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i wasn’t planning on buying a ukulele this past evening..

October 15, 2013

I wasn’t planning on buying a ukulele this evening, and am still surprised that I did. Tonight, my plan was to drive out with my dad (who doesn’t drive) to a city just over a half hour away, go to a funky pizza place for a slice and a pint, then walk from there through the small but comfortable downtown area to a large and unique coffee house for espresso drinks and dessert.

The pizza place is in a pleasant building that contains several other businesses. Right across the hall from the pizza place is a tiny but impressive music store. I had spotted it last time I was at the pizza joint, but the store was closed. Tonight it was open late, probably because there was a rather good jazz trio performing at the pizza place, and people kept showing up.

After many years of toil and strife, some months ago I finally gave up trying to learn guitar. But I still felt lured into the store. Several vintage guitars hung on the walls, including an old Gibson hollow body electric, which looked very similar to one I saw in a youtube video recently. This model of guitar, or one very much like it, was being played by a guy from Mumford & Sons at the Glastonbury Festival.

There was other interesting gear around as well.. a few dayglo electric guitars that were obviously from the ’80’s hair metal days, a beautiful Takamine 12 string Jumbo-size guitar, a dusty lap steel, some amps in a corner, and other gear.

What really drew my eye, besides the Gibson, was a row of ukuleles, and a very noticeable sign that read, “Ukes $37.50.” That’s rather cheap for a ukulele, I thought, even if the ukes are made in China.

While I was waiting for my slice of pizza to be warmed up in the oven (and, as it turned out, slightly burnt), I went across the hall and into the music shop. There was a pleasant smell, like the guy in there lounging on the couch had just been smoking aromatic pipe tobacco. I asked what kind of tobacco he’d been smoking, and he told me the smell was from one of those fire-free candles. I don’t know how those work, but the smell sure added to the ambiance.

I looked around for a few minutes, and noticed that next to the three brightly colored ukuleles, there was a battered old vintage uke. The blue ukes and the orange one were made in China, and felt cheap.. although a good value at such a price, I’m guessing. They didn’t feel or sound nearly as good as the all-mahagony (except for the fretboard) vintage uke, which was made in America, probably 50 years ago. Even though the vintage instrument had a smaller soundhole than the others, it had a better tone. It had resonance. It was selling for $125.00.

I looked across the hall, and saw that my slice of pepperoni had been brought out. I asked the guy if he was going to stay open for awhile and he said yes. I went back to the pizza place, enjoyed the rousing jazz music, played by a drummer, bass guitar player, and impressive pianist. I ate my overly crunchy pizza slice, and drank a good pint of stout, then went back to the music store.

Do I have money to spend on musical instruments? No. I’ve already bought 2 mini keyboard midi controllers on credit, and over $150 worth of e-cigarette supplies and juices. Besides that, I’ve already got a pile of debt from earlier in the year, when I bought a laptop computer I don’t need, and various and sundry other items.. some of which I’ve used quite a bit, and some not.

I certainly wasn’t planning on going into yet further debt to buy a ukulele.

Some weeks ago, I had checked out ukes at Guitar Center, and was thinking of purchasing one. I did not go to GC to look at ukes though, I went to try out some midi controllers. The ukuleles on display caught my eye though, and I tried a few.

I like that they sound a bit like classical guitars, but have only 4 strings, and are very portable. I could tell these would be easier instruments to play than the mandolin I’d bought and tried the year before last, and later sold. However, I didn’t buy a uke at GC. .

At the music shop this past evening, I found a uke I quite liked. There is a certain magic about vintage instruments. They have mojo. This one.. stirred my heart somehow. I don’t often feel anything resembling joy, but I felt something like that while plucking away on the instrument. I don’t know how to play ukuleles, but I tried anyway, and had fun.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to test out the uke. I don’t know a thing about these instruments, so maybe testing it out.. playing every note on every string individually.. would not have told me anything about the instrument.. but still, it might have helped. However, the jazz band across the hall had stopped, and my dad was getting restless. He walked into the music store, and told me he was ready to move on to the next place.

I stayed just a bit longer. I asked the proprietor of the store, a younger guy than I am, a dumb question. I asked if he had tested out the instrument. Of course he said yes. Earlier, I had asked him him if he or anyone else at the store did any instrument repair. He said everyday.. lots of different kinds of repair. I noticed there was some space behind the counter for a workshop, and that’s why I’d asked him. Hopefully the guy had tested the old uke, and found it to be in good condition.

