An Amazing Ukulele Weekend

08/03/2015

Ukulele Events, a spin-off from Omega Music, the online retailer who I buy most of my ukuleles from, organised a weekend – a ‘mini festival’ if you like – at the Gilsland Spa Hotel in Cumbria. Over two nights and one whole day, there were a huge range of delights to satisfy any ukulele enthusiast.

Being some 339 miles away, I set off at 08:37 and arrived just after 14:00, quite a long haul, but I was there bright and early. Omega has set up a shop in one of the rooms, and prior to this weekend, I had arranged with Matt Warnes of Omega to look at a Ohana Electro Tenor, or a Kala Archtop Electro Tenor. I had decided I would have one, probably the Ohana, the cheaper of the two, but probably the more sensible choice.

The Lanakai LK-TEU

The Lanakai LK-TEU

However, on looking around, I spotted the Lanikai LK-TEU (at more than the price of both those other ukes combined, I might add), but with a Fishman pickup system and beautiful mother of pearl inlays in the fretboard. Everything covered on looks and sound. So, a couple of hours in, and I’d made my purchase!

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Feckless & Fuddle with yours truly

First event of the weekend was a concert, hosted by Feckless & Fuddle, the mop-haired buffoons (look them up). Why Matt and his colleague, Andy Webster book these two fools is beyond me! First up was Zoë Bestel, a singer-songwriter with the most incredible voice. For me, although all the acts were excellent, she was the standout act of the weekend. She must be an undiscovered talent, she has so much of what you want in a musician in the one package. She has stage presence, an endearing, humble personality with no air of superiority at all. But, her vocals are perfect, dynamic with the most control I have ever heard. She writes deep and tuneful songs, sings covers with her own unique spin. I can compare her with the voice of Bjork (but without the oddness), the attitude of Pink and Lily Allen, and the raw talent of Ed Sheeran (but a different style clearly) – but all in one! How she remains undiscovered, I don’t know. She clearly outshines anyone on “The Voice” for example.

Then, we had Mike Hind, who is at pains to point out he has a British Passport, hailing from Bermuda. Mike is a true entertainer. A fantastic and wide ranging voice, he has a comic talent. His version of “Wonderful Tonight” is sarcastic, ironic, rude, but very, very funny. He’s on a UK tour at the moment, coming to our very own UnplugTheWood 5th birthday party in a week’s time.

Then we had Dead Man’s Uke, Tim and Jake are well known in the UK ukulele scene, with Jake on his five stringed double bass (surely that makes it a double and a half), and Tim mostly with a resonator uke. Lots of humour again, swing and jazz style going on.

Then, an open mic session, with 160 people at the event, I wasn’t going to go up first, and I was going to do something I was confident in delivering well. So, being fourth, I did Mike Krabbers’ “Songs Of Praise”. As a tribute to Zoë, who I was so impressed with and had explained that one of the most popular names for her new uke that had been suggested was the rather odd (for a ukulele) “Frank”, I explained that I would name my new Lanikai “Frank” in her honour. Anyhow, it all went pretty well, I got some laughs and a loud, maybe polite, cheer at the end.

Late to bed, about 2am…

Saturday morning and a hearty breakfast at the hotel, picked up a copy of Omega’s new ukulele magazine and the first workshop of the day was at 10:30am. Phil Doleman explained how to make chords and rhythms sound different, allowing for some stylish arrangements. For me, practical help that will help with multi-tracking audio and songs.

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Ben Rouse

A short break, then Ben “Uke” Rouse, who by coincidence, I had exchanged emails with back in 2013 after an event I photographed on HMS Warrior in Portsmouth. He explained how to warm up, and getting control of fingers. Essential for moving around the fretboard, lots of exercises. I might get a fretboard to bolt onto my car’s steering wheel to get practice in… His signature wave (which could be misunderstood) became the meme for the weekend!

The Mersey Belles followed with a vocal workshop, teaching everyone how to warm up vocally and harmonise successfully. One particular song that had been troubling me was fixed with a short discussion with Pearl, one of the Belles, who explained that for me a change of key would be a simple fix, when I thought it was a breathing problem, A run through with her, and problem solved!

I had cheekily asked Zoë earlier if she would duet with me on the open mic later (I was nervous that she would not lower herself to perform with a duffer like me, but she’s too nice to say no!), this change of key would come in handy.

Then a mass sing and strum with Andy Websters’ group “Ukes Akimbo”. A song book had been sent around beforehand, and Andy led everything extremely well. He’s a natural showman (and slightly mad, which helps).

A couple of hours gap, before a very hearty gala dinner, with huge slabs of roast beef provided on each table, for everyone to carve. It does seem to me that the further North you travel, the better the beef gets and the three and a half degrees I had travelled north made many degrees of difference. Fabulous!

Tonight’s concert started with Ben Rouse, one of the most energetic ukulele players you will see. His interpretations of Led Zeppelin classics and others have to be heard (and seen) to be believed.

Phil Doleman followed, his take on 20s and 30s music (up to 1939, when he said “music finished”), being an insight into some great rhythm and lyrics that we don’t get to hear so much now.

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The Mersey Belles

The Mersey Belles followed Phil, taking us back again with their lovely harmonies and vintage sound, adding a spin to old songs and some modern classics from Beyonce and the like too.

Another open mic, and the real highlight of my week, I got to perform my open mic with Zoë supporting me on vocals. Zoë Bestell was my backing singer. Did I just say that? A real memory!

