Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Attention Lamb Chop Blog Followers!

Hi - thanks so much for following Lamb Chop Ukulele Cookin' - I really appreciate it and would like to ask you to now follow my blog at http://oneukulele.blogspot.com, as I am moving everything over to that site. Lamb Chop will still be here, but One Ukulele is the one I am updating.

Thanks for your support and I hope to see you following One Ukulele soon!


Sunday, November 28, 2010

One Ukulele - new blog and website

I really am groovin' on this One Ukulele idea, so much so that I think I am going to change over my blog from Lamb Chop over to http://oneukulele.blogspot.com/, so come on over and join me there. I'lls till keep this one up, but I think my heart is going with the One Ukulele theme. Oh, and the website is simply http://www.oneukulele.com/.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Get the MP3 of "One Ukulele"

The new MP3 version of "One Ukulele" is now available as a downloadable single from cdbaby.com. Only 99 cents!

Friday, November 26, 2010

One Ukulele

Well, after more than a week of sifting through images, editing in Windows Movie Maker, laying down a ukulele and vocal track on the Tascam DP-008, and publishing movie after movie, I finally have the final copy of my new song, "One Ukulele," on YouTube. Special thanks to all the members of www.ukuleleunderground.com who posted pictures for me to use in the video, as well as to Jake Shimabukuro, Abe Lagrimas Jr., Brittni Paiva and Victoria Vox for the kind use of their images in the video. This has been a labor of love and I hope it serves as a fitting tribute to the beauty and positivity of the ukulele:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tiptoe Through the Tulips Redux

Well, this morning I got out my ukulele and my little Samsung video recorder and headed downtown Flint to my favorite location and recorded me a little dity I've been working on for the past few weeks now. Took a lot of takes to get to this one and I'm pretty proud of it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Peace Love and Ukulele - Seeing Jake

I had the pleasure once again last night to see Jake Shimabukuro play at the Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition to revised versions of his classics, like "Blue Roses Falling," "Five-Dollars Unleaded," and an all new head and finish for his famous "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" cover, Jake played some of his new songs including "1-4-3," which is pager- speak for "I love you," and "Go for Broke," which is dedicated to the Japanese Americans who served in World War II. The highlight of the evening, however, was his cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody." I saw him do it last year, and it was amazing, but now it has become a much more mature tribute that is less of a "Wow, he's doing this on ukulele," and more of a new anthem for the ukulele itself. I see this as becoming, like "...Weeps," one of Jake's signature pieces. No video of him doing at the Ark, of course, but here is an excerpt of the song from the upcoming documentary about Jake set to premiere in 2011.

After the show, Jake made himself available to meet and greet all of us who cared to. I and the group I went with got our picture taken with Jake and I also introduced myself as the person who interviewed him online last summer. Like last year, he was gracious and sincere.

The crowd, like all Jake crowds, represented a range of people from kids to people in their 70s and 80s, and, of course, a full compliment of Middle Aged Guys with Ukuleles, who seem to be the most fanatic about Jake. Seeing Jake is wonderful, but seeing him in such an intimate venue - the Ark only holds about 400 people and there is no such thing as a bad seat - is truly special. I hope Jake comes back next year; it's wonderful to see him and hear his music as it keeps evolving. Until that time, his new CD, "Peace Love Ukulele" comes out in January.

-Mike Kassel

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Odds and Ends #1

Just a few things that have been going on since my last post on the Boss OC-3 Super Octave pedal. I got to use the pedal in a live setting since then and was really happy with it. I could not capture the subtle bass it added though my video camera, but I could certainly hear it in the room, which happened to be for a gig at the Ypsilanti Songwriting Festival. I have a little video from the performance of my new song "Andi."

I was using a Danelectro Fab D-5 chorus in that gig as well, and at $15 it's a steal!

I have also started a new website, MikeKasselMusic.com, which is hosted by Weebly.com which makes for some nice free sites, so if you are looking for a host you may want to check it out. I have my own domain, but you can get a free one with .weebly.com if you don't want to spend a dime while having a presence on the web.

On that site I also have a new blog, "Ukulele Player & Listener," which I am describing as the "Road & Track of Ukulele" and I have absolutely no idea what that means. I'll be using that to post videos that I find as opposed to longer articles, which I will save for here.

Working on a ton of stuff but my day-job keeps me to busy. I have a couple of videos I want to share from some of my Ukuleleunderground friends and I also have a review of Glen Rose's new book as well as a review of my new Accent clip-on tuner, which I absolutely love. I also have to get back with a couple of Ukulele artists who have already promised me interviews but who I have not had a chance to get back to - please forgive me.

Hopefully sooner than later,
Mike "Lamb Chop" Kassel

Monday, September 27, 2010

Going Low: The Boss OC-3 Super Octave

In addition to blogging, I record, sing and play out with my ukulele as a solo singer/songwriter. While I prefer ukulele to guitar, I do miss the rounder tone of an instrument with notes below middle C. Uncomfortable playing a low G, I did discover another way to introduce some bass into my sound – the Super Octave OC-3 octave pedal by Boss.

I am not a big fan of effects pedals, as I think they can be easily overused, but with a little restraint I’m able to get a pretty subtle bass effect with the OC-3.

Like all Boss pedals, the OC-3 is a well-made, all-metal stomper that runs on a 9-volt battery or optional AC power adapter. It has four knobs; furthest to the left is the direct knob, which allows you to determine the amount of original, unprocessed sound in the mix. The next knob controls the level of the tone one octave below the original. The knob furthest to the right sets the pedal to one of its three modes—Drive, Octave 2 and Polyphonic—while the knob to its immediate left controls the level of the particular mode setting.

The most useful mode for ukulele players is Polyphonic, as it allows chord playing without producing a muddy digital mess . When in poly mode, one can use the multi-purpose knob to select the range of original notes to be “doubled” one octave lower. When playing with a high-g, the range needs to be set at about the one or two o’clock to take effect. While the high-g and A strings are pretty much unaffected by this, the E and C—particularly the C—sound with the original and lower octave tones.

By setting the Octave 1 level knob to around nine o’clock and the direct to around Noon, I get a pretty nice, un-muddied bass accompaniment. It will also work with single note or arpeggio playing as well, but, again, will only be noticeable on the C and E strings.

Overall, the effect is subtle but pleasing and really rounds out the tone. Use modestly, the OC-3 gives the appearance that there is a bass player hiding in the wings. It would be cool to sample this with a low-G, as that would effect three of the four strings, although that might get a little too deep.

By the way, there is a direct output which allows you to run another effect, such as a chorus, on your unprocessed sound. You can then run the octave and other effects into separate inputs on a board or even two separate amps if you wanted. A nice touch that gives a little more control over where the effect comes in.

The OC-2 mode, which adds a tone two octaves lower than original (can you imagine using this with a bass?) is designed for single-note playing only. Indeed, playing chords or even two notes in anything but the poly mode makes for a harsh digital tone that is not at all musical. Playing single notes in the OC-2 mode can produce some cool sounds bordering on Chick Corea-like synth patches. Not something you would use everyday, but I am certainly planning on using that mode on the unison part of Corea’s classic, “Spain.”

While I have no use for drive mode, it does add a solo octave fuzz. Having sampled this with my electric guitar, the OC-3 in Drive does make for a decent distortion sound, and the poly mode can also make your six-string sound like a twelve. Amazing stuff.