I felt a sort of joy, and, without playing the instrument much at all, got out my high interest credit card, and purchased not only the battered instrument, but a gig bag and a cheap instruction book as well.

I felt good about this purchase for a little while, but now I am wondering if I just did another irrational thing. I do a lot of irrational things, or so it seems.

I tuned up the instrument and tested it at home as best I could. The tuning keys were very hard to turn. Is this normal?  The second string, when fretted past the second fret, did not sound very good to me. Almost like two notes were being sounded at once. Maybe I’m not fretting it right, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. But I could be wrong.

Also, the notes on all the strings sound odd.. they don’t sound evenly like they are going up a half-step at a time the way guitar strings do. I know ukes are tuned quite differently than guitars, but it is my (perhaps quite erroneous) assumption that the notes on the strings should go up by half-steps. I thought all fretted, stringed instruments worked that way.  Since all four strings sound like this, it’s hopefully likely that this is normal.

For all I know, this is a mostly good uke, and this is just how uke strings sound. I really don’t know. Usually before I purchase an instrument, I do countless hours of obsessive research. This was different. This was an impulse buy. I don’t know if it was a sane choice.

Tonight, once home, I went on ebay. I found instruments similar to this one.. same brand, a Roy Smeck uke made by Harmony in Chicago, with starting bids as low as $6.99. I found some selling for $80, and some selling for over $100. Those looked to be in much better shape than the one I bought. Maybe the one I bought is damaged, or otherwise not very good.

And so, of course, I am uneasy. Feeling the usual.. why do I always bring misfortune on myself.. why do my impulsive (or carefully considered) decisions so often cause me trouble?

Yes, more inner conflict. How am I to know if this instrument is damaged or good?

I’m thinking of posting a video on youtube, saying that I am new to ukes, playing the notes on the strings one by one up the neck, and asking whoever out there who watches the video if I made a serious mistake, or if this uke is just fine. But I might not bother doing that. Maybe I’ll go down to Guitar Center and try out some of their ukes and listen closely to hear if they sound the same as mine. I don’t want to go back to GC anytime soon though. I’ve spent more than enough time and money there already this year. I want to stay out of that place.

Worry worry worry.

Oh well. Even though I am feeling bothered by the sound of the strings played individually, the instrument doesn’t sound too bad at all when I am playing the chords I just learned. And, I should not worry about the instrument going out of tune. I’d asked the music store guy if ukuleles needed to be tuned frequently. He’d said yes.. something to do with the diminutive size of the instrument (I bought a soprano uke, which I think is the smallest).  I’d heard this before, regarding mandolins, so what he said made sense to me.

Maybe it will turn out all right. Maybe I will try not to worry, and really enjoy the instrument.

As far as price goes.. price is subjective. Even if I paid too much compared to other ukes on the market, if this instrument is worth $125 to me, that is really what matters.

Maybe I will really like this instrument. I hope I made the right choice. I can’t return it, and might not get much if I decide to sell it, considering the wood is nicked and scratched compared to other instruments on ebay (I think some nicks and scratches and faded patches give the instrument character by the way).

I’m going to keep the uke for now, try to hope for the best, and enjoy playing it. Turns out a ukulele really is a cool instrument. I didn’t think so in the past, but I do now.

Well folks.. that’s pretty much all I have to say in this post . If there are any ukulele players out there who can let me know if notes not sounding exactly like they are going up by half-steps, or if half-step increments on ukuleles sound differently than other stringed instruments, please let me know.

Thanks.

Photo on 2013-10-14 at 22.41

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2013 8:32 AM

    Hi,

    Firstly, good luck with your new uke! I’ve been playing & teaching myself for around two years & it’s a fun instrument to learn. When I started, I went & joined my local free uke group & have ended up becoming their webmaster – see my signature block for details. We post lots of links to useful free resources, utilities, lessons & songbooks etc, so do have a nose round in case there’s anything useful to you.

    Secondly, your question on the uke tuning.

    Well, the strings shouldn’t get out of tune easily – unless they are brand new (as they take a while to stretch & settle), though you obviously have to tune up fairly regularly. If they are very old strings, maybe that’s the problem?

    It is supposed to be a semi-tone (or half note) between each fret.

    Make sure you are tuned up correctly to the strings that are on the uke- there are several different common ways. I don’t know how you’ve got yours – is it standard gCEA (ie re-entrant tuning – the g string sounds higher than the C string)? If so, here’s a fretboard map:

    (Another way common in the States is to have a low G for that string.)

