome with practice, and people who have thought the soprano to be a no-go area for them do find that when they return to that size, they can play it much more easily, after lots of practice with a larger fingerboard.

The soprano is the traditional size for the uke, and the late great Roy Smeck, "Wizard of the Strings" and arguably the best player ever, never played any other size, even though he did not possess slim fingers. Experienced players agree, it just takes time to get your fingers accustomed to the small fretboard.

Following a discussion on this very subject on the Ukulele Underground Forum, I saw this video, by Will Grove-White, one of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Will writes:

"I have recently acquired this wonderful microscopic ukulele. I think it's meant to be a desk ornament or perhaps a fridge magnet. It is only just possible to play it. It is a miniature Tangi Ukulele. Thanks very much to Mike and pfrogner. If this tickles your fancy, you may like to hear more of my music at"

Well, it did tickle my fancy, and I followed the link, to read more. It just so happens that Will has a new CD out, called "Small Fry". Just click for the page.... you can listen to the new album there, and buy it if you like it! I liked it, and will be buying.

He writes: "It's a collection of my own tunes, played by a pocket orchestra. I used a menagerie of small-scale instruments for the recording of this album, from the Piccolo Trombone to the Sopranino Ukulele, so the listener is able to delight in both musical and dimensional scales. So why not put the album on your compact hi-fi, sit back in a tiny armchair, eat a mini-roll, and forget that you might want a bigger house."

I'm lucky enough to have seen the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain live, at the Albert Hall in London. It was the proms concert in 2009 where the audience were invited to bring their ukes along and join in - and I did. What a fabulous Ukafrolic that was!

And another story.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Bach Bouree from BWV 1006: John King ukulele

I discovered the late great John King a little while ago. If you like his style of playing, it's called "campanella" and it derives from campanology, or bell-ringing. I have it on good authority that John King adapted this style of playing for the ukulele, in as much as that the bell-like sound of each note is made by playing successive notes of a melody on different strings, so that each note can ring out into the next note, like a bell.

Al Wood of the great uke blog "Uke Hunt" has just done a new a superb blog post on campanella, with a great explanation and tabs. (2nd Aug 2012)

This link should put you straight on to it. Wonderful stuff.

Thanks, Woodshed!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Learning ukulele Kindle bargain

I love a bargain, and a bargain on my Kindle is irresistible. So as soon as Barry Maz of Got a Ukulele announced yesterday that his excellent book "Complete Ukulele Omnibus" was available on Kindle for a give-away price of £2.61 for a short time - yes, that's right, £2.61 - I had to snap it up. It's all there, get over to Got a Ukulele and don't let it get away!