Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Frank Skinner on George Formby and the Ukulele, Part 2

While sharing his own enthusiasm for the ukulele, Frank Skinner, in his recent TV programme about George Formby, was keen to tell us about the man himself.  (Frank Skinner on George Formby and the Ukulele part 1). George Formby’s father, George senior, was also a very popular singer and entertainer who made a very good living.  George’s upbringing was a far cry from being poor and working class.  George junior actually started out impersonating his father’s act.  It wasn’t until he met his future wife and business manager, Beryl that he found his act being redefined.  She put him into a suit and placed the banjolele at the centre of his act.  He gave her a lot of credit for his success.    

We were treated to some fine clips from George’s twenty four or so films, all of which, according to Frankie, followed more or less the same story line, i.e. gormless boy meets girl, evil/bad man causes problems, boy solves problem and gets the girl.  Songs and ukulele playing were shoe horned in along the way. 

That didn’t mean that Mr. Formby had nothing to offer.  Anyone who has ever picked up a ukulele will have appreciated the speed and the skill with which he played.  Take a close look at his technique.  Not only is his right hand action incredibly fast, but listen to the variety of rhythms he works into his solos.  It’s often syncopated, full of triplets and he even varies the way he makes contact with the ukulele strings, sometimes playing with a finger, a thumb, his fingernails or all of his fingers.  The sound is quite overwhelming.

As an aside, Frank went into a primary school classroom in an attempt to pass some of George’s expertise onto some ukulele wielding children.  That’s another attractive thing about the ukulele.  The technique can be as simple or as complicated as you like.  With only a few chords and a flexible right hand, even young children can play a whole host of songs.  Perhaps it’s time for the ukulele to replace the recorder in the classroom.

It was a real treat to see Andy Eastwood play.  Watch the video below and be impressed!

Andy Eastwood playing the ‘William Tell Overture’. 

His playing really is most impressive, though I do find his rictus grin a little disturbing.
While on the subject of performance, is the Lancashire accent really necessary?  Are we acknowledging the man and his music or simply doing an impersonation?

George himself was most revealing and sincere in the clips shown from his 1960s special.  His sentiment about stardom is something that some of today’s entertainers could think about.  In short, he said that it’s the public that makes an entertainer into a star and they should never forget that.  Without an audience, there is no ‘star’.        

Frank Skinner’s program was informative, entertaining and unpretentious.  It showed George Formby to be a thoughtful and talented man who gave and continues to give, a lot of pleasure.  What about the banjolele?  Well, it’s hard to be miserable when you’re playing one.  As Frank said:

“It’s like a little bottle of joy”.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Frank Skinner on George Formby and the Ukulele – Part 1

So, what’s not to like about Frank Skinner?  As a Brummie myself, I’ve always been fond of Frank.  (Yes. I feel I know him well enough to call him ‘Frank’; he’s that sort of bloke, isn’t he?)  I enjoyed reading both of his autobiographies though he doesn’t seem old enough for two volumes.  What I like about Frank is there’s nothing pretentious about him.  He’s not afraid to talk about his past in an open and, well, frank manner.

Anyone who saw his programme about George Formby will have picked up on the enthusiasm and affection he has for both Mr. Formby and the ukulele.  He didn’t get in the way of the story, as so many presenters do.  You can usually tell what sort of show it’s going to be if it’s entitled ‘Piers Morgan’s personality shortcomings’ or Joanna Lumley’s predictable comedies’.  This was simply about George Formby and asked some basic questions like, ‘Why was he so popular?’ and ‘What is the appeal of the ukulele today?’

Frank Skinner on George Formby Video

Frank even came within a gnat’s whisker of getting the terminology right.  The instrument that George Formby usually played was a banjolele or ukulele banjo, though I was interested to see a clip of him playing a ukulele.  The mistake people make is partly his fault.  He sang ‘With my little ukulele in my hand’, but it wasn’t.  A ukulele is a small, usually wooden instrument shaped like a guitar.  A banjo is a larger instrument which has a circular resonator.  That’s the bit that’s covered in animal skin and looks like a tambourine.  A banjolele combines the size of the ukulele with the shape of a banjo.  In essence, it looks like a small banjo.