The OC-3, which added the polyphonic mode to its already popular OC-2 pedal, has been around since 2004. It comes with a short but complete manual and is covered by a five-year warranty. Street price is about $119 and they go for around $50 to $70 used on Ebay (obviously holding a good deal of their value). The closest thing to the OC-3 is the Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, which not only does polyphony but also goes an octave above the original tone, but it costs over $200 new. The OC-3 has been reviewed well and while it is mainly used by guitarists and bass players, I am finding it does have its place for high-g players looking to go a little low.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Interesting Article

I found this article on the web after I typed in "growing ukulele sales." Although it is New York based, I think it applies all around the world. Check it out from The Brooklynink.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Featured Video #3: "Teardrops#7"

YouTubes’s sjeter61, aka Steve Jeter, has crafted a very moving and beautiful song called “Teardrops #7.” Steve’s been playing guitar for around 25 years but, like so many of us, has found and fallen for ukulele. As for this song, one of many on Steve’s YouTube channel, Steve says it came to him in bits over a couple of evenings. Glad it did and glad he shared it with us.

By the way, Steve plays a mean mandolin as well – see for yourself in “Swallowtail Jig.”

Marigold Stream

I did not plan on putting my own video up - just wanted to see what the Blog button under share would do and found out, but, oh well, here's what I did this weekend.  Mike

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Featured Video #2: Danielle Ate the Sandwich

I luckily came across this second featured video by Danielle Ate the Sandwich.  I am just loving the playing and the vocals of her original tune “Where the Good Ones Go,” which is on her latest album “Two Bedroom Apartment.”  Lots of other good stuff on Youtube or check her out at http://www.danielleatethesandwich.net/.

Many of Danielle's video are preceded by comic vignettes featuring a cool space helmet or facts such as her toaster having a Pop Tart setting.  Very, very cool!

Saw this today, the album's title cut, and just had to add it:

Just amazing lyrics and images.   

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Featured Video #1: "One Less Tear"
by the Barnkickers!

I'm going to kick off the first of what I hope to be many featured original videos with the Barnkickers' award-winning video "One Less Tear."  Steve Boisen and his daughter Amanda are a powerful duet that makes for a very funny and poignant tune.

When asked on the backstory to the song, Steve said “I originally wrote this song as a ragtime piano piece and added the lyrics and counter melody much later. My daughter Amanda and I played all of the instruments on this recording except for the snare drum that was added to the CD version. "One Less Tear" was our second original "homemade" video and has proven to be our most popular song. I think people like the vocal trade off and the tin-pan-alley feel. They also like the ukulele references in the lyrics."

I say they also love the voices.  Both Steve and Amanda have unique vocals that really work well together; well, just see for yourself:

According to Steve the song is available (with remixed and remastered audio) on their debut CD "Up Before Noon," which is currently being sold on Flea Market Music, Elderly Instruments and most internet music sites. It has also been released on a compilation CD and covered by Rick Bolton and the Dwyer Sisters, which is a band out of Saratoga Springs, New York. The chords and lyrics are also available on ukefarm.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Building the Savarez Set

If you’ve spent any time on the UkuleleUnderground, you know there is much love for Savarez Alliance classical guitar strings. Curious, I decided to buy a set and put them on my Laniaki S-TEQ spruce top; while I was not that impressed at first, I quickly grew to love their full, rounded tone and supple feel and am, indeed, now a Savarez devotee.

The only problem with Savarez is that they do not make a set for the ukulele. Thus, you need to order single strings. There are a number of places that sell Savarez single strings by mail, such as stringbymail. Many of these places sell just strings, such as juststrings.

If you are thinking of sampling a set, here is how to “roll your own.”

Order two 541R strings (a guitar E string used for both the High g and the A on the ukulele), a 542R (a guitar B string used for the ukulele C), and a 543R (a guitar B string used for the ukulele E). If you want a low G, substitute the 541R you are using for the high-g with a wound Savarez 544R (which is a guitar D string). Some people, by the way, prefer to use the high tension Aliance E for the high G (the 541J, I believe). 

To recap, the basic guitar-to-ukulele string conversion is:

Ukulele high G = Guitar high-E guitar
Ukulele low G = Guitar D
Ukulele C = Guitar G
Ukulele E string = Guitar B
Ukulele A = Guitar high-E

Strings Compared

If you are playing Aquila Nylguts and want to hear them compared to a nylon string like the Savarez, Ken Middleton has a wonderful video that captures the true sound of both the Nylguts and Worth clears, which, to my ears are virtually identical to the Savarez Alliances (the Worths, I mean).

If you need to hear the actual Savarez sound, uluapoundr has a YouTube video which compares Savarez Alliance, Savarez New Critsal Corum, D’addario ProArte and D’addario T2 Titanium. I actually love the sound of the ProArtes and may try them soon. The video, by the way, is rather thorough, so to get right to the strings, the Savarez Alliance demo starts at 3:57, the New Cristal Corum at around 5:02, the ProArte at 6:09 and the T2s at about 7:17.

There is no right or wrong here—what sounds good to your ear is all that matters. I love Savarez, but I still love the sound and feel of the Nylguts, too (which is why my Boulder Creek tenor is still strung with them). And Worth, D’addario and Aquila all have one advantage over Savarez—you can buy them in pre-packaged ukulele sets, making ordering just a little easier.

By the way, I want to send a special thanks to UU member Craig of http://www.ukulelecraig.com/ for his forum posts on making a Savarez set and the guitar/ukulele string equivalents, and to Ken Middleton and uluapoundr for their helpful YouTube videos.

-Lamb Chop

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jake Shimabukuro Interview: "If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be
a better place."

When you Google the word “ukulele”, the very first video that comes up is Jake Shimabukuro’s version of George Harrison’s classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Posted to YouTube in 2006, the video, which has gotten nearly six-million hits to date, propelled Jake to international stardom and has helped make the ukulele the respected phenomenon it is.

Not that Jake will take any of the credit. Hooked on ukulele since his Grandmother introduced him to the instrument at the age four, Jake is more likely to peg his success on the ukulele itself. Perhaps it is his humility—his lack of taking himself too seriously—that has propelled Jake to the top of the ukulele world.

Whether playing along with Bette Midler for Her Majesty the Queen, working as a semi-regular in Jimmy Buffett’s band, scoring films, making CDs or delighting American and international audiences with his solo virtuosity, Jake has become synonymous with the ukulele. He has taken the instrument to places it has never been before and proven time and again that four strings can be better than a whole orchestra.

The response to Jake and his music is, itself, a phenomenon. Having seen Jake in person, I can attest to his universal appeal. I stood in line outside The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan last year with hundreds of other fans who ranged in age from teens to seniors, men and women representing diverse races and ethnicities. One man drove four hours from Ohio to see the show, and several others brought their ukuleles along in hopes Jake would sign them. He did, of course, as well as meet everyone who stood in line to shake his hand.

More than an evening of good music, Jake’s performances are a glimpse into the mind and heart and soul of a true musician who leaves his audience feeling privileged to have witnessed his work. One is not just entertained by Jake’s work, but uplifted as well. You walk out of that auditorium knowing you have been a part of something very special (Need proof? Check his calendar for a show near you, or get a copy of his latest CD “Live,” which has captured some of the best moments from his live shows).

I feel equally privileged that Jake has taken a few moments out of his hectic world tour to share his thoughts on the creative process, his upcoming song book, Bruce Lee’s lasting influence on his approach to life and music, and that “four string underdog,” the ukulele.

Mike Kassel: Jake, I understand you are in the middle of a rather extensive tour–what are some of the places you are going for the rest of the summer and into Fall?

Jake Shimabukuro: Just got back from France last night and will be heading to Japan for a six week tour in a few days. After Japan, I'll be heading back to the states for a few legs and then taking off to Germany for a couple of shows. Can't wait—it’ll be loads of fun!

