Beyond all the pop fads & historical derision, the ukulele is a versatile & deeply expressive instrument in it’s own right – simple yet complex, delicate yet certain in its melancholic humour, eloquently humble in a world of noise. After I had explored guitar & percussion on and off for 25 years, ukulele somewhat serendipitously ensweetened itself to me and became my primary instrument for the following decade.
I think most people of my generation knew ukuleles as one of those musical toys, like recorders, harmonicas and “bongos”, that nobody ever played, and were usually knocking around at the bottom of a box or huddled in the farthest darkness under a bed, or as some kind of battered teething ring for new family members. I didn’t learn to appreciate ukulele as an instrument until much later, in 2005.
It came to me by accident, quite apart from the much-touted “ukulele revival” of the time – a cheap old school-issue Mahalo that smuggled itself home via a child’s schoolbag, like the innocuous little bacteria that it is, and nuzzled into my unsuspecting arms. With its alien tuning it was a delicious mystery, a creative conundrum, a code to be cracked & a lock to be picked.
My fingerpicking guitar habits immediately found home on these four small strings, and a bouquet of sounds bloomed forth: touches of appalachian hillbilly, classical, 20s jazz, ragtime! My ignorance of the instrument was my bliss, as I gradually discovered its range of voices – sometimes harp-like, or classical guitar, even banjo-esque. After the frenetic guitar music I’d been playing with the Spondooli Brothers, ukulele was a relief to my hands, my brain, and my ears. Gradually guitar receded into the dusty shadows, for a few years at least, while I lost myself in this marvelous new device.
Ukulele was my bridge from skewed neo-gypsy music into 20s jazz, ragtime, crooners, swing….what I had learned in the Spondoolies about melody, harmony & dissonance, fingerstyle technique and delicious chords, I could now apply to sweeter sounds. For several years my main ukuleles were a Cordoba tenor & a Bruko soprano, both of which have a delicate voice, and these instruments both helped me find a little wry humour and tenderness in my dark period. As I gradually emerged from that abyss, I discovered YouTube and gathered enough confidence to put myself (privately) out there to the world. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback to my tunes, and discovered a vast resource of inspiring uke players around the world, from Bach enthusiasts, fiery flamenco, clawhammer oldtime, and jazz of all eras. I hosted Bosko & Honey’s entourage when they toured Tasmania as part of their national “Ukulele Safari”, put in a few solo performances when I was coordinating the monthly Acoustic Nights at Brookfield Margate, and accumulated some interesting recordings of dedicated fellow ukulaliens.
Somewhere around 2011 I bought a Nashville metal-bodied resonator uke. It was not a prestigious instrument, but I liked that it was cranky & cantankerous, it was clunky & had grunt. It immediately brought out more dissonance in my playing, some harsher rhythms, some gutterblues and dirty bits. I don’t generally name instruments, but this one I called – PIGBOX. Pigbox opened a new door in my ukulele exploration, this time as more of a percussion instrument, a little more brash & funky perhaps.
In 2012 Pigbox found a perfect match riding shotgun to Gordeaux Unknown’s baritone banjo uke, when we collaborated as the Porchmonkeez, but that’s another story, and another album.
In 2012 I invested in a custom-made Mya-Moe walnut-bodied resonator uke, after seeing ukulele & pedal steel maestro Gerald Ross playing western swing tunes on one that he had commissioned. The resonator cone gives the uke so much more presence but the wood provides warmth in the tone. It’s a superbly-made machine and has enriched my playing even further.
Ukulele with Ross Sermons (2012 – 13)
Also in 2012 I was accepted into the Hobart Conservatorium of Music for a Singer/Songwriter course they were offering. Unfortunately the unpredictable timetable was not sustainable around my own unpredictable family & work commitments, but I completed the first semester & received a high distinction. For someone as isolated as myself, it was just fantastic to be around musical peers, to hear music oozing through the building, and to get sincere peer feedback. I was a little surprised to still find derisive attitudes towards ukulele from “educated” musicians, but the proliferation of jazz there worked on me by osmosis & I began figuring out jazz stylings I’d not tried before. My experiences at the Con gave me the confidence to think about collaborating again, and so I looked up Ross Sermons, a Southern gentleman from North Carolina, recently moved to Tasmania & a consummate bass-player, having been a sought-after session musician in the Nashville scene for several decades. He generously agreed to try collaborating on some of my uke tunes, and a musical friendship quickly ensued.
Our initial rehearsals went so smoothly, Ross decided to record them in his loungeroom, and in early 2013 we released a small cross-section of our repertoire, entitled Limited Emission CD. It includes a few wry songs about personality disorders, Tasmanian weather & suchlike, plus many instrumentals, spanning such styles as tango, jazz, bossa nova & rembetika. You can listen to the whole album here.
The tonal complement of doublebass & fingerstyle ukulele is a particularly sweet one, and Ross’ technical mastery adds extra finesse and colour to my various noodlings. Playing with Ross also inspired a wealth of new material, much of which we’ve performed live but have yet to record. Update: New material was recorded in 2017 and will be released eventually)