It was interesting listening to Frank talk about what was different about George Formby fans.  The fact that most of them actually play a uke, sets them apart from so many fan clubs.  “Jimmy Hendrix fans don’t take their guitar along to appreciation clubs.”  It’s a very active society. 

Attending the annual George Formby convention in Blackpool, Frank was made very welcome.  He said, “I didn’t meet a single person that I didn’t like.  They have warmth to them”.  There didn’t seem to be any one-upmanship.  Grown-ups and children seemed to get a lot of pleasure from simply playing together in a non competitive forum; so refreshing in these days of ‘Young Musician of the Year’/‘The X Factor’/‘Britain’s got Talent’/’You’re rubbish at entertaining, so why don’t you go away?’  etc.

(to be continued ...)

Friday, 21 October 2011

Things to Consider When Buying a Ukulele

So, you’ve seen enough of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and you’ve been inspired to play the ukulele and now need help and advice on buying a ukulele.  Where do you begin? Like anything, you get what you pay for. You can pay hundreds or even thousands of pounds for a good ukulele.  However, if you’re just starting out, don’t go mad. 

If you can, get hold of someone who plays.  It’s very hard to try out an instrument in a music shop if you don’t actually play. Failing a ukulele player, get hold of a guitarist. The sort of things you’re looking for are primarily the same.

Where do you look?  The internet is a good place to start.  Today there are a whole host of websites dedicated to the mighty ukulele encompassing repair, maintenance, playing, selling, buying and meeting up with like minded individuals.  Most good music shops have a selection.  Occasionally, you’ll find one in a second hand shop, rag market or in the paper.  There are bargains to be had but make sure you try it out before you purchase.   Don’t buy one from a catalogue and never buy one in a toy store.  It’s not a toy, it’s a real musical instrument.

Guidelines for Buying a Ukulele

So what do you look for when buying a ukulele?  They’re the same sort of things you look for in a guitar:

  • Play each note on each string, working your way up the fingerboard.  If it buzzes, rattles or shakes, don’t buy it.  Each note should be clear and in tune.
  • Make sure that the individual pieces of wood that make up the ukulele are glued together properly.  There should be no gaps.  See that the frets do not protrude over the edge of the fingerboard.  If they do, you’ll be able to feel them as you rub your finger along the side of the neck.
  • Check the tuning keys.  Do they turn smoothly?  Do they hold when you tighten a string?
  • Look down the instrument from the nut end.  This is where the tuning pegs are.  Look down the finger board and make sure that it isn’t warped.
  • Check the tuning.  Play a scale and listen closely.  Is the octave in tune?
  • See how it feels when you finger a chord close to the nut.  Try some chords at the first fret.  Does the head of the instrument get in the way?
  • Listen to the sound.  Ukuleles sport a whole variety of tones.  Compare a handful.  The melody line may sound good but try some chords.  Which sound do you prefer?  Find a ukulele that you like.

Remember, purchasing an instrument doesn’t mean your relationship with the shopkeeper is over.  What sort of guarantee can he offer?  Will he honour his obligation to you if the instrument falls apart or starts to develop a rattle?  Can he repair your instrument or will he have to send it away?  Can he recommend a good ukulele repairer?

Hopefully you’ll be happy with your purchase and following these guidelines when buying a ukulele will help you to find a good one.  The main thing is to get a ukulele player to come with you, failing that, someone who plays an instrument from the guitar family.  Then all you have to do is enjoy it.