MK: Your arrangement of popular songs always sound so rich and full, yet you are playing one instrument with four strings. How challenging is it to adapt a song for ukulele?

Jake: It's always quite challenging for me to arrange songs as solo, instrumental ukulele pieces. One element that makes it tricky is the absence of bass notes. Also, the limited range and sustain can be difficult to work with. I just try to keep things simple in the beginning and let the piece evolve naturally over time.

MK: Is there a difference in how you approach creating your original songs? Do songs or ideas just come to you while playing, or do you get an idea in your head and then go work it out?

Jake: Actually both methods work well. There are so many ways to inspire creativity. The key is to figure out what works best for you—but not get locked into that one system. Most of the time, I just try to relax—watch a funny movie or go to the beach, then pray that some interesting idea will come out of that experience.

MK: The documentary, The Mighty Uke, of which you are a part, explores the phenomenon of the ukulele—how do you feel about your role in expanding the popularity of the instrument?

Jake: I'm just thrilled to be alive during this time to experience the growth and maturity of the ukulele. People from all over the world are rediscovering the four-string underdog and appreciating it in ways they never expected. I have always been a huge fan of the instrument—so meeting other supporters of the instrument connects us in a very positive way.

MK: In your CNN interview this past March, you talked about the influence of Bruce Lee and his focus of being “there” with everything he has when practicing his art – in your case, you are not just playing with your hands or your arms, but the music is coming from everything inside of you. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

Jake: Bruce Lee was my hero when I was a kid—not just because he could knock a 250 pound man down with his one-inch punch—but his philosophy on life and the conviction that he had when he spoke about it really drew me in. I was so inspired by his teachings that I based my approach to music on the contexts of his personal diaries. I learned to be open to all styles of music and embrace everything in and around me as part of my art form. Lee also taught me that music is not just notes and sound, but like every form of art, it is simply human expression.

MK: Tell us about “Music is Good Medicine” and your work as their spokesperson.

Jake: “Music Is Good Medicine” is a program that believes in the positive influence of music. I work with a lot of young people, using music as a vehicle to inspire them to have passion and live drug-free.

MK: Going to one of your shows is unlike anything else, because there are teens, college kids, middle-aged guys, seniors—what is it about your shows and your music that has the power to unite such a diverse group?

Jake: I believe the credit there goes to the instrument I play. People of all ages can appreciate the ukulele. That's what I love most about it—it bridges all generation gaps.

MK: If you had a dream duet or small group, what would it be?

Jake: Playing in an ukulele band with George Harrison—and Steve Gadd on drums.

MK: So many people want to learn your songs—is there a Jake Shimabukuro ukulele book on the horizon?

Jake: Yes. I am slowly working on one. I hope to release it sometime next year.

MK: On the technical side, what are the woods in your Kamaka ukulele? And what sort of on-board electronics do you use?

Jake: I play a Kamaka 4-string tenor ukulele made out of koa wood. It has an ebony fretboard and bridge, and a mahogany neck. The pickup system that I use is made by Fishman—it’s called the Matrix.

MK: It looks and sounds as though you play high-G; do you ever play low-G?

Jake: I have always played with the high-G string because it's the traditional tuning of the ukulele. I also love the unique chord voicings that you can get with the 2 higher pitched strings positioned on the top and bottom.

MK: What advice do you have for the aspiring players out there? What do they need to focus on to improve their playing and their musicianship?

Jake: The most important thing is—have fun. Play songs that you enjoy and remember that there is no wrong way to play an ukulele. Encourage others to learn and attend ukulele jam sessions. If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.

Thanks for your support. Aloha,

To learn more about Jake, his current tour, and his albums, visit http://www.jakeshimabukuro.com/.

Picture credits: Top and middel photo by Hisashi Uchida; all othr photos by Ryota Mori.  All photos courtesy of the media page at http://www.jakeshimabukuro.com/

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Lanikai S-TEQ Makes Me Happy

The first thing I noticed about the Lanikai S-TEQ spruce top tenor—the thing that made me fall in love with it, actually—was its incredibly low action. I sampled two identical models at Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan and both played effortlessly. This smooth-as-butter playability is the Holy Grail for those like me who come from a steel string background, but there’s something else magical about this ukulele; it sounds good, too.

Every time I play this ukulele, plugged or unplugged (but mainly plugged), I get a great reaction. People crowd around to get a closer look and compliment me on how rounded and deep it sounds. They seem totally surprised to hear this big of sound from such a small box..

The fact that it looks so good is just icing on the cake.

The S-TEQ is the electric, cut-away version of the Lanikai S-T, which I assume stands for spruce tenor. The top is solid spruce with a beautiful, tight grain pattern. Back and sides are mahogany (most likely laminated, although the spec sheet does not say). Rosewood fingerboard and tie-bridge along with maple binding round-out the good looks and solid feel of the instrument and the 18 frets were level and immaculately manicured. A little excess glue on the fingerboard are about all I can complain about in regards to fit and finish.

Electronics on the two I sampled were Belcat UK2000 undersaddle transducers with 9-volt active preamps. The quality of the Asian-made electronics on the two ukuleles varied a bit, with one sounding quite trebly while the other was more rounded and had a better bass. I have seen other S-TEQ’s advertised with a German-made Shadow P3 active systems; not having compared a Belcat to a Shadow, all I can say is I was more than satisfied with the bassier of the two Belcat models.

The only real complaint I have is a somewhat loose “C” string die-cast tuning machine (looks like a Grover, but it’s not marked) on one of the samples. That the nicer tuners were on the more trebly example shows some of the trade-offs one encounters when purchasing lower-line instruments, but, again, the overall quality and sound was so good on both, these are just not very big concerns.

At bottom, I’m very pleased with the S-TEQ. At only $189 with the Belcat, this is one of the best values in all of ukedom. I have been fortunate to play a wide variety of ukuleles at Elderly—from $30 to Mahalos to thousand dollar Hawaiian makes, and I have yet to find one that feels and plays as smoothy and effortlessly as the S-TEQ.

While the tone may not snap out like it does on ukuleles costing hundreds, if not thousands more, it certainly holds its own, beating nearly everything in its price range. To quote the company slogan, this Lanikai "Makes me happy."

-Lamb Chop

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Aldrine Guerrero's "Uke Minutes" Theory Collection

Ukulele Underground is my absolute favorite ukulele site, and singer, ukulele performer, and teacher Aldrine Guerrero’s “Uke Minutes” are one of its best features. Although each video is only two or three minutes long, Aldrine takes some really complex concepts and makes them easy for everyone, regardless of skill level, to understand – the mark of a great teacher!

While many of the "Uke Minutes” involve strumming, strings, technique, and tablature reading, several deal with music theory, chord formation and scale practice. I spent quite a few minutes with the “Minutes” last evening and compiled a list of videos useful to those wanting to know a little more about what’s behind the patterns and shapes of their sounds.

To get a basic idea of musical scales and how chords and runs are built, check out Aldrine’s videos covering Major Scales, Major Chords, Minor Scales and Chords and Chord Families. The one on Chord Families is particularly helpful as it not only shows how chords of a key go together, but how one is to play those chords—major, minor or diminished. By the way, when you get to the video on Minor Scales and Chords, keep in mind that you can form a minor chord by flattening the third of the major scale as opposed to playing the third of the minor scale (it’s a lot easier to remember your major scale as that’s the one that coincides with the famous “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.”

There’s more theory with Harmony Thirds, which includes a cool quoting of the Rugrats theme. Aldrine also has videos on Suspended Chords, showing how to form sus-2 and sus-4 chords, Diminished Chords, Augmented Chords, and Arpeggios. The arpeggio video pages also has a link to an extended live lesson on arpeggios and 50s music.

