Five Months With A Ukulele

03/09/2012

Peanut, Snowy, Chalky, Alby & Woody.

Or more accurately, Five Ukuleles!

From my previous posts in April Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome and Barnes & Mullins UK2C Ukulele, I thought it would be worth updating my thoughts since taking up the Ukulele (or ‘Uke’) at the beginning of April, together with a few hints for others starting out on the Uke path.

Since catching the bug in April, I have learned a lot, bought a few and enjoyed the whole process immensely. I have met a whole load of new people and had wonderful new experiences.

To recap, I first bought a cheap (<£30) ukulele from a local store and quickly discovered that one of the biggest factors making this difficult to play was actually the strings. So, for another £6 or so, I replaced them with Aquila strings.

So, that’s the first thing I’d recommend. even thought the Uke itself is a cheapie, it was transformed with the new strings.

At this point, I should ‘fess up and admit that all of my Ukes have names. My first, being black was named ‘Snowy’.

Now, I learn that Ukes come in different sizes, with the ‘Soprano’ size being the most common and almost always the size of the cheapest instruments. The next size up, the ‘Concert’ is easier to play, in fact, for a beginner to stringed instruments, I’d probably suggest you start here. You’ll need to spend about £60, but you will get a decent Uke from the start, and it is more forgiving as your fingers learn to become more dextrous on the fretboard. Some chords are tricky when you start, and can put you off, so why make it difficult and discouraging? The ‘D’ chord needs three fingers all in one fret and is the first ‘Nemesis’ chord as I call them. Once you have that one licked, another appears, currently ‘B’ for me, but they all get knocked down, one by one, trust me!

I got the Barnes & Mullins UK2C (‘Woody’) – now out of production, so the link is for the Tenor size, if you find one, you are lucky, don’t hesitate, buy it. This has a sweet & bright tone and is easier to play than the Soprano by far. I wanted something electric too to satisfy the techie in me, so the Eleuke Peanut appeared (‘Snoopy’). this is a Soprano size and has quite a high action – this is the amount you need to press the strings down on the fretboard – so is my trickiest Uke so far.

June came along, as did a trip to the Southern Ukulele Store, where I bought a Honu Mango Concert (‘Alby’). This is the priciest Uke I own, but the most stunning and has a lovely mellow sound and a soft action.

I was still hankering for a better quality Soprano, so in August I bought a Brunswick BU5S, this in very light coloured maple and so is called ‘Chalky’. This would make a good starter Uke for anyone insisting on a Soprano size.

How to learn and practice? Well, books are fine, but are not very rewarding really. I’d recommend finding a local Uke ‘Jam’ or club. I used to go to one in Alton, but that closed after a few weeks, then I found a fantastic Acoustic Jam session in Ash, even nearer to my home. This had the added benefit of being every week and also has all sorts of instruments including Ukes, guitars, drums, double bass, accordian, violin, harmonicas, kazoos and even a didgeridoo! This is hosted in a local pub by a nice chap called Mike and called ‘Unplug The Wood’.

From a beginner’s point of view, it’s been great, the variety of instruments means it’s not just a load of Ukes strumming together (which can get a bit much to be honest), but a good variety of styles. The people are very tolerant of beginners, I think this is a trait you’ll find anywhere as these people realise we all had to start somewhere, and offer advice and encouragement when needed. There’s none of this snotty “I’m an expert, I know best” that you sometimes get at other clubs for other hobbies. We just have enormous fun, some songs seem to rock out, others we noisily murder, but we still have fun. Sometimes even applause from drinkers in the pub.

This particular session even has an (entirely optional) open mic section during the evening which allows anyone brave, or foolish enough to get up and play solo. I’m now in my 50th year and have NEVER played an instrument or sung in front of an audience so this was a big step to take. But, I’ve done it now. There was (probably polite!) applause. Maybe I was good… , more likely some recognition of my first ever performance, but I’ve taken the challenge and done it a couple more times since. I’ll get better. I’ve even written my own lyrics and performed those. Certainly the first performance was something to cross off of my ‘Bucket List’, and a personal achievement for me.

I even plucked up the courage to send in a little tune to a photography podcast I listen to.

I’ve learned to appreciate music a little more. Learning and hearing chord changes, creating tension in a chord change, stuff like that.

I’ve also realised how good it is as a release from my normal life. Since an early age, I’ve been into tech stuff. My day job is tech stuff, my photography passion is maybe 50% tech, 50% art – but involves a lot of staring at computer screens. Other demands on your life take their toll, but music, jam sessions are a complete release from all of that. Just 30 minutes sitting in another room, playing to Alfie the cat and I’m in a different world! (I think Alfie is too, for some reason she seems to enjoy the noise!).

One more recommendation – a good supplier you can trust. My local music shop is OK, but they have a limited range of instruments and no real specialist Ukulele knowledge. I have found two retailers to be excellent. The first is Omega Music – (the Amazon links above are supplied by them) excellent for mail order, on Twitter as @omegamusicUK. Matt there is a good humoured, honest enthusiast. He tells it like it is and has even refused to ship me a Ukulele (I bought a pink one as a present – honest) because it had a slightly loose tuning peg. Advice from him on Twitter or the phone. Woody, Snoopy and Chalky all came from Omega Music.

If you want to rummage around and browse, then the Southern Ukulele Store is good, and where Alby originated from – although its location in Bournemouth on the south coast makes it a bit remote for many. But, sometimes, you want to compare a few Ukuleles, how they feel and sound. I fancied a thin ‘travel Uke’, but after picking one up, it was just too fiddly to play. So, it’s good to go and handle them before buying anything a bit out of the ordinary (or probably the more expensive ones, say >£200).

But, a budget of £100 or even £50 will get you started on what can be a very rewarding experience. Just make sure you get out and meet other people with it, don’t just try and learn by yourself. Take a look at the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain too, inspirational stuff!

So in five months, I’ve gone from complete beginner to audaciously calling myself a “Ukulele Player”. I wouldn’t call myself a musician though, but any Ukulele Player will tell you that the Uke is all about having fun, and I’m doing just that.

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Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome

30/04/2012

At the beginning of April, I stumbled across a Ukulele video on YouTube. It was The Vespers and “Power Flower“. As ever, I have no idea how I got there, but I did. It reminded me a little of Patrick & Eugene whose CD I bought some years ago. Lighthearted, easy on the ear and just good fun. Music should be fun, shouldn’t it?

In my teens I learned a little guitar, and still had an acoustic classical guitar languishing in the garage, missing a string. I figured the Ukulele (‘Uke’ to its friends) was more portable, had a fun tone and was never taken seriously by anyone who played it! Plus, it has two strings less than a guitar, so it must be easier?

Snowy

Off to the local music store (Stagebeat in Farnborough) to buy a cheap Uke then. I’d done some research and they were close to the bargain basement prices and even though I didn’t really know what I was looking for, I wanted to hold one before buying it. So, just under thirty quid allowed me to leave the store with a black ‘Kauai’ Soprano Uke.

Soprano is the smallest Uke, they then go up in size, Concert, Tenor and Baritone which is getting on for a small guitar size.

I quickly found a website – ‘Ukulele Hunt‘ (which seems to make quiet fun of the abbreviation of its name! Lots of good stuff here, plus I discovered that in the last thirty years since I really took an interest in stringed instruments, something called ‘Tabs’ have appeared. These are simply a notation that gives chords and the fingering on the frets along with the words to make it much easier to play along. Our cat, Alfie seems to enjoy the noise I make, she keeps me company while I strum away in the conservatory. Must be a glutton for punishment!

More research (and a tuner gadget from eBay) and I discover that the Uke I have has some fairly cheap strings. They go out of tune quickly and seem to make strumming difficult. So, I buy some ‘Aquila’ strings – these absolutely transform the instrument, not just in tone, but somehow in playability too.

The following week, I find a group of enthusiasts (some would say musicians), calling themselves “The Happy Uke“, who meet once a fortnight in a pub in Alton. I turn up, am made very welcome, light is made of my admission of incompetence and I find myself playing and singing along to Tabs provided by Sarah the organiser. Incredible fun, almost three hours of playing (and importantly practice) and just enormous fun! Tip: don’t worry if you can’t get to certain chords, just duck out of the ones you can’t play. I found playing and trying very beneficial, although my novice fingers were very sore the day after.