Photo by Gabriel Negreiros

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Growing Appeal of the Mighty Ukulele

Q.  What’s the definition of ‘perfect pitch’?

A.  Throwing a banjo into a tip without hitting the sides! lol!

To the uninitiated, this may well apply to the mighty ukulele but there’s so much more to it than you’d imagine.  Over the years a whole range of musicians and entertainers have been caught indulging.  Consider the number of people who have taken the time to learn to play the instrument:  George Harrison, Van Morrison, Frank Skinner, Richard Durrant, Bruce Forsyth, Tiny Tim and so on.  Perhaps the ‘bonsai guitar’ deserves a second look.

Initially the ukulele has a novelty value.  Like Ronnie Corbett, it’s unusually small but it doesn’t end there.  It may look like a toy but when it’s played properly, most people are pleasantly surprised.  When you really listen to it, you realize it’s a real musical instrument.  You only have to lend an ear to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to be aware of the instrument’s remarkable range.  From ‘Born to be Wild’ to ‘I Will Survive’ via ‘Tears on my Pillow’, it’s a totally new way of listening.

So, what’s so great about the mighty ukulele?  It’s not a hard instrument to play and so many popular songs can be played using three chords. (The UOOGB say, “Why so many?”)  It doesn’t require a lot of amplification.  The ukulele technique is also straightforward.  It’s easy to carry, it’s inexpensive and you can practice without annoying the neighbours.  If you fancy getting a group together, it won’t cost much to kit yourself out with instruments.

It’s also incredibly versatile.  From popular Music to classical Music by way of soul and reggae, you won’t be short of inspiration.  Also, it’s a rhythm instrument, a melody instrument and even a percussion instrument.  The technique is also transferable.  Most guitar players can play the ukulele to a degree as there are tuning correlations, so even if you don’t take to the instrument in the long run, the effort is never wasted. It’s also a great way to learn to read Music. 

Whatever the appeal, the ‘dancing flea’ is on the up.  Lend an ear the next time you sit through a dozen adverts.  There’s a ukulele in there somewhere. You may not realize it, but there’s a whole gang of pop songs out there being played on the mighty ukulele.  Don’t fight it, embrace it.  It’s the future.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Ukulele ... Some Notes About Technique

Like the guitar, there are a multitude of ways of playing the mighty ukulele.  If you already play the guitar, and many who take up the ukulele do, you’ll be well aware of how much of a difference your technique can make to the sound you get from the instrument.

Most guitar players start off by learning a few chords and strumming.  It’s amazing how many popular songs can be accompanied by a handful of chords.  The ukulele is generally considered to be a rhythm instrument but if you’ve ever spent any time with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, you’ll have realized that there’s SO much more to it.

Even simple strumming offers a host of variable techniques.  Some use a pick or plectrum which may be plastic or made from a more pliable felt covered substance.  Naturally, this proffers a softer, less abrasive sound.  The thickness of the pick can also make a difference.  When strumming, the pick needs to bend as it makes contact with the strings.  You don’t want it to sound like a bag of nails.  Of course, if you’re playing a melody, you’ll want a harder pick.

Many choose to strum with their fingers.  Again, you have many choices.  I prefer to strum making contact with the left side of my thumb.  With a loose wrist, this is good for both up and down movement.  Some like to strum with the thumb and the index finger together.  Imagine you are holding a pick between those two digits.  I find this method a bit fiddly.  It doesn’t offer a smooth contact with the strings when strumming and you’re always catching either one of your digits on a string.  I know some players who strum with a pointed index finger which offers a contrasting up and down sound, the former with the flesh and the latter with the nail.

Of course, you don’t have to strum all the time.  As a melody instrument, the ukulele has a lot to offer.  Again, you can use a pick or your fingers to play tunes. You can also pick out arpeggios.  This simply means picking out the individual notes of a chord, usually to a repeated pattern.  Considering that the lower string is the 1st string, you may try a whole range of picking patterns, such as: 3241, 4321, 3121 and so on.  Try playing the two outer strings together on the first beat:

1232              or       1212
4                               4  4  

There’s really no end to the patterns you can try.