Rounding out basic theory are “Uke Minutes” devoted to Power Chords, Harmonies on the A and C Strings, Relative Major Substitutions (useful when you do forget your minor scales), and the latest “Uke Minute” (as of this writing) which shows how to build Add9 Chords.

If you are into rock and blues, Aldrine’s lessons on Blues Chords, Major Pentatonic and Minor Pentatonic Scales, and the Blues Scale are essential.

Scale Exercies I and Scale Exercise II, along with Left Hand Exercise I and Left Hand Exercise II, show you how to gain increased mastery over the fretboard you now know so well.

Putting theory into action, Aldrine explains some of the essential Moveable Chord Forms, from the basic shapes, Seventh Chord Shapes, and Major Seventh Shapes (and, yes, there is a difference between a seventh and a major seventh). Aldrine also covers Alternate Chord Positions, or inversions as they are also called, Added Octave Chords, and a really cool lesson on a Diminished Run that takes advantage of how diminished chords on the ukulele repeat themselves every four frets.

Three additional videos that deal somewhat with theory include one on Ghost Notes and one on Muted Ghost Notes, both of which are used to make your solos stand out. There is also a cool video on Slack Key or Drop G tuning, which, by tuning the A string to a G, allows you to more easily play major and minor chord forms up and down the neck.

I loved watching these videos and really appreciate Aldrine’s easy-going, very informative style. It would be wonderful if we could all get private lessons with such an excellent teacher, but until finances and time allow such luxuries, we are very lucky to have these and all the other “Uke Minutes” just a mouse click away.

-Lamb Chop

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Brittni Paiva Interview: "The only limit you have is the limit of your mind."

Of the thousands of ukulele players around these days, only a handful have reached the level of Brittni Paiva, the 21-year-old ukulele artist who, like Jake Shimabukuro, is stunning millions in YouTube videos and on stages around the world. Propelled to fame by her four albums, as well as her highly acclaimed version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which has counted nearly 640,000 YouTube hits, Brittni is one of the preeminent ukulele players of our time.

Brittni’s latest album, Four Strings: The Fire Within, shows a level of musical maturity and mastery that belies her years. While Brittni has been playing ukulele since her grandfather Isaac Takayama gifted her one over ten years ago, her style is one of decades more experience. Showing Latin and Hawaiian influences, the latest album is a jazz work that puts me in mind of such artists as Strunz and Farah or bassist Brian Bromberg.

The work begins with a cover of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s fast Latin instrumental “Tamacun,” and while I love R y Gs original, Brittni brings such a wonderfully rounded sound that, as with all her covers, makes it her own. Other covers include her highly moving version of Santana’s “Europa” as well as a studio version of her now-classic take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

The second cut is the first of the album’s four written by Brittni. "Crusin’ on 7," named in honor of the seven pounds of boost on her newly turbocharged car, is a fast moving, happy tune reminicent of such iconic jazz anthems as Chuck Mangione’s “Feel’s So Good” or Spiro Gyra’s “Morning Dance.” “Made for Me” is a slower, more romantic number written for her husband, Branden (who, according to Brittni’s liner notes, helped Brittni “muscle” in her car’s turbocharger). “Fusion: East” and “Fusion: West” are twin takes on a common theme, one in Western and one in Eastern style. The two work together wonderfully and conjure up an early Return to Forever vibe.

The album also features Brittni’s renditions of “Sunday Morning” and “Acelrou.” Toronto guitarist Johannes Lindstead plays classical guitar in his duet with Brittni on his “Hour of the Lamps.” Once agin, the technical brilliance and musicality is stunning and the two play well off one another.

Brittni, a native of Hilo, on the Big Island, recently took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few question about her new album, her musical spirit, and her love of ukulele.

Lamb Chop Ukulele (LCU): Brittni, one of the things that strikes your listeners is how, at age 21, your music is so mature and informed. What has helped you form such a musical spirit that some describe as beyond your years?

Brittni: Well, I'm not too sure how I would describe being able to form my musical spirit, as I've found that I tend to relate to music on more of an emotional level and less of an analytical level. I guess how I could best explain it is that I allow my soul to "speak" through my fingers and have it come out in the language of music, so what you hear is the "artwork" that my heart and soul has painted.

LCU: Tell us about the new album, “Four Strings: The Fire Within.” What is the meaning behind the title and how did the project come about?

Brittni: Four Strings: The Fire Within is my fourth release here in the State of Hawaii. When it came time to name the album, it was one of those questions where we thought too hard to find the answer when it was just very simple. The title is about the fire and passion that I have for my music, and for music in general. It also explains in a nutshell the growth in my craft since the last album.

LCU: What was it like to work with Grammy Award-winning producer Charles Michael Brotman on the album?

Brittni: Working with Charles was lots of fun! He's a great engineer and has a great studio setup. It was also fun tossing ideas back and forth and talking about music.

LCU: How do you feel your work has changed from your first to your fourth album?

Brittni: I think it's changed a lot in terms of musical understanding and experience. When I made my first album, I didn't listen to as many different genres of music as I do now, so experiencing many different forms of music helped me to understand how certain things are played in various types of music, and with that understanding I can implement them into my own style.

LCU: Your grandfather introduced you to ukulele – how did that come about and what was it about the ukulele that made you want to make it your instrument of choice?

Brittni: My grandfather introduced me to the ukulele when I was 11 years old. He bought me my first ukulele and said, "Here, Brittni, try playing around with this and see if you like it." It was love at first touch! It's a small instrument, very unassuming. You can take it anywhere and play anything on it. It's so fun to play and makes everyone smile, and I guess that's what makes me, as well as others, keep going back for more.

LCU: I know you have had musical training since age four, but would you describe yourself more as a musician who plays by reading or by ear or a combination of both?

Brittni: On occasion, I do learn through a combination of both, but if given a choice, I'd rather learn by listening and/or watching. It allows me to feel the music better and gives me a better guide to play it with my own interpretation.

LCU: Who are some of your favorite musicians and what do you draw from them? Carlos Santana, for example, seems to have had a role not just in cover choices, but in that you are both such clear, articulate players.

Brittni: Definitely. Carlos Santana is a big influence for me. Another major influence is Orianthi. She is one of few female guitarists and I really look up to her musicianship. Other influences include Fourplay, Oz Noy, Rogrigo y Gabriela, Slash, Earth Wind & Fire, Steve Vai, Jeff Beck, Marty Friedman, Rob Marcello, Guthrie Govan, Michel Camilo, Chick Corea, America, Paramore, Victor Wooten, Maroon 5, and the list goes on.

LCU: How do you come up with your originals? Do you have an idea and work it out on ukulele or do you discover tunes as your practice?

Brittni: There will be certain situation that will spark and idea for a tune, but most of my writing takes place as I'm practicing. Usually I'll be playing random chords and progressions and I'll end up putting one together that sounds like it could be a song.

LCU: Every cover I have heard you play is uniquely yours, from “Europa” to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” How do you go about making such recognizable songs your own?

Brittni: Well, I like to say that my style is a mashup of many different styles. When I pick a song to arrange, like "Europa" for example, I'll first learn to play the song how the original artist played it, and then I'll add different little chops here and there to make it sound different but still recognizable.

LCU: Please tell us a bit about your beautiful KoAloha ukulele. How long have you had that one and do you play any others?

Brittni: I've had my current ukulele for almost two years now. I absolutely love playing my KoAloha! The tone is exquisite and the feel of it is perfect for me. I have a few other KoAloha ukuleles that I play on a daily basis, as the one you see in pictures is the one I use on stage.

