My Little Grass Shack

What I’m playing on my ukulele right now:

My Little Grass Shack by Bill Cogswell, Tommy Harrison and Johnny Noble

Well it has been awhile since I’ve posted—my apologies! My wife and I have been preparing for our long-delayed honeymoon to Hawaii and there was a lot to finish up before we left.

And here we are on the island of Maui!

As I sit here being kissed by tropical breezes on the lanai overlooking Lanai and Molokai, I am happy to report that I have now completed my collection of ukuleles with my new toy—a Hawaiian koa-wood pineapple concert ukulele. It makes my little Aspie heart leap.

I was hoping to find a ukulele made here in the islands, but due to the labor-intensiveness of hand-making a uke, the costs are way out of my reach. Still, I was able to find one at the Mele Ukulele Company here on Maui. Although it’s made in the Philippines, it’s to Mele’s design and is made from koa from the Big Island.

What was interesting is that almost all the ukuleles at Mele were strung with a low G-string, so that the ukulele’s peculiar second low string was abolished in favor of a more guitar-like tuning, going low to high. While tuning the uke with a low G makes for a richer sound (baritone ukes are tuned this way), it loses that great ukulele sonority, sounding more like a high-pitched guitar. It makes me wonder whether this tuning is popular because of the large number of guitar players who have ventured into the ukulele. Maybe it’s more comfortable for them than to have to deal with the low C string in the middle of the instrument.

I love my new ukulele! It’s been great fun to strum, mai tai in hand (between chord changes), and watch the sun set over the island of Lanai.

You Want Me to Do What With Your Whistle?!

What I’m playing on the ukulele right now:

For You a Lei by Johnny Noble

 I’ve been posting videos of me playing songs on the ukulele since my very first post, and if you look back on what I’ve done you’ll see that I have a love of Tin Pan Alley songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Until recently I was never sure why those songs have taken hold of me more than the songs written during my own lifetime. Now I think I know.

Let’s see if I can explain.

Here is a sample of lyrics from the numbers 1,2 and 3 on the Billboard Top 100 for the week of September 14, 2012:

#1—Taylor Swift—We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

We are never ever ever getting back together

We are never ever ever getting back together

You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me

But we are never ever ever ever getting back together

Like, ever…

I’m really gonna miss you picking fights

And me, falling for it screaming that I’m right

And you, would hide away and find your peace of mind

With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine

#2—Maroon 5—One More Night

You and I go hard

At each other like we going to war

You and I go rough

We keep throwing things and slamming the doors

You and I get so

Damn dysfunctional we stuck keeping score

You and I get sick

Yeah I know that we can’t do this no more

#3—Flo Rida—Whistle

Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby?

Let me know

Girl I’m gonna show you how to do it

And we start real slow

You just put your lips together

And you come real close

Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby?

Here we go

(Look) I’m betting you like people

And I’m betting you love creep mode

And I’m betting you like girls that give love to girls

And stroke your little ego

Compare that to the top 3 songs of 1922:

#1—Al Jolson—April Showers

 

Life is not a highway strewn with flowers,

Still it holds a goodly share of bliss,

When the sun gives way to April showers,

Here is the point you should never miss.

Though April showers may come your way,

They bring the flowers that bloom in May.

So if it’s raining, have no regrets,

Because it isn’t raining rain, you know, (It’s raining violets,)

And where you see clouds upon the hills,

You soon will see crowds of daffodils,

So keep on looking for a blue bird, And list’ning for his song,

Whenever April showers come along.

