The Dreaded 4-Finger Roll

What I’m playing on my new toy—the 1920’s era banjolele! (With thanks to my Sweetie. What can I say? I have a great wife! See The One That Got Away)

Big Bad Bill by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen

When you hear really good ukulele players, you will often hear a rapid da-da-da-DUM strum before certain measures of music. This is commonly known as the 4-Finger Roll, where the player flicks his or her right hand fingers in quick succession, making a sound similar to a drum roll. The players of the 1920s, particularly Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, had the 4-Finger Roll down to a science and used it extensively.

It seems to be a stroke that is endemic to the ukulele. Other plectrum instruments—guitar, banjo, mandolin and the like—don’t seem to use it, but you do hear something of the sort from flamenco guitar. Considering that the ukulele is derived from the machete, cavaquinho and rajao, brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Portuguese, I suppose it makes sense that Latin techniques would become part of the ukulele landscape.

However it made its way to the ukulele, it sounds really neat.

There are 2 ways to do a 4-Finger Roll—forwards and backwards. The forward way is the one Cliff Edwards used with 1-2-3-4, holding back each finger with your thumb. The backwards way—which, I believe, is the more traditional flamenco way, is to do the same, but with 4-3-2-1. Done correctly, you get a nice, even triplet before the beat. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Well, it isn’t.

Most of my attempts result in da-da-THUD, sometimes da-THUD or even just THUD. Like a good musician, I’ve been practicing it slowly:

da——–da——–da——-DUM

Speeding it up…

da—–da—–da—–DUM

da—-da—-da—-DUM

da—da—da—DUM

da–da–da–DUM

da-da-THUD!

I know what you’re thinking.

It’s been 306 words and he hasn’t mentioned the word “Aspergers,” “Aspie” or any other form of autism. Well that’s where you’re wrong. This is Asperger’s Ukulele, after all and I’m not one to disappoint.

You see, within an Aspie’s Special Interest there are little Special Interests contained within! It’s sort of like the finding prize in each specially marked box of Quisp, and it’s every bit as disappointing and irritating as your average cereal box plastic decoder ring (and if you get that reference, you’ve seriously dated yourself).

For me the 4-Finger Roll is my Special Interest within the Special Interest! Not only can’t I quite seem to get the 4-Finger Roll right, but I find myself practicing it on every animate and inanimate object I can get away with. So far, my wife and son have been spared but I don’t know how much longer I can hold out.

My right thigh has been the most repeated, egregious victim of my 4-Finger obsession, as has the steering wheel of my car. I’ve been doing a lot of freelance playing this summer, which has kept me stuck in LA traffic for many, many long hours. How do I keep my self-occupied (in addition to trying not to run into the car in front of me)?

Both hands on the steering wheel at 2:00 and 10:00, and…

da-da-da-DUM!

da-da-da-DUM!

da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM!

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.