LCU: You play low-G. How do you feel the low-G compliments your playing?

Brittni: I think it compliments my style well. I like to keep a little "bassline" going sometimes and the low G string helps me accomplish that. It also gives certain songs a bit of a bigger sound when it needs to.

LCU: Do you ever use a high-G ukulele in concert or on your albums?

Brittni: I haven't used an ukulele with a high G string on any of my albums yet, but I do practice with one often.

LCU: Ukulele has become so popular over the past decade, and you are a big part of that popularity. People know of your work, watch you on YouTube, attend your workshops – what is it that you think explains the popularity of the instrument?

Brittni: The ukulele is a tiny instrument, unassuming, and brings a smile to everyone as soon as it's played. I believe the joy that it brings drives everyone to want to learn it.

LCU: What advice to you have to the aspiring ukulele player?

Brittni: Just keep on keeping on. We'll hit bumps in the road when we're learning how to play, and that's perfectly normal, but don't tell yourself "you can't do it." Once you get into that mindset, you're limiting yourself and in the end you won't ever accomplish something greater. Always be positive and tell yourself that you can do it because you can! The only limit you have is the limit of your mind.

LCU: Any upcoming projects or tours that you would like to tell us about? Any chance you might get to the Midwest?

Brittni: We're headed to Guam on July 20th and to the East Coast on July 31st. I'm hoping to tour the Midwest sometime in the next few months. That would be fun.

LCU: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions.

Brittni: Thank you so much for interviewing me! I really appreciate it!

Brittni’s other albums include Brittni x 3 (2004), with her playing guitar, bass and ukulele, Hear (2005), and Brittni (2006). Her 2006 album was the 2007 Hawaii Music Awards Peoples' Choice Winner for Ukulele Album of the Year, and was the 2007 Na Hoku Hanohano Nominee for Best Instrumental Album of the Year and Best Album of the Year. Brittni x 3 was the 2005 Na Hoku Award winner for Most Promising Artist of the Year, as well as the 2005 Na Hoku Award nominee for Instrumental Album of the Year and the 2005 Hawaii Music Award nominee for `Ukulele Album of the Year. All of her albums, including her latest, can be purchased on her web site store.

Brittni’s 4-string KoAloha tenor is made of Koa with ebony binding, fretboard, bridge and head plate (which has a black mother of pearl logo). Other inlay work includes an ebony Star of David on the back and her trademark "Brittni" fretboard inlay done in Tulip wood. Brittni’s pick up is a Fishman Prefix Pro.

For more information go to Brittni's website and for more music videos, check out Brittni's YouTube channel.

-Lamb Chop

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Been a Long Time: Takashi Nakamura and Thanks to UkuDaily

Just when I was getting so good at keeping things up, at least here in Blogsville, life goes getting in the way and keeps me from posting.  I have some great plans for a Brittni Paiva CD review (and, later, interview), as well as finishing my Laniaki S-TEQ tenor ukulele review, but while that's all in the works, here are two quick items.

First, and most important, I may be really behind on this, but I just found a video of ukulele artist Takashi Nakamura and am just so impressed.  Here is a wonderful (I avoided the urge to say "lovely") version of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely." 

On a more personal note, I owe a big thanks to Mike over at UkuDaily.com, who was kind enough to list my latest video, "Middle Aged Guy with a Ukulele" as today's Video of the Day.  There's a little interview if you follow the Video of the Day hyperlink in the last sentence, so if you want to learn a bit more about me than I share here, feel free.  As I say in the interview, Ukudaily is one of my favorite places on the web and, as the title implies, I do visit daily.

OK, on to getting things done. All the best,

-Lamb Chop

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Jose Feliciano Started with a Ukulele

One of my favorite singer/musicians has always been Jose Feliciano.  There is a style to his playing and a sound to his voice that brings magic to any song he plays.  It's not just the perennial Christmas classic "Feliz Navidad" or his definitve cover of The Door's "Light My Fire," but so many others including "Ain't No Sunshine" and many Beatles classics as well.  One of the first songs I ever learned was the theme to "Chico and the Man," which he sang and actually performed on an episode of the 1970s NBC sitcom starring Freddie Prinz.

So I was really surprised to find that Feliciano began his musical journey with a ukulele.  You can learn the details yourself in this YouTube video of clasical guiarist James Hunley's "The Acoustic Experience" interview with Feliciano. 

As we approach Independence Day this year, it is also interesting to note that it was Feliciano, not Marvin Gaye or Jimmy Hendrix, who did the first non-traditional rendition of the National anthem.  As the story goes, Detroit Tiger announcer Ernie Harwell invited Feliciano to play the National Anthem at game five of the 1968 World Series between Detroit and the St. Louis Cardinals (the Tigers won, by the way.  I was seven that year and got to meet a few of the stars of the team at a Buick dealership where, to make matters even more interesting, my future father-in-law was working--but I do digress). 

While taking artistic liberties with the song of the Land of Liberty is quite common now, it was unheard of at Feliciano's time and while some people cheered, many were shocked by the performance.  His moving rendition is now considered a ground-breaking classic.

This year, 42 years later, on May 10, Feliciano was invited back to perform his vesion of the National Anthem once again in Detroit, this time to honor his friend Ernie Harwell, who had just died of cancer.  Below is a YouTube video of the song.  While some comments say it is sung in a monotone, I am impressed by how faithful Feliciano is to the original.  His voice is still brilliant and still moving.

For Harwell's rendition of the story, as well as the story of Feliciano's 1968 version of the National Anthem, visit Feliciano's official website.

I don't know if Jose Feliciano still plays ukulele, but it was interesting finding this conenction with one of my favorite singer/musicians.

-Lamb Chop

Please note that video is this post is from YouTube and is content that I neither created nor posted to YouTube.   

Monday, June 28, 2010

Nothing Could be “Finder” is an Awful Pun, but Read this Anyway

This post was originally going to be a link to two my favorite online ukulele gadgets. After finding a number of good chord finders and namers (and there is a difference), it’s grown to be a bit more.

For those days when you just can’t find your headstock tuner, Get-Tuned.com is great. Offering a simple interface that gives you a choice of string and sine wave sounds, it’s a pretty cool app. For those of you multi-instrumentalists, Get-Tuned also has tuning pages for balalaika, banjo, bass guitar, cello, dulcimer, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, violin and viola.

Once you’re in tune, of course, you need to play some chords (ah, they don’t call me the king of the cheesy transitions for nothing). One chord finder you are most likely already aware of already is the one from Sheep-Entertainment. I like this one. Very graphic. Just pick the root in the top row of buttons and then click on either the major variation or minor variation in the second or third rows or find augmented, diminished or suspended forms in the fourth. Once you have the chord, you can click on its root to find the variations up and down the neck, as well.

This site also has a cool play-along feature to which you can upload, as well. Lots of fun. One note of caution—when you open the page, it defaults to a soprano D tuning; since most of us use gCEA, you need to switch it or you’ll get the wrong chord forms.

While this finder tells you where to put your fingers for known chords, others help you name chords you’ve “discovered” on your own. The WS64 Chordfinder reverse function, for example, lets you plug in the fret numbers into boxes corresponding to the ukulele’s four strings and then magically “names” your chord. The results are delivered in a little pop up box that looks a lot like an error message, but it works, provided you’ve entered all of its components. For example, muting the G string (by placing an x in the reverse chord finder’s 4th string box) and only leaving the two Cs and the E in the first position C chord returns no chord name as those notes comprise only two of the chord’s three components (in this case, the C-major triad).

