April 20, 2012

The Zen of Happy Music, or, How I learned to love the ukulele


In the spring of 2009 I went to Hawaii with my family. We try to visit Hawaii at least once a year because we used to live there. My wife and I were married in Hawaii and that is where we lived for the first year and a half of our marriage. Naturally, Hawaii holds a special place in our hearts. During the 2009 visit I noticed a sudden proliferation of ukulele shops. Now, don't get me wrong. There have always been many ukulele shops in Hawaii, but almost none of them were in Waikiki or other touristy areas (which is where we mostly hang out nowadays because everything is so convenient). Instead, they were in back alleys, hidden alcoves, and even people's livingrooms! Music stores where the locals buy guitars and drums and whatnot have always had ukulele displays, but those stores are low volume dealers who always locate in low rent districts. Not this time.

During that spring of 2009 visit I found a new ukulele shop had opened in the Kalia Tower of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. This was quite a shock to me because rents in the Village are not cheap. I ducked in to look around and discovered that the cheapest instrument in the shop was $600! Their top model at the time was over $2500 and on my most recent visit they had a $6000 ukulele displayed! This was a huge shock for me. I had never considered the ukulele to be anything more than a curious child's toy. The ABC Stores have always carried cheap ukuleles designed to display as souvenirs, but nothing like the quality instruments on display at this corner shop in the Kalia Tower. As the day went on and we walked up and down Kalakaua Avenue, I noticed that the shop in Kalia Tower was not the exception. There were several new shops specializing in custom and semi-custom ukulele. Even the shops specializing in crafts and wood furniture had begun to offer a couple ukulele models!

That evening I mentioned to my wife and son this curious ukulele shop. I mentioned that I was wondering if I had misjudged the humble ukulele. I have seen countless locals strumming away on the beaches of Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island. For example, I once came across a bonfire on a beach near Lahaina with a couple dozen locals all sitting around drinking beer and strumming old Hawaiian songs. Even though they told me they were professional musicians working at one of the local luaus, I still hadn't realized the musical potential of the ukulele. As I explained to my wife and son, to my mind it had never been more than a local folk instrument. I wondered aloud if maybe I should take some ukulele lessons. After all, I'd always wanted to learn music.

They both laughed at me. Granted, they often laugh at my oddball musings and ideas, it was still clear they thought the whole idea ludicrous. My son even suggested, "Why don't you just learn to play guitar? At least it's a real instrument!"

So a couple years later, March of 2011 to be exact, I wandered into Larry's Music Center in Wooster. Two hours later I walked out with an Alvarez Regent Series acoustic guitar, a handful of books, and three months worth of lessons. The lessons were so much fun that in the May of 2011 I bought a Fender "Squier" Classic Vibe Telecaster Thinline so that I could move into electric guitar as well as acoustic. I still don't play either guitar well, naturally, but learning music on the guitar has been one of the most rewarding and entertaining hobbies I have ever gotten involved in.

Then fate walked in and slapped me upside the head. In July of 2011 I noticed the ukulele display at Larry's Music Center. I don't know if it was there all along and I just hadn't noticed or if he added them that summer. I do know the cheapest one was a Lanikai that sold for a lot less than $100! In my head I could see the $20 ukulele I'd bought at ABC stores the year before (an instrument I would never dare try to tune and play because it's not designed for it) as well as the $600 "entry" model sold at the ukulele shop in the Kalia Tower. This was neither of those, and yet, it was a real instrument for less money than I have spent on dinner on more than one occasion. It took me another month or two, but I finally broke down and bought the concert size model Lanikai LU-21C for $99.

That did it! Something inside me just broke down and started smiling. Whatever it was, it's been smiling ever since! That little Lanikai was like some kind of magic instrument. I could not put it down. I was strumming on it while watching television, while waiting for videos to download, while watching my dinner cook. I did not know a single chord or note, but I could not put it down! I finally started taking it into my lessons instead of my guitars. There is something entirely too magical about a ukulele. This is an instrument designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to make people smile! I finally wore it out in mid-October. Two days before I was set to fly off to Tokyo again it started buzzing. That was when I noticed the bridge had started to lift off of the sound board. The buzzing sound was being caused by the bridge vibrating at a different frequency than the sound board.

That sent me into a panic. I wanted to practice while I was in Tokyo. Portability was half the reason I'd talked myself into buying a ukulele in the first place! I called up Brad at Larry's. He said to bring it in and he'd see if he could get it replaced. Well, that would still leave me either lugging a guitar out of the country through three airports and back again, or not carrying an instrument at all. I had been having a ton of fun, so I broke down and bought the Fender Nohea he had just gotten in a few weeks before. It was a Tenor size, a bit larger than my Lanikai, which turned out to be rather nice. Some of the chords that my fingers simply would not play on the concert-size Lanikai were a breeze to play on the Fender! The Fender also had a deeper tone, which was nice. Not as spunky as the Lanikai, but still happy and breezy. Playing the Fender in Japan convinced me that I needed to break down and get a real ukulele. Something with quality, character, and a distinctive tone. So I started hunting the internet.

By the time I returned to Ohio I knew what I wanted. It was relatively inexpensive, but still a professional level instrument. It came with a passive electric pickup, so I could plug it in on jam nights or at an open mic event and get good sound from it. The wood was very unique, available in only small quantities, and had a reputation for creating a buttery, homey sound that moved the ukulele into a completely different emotional zone than it had traditionally occupied. As a bonus, Lanikai made one, which meant Larry's could get it for me without too much trouble.

When I got back to Ohio I picked up my replacement Lanikai LU-21C. The company had been more than happy to replace it. Apparently in the ukulele world customer service is still a high priority! When I picked it up I told Brad I was going to put it in my case and never play it. I wouldn't even tune it. For my lessons and practice sessions I would use the Fender, but the real goal was to trade in the LU-21C on a Lanikai Spalted Mango SM-CE Concert-size Acoustic/Electric Ukulele, so would he please order me one? He pointed out he had a Monkey Pod ukulele in stock for about the same price, and the Monkey Pod version came with an active pickup/pre-amp/tuner module already built in. The Monkey Pod is a very nice ukulele, but my heart was set on the Spalted Mango, so he ordered one for me.

It finally came in during the first week of December. I picked it up on December 8, 2011. It has since become my primary instrument. It sounds wonderful, almost harp-like. The passive pickup works so well it sounds even better amplified than it does naturally, regardless of whether I use an amp designed specifically for acoustic instruments or plug it into the "clean" channel on an amp designed for electric guitars. I've even played it on a couple jam nights down at the Ugly Duck! It breaks clearly through the PA system, rising above the sounds of half a dozen electric guitars and a couple basses to reveal all my mistakes and missed chords to everyone in the house! So far, nobody's laughed at me, so either they didn't notice or they were just being polite.

And that is how I learned to love the ukulele. I still have my guitars, and I still practice with them regularly, but when I just want to make some happy-sounding music and put a smile on my face, I grab my ukulele and start strumming!



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