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Click to view video – All About The Bass

 

One of my favourites, Meghan Trainor’s “All About The Bass” is also one of Zoë’s, so it worked really well. She outshone me of course, and it would have been better if I’d left the stage, but everyone in the ukulele world are so generous, encouraging and just plain nice, that I know she was happy to humour me. I gave a nod to the Mersey Belles for my key change help, and they were very obviously pleased to have made a difference. I’m so grateful and honoured.

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Mike Hind, Clarice Wokes, Michael Adcock, Nancy from the Mersey Belles & Phil Doleman

Which brings me to the major point. Music is a great leveller. No one strives to prove themselves over someone else. Everyone appreciates the effort people put in, and the fact that everyone has “been there”, learning, sometimes struggling, and enjoying the journey. It takes some longer than others, but even the best and most proficient are, in my experience, happy to explain, and genuinely pleased when they see the fruits of their explanation.

Omega Music are no exception, they may be a commercial organisation, but they clearly enjoy what they do. For me, two big things have got me this far. Mike & Caroline at UnplugTheWood, who encourage me and help me along, not least with their weekly music jams. Omega Music, whose help has admittedly fuelled my ukulele purchases, but they have provided a platform via social media for advice and encouragement. Matt’s also advised me, even telling me to buy a cheaper, better uke than one I had in mind.

Everyone in the ukulele world is so encouraging. Above all, we all just have fun.

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Aquila Red Ukulele Strings

22/03/2013

Since I started playing the ukulele, the de-facto string for me has been standard Aquila strings. Great sounding, they have been standard fitting on most of my ukes.

Eddy Finn with standard Aquilas

Eddy Finn with standard Aquilas

Recently, I tried Worth strings, these do have a slightly better sound and the strings feel softer under the fingers – good on the fretting hand, but somehow not as nice to strum. The Worths feel less substantial and seem to flex a little more with the occasional mis-strum snagging the strings (for me anyway). I don’t play by finger picking much, so they might be better for that style.

So, as someone who likes to have tried as much as possible in case there’s a better way, I thought I’d try out a set of these new Aquila Reds. I have a couple of ukes with the Aquila Red Low G string, but these are complete sets all made of the same red material. Sets are available for soprano and concert, and both high and low G for the Tenor size. (I’m not a fan of low G strings on Soprano anyway).

Fitting the strings is fine of course, but they do feel a bit more ‘stretchy’ than normal strings. As you tune up, you’ll hear them go down in note almost as if they are slipping on the tuner. It seems as if it’s part of the installation process. So don’t fit these on the same day you expect to play them, they’ll drop half a note or so during a song within an hour of installation! I left mine to stretch over a couple of nights, they were then OK.

Eddy Finn with Aquila Reds

Eddy Finn with Aquila Reds

As for looks, they are a bit unique, with the red on all four strings. On the uber-cool Eddy Finn I have, they add even more interest!

As for the sound and playability? Well, again like the Worth strings, they feel softer and more pliable – nicer on the frets. They also feel of a similar dimension to the standard Aquilas (Worths feel smaller) so they don’t give me that snagging problem. They have a bright, but not too sharp and punchy sound, which I like. Where some have reported that a low-G setup has a difference in the tonality of the strings, of course these would give you consistent tone. As something different to normal Aquilas, I like them a lot, and they don’t annoy me like the Worths do (but some swear by Worths over Aquilas!).

The only possible downside (and a very minor one) is that if you are one who looks at the fretboard a lot, the lack of contrast with them being red rather than white might put you off a little if your sight is poor, but it’s a very small point, and you ought to be working instinctively and by feel shouldn’t you? I might be more sensitive to this as because of my photography background, I doubt it will worry anyone else!

Overall, we will see how durable they are, and how I get on long term, but first impressions are really good. Of course, these are all my own opinions, your own mileage will vary…

My strings were supplied by Omega Music (I paid for them, so these really are my opinions here!), via Amazon. Click here – Soprano High G, Concert High G, Tenor Low G, Tenor High G.


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.


Barnes & Mullins UK2C Ukulele

07/05/2012

The Ukulele Wall

I’d like to attempt to review this Ukulele, but I have to admit I’m not proficient enough to do it justice. However, after a few weeks with a cheap soprano uke, upgraded with Aquila strings, even a novice like me can notice the difference. See my previous post for more on my new found ukulele addiction.

This Barnes & Mullins model is an end of range model made with “Spalt Maple”. I originally thought this was a typo, referring to the split pattern on the back of the instrument, but it’s actually a natural discolouration of wood caused by fungi. It gives the wood an incredible pattern, used to great advantage by some woodworkers, including Barnes & Mullins who crafted this uke.

What gives it some advantage is no doubt the craftsmanship and materials, but this particular uke is a ‘Concert’ size, which gives my fingers a little more room on the fretboard, handy for practicing those awkward chords. Beginners ukes are normally soprano size, really tricky for beginners to get to grips with I reckon. The sound though is deep, clear and toneful, difficult to explain, but side by side with my cheap uke, there’s simply no comparison.

Moving between chords is easier and slicker, so it’s more rewarding to play not just in sound, but in movement as well.

Then, it is just incredible to look at. Everyone who sees it comments how beautiful it is. Highly polished, smooth to the touch, it’s something to behold.

 As far as I know, the company I bought this from (Omega Music) purchased the last remaining stock, so if you want one, be quick!

They do have this model in other sizes, Soprano, Concert, Tenor.

Even if you are a beginner, but you want to spend a little more money on something decent that will almost certainly make learning easier and certainly more rewarding, then one of these lovely instruments can’t be a bad choice!


  


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.