Another of my favorite chord namers on the web is at JGuitar.com. Featuring an easy to use graphic representation of the fretboard, you literally plug your notes onto the proper sting and fret position to build your chord. There is one drawback, however; it is for six-string guitar, not four-string ukulele. But have no fear. All you have to do is mute the fifth and sixth strings (the lowest two) and plug your notes on the remaining four, which, while tuned to a different pitch, are identical to the four stings of the ukulele (save for that hi-G thing).

Just remember that the ukulele is tuned a fourth up from the guitar (which, in practical terms, means it is five frets higher). In other words, pressing on the fifth fret of the guitar and playing its four highest strings will give you the open C6 chord of the ukulele. Said even more simply, the fifth fret of the guitar is equivalent to the nut of the ukulele. Thus, when using the JGuitar.com namer, act as thought the fifth fret is the nut. Don’t forget that open ukulele stings need to be placed on the fifth fret of the namer’s fretboard as opposed to the open sting of the guitar, or it will return the wrong chord name.

The JGuitar.com namer is pretty darn exhaustive. It will give you every possible name for the chord, including some really long ones full of flatted 5ths, sus 4s and raised sevenths. Still, it is one of the easiest to use and really helps explain that wonderful chord you just “invented.”

The ukulele chord finder available at Gootar.com is also easy to use, with extensive directions and explanations that help you navigate its pull down menus for setting root, chord type and positions. The Gootar.com tuner has tons of tuning options and there is an advanced version for sale that includes a chord namer, too.

Okay, no fancy conclusion here, nor any witty, literate tie-in. Just some very nice online help that works quite well. 

-Lamb Chop

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jazzy Ukulele: Jazz Standards Book by Glen Rose Really Delivers

Having spent the past 30-odd years being disappointed by music books that promised everything from easy theory to mastery of the fretboard, I can finally say I have found one that delivers. If you can follow directions for how to place your fingers on the fingerboard, the Jazzy Ukulele Workbook, written by musician and teacher Glen Rose, takes your from zero to “Autumn Leaves” in the first ten pages. No exaggeration, no kidding, no disappointment.

An accomplished performing pianist, jazz guitar player, ukulele artist and teacher (to name just a few of his musical talents), Rose’s Jazzy Ukulele Workbook eschews theory and concentrates on practicality. “I wanted to get the ideas across without the theory. Most people just want to play as simply as possible,” said Rose.

Based on his popular guitar book, Play Jazz with Just Six Chords, Jazzy Ukulele shows how many of the popular jazz standards, such as “Fly Me to The Moon,” share a couple of basic chord groupings that, once mastered, allow ukulele players to immediately expand their classic jazz repertoire.

According to Rose, to play jazz, you need to stop thinking of chords in isolation. “Jazz players think of chords in little family groupings of two, three or four chords,” writes Rose. “These groupings are chords that are usually (but not always) linked together because they naturally flow into each other to produce the jazz sound.”

After learning what Rose calls the Major and Minor Jazz patterns, each with their own ending or resolution chords (the common ii-V-I progression, which, thankfully, Rose does not bother us with), you move on to playing “Autumn Leaves.” While Rose admits that proficiency with the song will depend on what each of us “brings to the table,” the book is devoid of fluff or theory that would only get in the way of the practical task of learning songs. This progression is so common, and so easy to learn, I was immediately playing other jazz songs that use it.

For an example of Rose’s wonderful teaching style, take a look at his Lesson 1 on YouTube:

You can also see Rose teaching “Autumn Leaves” at:

Rose also introduces us to jazz vamps (short chord progressions that are played over and over again, such as “Ain’t She Sweet”), music for other songs including “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Mack The Knife,” and a very handy chart showing chords you can “swap” for difficult or advanced chords that you will encounter in other jazz charts and “fake books.” For example, if you see a G7#11 and have no idea of how to play it, the chart shows that you can swap it for a G7 and still sound right. This is especially important for ukulele, whose four strings make it impossible to form some these chords. Rose is not asking you to understand the “whys” of all of this. He’s just showing you how to avoid freaking out when the music calls for a G7sus11.

As Rose mentions in his videos, he is a firm believer in using low-G tuning for jazz. “It makes more musical sense from bottom to top, if you want to hear the sound of the chords, especially in ballads,” advises Rose. Of course, Rose understands how some people prefer the high-G. “From a jazz point of view,” said Rose, “it is odd having that high string, but for classical it’s amazing, and maybe the same could be done with jazz.”

“I guess if someone starts out [with a high g], it’s about what you’re used to,” continued Rose. “If you started with that, you can make it work.”

While Rose leaves out the theory, he’s paid his dues and knows his stuff. Coming from a musical background—his father was a violinist did orchestration for Hollywood films, working with such screen greats as Nelson Riddle and Quincy Jones—Rose has also worked as a copyist in Hollywood and worked on the Star Wars score with John Williams. Trained as a classical piano player, he appreciates many types of music and spent a number of his younger days in rock bands. Rose became interested in jazz in his early twenties, influenced by the work of such greats as Erroll Garner.

Over the years, Rose has also authored a book on music calligraphy, taught in college, played European cabarets for about ten years, and wrote commercial jingles. He is most famous for his well-reviewed American Songwriter Series performances, which consist of nine shows highlighting the music of composers including Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, The Gershwin Brothers, Irving Berlin, and Rogers and Hart.

Rose started playing ukulele about 16 years ago. “It just sort of grew on me,” said Rose, “and I fell in love with it.” Rose not only takes the ukulele on the road with him, but has incorporated it in his American Songwriter shows.

Rose attributes the ukulele’s newfound popularity to its small size and ease of play. “A beginner can play almost immediately,” said Rose. “It can be a bit of challenge to create chords with just four strings, but that limitation is more of a strength than a weakness.”

Rose is pleased with sales of his book, orders for which have come from all over the western world. “I’m getting a great response from people,” said Rose. “It seems to work; people are learning something from it.”

Rose also has two other ukulele books. Classic Jazz Standards for Ukulele helps you add to your repertoire with charts for a number of songs, including “Over The Rainbow,” “Nearness of You,” “Lady is A Tramp,” “How High the Moon,” and “Summer Wind.”  Rose's Bossa Nova Classics lets you expand into Latin rhythms and includes such tunes such as “Girl from Ipanema,” “A Day in The Life of A Fool,” “Wave,” and “One Note Samba.”

Guitar players may want to check out the intriguingly titled Play Jazz Guitar with Just Six Chords.

Each of Rose's books, available as e-book PDF downloads, are very reasonably priced at only $11 each and are available at his Jazzy Ukulele website.

-Lamb Chop

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Meet Gerald Ross: "Guitarists Can Easily Adapt"

Quick post here; if you love ukulele but have not met Gerald Ross, you really need to.  I was thinking I'd ask for an interview, especially since he's in my neck of the woods (what is it about Michigan and ukuleles?), but the Ukulele Safari, a series I was not previously familiar with, already has.  You'll also discover why he's famous for steel guitar.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Fighting the Temptation to Maintain My Dignity and Not Title this Post “No L.A.U.G.H.ing Matter” – and Failing Miserably!

Well, I finally did it. I finally made it to the Lansing Area Ukulele Group (L.A.U.G.H.) meet-up held this past weekend. I have to admit, I thought these meetings would be a bit more informal, with people walking around and trading tips and licks with their fellows. The reality was actually a bit more organized and, having experienced it, a little better than I had imagined, as there were music charts (easy to follow), a leader (Dave Pasant) and the sound of 20 ukuleles all playing in unison.

