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, 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 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 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 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 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 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 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

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ukulele Vibes: Abe Lagrimas Jr. on Ukulele, Music, and the Importance of Listening

For Abe Lagrimas Jr., one of today’s most dynamic ukulele players, music is very much tied in with listening—being open to new ideas and being willing to accept new musical genres and adapt them to one’s own playing. Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I was able to connect with Abe, who, in turn, was willing to share a bit about his career and his thoughts on music with our Lambchop Ukulele Cookin’ (LUC) blog.  Before we get to the interview, however, a little background is in order.

I first came across Abe Lagrimas Jr. sometime last year when I was surfing YouTube for versions of Chick Corea’s jazz classic, “Spain.” Hoping to find a clip of how to play it on piano, I instead came across an incredible trio fronted by Abe on ukulele. Filmed at Higher Ground CafĂ© in Wahiawa, Hawaii, the video shows what a highly talented, laid-back jazz performer Abe is; his moving solo choices couple with his fast strumming are nothing short of amazing. I began sharing the video with all my friends—fellow jazz lovers and even some non-jazz people—and all of them agreed that this was brilliance.

That Higher Ground video is important to me for a number of reasons. First, it introduced me to the potential of the ukulele. I had come across the instrument before, but it wasn’t until I saw Abe that I said to myself, “Hey, I would like to play that.” I soon picked one up and, like so many others, immediately fell in love with it. More importantly, that video led me to other Abe performances, including his work on vibes and on drums, which is the instrument he originally started with at age four (see Abe tear up the vibes on his Blue Bossa YouTube video)

With a number of albums out, including his latest, Ukulele Vibes (a duet featuring Abe on both instruments), an active touring schedule and endorsements with Koolau ukuleles, Paiste cymbals, Vic Firth drumsticks, and Remo drumheads, Abe, who now resides in Los Angeles, is a busy person. Despite his hectic schedule, he graciously took the time to share his thoughts and ideas with LUC. Through his answers, Abe reveals himself as a talented, confident and humble person with a truly musical soul.

LUC: From what I understand, you have been playing since age four, starting with drums; do you see a common connection among the ukulele, drums and vibes?

Abe: Honestly, I approach each instrument pretty much the same way. At this point in my musical career, it has become natural for me to think about the rhythmic and harmonic aspects of each instrument. One element cannot fully function without the other. We can all agree that the drums and vibraphone are percussion instruments but some may think that the ukulele is only a stringed instrument. Since we are strumming/plucking the instrument, that percussive action also makes it a percussion instrument. So rhythmically, it's all the same for me. Harmonically in my head, I approach each instrument the same way but physically I have to think about it differently from each other because of the different techniques required for each instrument.

LUC: At what age did you begin playing ukulele?

Abe: Being from Hawaii, most people would think that I grew up playing the instrument. But actually, it was during my second year at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA where I began messing around with it right after my 20th birthday and taught myself how to play. A few weeks later, I was doing my first gig at the Boston University Hawaii Club Luau.

LUC: In just a few short years, or so it seems, ukulele has grown in prominence and popularity (and you are a big part of that movement). What do you think explains this ukulele phenomenon?

Abe: Am I really a big part of that movement? I think the ukulele has recently become more and more popular for a couple of reasons. First, it is a fairly simple instrument to learn. It's small size makes it fairly simple for the average person to put their fingers around the neck and begin to play a few chords. People with no musical background can pick up the ukulele and with some practice, can begin to musically express themselves which allows them to discover this whole new side of them. You become hooked and start learning all of your favorite songs! Secondly, we have amazing artists like Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill to thank for showing the world what this tiny 4-stringed instrument is capable of doing. As I was teaching myself how to play, more and more was I beginning to realize that there are so many possibilities in this instrument.

LUC: Where do you see ukulele going in the future?

Abe: YouTube and the Internet have become major resources in taking the ukulele into the future. You can find countless videos online of ukulele performances, instructional videos, even a kid playing Jason Mraz tunes! I think the ukulele is heading in the right direction and I'm looking forward to what's ahead in this expanding world of ukuleles.

LUC: Tell us about some of your current projects. I just had the chance to listen to “Cookies and Ice Cream” off of your “Ukulele Vibes” album. Incredible work! It makes sense that you would pair the two instruments you play, but how did that project come about?

Abe: Thanks for listening to my album! When I first had the idea of creating an album with only these two instruments, I was listening to a lot of duo and solo albums. I listen to a lot of jazz so I was going through albums like Joe Lovano & Hank Jones' "Kids - Duets Live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Chick Corea & Gary Burton's "Native Sense" and "Crystal Silence", and Brad Mehldau's solo piano album "Elegiac Cycle". It was Chick Corea and Bela Fleck's album The Enchantment that initially sparked the idea.

LUC: Tell us about your other ukulele albums.

