Thursday, 16 July 2015

Jake Shimabukuro to visit the UK!

Yes it's true, dear readers, it's true... Jake Shimabukuro is coming here... to play Liverpool, London, Leeds and Bath in September.... organised by the team at Grand Northern Events, (the team behind the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival and the Grand Southern Ukulele Festival), this will be Jake's very first visit here!

Read all about it here... tickets on sale now for three of the four venues... but better be quick, I'm thinking!

Now isn't that a great way to start the weekend!

Here's Jake playing "Over the Rainbow"

Thanks for dropping in... don't go too far away, now!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

From John Pearson of Solwayer Guitars... a different kind of Uke Bass!

It's amazing, the things you see and the people you meet at a uke festival! GNUF 2015, Huddersfield, May just gone... in the hotel bar late one night, I heard a bass being played during a jam, and I noticed that the bass, although uke-bass sized, was nothing like the U basses I'd seen before... it had the look of a bass guitar (a rather beautiful bass guitar) and appeared to have conventional electric guitar strings. MUCH thinner strings than U basses usually have. And so I met John Pearson, builder at Solwayer Guitars, a small design/manufacturing business, based in northern Cumbria here in England. And he told me that he built this beautiful and great-sounding uke bass himself.

John told me that his mini-EB0 bass, is a (roughly) three-quarter size model of the original bass made by a well-known American guitar manufacturer, "no names, no pack drill". It's in constant use, he explains...

He went on... "I built the bass in late 2012 after joining the Carlisle Ukulele Club. I’ve played both guitar and bass in a variety of bands over a number of years – I play by ear and I think my memory must be very visual as I rely a lot on shapes to learn parts. So, although the first instrument I ever played as a kid was an orange plastic ‘autographed’ Beatles ukulele (if only I still had it), as an adult I had real trouble ‘unlearning’ my guitar chords and relearning uke chords – for me, it’s guaranteed to confuse, with the same string intervals as on the top 4 strings of a standard-tuned guitar but with a different tuning – so my ‘D’ shape is a ‘G’ on a uke – too much for me to get to grips with!

I’ve been a guitar builder (semi-professional) since 2007. I trained originally as a designer craftsman in the 1980s but have earned a living ‘away from the tools’ for quite some time. After a few months playing in the club I thought, you know, what the club needs is a bit of bass thumping away in the background. I’ve always loved the look of the Gibson EB0 or EB3 bass, so the two things, my constant struggle with those uke chords, and my love of the EB0 bass came together and the mini-EB0 was born.

It’s entirely handbuilt (apart from the pickup, the tuning heads, and the bridge saddles). The body is from a single piece of mahogany shaped and carved by hand based closely on a vintage EB0 bass. The neck is made from 4 pieces of mahogany – the main part of the neck from 2 pieces laminated side by side, and the headstock likewise. The headstock face is from a piece of black vulcanised fibre board, the same stuff Gibson uses, and the fingerboard is rosewood with mother of pearl dot markers.
The neck bolts into the body – strictly speaking it should be a set neck glued into the body to be faithful to the original, but a bolt on neck is easier to make and I wanted to have the ability to adjust the neck angle if necessary – you can’t do that with a set neck. Also, if the neck ever got damaged or broken (it can happen, believe me!) I could make a replacement without having to trash the lacquer finish on the body to get the old neck off. Also, at this size, the ‘set neck versus bolt-on neck’ debate about what delivers most sustain or resonance is irrelevant – it makes no tangible difference on a 22” scale length bass!

The bridge plate is handmade from a piece of aluminium ‘L’ section – I had to make it myself to get the right string spacing – and it uses chrome bridge saddles from a Fender Stratocaster type bridge. The bass strings through the body.

The body and neck are both finished in cherry red nitrocellulose lacquer as per the original, which has been flatted and hand polished to a high gloss – although as the photos probably show this has dulled a bit as the bass gets regularly handled and played. The lacquer is also getting some crazing in it which gives it a nice authentic vintage feel.

I spent quite a bit of time experimenting with different bass strings to achieve the standard EADG bass tuning I wanted. I now use the bottom 4 strings from a set of 6 strings intended for a Fender Bass VI. These are thinner gauge than the thinnest conventional bass strings I could find and they work really well, although the string tension at such a short scale is quite low and the bass needs to be played in a certain way to keep things sounding properly in tune. Otherwise it works just like a conventional electric bass – the wound strings induce a current in the pickup (a hot-wound humbucker) and the bass has normal volume and tone controls and a jack lead output to carry the signal to an amplifier. For such a small instrument, this thing really shakes the walls!

I use the bass with Carlisle Ukulele Club at regular Sunday sessions and in the gigs that we do. I also play it with a Band called Slaves of Venus – we play covers of all that was best between about 1977-1982 (my era of music!), or as someone said to me the other night ‘tunes you love played on small guitars – what’s not to like?’ We’re starting to build a bit of a following now – have a look on facebook for the latest.

The bass has also been seen in action at a few uke events including N’Ukefest 2014, the Omega Uke Express 2014 and at GNUF 2015. I’m all booked up for Omega Music’s Morkelele weekend in July this year and also for their Uke Express 2015 in November.