I arrived a bit late, having ridden my scooter, Blu-B, along the backroads from Flint to East Lansing, but I was able to pick up my music and find a chair between a man and woman in the back row. The music stands had all been taken by that point (note to self: strap a stand along with my ukulele case to my scooter Blu-B’s backseat next time), so I shared one with a nice gentleman whose name I did not catch. In one of those strange moments of knowing you’re in the right place—what author Squire Rushnell calls God Winks—the woman seated on my other side was playing a Cordoba ukulele just like the one I have at home (minus the new bridge, Worth clears, and Jake Shimabukuro signature).

The group was lead by ukulele expert Dave Pasant, who took us through some pretty challenging pieces, including a jazzy blues piece that had us all over the fret board. I think my favorite song of the morning was “All of Me,” which I plan to work on and add to my repertoire.

I can’t tell you how much fun it is to hear a whole room of ukuleles, and I wonder if sometime in the future we might work out some harmonies – “sopranos play the melody, concerts take the color notes, and tenors do the chords.” 

As I said, there were about twenty of us there, with men out-numbering women about two to one. According to Dave, this was a rather light turnout as they usually get about 30 or so members. I was hoping there might be a little socializing afterwards—I would have loved to get a closer look at some of the vintage sopranos—but most of the crowd, who ranged in age from mid-thirties to sixties, was packed up and gone within minutes, although I saw a few in the salesroom upstairs.

Highlight of the get-together was meeting Stan Werbin, President of Elderly Instruments. Anyone who plays acoustic stringed instruments (and electric ones, too, for that matter) knows that meeting Stan is like being a computer geek and meeting Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Stan was right there playing with us, Hawaiian shirt and all. Nice of him to host this event, and, as far as I can tell, it’s all free!

One last God Wink; a few posts ago I wrote about the connection between scooters and ukuleles. Seems that Dave Pasant is a scooterist as well. Not only that, but he knows the other scooterist I wrote about in that previous post. Small world, great minds, whatever. Guess I was just where I was supposed to be.

-Lamb Chop

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Very Special Orange Blossom: The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

Just a quick nod to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britian, a video of which I happened to come across this weekend. I’m pretty slow on news of this group, considering they have been playing together since 1985 (they were ukulele before ukulele was cool; maybe they are the ones who made it cool?

It’s kind of all like a Monty Python sketch, but they are also really talented ukulele players. The first video I saw had them doing the Theme from Shaft, by Issac Hayes. Search that one on YouTube, as it is really cool, but this video, which answers the musical question How many people can play the same ukulele at once, is my favorite:

According to the UOGB website, the group, which plays to sell-out crowds, is comprised of Dave Suich, Peter Brooke Turner, Hester Goodman, George Hinchliffe, Richie Williams, Kitty Lux, Will Grove-White and Jonty Bankes. They seem to have quite a few videos and CDs out, as well, so if you exhaust what’s on YouTube, you can get always get more.

-Lamb Chop

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Love at First Strum: Review of the Boulder Creek Riptide UT-2N Spruce Top Tenor

Words and pictures by Lamb Chop

One of the greatest things about living near Elderly Instruments, the Lansing, Michigan destination for new and vintage (elderly) stringed instruments, is that I get to sample from among one of the largest and finest collections of ukuleles this side of Hawaii. I always have fun when I go there, but sometimes I fall in love. That’s what happened when I found the Boulder Creek Riptide spruce top tenor.

Quite honestly, I had never heard of Boulder Creek or its parent company, Morgan Hill Music, before. Primarily a guitar company, they are rather new to the ukulele market. While their models are imported from the Pacific Rim, they have physical and stylistic innovations that make them stand out from the crowd. What first caught my eye about the Riptide ukulele was its Dual Port system, which features a small, offset soundhole on the top and a larger one placed of its rosewood side. As the Riptide literature notes, “Moving the front sound port away from the center of the soundboard helps to increase volume, tone, and sustain…”

I don’t know why this configuration works, but it does; I have never experienced a louder, crisper tone, even among other spruce top ukuleles. There is something magical about the Riptide by Boulder Creek.

It was love at first strum!

The spruce top tenor, officially designated the UT-2N, is one of 19 models in Boulder Creek’s Riptide line of Standard Mahogany, Deluxe Mahogany (which upgrades to a solid top), and the Spruce & Rosewood series, which features a solid spruce top and laminated sides. Series sizes range from soprano to baritone, with some models getting a Boulder Creek UK-300T preamp and pickup system (an undersaddle model, which seems to be the best way to amplify a ukulele) with built-in tuner. Each features a unique cut-out Boulder Creek headstock and are all beautifully finished.

The UT-2N, a non-amplified model, is equipped with sealed diecast tuners that hold tune well with none of the slop found on the kind of tuners usually used at this price point. Scale length is 26.25” with a rosewood board of 18 frets, the fit and finish of which are excellent. Rosewood bridge, and, if I am not mistaken, it comes strung with Aquila Nylguts, which are fast becoming my favorite string, especially for spruce tops.

The gloss finish of the natural top (there is a darker vintage top available in the series as well) shines beautifully, as does its dark, glossy-finished laminated rosewood sides which take on an almost deep black appearance. Abalone inlay surrounds the top and both soundholes; wish the headstock logo was abalone as opposed to screened gold, but it still looks nice. Some people don’t seem to like the abalone Riptide logo, which is set where the soundhole usually goes, but it is unique and well done. The fretboard markers are easy to see and the overall fit and finish is simply remarkable.

Looks are one thing, but it’s playability that counts. While the action is not as low as that of a similarly priced Lanikai S-T or S-TEQ spruce top tenor, the Riptide has a low-to-medium setting that is incredibly fast, fluid and playable. No buzzes or rattles, either; set-up was perfect right out of the box.

The Dual Port system works well with the spruce and rosewood, providing tons of traditional tone with lots of sustain and brilliant harmonics. Indeed, while some spruce tops lose that essential ukulele sound found on koa and mahogany models, the Riptide oozes that vibe—it just does it with a lot more volume. Boulder Creek got it right; once I picked it up, I could not put it down. The Riptide has become my Riptide, and it is now my “go-to” ukulele and will likely remain so for some time.

I did make one alteration by drilling a hole in the bottom plate to install a GHS-A37 unidirectional internal microphone. As you can tell by my photo, I routed the mic, which is primarily designed to sit under the soundboard of a full size guitar, out of the Riptide’s side soundhole and up towards the top. Surprising, this gives me a really nice amplified tone with virtually no feedback, provided all the adjustments on my amp are right. If I had it to do over, I’d most likely just go with the UT-2N A/E version with onboard electronics, but there were none in stock at the time. I dreaded drilling into that beautiful wood, but I did so without harming the finish and am happy with the result.

Boulder Creek guitars, which feature an innovative bracing system, are building quite a following, with endorsements from a number of artists such as Julianne Hough, Amanda Martin, and Jenny Tate, as well as Grant Mickelson and Paul Sidoti playing with Taylor Swift, Trey Hill with Kellie Pickler, and Mike Scott, who performs with Justin Timberlake. I would not be at all surprised to find Boulder Creek’s Riptide ukuleles getting their own set of professional endorsements. Having played ukuleles costing literally thousands more than the Boulder Creek Riptide, these are as good of a value as one can get. If money were no object—of course, it always is—I would still have a Riptide in my arsenal, even with all the choices my proximity to Elderly affords.

-Lamb Chop

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Scooters and Ukuleles: The Elderly Run

I had this post on my scooter Blog, but, since it deals with ukuleles, in part, I thought I'd copy it here, as well.  When I’m not riding my scooter, chances are I am fiddling around with my ukulele. Imagine how wonderful and fortunate it is to combine both pleasures? That’s what I got the chance to do a few days ago when Blu-B and I took a trip out to the world famous Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan. Along back roads, of course.