Abe: My first album entitled "Dimensions" was released in 2006. For that album, I wanted to showcase each of the instruments I play so I recorded the ukulele, drums, vibraphone and also did a few guitar and percussion tracks. I also did a 5-part horn arrangement of the first tune I ever wrote, "Headache". Both "Dimensions" and "Ukulele Vibes" consist of all original material because I think it is important as an artist to find your own voice (sound) and to continue develop it. "Dimensions" was later picked up by Universal Music Japan and was re-released in Japan under the album name "Lovers Uke" and also included 5 additional tracks. Pony Canyon Records in Japan also showed interest in my music and I released "Uke Wired" in 2009. For "Uke Wired", I took popular rock songs by Led Zeppelin, Smashing Pumpkins, Jeff Beck, Nirvana, Oasis, and arranged them for ukulele. This summer, be on the lookout for an ukulele compilation album featuring the music of Michael Jackson.

LUC: Do you prefer to play in an ensemble or as a solo artist?

Abe: When it comes to the ukulele, I prefer to either play solo, or in a small group setting such as duo or even a trio.

LUC: One of my favorite songs ever is Chick Corea’s “Spain,” and my absolute favorite version of it is the one on YouTube that you recorded at Higher Ground. Your improvisation is incredible. The choices you make are so natural and understated, yet speak to such a firm grounding in music – what has helped you most in terms of this ability?

Abe: I'm glad you like it but I'm still working on it! Having an education in music and jazz has really helped me to understand the harmonic possibilities, but it's the countless hours of listening to music that has really helped me. Listening to a lot of music will engrave new musical ideas into your head and it's up to you as the player on how you want to interpret those ideas out on the instrument and into the listener's ear. When I improvise, a lot of things will affect the outcome. It can be anything such as the energy of the music at that moment, your mood in the day, the weather, the sound on stage, etc. I take into consideration all of those factors and try to produce something that reflect how those things affect me. This is why I also believe that jazz is a very deep and personal style of music. It cannot be reproduced, even by the same musicians. Jazz is always moving forward and just as long as people are evolving, the music will continue to evolve.

LUC: You have played with a number of famous people; any chance you and Chick Corea may get together? Piano and ukulele would be awesome.

Abe: That would be awesome! Chick Corea enjoys the duo setting. It would be nice to hear a piano and ukulele duo album.

LUC: The Koolau custom ukulele we often see you with is just beautiful; can you tell us a little bit about that one?

Abe: John Kitakis at Koolau makes some of the most beautiful and amazing sounding instruments around. I have a custom tenor that is made out of Brazilian rosewood with a spruce top and another made out of myrtlewood with a spruce top. Recently, I've been playing the myrtlewood instrument much more. Both are great instruments but I just feel much more connected to the myrtlewood one.

LUC: Do you always play with low-G tuning?

Abe: I never play low-G. I have always played high-G so it's the only way I know how to play. To me, the high-G tuning is what makes the sound of the ukulele so unique. I also prefer the high-G tuning because when I play a lot of solo pieces, I have two upper voices (strings) to choose from and I find myself learning new chord voicings every time I learn a new piece.

LUC: Any other ukuleles that you have?

Abe: In addition to the two Koolau acoustic tenors, I have a Koolau solid body electric. When I first started to play the ukulele, I was using my friend's Kamaka tenor. Then I landed the endorsement with Koolau so those are the only ukuleles I have ever owned.

LUC: Your tone is so beautiful; your tenor sounds like a classical guitar at times. What advice can you give new players on developing their tone?

Abe: Know your instrument inside and out. It helps to have a good quality instrument but not all of us can afford to buy them. We must find the strengths in our instrument and learn how to showcase those points but at the same time find the weaknesses in our instrument and learn how to turn that into a positive. It is also important to make sure all of the strings and notes are resonating in whatever fingerings we do so that each note can be heard.

LUC: Any other advice for aspiring players?

Abe: Keep your ears open and listen to a lot of different styles of music. Learn to enjoy and appreciate these new genres of music and allow it to influence your sound.

LUC: I have kind of a selfish question here; any chance you will get to the Michigan area anytime in the future? The Ann Arbor, Michigan crowd would love you, and Elderly Instruments, who sell Koolau, is in Lansing, Michigan. The two cities are about 50 or so miles apart.

Abe: I have not performed in Michigan yet but I will definitely let you know if I got something planned. I love to travel and share my music with people all over the world so I really hope to make it out there one of these days.

LUC: Abe, thanks so much for your time.

Abe: Thanks so much for having me be a part of this.

Abe, the Pleasure has been all ours!  Be sure to check Abe out at his official site,

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ohana Five-String Tenor: The Perfect Answer

Ken Middleton, a wonderful ukulele player, was kind enough to comment on one of my videos the other day, so I decided to check out his channel.  Among the great playing was a review for a new Ohana five-string tenor that, according to Ken, is supposed to be out sometime late summer or early Fall.  The idea behind this is adding both a low and high G to instrument, thus providing instant access to both Gs, as well as a whole new sound while strumming with both high and low G at the same time. 

This is absolutely incredible!

See for yourself:  Ken's YouTube channel review of the Ohana Five-string tenor.