In the not too distant future, I’m intending to have more time to devote to building uke basses and to think about taking some orders if anyone’s interested – but bear in mind these are unique handmade instruments and don’t come cheap. I’d be more than happy to be contacted if anyone has any questions. See here on solwayer guitars for contact details –

I desperately need to tidy and update this website but at least it gives some idea of what I’ve been up to with guitar and bass building over the last 8 years or so."

Thanks to John Pearson for that! That bass is a real beauty isn't it! Something different, and it's good to see someone strive and succeed in bringing their vision to reality... I hope you enjoyed reading all about it as much as I did; that instrument is a real head-turner!

Thanks for dropping in... come again soon!

Monday, 6 July 2015

3 String Cigar-box Uke building workshop at GNUF 2015...

Just one of the great things about a ukulele festival is the workshops. At the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival (GNUF) in Huddersfield a few weeks ago, I put together a 3 string "cigar-box" uke in a workshop by Rob Collins of These things fascinate me, especially when I hear someone who can play one.

Here's Emerson Rogers playing his - he certainly knew what to do with it! The slide is simply a small piece of copper tubing.
I was really impressed with the way Rob had prepared this workshop. It was an hour in length - no time to do detailed building instruction or to drill holes etc... but enough time to do an assembly job on the kit provided.
It's the sort of project that will benefit from a bit of finishing off - a sanding and coat of varnish of some sort. And the box (not a cigar box actually but it does the trick) would look good decorated. And then to get some music out of it..... it will wait til the winter months.
Rob was very innovative with the nut and bridge for this little "uke"...
As you caan see, the nut is a bolt - yes, the nut is a bolt! (Groan...) and the threads make good slots for the strings to fit into!
The bridge appears to be a bolt with the end cut off - the threads hold the strings in place. Very neat.
You'll notice that there's no sound hole - Rob explained that with a large enough sound hole, the top would be weakened and would need bracing - as a ukulele has. So there we go, we all had a neat and practical first foray into basic uke building! It was great fun, and everyone got their three string cigar box finished in the time. "f" holes would be cool though... I wonder....

Speaking of "cool"... this ranks pretty high on the list... In May we were fortunate to be able to visit the Kamaka factory in Honolulu, for the tour given by Mr Fred Kamaka himself - and here he is, showing me the museum-piece cigar-box uke made by Sam Kamaka... what a wonderful experience that was - and that's simply beautiful!

Well, I've got my porch, got my cigar box uke, all I need now is an injection of blues-ology to get me going! I live in hope.....

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee - Sarah talks about their new sound

Come Back Home (GNUF Tour Version)

Sarah and Craig put this video together when they got back home to America to share their memories of the folks at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival (GNUF) held in Huddersfield, England in May. It is a joy... (I was very surprised and thrilled to see my own face pop up there with Sarah...)

They are a very special couple, as anyone who has met them or seen them perform together on stage will tell you. Off-stage they both have a genuine warmth, which embraces anyone they meet - that certain something that makes you feel as if just at that moment you are the most important person in the world to them... and their on-stage chemistry makes their performance something quite exceptional - every time.

When I first heard Sarah play, at UFGB two years ago, her style was jazz standards, but she and Craig have now worked on developing their own sound, as you can hear in the video and on their first full length album together, just released, "Scene 1: Take 1".

This is what Sarah told me...

"When Craig and I first started working together- we really just played our own styles, and backed each other up. I played low G and he played High G. Eventually we started to want more from our playing- especially if we did not have a bass player or guitarist with us. Two ukes, even with the high G and low G didn’t’ give us the depth of sound we were looking for.

For our CD “With Love”- Craig decided to play Baritone ‘Ukulele for a song or two. This gave us the depth we were looking for, but we still weren’t 100% happy with the Baritone sound. We had already begun working with GHS Strings (USA) on creating custom string sets. After working with the Baritone Uke, he asked them about creating a set for the uke that would be Baritone tuning, but re-entrant (meaning the top string is a high note). AND he wanted this set to fit a TENOR ‘Ukulele. The main reason for wanting the tenor uke scale was ease of travel- it is much easier to travel on planes with a tenor uke, than with the baritone. The Re-entrant tuning was important because he still wanted to play it like an ‘ukulele, utilizing that top string. Though this tuning is not new (Lyle Ritz and Benny Chong have both used it), for some reason it never gained popularity. After months of trial and error, we figured out the set and the uke became a new instrument again! Craig could not stop playing it and became re-inspired. We started doing harmonizing picking, along with our harmonizing vocals and we realized we had such a large sound for two people and two ukes.

It has been a fun and wonderful experience and we are very happy with the direction we are headed. When we perform together, we do switch instruments frequently. It’s actually very refreshing for us, as performers, to have a change of pace during the show. You would think it’s difficult to wrap your head around, but it really isn’t! All of the chord shapes are the same- but you’ll be thinking in a different key. MEANING- If I am playing a standard tuned uke in the key of C, Craig will be playing the Bari-Tenor tuned uke in the key of F. Once you get used to thinking of songs in numbers- like , the 1 chord, or the 4 chord, it is actually very easy to switch turnings."

Fascinating stuff! Thanks for that, Sarah!

And just in case you didn't know, Sarah and Craig are indeed a couple and will be marrying in Hawaii in September!

Watch this video on youtube

And - if you want to read more about Craig and Sarah, there's a great article and interview here on Rock at Night...