The trip from Flint to East Lansing is primarily along one main road – specifically M-78 or Lansing road, which begins as Miller road in Flint and ends, temporarily, at the 1-69 business loop just outside of East Lansing, Michigan, home of the MSU Spartans. This stretch of M 78 was established in 1931, but the road has a longer history and goes much further west—all the way to Michigan 66 (not to be confused with the more famous, kick-filled, Route 66). A complete history of the road can be found at Michigan Highways.

Leaving from downtown Flint, the first small town along the route is Swartz Creek, a small community of around 5,000. Named for its winding creek, the city’s main drag consists of some nice eateries, a locally popular ice cream shop, and Assenmacher’s Cycling Center, an upscale bike shop that sells brands like Trek and Specialized, to name just a few. They’ll also service any bike that’s ever been made.

Back when my bike of choice had pedals instead of floorboards, I practically lived at Assenmacher’s. Owner Matt Assenmacher, an expert bicycle builder and advid cyclist, has built his own line of racing and tandem bikes as well. 

A few miles outside of Swartz Creek, the road becomes dotted with the small farms and rolling hills. At the Genesee-Shiawassee county line, Miller becomes Lansing road, but the scenery remains the same, making for a calm, relaxing ride. Within ten miles, I hit Durand, which at one time was an important Michigan railroad hub. The town still celebrates its glorious rail past with its Railroad Days event every May, but many other things commend Durand as a year-round destination, none the least of which being its historic railroad museum, the Durand Union Station.

While one can find all the fast food they want by staying on Lansing road, a left onto Saginaw street leads to Durand’s downtown and its honest-to-goodness Ben Franklins—what we used to call the “five and dime,” or, more simply, “the dime store.” Okay, things cost a little more than they used to, but it is far from over-priced; I picked up a package of Doritos cheese and crackers for thirty-five cents where the average stop-and-go prices them at around seventy-five. Much like the Flint Ben Franks of my youth, the Durand store sells craft items—from plastic doll parts to popsicle sticks to every shape and size of Styrofoam imaginable—fabrics, various sundries like buttons and zippers, and, of course, toys that, while primarily made in china, are packaged and displayed just like they were back in the 60s—on shelves and hooks. The civil war soldier and farm play sets particularly caught my eye.

My other favorite spot downtown Durand is Nick’s restaurant. Famous for its homemade hamburgers, it is a clean, family-friendly place with a seemingly limitless menu and very well-stocked salad bar. Nick’s wait staff is always courteous and the prices are quite reasonable as well.

Back on Lansing road, a little jog near the I-69 interchange quickly returns you to the routes’ bucolic self. Case in point, the next town west, Bancroft, has its welcome sign painted upon a big, bright red barn. According to Wikipedia, there are only 616 people in Bancroft, but the residents I encounter as I photograph the barn seem genuinely proud to have me take an interest in their community.

Just a bit west of the barn is a short little tunnel of trees shading the road; they certainly proved helpful on the hot, sunny day of my ride. I don’t know why, but I just love it when trees along the roadside reach across to one another in this way. The bend in the road makes the scene all the more beautiful and this is by far my favorite part of the ride.

Next up is the Village of Morrice. Founded in 1839, its welcome sign proclaims the town is both “A Community on the GROW” and “A NICE PLACE TO LIVE.” The 900 people who call Morrice home obviously agree. I did not have the time to explore their downtown, but hope to do so in the near future.

Right outside of Morrice is the larger city of Perry, which, like Morrice, was settled by Josiah Purdy, whose land helped establish the towns. According to the City of Perry website, many of the town’s first building were moved, around 1879, by one of its early residents, Dr. L. M. Marshall. The move allowd the town to be placed closer to the Grand Trunk railroad line which lay about a mile north of the old location.

Perry’s face to today’s interstate travelers at the corner of M-52 and I-69 has numerous fast-food stops for travelers, as well as an adult bookstore that is heavily advertised along east and westbound I-69. Never did stop by that particular business myself. Honest.

The ten minute ride from Perry to Lansing becomes a little less relaxing; where most of Lansing road before Perry is isolated from the expressway, it parallels the expressway up to the I-69 business loop just east of Marsh road. The southern half of that part of the route is still quite scenic, with farms, trees, and interesting looking intersecting dirt roads; the northern part, on the other hand, reveals the light-yet-steady truck and car traffic along 69. My favorite view of this last leg of Old 78 is of the old Pine Garden Chinese Restaurant sign that peeks out among the overgrown grass and trees. Apparently, there is a Pine Garden in nearby Haslett.

A couple of miles along the 69 business loop lead to East Lansing; a left turn on Hagadorn or Abbott will take you down to the same Grand River road noted in my Ypsi trip and onto the Michigan State campus, but having spent eight long years of grad school there, I’m happy to stay on stay on Saginaw and continue towards Elderly. As Saginaw, Grand River, and Oakland (which becomes the westbound leg of the now one-way Saginaw street) converge at the very busy I-127 interchange, East Lansing becomes Lansing proper. There is a decidedly 1950s / 1960s feel to this stretch or road, as evidenced by its Googie architecture and its cool old neon signs, such as the one for Baryames Cleaners that I stopped to photograph.

Heading eastbound on Oakland a few more miles, the scene moves from commercial to a mix of commercial and run-down residential. Two blocks after crossing the bridge over the Red Cedar River, I turn north onto Washington into Lansing’s revitalized Old Town district which houses a number of businesses, including Elderly.

If you play stringed instruments of any type, you most likely know of Elderly Instruments. Founded in 1972, it began as a vintage stringed instrument store (hence the name Elderly) that now sells new and used guitars, basses (upright and electric), fiddles, mandolins, banjos, amps, effects, tons of accessories, and one of the finest selections of ukuleles this side of Hawaii. You can spend anywhere from $30 for a beginning level Mahalo up to thousands for a custom Koolau or vintage Martin ukulele. Being this close to such great instruments is quite awe-inspiring. A week before I saw a rare Martin banjo ukulele featured on the History channel’s hit show Pawn Stars, I had held one in my own hands at Elderly.

The shop is indeed world famous. Its repair facilities are among the finest in the world, and several of its technicians have gone on to found their own boutique instrument businesses. People come to Elderly from all over the world. Last year I met a man there who was circumnavigating the globe on a dual purpose BMW. A few weeks ago I met a couple of ukulele players from Nova Scotia. If there is a heaven on earth for string-playing folks, Elderly is it. To live close enough to motor in on a regular basis is, indeed, a privilege. Those not so fortunate need not despair; Elderly has a thriving internet and phone business as well.

After spending a bliss-filled hour sampling the dozens of ukuleles, I pick up a banjo capo and a couple of felt picks for my ukulele before making my way home along eastbound Saginaw back onto Old M-78. An hour later, I’m home.

A couple of days after the trip, I find myself going for a short ride in Swartz Creek, where I see a man on a side street sitting astride a 250cc Vespa (the modern kind with CVT transmission and a four-stroke engine). I turn Blu-B around and fortunately found the man still stopped at the light. We start talking and he tells me that he knows how to do maintenance and repairs on CVT transmissions. Figuring I had a lot to learn from him, I ask for his name and number. As fantastic as this seems, I swear it is the absolute truth—he reaches into his wallet and hands me a business card; on it is a picture of the custom ukuleles that he builds for a living.

Scooters and ukuleles. The connection is stronger than I realized.

-Lamb Chop