    You should be able to match eg each open string with the same note (or a note an octave higher) to check out the fret spacing. Also, the twelfth fret is an octave.

    If you have one of those clip-on chromatic electronic tuners, you could try using that & working your way up each string to see what notes get played. That should help you suss any problem.

    Hopefully some of this will reassure you that your uke is okay – it’s usually really cheap instruments that sometimes aren’t made correctly, & it sounds from your tale that this is a pretty decent one.

    If none of that really helps you, why not try hopping onto a ukulele forum such as http://ukulelecosmos.com/ – there will be a lot of seasond player on there who will hopefully be able to give you some advice.

    Good luck & do say how you get on. Happy strumming.

    Jeanette

  2. tomschronicles permalink
    October 17, 2013 12:00 PM

    Before I forget, I’d like to ask how you found my post. I am always wondering how people arrive here.

    I browsed your website, and I think it is very good. I shall continue to visit it. Lots of helpful info there, and it looks nice.

    Ah, you’re British. I am one of those Americans who is a British enthusiast. I don’t like every British TV show that comes along, but I like a lot of them. I can even fake several British accents. Maybe I will visit England and the rest of the UK someday.

    Regarding my uke..

    Still am not sure if it is somewhat defective or just fine. I think it is good enough for now. I have a VERY sensitive guitar tuner, so sensitive that it’s practically impossible to tune a string perfectly. So.. close enough in tune is good enough right now, since I’m a beginner and just strumming along here at home. I do enjoy the uke enough to keep practicing, and that is the important thing.

    I haven’t yet looked for a uke club in Idaho. Back when I was living in a city in California, there were many uke enthusiasts, and a community education class offered several times a year. I am guessing there are plenty of uke aficianados here in Boise, but I don’t know if they are organized. I could put a post up on craigslist.com. Do you use craigslist to contact musicians in the UK?

    Not sure if the strings on my uke are old or new. Although the uke is old, I think it is possible the guy at the music shop strung it up with new strings, which could explain some tuning instability, perhaps. New guitar and mandolin strings require more frequent than normal tuning until they get stretched out. Maybe that is true of uke strings as well.

    I compared the sound of my uke.. playing fret by fret up the neck..compared it to many other ukes, and mine seems to be alright. I’ll try the tuner and octave methods you mentioned. I plan on practicing for awhile today.

    I’m using the gCEA tuning. The fretboard map will definitely help.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to provide links and share your excellent comment!! The best thing about blogging is that occasionally, wonderfully kind people will drop in, and leave a very useful and encouraging comment. This lets me know there are still good people out there.

    Maybe playing a ukulele is a sign of having a happy soul.

    • October 17, 2013 2:32 PM

      Hi – thanks for your kind comments on the website! I found you by just looking in the WordPress Reader & searching on Ukulele (which I often do at lunchtimes to read any interesting new uke tales).

      You’re correct – I am a Brit & from London. I hope you can do a cockney accent better than Dick van Dyke’s famous chimney sweep in Mary Poppins! What type of British shows do you enjoy, then? Any specific genre? There are a couple of uke sites that post tabs for TV show themes – they are good fun..

      I’m glad it’s sounding like your uke is okay, now you’ve had the chance to compare it. Yep – new strings do take a while to settle down, so it could well be that. It would be a decent thing to do, to set you up with new strings. Give it a week or two with you playing & it’ll hopefully settle down. I have a cheapo purple Mahalo (costing £15) & it stays in tune for ages.

      I think the gCEA tuning is most popular now (though maybe when your uke was built, one of the vintage tunings would have been equally popular – I’ve read that Roy Smeck favoured A-D-F#-B). So you will find plenty of music out there. And one of our guitarist members always points out that it’s easy to work out the uke chords for guitarists (something about playing with a capo on a certain fret (5th?) & just taking the top four strings).

      I did just have a look on a couple of sites to see if I could spot any Idaho clubs, but didn’t see any. But they were UK sites, so might not have comprehensive lists for the States. I’ve never used craigslist (but have heard of it). Good luck in finding a group if you decide to hunt one out.

      I think a lot of ukulele players seem very friendly & helpful out there. They do say you can’t play or listen to one without smiling..

      All the best.

