How my ukulele madness began

One of the recurring threads on ukulele boards is “How long have you been playing?” It’s come up so many times that I’ve just gotten tired of typing up “my story” and I tend to just ignore the threads when they crop up again… about 3 or 4 times a year.

But, since there’s a thread like that right now on two different ukulele boards I decided I’d make a static page here on my blog so that every time it pops up again I can just copy/paste the url to this page and I’ll be done.

Damn, what a clever bloke I am!

The ukulele was the first stringed instrument I ever played. Back in 1963 my Grandpa took me to a little music shop in my hometown of Lebanon, Oregon. This was just the living room of some old gent’s house. We were going to pick up a harmonica for me (and we did… a Hohner Marine Band in the key of C for $2.50… price one of them nowadays!).

When we got there the guy was strumming a ukulele. He pulled down a banjo uke from his wall and taught me how to strum along to “Five Foot Two” (a song I still play).

(EDIT: Since I last edited this page back in January of 2008, a photo of me has surfaced that features me at about age 4, leaning on my Grandpa’s patio pillar and happily strumming a little plastic 4-string “guitar.” I have no memory of the thing, but apparently my pre-disposition to bonsai guitars goes back farther than I thought!)

Many (many, many, many) years passed where I didn’t even touch a ukulele except for a tourist job found in the basement of my best friend’s house somewhere around age 10 or 11 until…

…1992 or so when I was busking at Pike Place Market and wanted something to add to the act. I purchased on old, creaky, off-brand concert uke from an ex-girlfriend and learned a couple tunes on it.

Time passed. The uke faded from my repertoire (though I still own that very uke).

In 2001 I was pretty popular at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington because I was sitting in with a variety of acts on washboard. Alas, I was living in Edmonds, WA (a long ride on two busses) and, since I was worried about showing up at the Market and finding none of my jam buddies I’d also carry my nice Alvarez-Yairi acoustic guitar (in its heavy hardshell case).

‘Cuz let’s face it, solo washboard pretty much sucks.

Most of the time I’d just carry it because there’d be someone there to jam with. My right arm was getting longer than my left from carrying the damn thing. I said to myself, “Self, you gotta do something about this” and then remembered I had a ukulele.
I “blew the dust off of” the tunes I knew and started learning more. Getting dissatisfied with the quality of ukulele I was playing — it was hard to get any volume out of it and I was playing outside — I started buying ukes off of eBay and other online sources, going through a number of cheapies until I scored an all mahogany (i.e. not the plastic fretboard model) Harmony Roy Smeck.

Not bad. It’s still being happily played by Chickadee LaVerne of The Lucky Devil Girly Show and a couple bands including the fabulous Anarchists Union — Local 360. (Update 1/2008: The Harmony got smashed by an airline. We just went out and got her another ukulele)

Then, one summer I decided I’d had enough and was going to save up for a decent, solid-wood, factory-built ukulele. I set my sights on a KoAloha soprano (about $400 then and still a terrific uke) and started saving up.

About midway through the process someone posted a “hey look at this pic of a uke this guy built” link and, after drooling on this beautiful pic for a bit went back to find out “this guy” was Dave Means of Glyph Ukuleles and he was having an “introductory price” sale to get his name better known.

Whoa! A custom ukulele for $50 less than the one I was saving up for. I about burned up my keyboard getting my order started.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Or possibly hysteria. You decide.

As of this writing (April, 2011) I have the 6 ukuleles that are in working order (though both the Glyph and a new (to me!) banjolele need a little TLC, both mainly to the tuning pegs. I do most of my busking with an Ohana SK-50MG and its little brother the SK-21. When going out to open mike and/or gigs, especially where I’m unsure of the sound person’s acoustic miking chops, I always take my Mainland Classic Mahogany Soprano (with the MiSi pickup in it).

Thanks for your kind attention. There will be a quiz.