You can also use the ukulele as a rhythmic accompaniment.  If you watch the UOGB, they tap the body of the instrument, strum with their fretting hand dampening the strings and even mess with the bits of string between the head nut and the tuning pegs.

It’s not a novelty or a toy.  It’s a versatile and capable musical instrument.  Experiment with it. Try different styles.  Make it your own.  Learning to play the ukulele is lots of fun and you will get much more from the experience if you work to improve your playing technique.    

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – Sex, Drugs and Sausage Rolls!

So, tell me, when was the last time you were enjoying a musical performance so much, that you just didn’t want it ever to end?  Every song left you wanting more.  Every round of applause was a welcome accompaniment to your eager anticipation of the next number.  And when it wasn’t the one you’d been looking forward to, it didn’t matter because it was something equally impressive.
I had one of those evenings last night at Worthing Pavilion with the ever talented Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  I laughed, I clapped, and I even found myself singing along to Wheatus’ poignant tale of adolescent passion, ‘Teenage Dirtbag’.  Their note perfect ‘Only You’ took me magically back to ‘American Graffiti’ and beyond.  Ennio Morricone would have been proud of their ‘Good, the Bad and the Ugly’.  I haven’t heard such great whistling since Roger Whittaker was king. 

What’s so great about them?  Unlike the Spaghetti Western Orchestra, whose recreations of, well, Spaghetti Western Music were excellent, they keep the balance of humour and Music just right.  Also, they’re funny.  Not only can they play but they can sing, often at the same time!  The Who’s ‘Pinball Wizard’ is testament to their clear and exacting harmonies.

Even if you’re not that crazy about the ukulele, it doesn’t matter.  It’s not really about the instrument, it’s about the Music.  It’s about having good taste in Music and imaginative arranging.  It’s also to do with not taking yourself too seriously, but at the same time, performing well, with passion and with a sense of fun.

If you’ve got half an ear and an ounce of taste, give up an evening of the usual to catch the unusual.  It’s an act you simply can’t help but enjoy.  Like Tommy Cooper, if you don’t enjoy the evening, there’s probably something the matter with you. 

Watch this Video of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Friday, 2 September 2011

A Short History of the Ukulele

The ukulele is one of the smaller members of the guitar family.  It has four nylon strings which can be plucked or strummed and comes in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone.  The soprano is the most popular. 

Although adopted by the people of Hawaii at the end of the 19th century, the instrument was introduced by Portuguese immigrants and is generally thought to be based on two instruments, the cavaquinho and the rajao.

The Hawaiian word ‘ukulele’ is derived from the word ‘uke’ meaning a gift and ‘lele’ meaning ‘to come’.  Other sources translate the Hawaiian word ‘ukulele’ to mean ‘dancing flea’, perhaps a reference to the finger plucking action when played.

The ukulele became very popular amongst jazz musicians of the 1920s.  It was cheap, comparatively easy to play and easy to transport. 

Made from wood and occasionally plastic, ukulele makers have utilized spruce, mahogany and koa, a Hawaiian wood.
As regards tuning, in short, there are two basic forms:

‘C’ tuning - G,C,E,A     
‘D’ tuning - A,D,F#,B

What makes this unusual is that the strings are not arranged in ascending pitch order.  For example, in the ‘C’ tuning, the G of the 4th string is pitched between the E and the A of the 2nd and 1st strings.  Hawaiian instruments may resort to open tuning. 

Many ukulele innovations have extended the instrument’s scope and application.  It has been crossed with a guitar to produce a guitalele, with a banjo to produce a banjolele or ukulele banjo as played by George Formby and there’s even an electric ukulele. 

The resonator ukulele is equipped with aluminium resonating cones instead of a fret board and so offers a different sound altogether.  The Tahitian ukulele is made from a single, solid piece of wood. 

Since the late 1800s, the ukulele has undergone many transformations and has adapted itself to numerous styles of music.  Thanks to artists such as Tiny Tim, George Formby and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, it’s an instrument that is appreciated and played all around the world.

Photo by Gabriel Negreiros