Me and My Ukes

What I’m playing on the ukulele right now:

Honey by Seymore Simons, Haven Gillespie and Richard A. Whiting

It’s high time that I completely Aspie out and tell you about my instruments.

Ukuleles come in four sizes—soprano (or standard), concert, tenor and baritone. I am fortunate enough in the 4 months I’ve been playing ukulele to have 3 of them.

My soprano uke was given to me by my father when I was about 9 years old. When most people think of the ukulele, they think of the soprano uke. I had seen my Dad play his ukulele many times. Dad’s Martin—considered the Rolls Royce of ukuleles—has been with him through thick and thin since 1952 and resides permanently at their cabin in Lake Arrowhead. After begging Dad to show me a few chords, I asked for one for my birthday. It’s a 1950’s vintage Luna made by the Kiwaya Company of Japan, purchased at Saul’s Pawn Shop in South El Monte. My rediscovery of the ukulele is for another blog post. I keep the soprano tuned in D—A-D-F#-A—which was favored by vaudeville performers. It’s perfect for Tin Pan Alley songs.

The tenor ukulele, slightly larger than the soprano, is the new kid on the block, and is a bit of an oddball (much like its owner). It’s a RipTide Ukulele from the Boulder Creek Guitar Company of China. What makes it so strange is that it has 2 oddly-placed sound holes; a small off-center hole near the fretboard and a larger hold facing me on the side. This one is tuned in the standard G-C-E-A tuning. I like using my tenor uke for love songs and Hawaiian tunes. I’m using the tenor in the video for Honey.

The third one is a beautiful 1950s Harmony baritone ukulele that belonged to my Aunt Eunie. My Cousin Lisa gave it to me a few weeks ago, and I am honored to have it. After a new set of strings and a restoration by Red Zone Guitar Works in Pasadena, it looks and sounds amazing! The baritone has a different tuning altogether—D-G-B-E—basically the same as the top 4 strings on a guitar. Because the strings are still pretty new, it’s not holding its tuning yet. I’ll post a video of it in the coming weeks.

Also, my Honey and I will be heading for a long-delayed honeymoon to Hawaii in a couple of months. I’m hoping to complete my collection with a Hawaiian-made concert ukulele.

The One That Got Away

What I’m playing on the ukulele right now:

Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Thomas “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks


This is the tale of the one that got away.

If you’re a reader of my earlier posts, you can see pretty clearly that I love Tin Pan Alley songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Many of these songs became famous through Vaudeville performers. At that time, the ukulele was ragingly popular but it was really too soft to be played in large concert halls. The solution? Cross a banjo—which is much louder—with a ukulele. Thus was born the banjo ukulele, or banjolele. It has the tuning, strings and size of a ukulele with the gloriously obnoxious twang of a banjo. So where does one find a banjolele these days? eBay!

It turns out that there are quite a few banjoleles out there, and most of them need quite a bit of restoration. Since I’ve discovered Red Zone Guitar Works in Pasadena, it has become my go-to for fixing and restoring guitar-based instruments. They set up my old soprano uke, did a spectacular job on my Aunt Eunie’s baritone uke, and are currently working on my Dad’s old Martin uke and my Grandfather’s beloved banjo.

Now, this was my first foray into the world of online auctions, so I had some reading to do before I bid on anything. For those of you who are unfamiliar with eBay, bidders enter the highest amount they would be willing to pay for an item. Anyone who counterbids will raise the price by that amount. If, for example, the current winning bid is $15.00 and I enter $150.00, the amount bid will show up as $16.00. If someone else tries to bid $30 for the same item, the amount will show up as $30.00, and so on.

I had heard something about the practice of sniping, but really didn’t understand it fully. Sniping is when a bidder waits until the last few seconds of an auction to bid a dollar or two over current bid to win the auction at the lowest price. In eBay’s FAQ section, this practice is definitely frowned upon.

I set my sights on a terrific banjolele from the early 1920’s, with bidding started at $10 and an ending date of 6 days away. Being the smart cookie I thought I was, I put my maximum bid at $70 with the idea that I could have some wiggle room if the bidding got hot, and still come in with a bottom line figure of about $150, which would including shipping and restoration.

A few bids came through, but after a day or two the price hung at $33.00. Cool! I started watching it like a hawk with Asperger’s syndrome. This was my temporary Special Interest, and I was obsessing over it. For days it stayed at $33.00. On the last hour of bidding it was still at $33.00. With my nice maximum bid at over double the current, I couldn’t lose. With 5 minutes to go it was still $33.00. Throw the steaks on the grill—I got me a banjolele!

I checked eBay when the steaks were done to confirm when I might get my new banjolele. The final bid? $71.00, $1 over my bid. I got sniped!

This is where being Aspie begins to suck. I was livid. Suddenly I was back in elementary school with some snide asshole pointing and laughing at me for not understanding the finer points of eBay. My thoughts began to spin like wheels stuck in mud as my temporary Aspie obsession turned to Special Interest ire. I was sure that the banjolele—my banjolele—was going to continue to collect dust in a closet, or worse, hang idly on the wall of a TGI Fridays between an old bicycle and a creepy Kewpie doll because of some idiot’s need to win. I was going to play it! I was going to treat it right, restore it and make it sing again, goddamn it!

Thank God I married someone patient.

After finally calming down, I realized that I really don’t need a banjolele at this point. I still have a lot of learning to do on the ukulele before I branch out, and I already have three fabulous ukuleles at my disposal. At some point I’ll invest in a banjolele, but now really isn’t the time, and I could certainly use the money for something else.

Still, it was a beautiful banjolele.