      Jeanette

      • tomschronicles permalink
        October 20, 2013 11:28 PM

        Something I forgot to add.. Back when I was living in California, I made a few videos of a ukulele band. Not professionals, just community education students putting on a performance. It was a fun concert. Here is the link, which you will probably have to copy and paste: http://www.youtube.com/user/heartywhistler/search?query=ukulele

  3. tomschronicles permalink
    October 20, 2013 11:19 PM

    I need to read more blogs by other people. I write a lot, but don’t read many blogs. I didn’t even know I could search by subject here on wordpress. I found a “learn wordpress” page.. going to have a look at that. Thanks for letting me know how you found my blog. I always want to know how people get here.

    Although I do a variety of British accents, I don’t do cockney. I haven’t tried. I try to do accents that don’t sound like stereotypical characters, but more like real British people. One exception to this is my desire to sound like Ian Mckellen (one of my favorite actors) when he is playing Gandalf, but I can’t get the voice right.

    I suppose I find it fairly easy to do some British accents because I’ve for many years watched lots of British TV and movies.. “Monty Python,” “Fawlty Towers,” “Black Books,” “Outnumbered,” “Foyle’s War,” “Keeping Up Appearances,” “Downton Abbey,” etc. I just watched an episode of “Black Books” less than an hour ago, and wrote a very brief post about the show.

    PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) is a non-commercial, partially govt. funded set of TV channels (at least 4) that has a lot of educational programming, music shows, and British programs. I would like to get the channel BBC America, but it is not available where I live.

    I do get BBC radio at certain times of the day on NPR (National Public Radio) which is the radio equivalent of PBS. BBC radio is on during the afternoon for 2 hours, and is on from 9pm until 6 am or something like that. My dad goes to sleep every night listening to BBC radio on NPR.

    Ukes.. my brother tried mine out today. He liked it. I hope he buys one. We could learn together. Might help him de-stress.

    I’ve been playing some. Very nice change compared to trying to play guitar. I like the portability and being able to cover almost the entire fretboard without moving my hand. I have very long fingers, and am playing a soprano uke.

    Barre chords are lots easier on ukes than guitars, and I like the tone of ukes.. pleasant.

    I tried a Mahalo uke a couple days ago. Seems like a good one to me.. no need to spend a ton of money.

    I’ve watched a couple Roy Smeck videos. Entertaining, but for me, not musically enjoyable. Too frantic. I’ve started listening to Jake Shimabukuro. He really shreds too at times, but also plays some really beautiful music, doesn’t just strum away like a madman. I’m sure Smeck could play beautiful music as well, but I haven’t yet found any youtube videos of him doing this.

    There’s a uke version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I forget who it’s by.. I’ll have to track it down on youtube. Do folks in the UK watch a lot of youtube?

    I think I’ll work on the uke by myself for a little while before finding a group to jam with. It would probably be a good idea for me to learn 15 or so chords at least. I have an instruction book that is useful.

    Ok then.. thanks for your comments.

    -Tom.

  4. October 21, 2013 2:31 PM

    Aah, some classic British comedy. And BBC radio shows too. You have good taste there!

    I’m lucky enough to have been to some recordings (mostly comedy but some quizzes & panel shows too, mainly radio, as it’s more fun because it’s more immediate & less retakes) – some in the old Paris Studios just before it closed down; a pile of stuff in the iconic Radio Theatre in BBC Broadcasting House & various other theatres & the odd room in that area; & TV stuff in BBC TV Centre & the London Studios, plus a few of the other venues the BBC & commercial stations (eg ITV & Channel 4).use.

    YouTube is great for digging out a lot of old stuff like that & for finding music from all over the place. Some great old recordings have been put online, often just folk recording their record players!

    I’ve only heard a little Roy Smeck he is quite manic. I suspect the Somewhere Over The Rainbow uke version you’ve heard is Israel Kamakawiwo. The other guitarists in our group say similar things to you about switching to playing a uke – soprano is the most common size & very portable. I’ve only got short fingers so I reckon would struggle getting the reach required for some of the guitar chords.

    I was at around the 15 chord limit when I went along to my group – it’s more about how welcoming your local group is & how it’s run. As you play an instrument already, you’ll have a better feel of when you’ll want a bit of support / that social element side. I’m sure you’ll have fun if your brother decides to learn too: I find it a great way to unwind. The community group look like they were having fun in the videos!

    Best wishes.

    Jeanette

  5. tomschronicles permalink
    October 24, 2013 8:56 PM

    Would you mind continuing this correspondence with email? That would probably be easier than continuing to access the comments section. I like to have international email pals. Thanks!

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