Monday, 25 July 2011

The Mighty Ukulele : Where It All Began

So, what’s so great about the ukulele?  What, exactly is it that sets the ‘bonsai guitar’ apart from other musical instruments?  What is the source of the madness that currently grips the nation?

Rumour has it that the mighty ‘dancing flea’ is sweeping the country and that, in years to come, you won’t be able to open your ears without luxuriating in its mellow tones.  Is the diminutive off-cut the next big thing?

I’ve been messing about with ukuleles, and even spelling the word properly, for about forty-odd years.  The first one I came across was a birthday present.  At first, I tuned the strings to an open chord and, for a long time, this served my purposes.  Then, one day, it just wasn’t enough.  I wanted minor chords, suspensions and, God forgive me, major sevenths.  Where would the madness end?

So, I got a chord dictionary and started from scratch.  Before I knew it I was annoying people with a far wider selection of musical adaptations.  They responded accordingly.
“How do you do that?” 
“Why do you do that?”
“Why don’t you get a guitar?”
 “What is that thing?”

Before I knew it, people were actually asking me to play the ukulele with them, sometimes for money. As dirty as that sounds, it was fun. Then, one day, you look up and find it’s all got out of hand.  Now you have a selection of ukuleles, and a guitar or two, an electric and, I’m afraid so… a banjolele.  It’s all out of control.

The mighty ukulele, though, has a lot to recommend it.  It’s small, smaller than most instruments.  You don’t need a van, a car or even a roadie, just a plastic bag and a song in your heart.  It’s got only four strings, so you have fingers to spare.  The tuning is similar to the guitar, so if you play one, switching to a uke is simplicity itself.  Also, it’s cheap.

So, who are the role models we look to today?  Contrary to popular/wrong opinion, George Formby didn’t play the ukulele.  He played a banjolele or ukulele banjo; a cross between a ukulele and a banjo but all is not lost.  If your ears are attached to your head, you no doubt will have come across the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  They’re eight funny, talented musicians who have to be seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated.

It’s not just their musical ability that’s impressive, the playing singing and arranging, it’s their humour and their ability to deliver a song in a fresh, original way that can have you impressed while falling out of your seat.  Their ‘Wuthering Heights’ will have you on the floor.  I can’t imagine anyone with a sense of humour and half an ear, not coming away from an evening in their company fully satisfied, impressed and contented.  You don’t even have to be that interested in the ukulele.  You just need to have taste and a touch of class.

Whether you play one, listen to one or simply have one in the attic, the ukulele is a force to be reckoned with.  It may look like a toy, but it’s a real musical instrument, capable of great things.  It may be only small, but it can give you a lot of pleasure.  Stand well back.  The mighty ukulele is coming to a town near you.

Photo by Gabriel Negreiros

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