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Ukulele madness

I love music. I listen to everything from Persian classical music to Bavarian yodels to English music-hall songs. And I've always wanted to make music. But as Danny Kaye once said, "He labored under a slight handicap: he had no talent." Well, I do have a decent ear (which is a good thing, because I can't read music)... but what I don't have is the dedication to practice that makes a good performer. Over the years I've studied piano, violin, recorder, and guitar, among other instruments, but never got to be good on any of them. About all I can do well is whistle, and there's not much excitement in that.

Still, I always thought I'd like to make music one way or another. When I retired, I even told myself, "Now that you're going to have lots of time on your hands, you can really learn an instrument!" Well, that was eight years ago, and you know how it is. I've been busy having fun, taking pictures, writing Eureka... but I haven't learned any new instruments.

Until now.

Early last month I was driving past the visitor center at Heron Lake State Park, and saw a sign out front listing the weekend's activities.

Free lessons

I got a chuckle when I saw "SINGING SNAKES," but what really caught my eye was the free ukulele lesson. As it happened, I had recently been fooling around with a $1.99 iPad app called "Futulele", which is essentially a ukulele autoharp: you strum normally, but instead of fingering a fretboard, you press buttons to select chords.


It's fun, and within its limits, it sounds pretty good. So when I saw the sign for free lessons, I couldn't resist. I figured that even though I didn't have a real ukulele, I might be able to pick up some things that I could apply to the iPad app.

Next morning I showed up at 11:00 and found a local woman, Kathleen Galbraith, with a basketful of colorful ukuleles that she was handing out to a half dozen students—all rank beginners like myself. (That's her on the right in the attached snapshot. I apologize for the poor quality.)

Ukelele class

Kathleen was a good teacher: lots of enthusiasm, plenty of encouragement. And really, the ukulele isn't that hard to get started with. She taught us a few chords, and by the end of an hour, had us playing a few popular songs. I won't say I was good at it—I tend to get confused when I have to change my fingering—but it got me interested enough that I went back home and started listening to ukulele music downloaded from Amazon, watching ukulele videos on YouTube, and generally immersing myself in the subject.

I was especially impressed by the playing of the late British comedian George Formby, who has an incredibly fast strumming technique. Click on the picture below to watch a typical example... then come back here and read the rest of this page.

George Formby

Yes, that is a ukulele he's playing. To be precise, it's a "banjolele," which is strung and tuned exactly like a ukulele, but has a banjo-style resonator body that gives it a louder, brighter tone than a traditional mini-guitar-style uke. (Kathleen, the teacher at Heron Lake, has one that she plays at community sing-alongs.)

Formby was a goofy-looking chap, but he was clearly enjoying himself immensely with these music-hall-style tunes. His screen persona in 22 films was always the same: a clueless but well-meaning bloke from northern England—a rube, you might say—who's always blundering into scrapes, but always comes out all right in the end, smiling all the while. Formby was hugely popular in Britain in the 30s and 40s, beloved as the man whose smile got the country through the war years and the even tougher postwar depression. When he died at age 56, a hundred thousand people attended his funeral.

But I digress. The more I learned about the ukulele, the better I liked it. I've always loved the popular songs of the 20s and 30s, many of which are well suited to the ukulele, and have a fair collection of them in iTunes already. I could imagine playing some of my favorites, such as "Meadow-Lark," "Harbor Lights," "Roll up the Carpet," and so on, on the ukulele.

And I'm reasonably competent with Apple's GarageBand music editing software, which makes it easy to record multiple tracks and add accompaniment. I didn't have a uke, but I had the Futulele iPad app, so I set out to record some ukulele songs. As my first attempt, I did a version of "Making Love, Ukulele Style," a 1957 song that Arthur Godfrey made popular. I sang, played the uke part on the iPad, and whistled. (Separately! I couldn't do all three at once.)

Then I added a bass accompaniment that I composed in the GarageBand app, using its "piano roll" editing mode, which lets you drag the notes around. Since I can't read music, doing things by ear this way suits me. I used the same method to add four silvery bell notes as a musical accent at one point in the song.

GarageBand MIDI editing

The result was, if not professional, at least reasonably listenable... not bad considering that I did the whole thing without the benefit of an actual ukulele! Give a listen and see what you think. (Remember, it's only my first recording.)

(Click here if your browser doesn't show the music controls)

Getting serious

By this time I'd been immersed in ukulele music and lore for a month. After one more beginner's lesson (Kathleen teaches these at the Heron Lake SP visitor center every Saturday all summer, as well as leading a local group of players who meet year 'round), I felt confident that I was ready for a real instrument—and more important, I was pretty sure I'd stick with it. Besides, I was running up against the iPad app's limitations. So after researching what were the best ukes for beginners, I ordered an $80 Kala ukulele from Amazon.

You can actually get a decent-sounding uke for $30–$40, but I wanted something a little better. I figured for $80 (including case and digital tuner), if I lost interest later on, I wouldn't feel too bad about my investment—it's not like buying a $400 Martin.

As you can imagine, I was very excited about getting a real ukulele. I waited impatiently, following the package's progress via its tracking numbers, as Amazon shipped it to the Escapees Mail Forwarding Service in Livingston, Texas, and then as Escapees shipped it to me. When it was delivered, I hurried over to the campground office to collect it. What a shock I got!

Damaged package

The Postal Service must have thrown the package in the bottom of the truck and then tossed a bunch of heavy stuff on top. I was heartbroken, but I carried it back to my rig, and after photographing the damage, I opened it up, expecting to find a crushed uke. But to my astonishment and joy, the inner box containing the instrument was intact, and my little ukulele was in perfect condition!

Kala KA-S ukulele

It was love at first sight. The ukulele looked beautiful and sounded great. It came with a great padded bag and a clip-on digital gizmo that made it a snap to tune. I started practicing my chords and planning what songs to tackle next. I have a long way to go before I'll be good enough to play in public, but I'll get there. I haven't had this much fun in years!


Postscript: A little over month after getting my ukulele, I recorded my first song with it. (What can I say? I'm a slow learner.) "Roll Up the Carpet" was written in 1933, in the depths of the Depression. It's a cheery little "forget your troubles" tune, but I felt it needed an intro, so I made one up. My playing still isn't perfect, but at least now I'm strumming a real uke instead of an iPad! You'll find it and my other impromptu recordings on my new "Music!" page. Enjoy!

Andy with ukulele
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