Trouble is, here you meet other people, and importantly see other instruments. My fingers aren’t nimble enough yet for a few of the chords on the Soprano Uke (now named “Snowy”, being black) – the Soprano fretboard is very small, half the size of regular guitar frets. While I can now make a D chord, that requires three fingers in the same fret, I couldn’t before I met with the Happy Ukers. But, trying a Barnes & Mullins Concert Uke that night – a beautiful instrument with a polished back – that made those chords so much easier with the slightly larger fretboard.

Snoopy

These Ukes then become instruments of desire (pun intended), the build on that Concert Ukulele was to die for, a highly polished spruce back, it was certainly nicer to look at than it was to listen to in my hands – although, I’m sure in the right hands it will be just fine!


More research and while looking for a Concert sized Uke, preferably electro-acoustic, I find Eleuke’s “Peanut”. This is a quirky looking instrument, fully electric, so almost silent in operation. Cleverly, as well as a normal guitar output, it has a headphone jack so you can listen without using an amplifer. Then, it has an MP3 player input, so you can plug your own backing, metronome, or other audio (such as the Ukulele for Dummies eBook which has interactive elements). I tweet, thinking about this Uke, and Omega Music jump in, helpfully answer a couple of questions I had about it, and before I know it, I’ve ordered one from their website! The local shop sadly, does not have much of a range to look at, so the internet wins again, certainly helped by Matt on Twitter.

Over the weekend, my new enthusiasm even rescues my old guitar from the garage and re-strings it. Although it’s a bit beaten up, a good clean and polish does work wonders, and I’m playing some of the tunes from my teens again.

Monday arrives and so does the Eleuke Peanut. This one’s going to be called “Snoopy” (obviously). I plug in my headphones and it’s amazing. Lovely tone, actually sounds very natural, and a nicer, smoother tone than Snowy. The volume and tone are adjustable through two controls on the front of the Uke. The tone has a centre stop where is sounds natural, turn one way it becomes sharp sounding, the other dulls the tone down for a more bassy sound. The iRig has not arrived, so I can’t really experiment with iPad Garageband just yet, but have plugged it into my iPod speaker. All works just fine. So, I can practice silently or up the volume to a level via an iPod speaker that will annoy the neighbours. Obviously, the former is more prudent, I think.

Comparing the size of Ukuleles and the Guitar

The Eleuke comes supplied with a decent quality padded gig bag, fitted with a battery, a shoulder strap (although I can’t work out how to fit it!) and a cable to take audio from the peanut to your audio system.

So, that’s less than a month and my stringed instrument collection has tripled already! I’m told by Sarah from “The Happy Uke” that I’m suffering from Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome, I don’t think it’s a terminal disease, but it’s certainly something I’ve realised I’m suffering from. And Omega Music aren’t helping!

When the iRig arrives, then I can add all those virtual effects pedals, multi-track recording, who knows?

  

First, more practice, and maybe, I’ll order that Concert Uke…

Alfie Approves!

And thanks to Omega Music for fuelling my affliction, I don’t think there’s a cure, but if you have the disease, you could do a lot worse than talk (or tweet) to them!

1st May 2012 update – It appears that Barnes & Mullins have stopped making their BMUK2C Concert Uke in favour of releasing production availability for a cheaper, less desirable (in my opinion) model. Omega Music snapped up the stock and have six in stock right now. Correction, five. Link to the BMUK2C here.


Five Things.

15/03/2009

Well, this seems like a chain challenge, where Kavey challenged Bexxi, and I volunteered to write about five things that Bexxi thought represented me.  She chose :

1. Rugby

I’ve always preferred rugby as a sport, it’s more varied than football somehow. When there is pain, it’s genuine, unlike the annoying ‘professional’ fouls (or falling over) you get in football.  There’s great honour and spirit in rugby, everybody is part of the team, even the hangers on like myself, not just the players.

