LONDON, UK: I’ve picked up the ukulele again, this time it seems that it might stick a little longer than in times past. The first time I purchased a ukulele was way back in 1999. It was a starter and like many of my purchases, it was a whimsical decision. I don’t recall the influence exactly. I was really into jazz, swing and lindy hop back then.
There was a great little place in the LES ran by two friends of mine, called The Piano Store. As you would guess, it was in the basement of a piano store. The weekly dancing and socializing was a huge part of a young subculture, a fun, sophisticated community which aspired to live out life from 1940s Manhattan through to 1960s Las Vegas. The dance was the center of this, with a small set of cocktail connoisseurs holding up the bar. I would like to think we were the one’s who started the current cocktail culture. In New York we certainly were.
It was on one fabulous night that Casey MacGill played at The Piano Store. The night had a feeling of 1920s speakeasy (before speakeasies were brought back into style), everyone decked out in their retro best, the dance floor smooth and the bar in tiki decor. Casey and his band were the real McCoy. My memory of Casey later that night, meeting him downstairs, drink in one hand and what looked like a beat up ukulele in another. Do not underestimate a beat up uke by the way, the age and styling were more simple in the 1920s and 1930s, but the sound hasn’t changed, and the price will attest to that.
I think it was there that I decided I wanted to pick up the uke, and at some point I made my way over the West 40s, where the guitar shops all clustered together on the same stretch of New York City street to sell their wares. I didn’t go high end, or even middle range, not that there was a huge selection to choose from either. I stuck to the beginner model, probably set me back somewhere between $20 – $40. It was the standard brown laminate variety. I bought a beginner uke book and went home with my new hobby.
As a child I played the violin, another four string instrument. Not that was very good, but I thought that my previous musical training might provide me with some foundation to quickly pick this up. What I learned rather quickly however was that while both a uke and a violin have four strings and are musical, playing them are two very different things. I hadn’t realized that I would have to learn what a chord was. In fact, I am slightly embarrassed to say that the concept of chords baffled me for a long while. I also didn’t quite understand strumming. Keep in mind, YouTube was in its infancy at this stage and DSL hadn’t quite made it to Park Slope, Brooklyn yet. Also, there wasn’t much around in terms of ukulele lessons.
I tried to pluck out a few songs, getting frustrated that I couldn’t understand what the book was telling me. My boyfriend at the time however, took it up like a star. He did have some guitar experience, so for him it was a great little toy, and like my other fun toys (remember the Razor?) he decided my uke would become his to play. The uke went everywhere with us. It was a nice prop and conversation piece. We took it to Arizona, where we would walk in the desert, stopping by a cactus to strum out an off-tune sound. Or he would stand on top of hill posing for me to take his photograph (I was also in to the Polaroid Land Cameras back then).
That uke might have traveled around, but it was never played seriously. I bought one or two more every so often, more for living room object decor than anything else, but it was on a trip to Bath that I stumbled into a small music shop and decided that I should go back to this tiny instrument for a bit of “something to do”. I bought another laminate starter uke, which set me back a lot more than it had years ago, and took it back to my flat in Wimbledon. I had another book or two which I purchased. Slowly, I would pick it up and start to play with it. Swapped the strings around for left-handed playing, bought a tuner and with sore fingers starting strumming along. I know that with music, as much as anything else we want to be good at, practice is the only way to do that.
I moved from Wimbledon to East London, around the corner literally from Duke the Uke and have now started practicing each weekend. I am learning strumming patterns, chords, and even purchased a new Gretsch soprano. The fret board and Aquila strings make a huge difference for a beginner still trying to learn finger placement. I think in some ways I had been put off previously by the beginner ukes partly because of the sore fingers.
This is my uke today. I take it with me to the bi-weekly jam sessions out in Balham, and am determined to not stop practicing until I have mastered Lola, by the Kinks. Having an instrument in your life is a great activity to have. You can more or less be lazy all day but still be learning something new. Over time you can see your progress, and even become good enough to entertain friends. I find it almost meditative, the strumming to a beat, learning the rhythms of a song, the tick-tock of a metronome. With about five chords under my belt now, I suspect one day I will be able to post my own video, but not just yet.