#2—Paul Whiteman—Three O’Clock in the Morning

 

It’s three o’clock in the morning

We’ve danced the whole night through

And daylight soon will be dawning

Just one more waltz with you

That melody so entrancing

Seems to be made for us two

I could just keep on dancing forever dear with you

There goes the three o’clock chime, chiming, rhyming

My heart keeps beating in time

Sounds like an old sweet love tune

Say that there soon will be a honeymoon

#3—Paul Whiteman—Stumbling

 

“Tention folks, speak of jokes

This is one on me

Took my gal to a dance

At the armory

Music played, dancers swayed

Then we joined the crowd

I can’t dance, took a chance

And right then we started

Stumbling all around, stumbling all around

Stumbling all around so funny

Stumbling here and there, stumbling everywhere

And I must declare, I stepped right on her toes

And when she bumped my nose

I fell and when I rose

 I felt ashamed and told her

That’s the latest step, that’s the latest step

That’s’ the latest step, my honey

So for those of you playing the at-home game, here’s the scorecard:

1922

2012

April Showers—Endurance and keeping a positive attitude in the face of adversity We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together—Attitude. Well that and being really pissed off at Jake Gyllenhaal 
Three O’Clock in the Morning—Love, marriage and dancing  One More Night—Violent relationships
Stumbling—Love, marriage and bad dancing Whistle—Criminy! Do I really have to explain it to you? 

Why, then, do the lyrics from 1922 sound sweetly naïve and a bit corny? Or rather, what does that say about our time that flipping attitude, violence and..uh..whistling speaks to us more clearly than love, dancing and a positive outlook? Human feeling and expressions—and whistling, for that matter—have been with us since the beginning of time, and songwriters have expressed these emotions throughout history. But in the 1920s love, marriage and dancing were very common song subjects. Have we stopped loving or marrying or dancing? Of course not! But why have these subjects been underrepresented in today’s music?

I think we as a society have a joy deficit. We have become shamed out of dancing badly with the one we love, singing and smiling. We need fewer hate-spewing politicians and pouty, spoiled pop stars and more ukuleles.

My advice? Don’t waste anymore time; grab the one you love, sing, dance and play the ukulele!

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.

Good God–I’m an Amateur!

What I’m playing on the ukulele right now:

Looking at the World Through Rose Colored Glasses by Tommie Malie and Jimmy Steiger

You have to understand something: for the past 25 years—nearly half my life—I’ve been a professional musician. I have a degree in music from one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world. I have studied with the best teachers and have shared the stage with Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo Yo Ma, James Galway and many, many others. I have performed as a classical double bassist in concert halls all over the world. I’ve spent periods of my life practicing 6+ hours per day. I’m used to a certain level of polished perfection.

Last week, all of that changed.

I videotaped myself playing and singing the 1920’s song Looking at the World Through Rose Colored Glasses the other day. Those of you who know the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, it’s the song that opens the movie as the first girl is kidnapped. Despite that, it’s a lovely song and it’s really fun to sing and play.

The sheet music I have is from the 20s and has the ukulele tuned in D (ADF#B), so I used my old soprano uke for it. It’s a great instrument to get that Roaring 20’s sound. I couldn’t wait to hear the results of my video.

It was terrible.

Well, not really terrible, but certainly not up to the level of my other musical activities. I tried version after version with zero improvement. I even have a spectacular example of Aspie guttural noise as I RRRRRRRRR! through a particularly difficult (for me) chord change. It was pretty depressing.

Still, what did I expect—virtuosity after 4 months? The ukulele is considered one of the easiest instruments to play, but I have to remember that I’m still taking baby steps. Four months of uke-ing simply can’t stack up to 40 years of bass playing. It sounded amateurish.

In professional circles, “amateur” is an epithet. As in, [spoken in the worst possible classical music snob voice] “I heard the Philharmonic attempt to play Brahms’ 3rd Symphony and it was just dreadful! They sounded like AMATEURS!” Honestly, it’s one of the worst things you can say to a musician.

So let’s look at the word Amateur. It is French, comprised of 2 parts: ama and teur. Teur is a person, a being, a one; ama is to love. So amateur means “one who loves,” or put another way, “one who does what he or she does for love.”

So for as much fun as I’m having with the ukulele, I absolutely love it.

I guess that makes me an amateur.