I got involved in February 2004 with my local team. I was just after a few pictures for competitions, so I found the local side, contacted them and asked if they’d mind me coming up and taking a few pictures. They could have some for their website if I got any that were any good I said.  That was five years, over a hundred games, probably 36,000 images ago. I was quickly adopted as their club photographer, and am now on the committee as press secretary. I’m even writing the reports for the games these days!

Did I get any competition pictures? – not really, only three notable images and those in the last year.  I’ve made lots of friends, got some commercial photography business, weddings and christenings. Voted clubman of the year last year as well!

2. Linguistic Pedantry

Its a shame. No, it’s a shame. The first thing my school did at age five was teach us to read. They maintained that you couldn’t learn to do anything else until you could do that. Consequently, I’m blessed with reasonable spelling and grammar abilities, but also an inherent intolerance of anyone who doesn’t have the same – especially when they think they do. So, I’m an irritating smart arse, and proud of it.

I don’t know about you, but those errors leap off of the page when I see them. Like signs in shops that say “DVD’s”.

3. Alfie

Alfie is a Ragdoll cat. We got her (yes, HER) as a kitten in January, 2007. She’s full of character, very vocal, and grumbles at me when I sneeze.  The breeder told us she was a boy, in fact, the vet confirmed this. We then took her for her castration, and the vet called to say they couldn’t perform the operation as she needed to be spayed! Oh, the trauma I experienced, was it a gay cat, sex change, what was going on???

We’ve had two cats for years, but Dennis, Rosie’s son, died aged six in September 2006 from complications with a urinary tract infection, leaving his mother behind and confused. Rosie was withdrawn, but as soon as Alfie appeared, she sprung back into life again.  Like many cats, life has settled down so that Alfie adores Rosie, but Rosie tolerates Alfie.

Alfie’s claim to fame is probably her modelling for the TFTTF weekly challenges. I just make life hard for myself by including her each week, in a photographic challenge with titles like “Broken”, “Cookies”, some are quite difficult.

4. France = South Kentishire

Thanks Bexxi. I’m going to have to explain my xenophobia. Maybe slightly tongue-in-cheek, maybe slightly for real, you decide.

The French are so incredibly nationalistic, but they are England’s old enemy. Forget the Germans. The French wave the white flag as soon as someone invades, then wait for us to rescue them. They produce cars like Citroen & Peugeot, when the rest of the world manages to make something decent.  They eat molluscs and reptiles for Christ’s sake. We should never have built the tunnel – you know they even argued about what sea level was, because theirs was different to ours? How Concorde ever flew I will never know.

I was once stuck on an Airbus on a Sunday night after someone had reversed some steps into it. The airline were trying to call Airbus engineers to check if the aircraft was safe to fly. Anyone in France working on a Sunday night? No. Get off the plane and onto another one.

As for South Kentishire, I just think this is an ideal name for France. It’s south of Kent, and would make a fine annexe to the UK. We could call the French “Kents”, because that’s actually quite similar to what we call them already.

34-10 is a great score too.

5. Weight Loss

After a routing blood test last year, my liver enzymes were elevated. So, I had more blood tests, stopped drinking, more blood tests, ultrasound, CT scan and finally after six blood tests in total, a liver biopsy. Very, very unpleasant.

Anyway, it turns out that I have Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, or NAFLD for short. Emphasis on the non-alcoholic please!

The problem is that fatty deposits on the liver can cause scarring, and then cirrhosis, then liver failure. Meanwhile, the liver produces excess iron which can overload other organs in the body, causing lots of other nasty problems. Apparently, with the modern diet, one in five people have a fatty liver, and are at risk of getting NAFLD and complications.

The cure is to lose weight. Doctor’s orders are no red meat, no booze, no carbohydrates. So, what this means is a diet of chicken, fish and vegetables. No bread, no rice, no potatoes.

Join a gym and the weight falls off. I need to lose 2Kg a month for six months. So far, I have lost about seven kilos after as many weeks. I feel better, don’t get out of breath so easily, and my knees which have given me trouble for years, complain less now they don’t have to haul my lardy arse about quite so much.

So, Bexxi, that’s it for now. I bet I’ll read this tomorrow and think of a load more (and spot some typos).

If anyone reads this and would like to continue the challenge, let me know, and I’ll give you five things – as long as I know you well enough of course!