Yesterday I didn't even know how to spell Ukulele, but then ordered a "Build Your Own Ukulele Kit" and now I can’t wait for it to arrive. This is a bit of an involved tale (what do you mean “That’s not unusual for you, Max”?) so please bear with me while I explain…
While driving back and forth between my home and office in the mornings and evenings I listen to the National Public Radio (NPR). A couple of months ago there was a program about a Hawaiian musician called Israel "IZ" Ka?ano?i Kamakawiwo?ole (1959 – 1997). As part of this we heard him playing the ukulele and singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow from the film The Wizard of Oz.
I have to tell you, this really is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard (see the embedded video below). Somehow IZ’s voice and his ukulele meld together in perfect harmony (no pun intended). Whatever you’re doing, this makes you pause for a moment’s reflection and brightens your day.
As the weeks went by, this slipped further and further toward the back of my mind. Then, yesterday evening, I happened to be glancing through a catalog from Uncommon Goods. And what did I see on page 53? You guessed it; it was a Make Your Own Ukulele Kit.
Actually, this is not quite as hard as you might expect because the main body is pre-assembled. All you have to do is take the unfinished parts, sand them down, assemble them, add an optional painted design, and attach the strings (I’ve not actually read the instructions, you understand, I’m just guessing that it’s best to add the strings after you’ve painted the main body). All that remains now it to learn how to play the little scamp!
Make Your Own Ukulele Kit from Uncommon Goods
Actually I think this is an amazingly good deal, because it costs only $40. In fact I was so enthused when I saw this that I immediately ordered two kits – one for me and one for my son.
Now, before we proceed, take a moment to listen to IZ playing his rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow – even if you’ve heard this before it’s well worth pausing to listen to it again.
Israel "IZ" Ka?ano?i Kamakawiwo?ole
This is the song I intend to start with (if you’re not careful I will post my own video on YouTube – be afraid, be very afraid). The only slight stumbling block is that I’ve never played a banjo in my life, but I don’t like to let little things like this slow me down.
My next action was to start searching around on the web. Almost immediately I ran across a site called Ukulele Boogaloo, and from there I found the chords used in Somewhere Over the Rainbow. As you will see if you Click Here, this shows the chords (there are only five) and how they are associated with the lyrics. You must admit that this is pretty amazing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “The Internet is AMAZING!” (Young folks who were brought up with the Internet simply cannot imagine how much time and effort all of this would have taken when I was a lad.)
But wait, there’s more, because I returned to YouTube and found a guy called Ukulele Mike who has hundreds of videos of instructional ukulele lessons out there. Lesson 97 covers the chords used in Over the Rainbow. As you’ll see in the video below, Mike starts by showing the chords themselves; he then plays the song with the lyrics and chord changes superimposed as annotations on the screen.
Ukulele Mike playing “Over the Rainbow”
One other slight problem that struck me is how I should set about tuning my ukulele once I’ve built it. So I did a search in the iPad app store and found a plethora of apps geared up to tuning ukuleles (I know, I didn’t believe it either). I just downloaded a free app called UkuTune that seems to work really well. Once I have my completed instrument, this app will help me to tune it by ear. If that fails, there’s another app called Cleartune – Chromatic Tuner for $3.99 that actually listens to you plucking your strings and displays the corresponding values on a meter … but I think UkuTune will be more than sufficient for my needs.
I was just exchanging some emails with my old chum Andy Shaughnessy, who is the editor of a competing publication we won’t discuss here (grin). Andy plays many instruments. When he heard what I was doing he sent me a message saying “It's hard to be in a bad mood while you're playing or listening to the ukulele!”
The only reason he’s saying that is that he’s not heard me play (grin).
But that leads me to a couple of thoughts. The first is that if anyone else decides to invest in one of these, please (a) let me know and (b) record (maybe even video) yourself. Perhaps we could have a competition. The winner gets some amazing prize like … a signed photo of yours truly (OK, we can work on the prize part [grin]).
And if enough of us end up doing this (yes, I know I’m stretching here), we could all meet up next year at ESC or DAC and play together and then have a few beers … or maybe have a few beers and then play together (see also my blog Words of wisdom, straight from the bottle…)
Well, I’m afraid that I have to go now, because I want to root out some more ukulele music on the web, but before I do I have one more thing to share… when I was a kid I used to watch a lot of black-and-white films on the television with my parents. Actually they were all black-and-white – even the ones in color – because we only had a black-and-white television. Anyway, there was a British singer-songwriter and comedian called George Formby (1904 – 1961).
George was a major star of stage and screen in the 1930s and 1940s; he sang light, comical songs, accompanying himself on the banjo ukulele. Check out the following video (this will be nostalgic for some readers of my generation):
George Formby playing “When I'm Cleaning Windows”
Would you believe that this man was a sex symbol back in the day? It obviously wasn’t his looks. I can only assume that it was his dexterity with the banjo ukulele. Obviously I'm not saying that playing the ukulele will make us into objects of desire, but I certainly don't think we should rule anything out, so let’s start practicing (grin).
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Wow -- $22.95 -- and it looks just like the ones I got -- you can't go wrong with a price like that...
...of course when I think about the paint and glue and varnish and stuff ... it ends up costing quite a bit more...
Ha! You didn't play piano and trombone at the same time?! I've been using a similar line lately: I play electric bass, keyboards, and guitar; not all at the same time!
Can't say I'm a big fan of the uke, although on our last trip to Hawaii, we did have a luau guide play Van Morrison's "Brown-eyed Girl" on the ukelele, which was really cool. Can't remember the luau, but that guy and his uke, I remember!
There's actually a bass ukelele with these cool urethane strings! Check out www.ubass.com if you want to consider probing the nether pitches.
That sounds wonderful -- I will try it myself -- I'm really looking forward to learning along with my 16-year old son -- we can teach each other different strumming techniques we learn on the Internet...
... he doesn't know I've ordered two of them -- one for me and one for him (actually he doesn't know anything about this at all ... I cannot wait for them to arrive -- I'm hoping they come in tomorrow/Friday ...
I don't think I was a natural -- I must have learned sometime (maybe with the recorder at the little kids school) -- I just don;t recall a time when I couldn't do it...
... but these days there are a lot of things I don't recall :-)
Most beautiful Iz video. Only thing better. Two, as a round. I right clicked and copied the video url then opened another browser tab and pasted it into the url box (right click paste). Now I had two browser windows offset a little in time playing Iz over the rainbow simultaneously as a round!! Would work with more as a multipart round. ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL