• Construction Zone: Lichty Guitars & Ukuleles

    As you read this, master luthier Jay Lichty is probably in his workshop in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, USA, creating something beautiful. A former home builder, Jay’s been making custom ukes since 2008 and has garnered praise for his elegant designs and his instruments’ exceptional tone.

    The first instrument you ever built was a ukulele. What inspired that decision and where is it now?

    I became infatuated with ukuleles about 10 minutes after I opened the box containing my first factory-built baritone. I loved it and the potential I saw in what could be played on it. I’d played five-string banjo and mandolin for years and I saw the ukulele as a combination of the two. So then I thought, “I wonder what a tenor with a high G would sound like?” A week later, I had a tenor. Then I thought, “I wonder what a custom-made ukulele would be like?” After a bit of dreaming about custom ukes, I decided I should try and build one. The first one I built was a soprano from a kit. It now hangs on a wall and is very playable.

    Jay with his personal archtop

    What’s so special about a custom instrument?

    A well-built custom instrument will typically look, play, feel and sound better than a factory-built instrument because they are put together with more direct thought and intention. They are typically more refined, so have better intonation and responsiveness. Add to that having a builder build that instrument specifically for you and your style of playing with the woods and ornamentation you helped select and you have magic. I’ve always had custom banjos and mandolins. My feelings were that if I was going to put all this effort into trying to play well, I wanted the resulting sound to be as good as I could produce. In other words, if it was going to sound bad, it was on me, not the instrument.

    Do you have a favourite tonewood?

    Now that is a tricky question. Each species of wood has its own set of attributes, so my favourite depends on what my goal is. I love working with Brazilian rosewood. The smell alone is addictive. Unfortunately, that particular wood has become hard to get. Fortunately, there are a lot of other choices that look and sound great. We use at least 18 different species. I find most ukulele players want wood with some visual pizzazz. That is not hard to do with the back and sides, since they are tonally speaking more like the spice you add to a recipe. For those, I’m quite fond of cocobolo, ziricote and granadilla. The top is the key tone-producing ingredient and for that I prefer the sound of spruce. Of course, spruce doesn’t have the visual pizzazz of curly koa, so lately I’ve been using a lot of bear claw sitka spruce because it has a visual element as well as the great tone of spruce. I also love sinker redwood.

    You don’t currently build sopranos. Do you think you might in the future?

    I have only built that one kit uke that was a soprano. Initially, I thought they were too small to get the type of sound I was chasing. Let’s face it, I don’t build the typical Hawaiian-sounding ukulele. My intention has always been to build ukuleles that play best as solo instruments. The soprano is so small that I just didn’t pursue those builds as I felt I couldn’t meet my goal. I have rethought that now and would be delighted to build a custom soprano.

    Your Baby Bard Archtop Ukulele looks and sounds incredible! Do you have any other non-standard models in the works?

    Thank you. It rarely leaves my hands. Funny you should ask about non-standard models. I have experimented with different scale lengths for years and have found that adding one inch to the standard tenor or concert scale really makes a huge positive difference. Additionally, I just finished a baritone without a typical sound hole in the top. By having the neck/body connection at the fifteenth fret instead of the typical fourteenth, I was able to locate the bridge in a more optimum place. I used my Baby Bard body style and placed the sound ports in the cutaway areas. It looks pretty cool and sounds amazing. The notes are clearer and the sustain is about 20% longer than my typical model. I sent it to Kimo Hussey for his evaluation. This is a project we are working on together and it’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off. We are like two kids in a science lab trying to cook up fun projects. I want to do a tenor-size one soon. You can see the Modified Baritone on our website.

    As well as being a great luthier, you’re a talented musician. What’s your favourite type of music to play on ukulele?

    Thank you for that. I am not one of the gymnast ukulele players whose right hands are so amazingly fast and nimble, but I love to hear the notes. I compose a lot of tunes, mostly instrumental based around melody. I like playing Beetles music, as well as other popular music because these songs lend themselves so well to ukulele.

    How many ukes do you own?

    Had to ask, eh? You do realise some of them are research? Well, they are all research. I have a dozen ukuleles, including those first two factory instruments. Thanks for not asking about guitars.

    You also teach workshops. What’s the first lesson in building a ukulele?

    The very first lesson is to get in the right head space for the task. You are getting ready to create something magical and alive out of a pile of seemingly inert objects. That build is going to be directly influenced by what and how you’re thinking. If you are building with trepidation and fear, then you will have a confused ukulele. If you are building with love and good intention (and actually communicate this either internally or externally to the uke as you build) then you will produce a wonderful instrument.

    “You are getting ready to create something magical and alive out of a pile of seemingly inert objects”

    The Blue Ridge Mountains are famous for music. Do your surroundings influence your work?

    There is no doubt about that. I get inspiration just looking around at these mountains and nature. A hike around here is like taking an air hose and blowing the cobwebs out of my brain. Musically, my ukuleles are a combination of the sounds I’ve heard listening to banjos and mandolins. I love that throaty sound of a great Lloyd Loar mandolin or the deep timber of Earl Scruggs’ Gibson banjo. Those are some of the sounds I have incorporated into my builds.

    Stars such as Bonnie Raitt and Kimo Hussey play your instruments. Are there any other famous artists you’d love to see holding a Lichty uke?

    Wow, great question! I have not really given that much thought. Do you reckon Tommy Emmanuel plays uke? [ED: He does!]

    Kimo Hussey with his custom Lichty uke

    Get a feel for Jay’s unique ukes at lichtyguitars.com

    This article originally appeared in Issue 10 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store

  • Ukulele Stories: Bobby Alu

    BASED in the beautiful coastal town of Byron Bay in southeastern Australia, Bobby Alu is as friendly and laidback as his tropical-flavoured music.

    His Samoan mother taught him to play the ukulele early on and he then dedicated himself to mastering traditional Samoan log drums, which led to an opportunity to perform with Xavier Rudd for five years.

    I caught up with Bobby shortly before he set off on an international tour and we chatted about ukes, the challenges of the modern music business and trying to find your flow in every day. 

    Web
    bobbyalu.com

    YouTube
    youtube.com/user/bobbyalu

    Instagram
    instagram.com/bobby_alu


  • Cinematic Strumming: 50 First Dates

    50 FIRST DATES (2004)

    Director: Peter Segal

    Stars: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Rob Schneider, Sean Astin, Blake Clark

    THIS sweet romantic comedy sees funnyman Adam Sandler playing Henry Roth, a Lothario Hawaiian vet who only dates tourists because he doesn’t want to get tied down.

    Everything changes for Henry when he spots a beautiful blonde local named Lucy (Barrymore) at a cafe. The pair flirt and enjoy breakfast together, but when he goes back the next morning, she doesn’t remember him at all. It turns out Lucy was in a terrible car accident and lost her short-term memory. Her brain resets while she sleeps and her dad (Clark) and brother (Astin) go to extraordinary lengths to ensure she believes every day is the day of the crash.

    Henry has the opposite problem. Try as he might, he can’t forget Lucy and sets out to make her fall in love with him every 24 hours. In one scene, he plays her a cute song called Forgetful Lucy on the beach. Oddly, while Sandler’s pictured holding a baritone on the movie poster, he actually strums what looks like a six-string tenor in the film. There are plenty of tutorials online if you’d like to give the song a go.

    The jokes don’t always hit the mark, but 50 First Dates has plenty of laughs and while the premise might be slightly far-fetched, the solid central performances elevate it. Sandler and Barrymore have amazing chemistry.

    This article originally appeared in Issue 12 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store

  • Hall Of Fame: Roy Smeck

    No ukulele hall of fame is complete without the inimitable Roy Smeck, a.k.a. The Wizard Of The Strings.

    Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, USA, on February 6, 1900, Smeck’s musical talent was obvious early on and it was fostered when he started working at a music shop in Binghamton, New York. Part of his job was demonstrating a wide range of stringed instruments, including ukuleles.

    “At the store, I practiced eight to 10 hours a day until I had a nervous breakdown,” reveals Smeck in Vincent Cortese’s 2004 biography Roy Smeck: The Wizard Of The Strings In His Life And Times. “My father went to the basement and chopped up my instruments with an axe.”

    Inspired by vaudeville star Johnny Marvin to improve his uke skills, Roy invented a mind-boggling array of strums and was playing professionally by the early 1920s.

    Smeck’s big break came when Harry Warner of Warner Bros. offered him $350 to appear in a seven-minute movie to showcase a new sound-on-disc system called Vitaphone. The film, entitled His Pastimes, premiered on August 6, 1926 in New York City and Roy became a celebrity literally overnight.

    As a vaudeville headliner, Smeck earned a whopping $550 per week and made more money on the side through endorsements, the most lucrative of which was with the Harmony Company of Chicago. In 1926, Harmony introduced the Roy Smeck Vita-Uke, an unusual instrument with sound holes in the shape of seals that proved extremely popular with the ukulele-obsessed public.

    Despite his inability to read music, Smeck’s name soon appeared on a number of instructional books in various languages and, in January 1929, he presented 15-minute uke lessons on New York radio.

    Smeck performed for US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and England’s King George VI in 1937, as well as for American troops during World War II and the Korean War.

    However, with the advent of television, the entertainment industry had changed entirely by the mid-1950s.

    “When I returned home [from Korea], many theatres had closed and vaudeville had virtually disappeared,” Smeck recalls in Cortese’s book. “With vaudeville gone, I wondered what I was going to do. So I spent four, five, even six hours a day teaching myself to read music. Then I started instructing students.”

    Smeck taught ukulele, as well as banjo, guitar, steel guitar and mandolin until shortly before his death on April 4, 1994. The Wizard Of The Strings may be gone, but his frenetic, energetic, innovative music lives on to inspire ukulele players for generations to come.

    This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store

  • Ukulele Stories: Danielle Ate The Sandwich

    Welcome to Episode 5 of Ukulele Stories! This time, my guest is fantastic US singer-songwriter Danielle Ate the Sandwich. A YouTube uke pioneer with a great sense of humour and a catalogue of skilfully crafted tunes, she has some excellent tips for aspiring musicians. I hope you enjoy our chat…

    And don’t forget to follow and support Danielle online!
    Website
    danielleatethesandwich.com
    Patreon
    patreon.com/DanielleAtetheSandwich
    YouTube
    youtube.com/user/daniellesmagic
    Facebook
    facebook.com/DanielleAtetheSandwich
    Instagram
    instagram.com/danielleatethesandwich
    Twitter
    twitter.com/atethesandwich



  • Pro Tip: Triple Trouble

    By Cameron Murray

    The strumming technique I’m most often asked about is the triplet. I use it a lot in my own playing and it’s always well received. While it looks – and sounds – rather fancy, the mechanics are actually quite simple.

    As I tell my students, I can only explain the way I do it. Other players and teachers may have different ideas, which is fine – there’s usually more than one way to achieve the desired result.

    Unsurprisingly, the triplet is composed of three parts. It begins with a down stroke with the nail of the forefinger. Next, the pad (or fleshy part) of the thumb follows – also a down stroke. Finally, the nail of the thumb comes up. So, at its heart, it’s D-D-U. But there’s more to it than that. How you go about the movements is crucial to getting the sound you’re after.

    Let’s break it down even further. On the first down stroke, make sure you’re striking all four strings. Now, where is your thumb? If it’s hovering over the fretboard or, worse, below it, you’re going to have to move your entire hand back up for the second (thumb) down stroke. This will interrupt the flow of the strum and it just won’t feel right. So, how do you fix it? Simple. Just keep your thumb up and out of the way during the first down stroke. Maintain approximately a 7-10cm (3-4 inch) gap between your thumb and forefinger. Once your forefinger has completed the first stroke, your thumb should be ready to start the second.

    Onto the all-important up stroke. Many people advocate coming up with the forefinger, but I like to use the thumb. Reason being that the thumb is in the ideal position at the completion of the second down stoke to shoot back up the strings. This increases the speed and fluidity of the technique as a whole. If you go fast enough, the triplet becomes the ‘roll stroke’ with no beginning or end – a continuous motion that can add flavour to any chord progression.

    So there you have it, the triplet. No trouble at all!

    This article originally appeared in Issue 12 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store

  • Cinematic Strumming: Blue Valentine

    BLUE VALENTINE (2010)

    Director: Derek Cianfrance

    Stars: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka

    WITH the mighty uke on the rise once again, it’s not surprising to see it popping up on the silver screen more frequently. However, it is somewhat surprising – and refreshing – to see the instrument featured in a gritty drama.

    A love story with a difference, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is a very good film. In fact, it’s basically two films in one. It opens in the present, where doting dad Dean (Gosling) is a part-time house painter and his wife Cindy (Williams) is an overworked resident at the local hospital. Their marriage is obviously strained, but Dean can’t seem to understand why. Rewind six years and we get to see the young couple falling madly in love, where it’s all hope, passion and, of course, ukulele serenades.  

    As the movie switches between the time periods, more about Dean and Cindy’s intense relationship is slowly revealed, and it becomes obvious that a physical and emotional boilover is on the cards.

    Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her work, both deliver powerful performances, but don’t expect a typical Hollywood ending. We should have known things were going to go downhill when Dean started singing and strumming the old Mills Brothers hit You Always Hurt The One You Love.  

    This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store

  • Ukulele Stories: Rose Turtle Ertler

    Since she began performing with a uke in 2000, Rose has been a fixture on the Australian ukulele scene and has been instrumental – pun very much intended – in popularising the instrument Down Under. In 2004, she organised a concert called Ukulele Land on Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach, which turned out to be quite a pivotal event. 

  • Uke-In-Focus: Abbott Super De Luxe

    English ukulele-banjo enthusiast Richard Maingôt tells KAMUKE the story behind his beautiful, custom-made Abbott Super De Luxe.

    Photos: Alastair Murray

    TIME seems to have slipped by almost unobtrusively since my introduction to the ukulele some 65 years ago, when I heard George Formby on a Saturday night entertainment program on the radio.

    I was captivated, and motivated the next day to respond to an advertisement in the Daily Express by a firm called W. Davis offering a “genuine ukulele-banjo” for the sum of 18 shillings and sixpence, payable at three shillings and sixpence a month. By no stretch of imagination could this instrument be called a “genuine ukulele-banjo”. It was very basic, but to me it represented the real thing.

    My uke-banjo collection progressed over the years in direct proportion to my income; a Melody and whole stable of Dallas instruments. Most of my ukuleles were obtained from a little shop in Croydon, Surrey, where I lived. The owner of this musical emporium was a small, red-nosed alcoholic who always welcomed me because my purchases enabled him to shut up shop and retire to the sanctuary of the pub next door.

    In the early 1960s, my wife and I moved to a village just south of Manchester and it was there that I was introduced to Harold Fallows. Harold was an interesting man, who, through his work in the theatre, had got to know George Formby very well. Through Harold, I became a member of The George Formby Society. Some of the virtuosos I met there were nothing less than brilliant. Ray Bernard was such a player. He had a wonderful personality and was one of the most generous and helpful men I ever met. From Ray, I learnt to do the Formby ‘split stroke’ and some of his other excellent techniques.

    It was in Burslem, now part of Stoke-on-Trent, that I met Jack Abbott Jr and established a friendship with him which lasted until his death. In the mid-1970s, I commissioned Jack to make me the best ukulele-banjo he had ever made. This, I believe, he did.

  • Ukulele Stories: Charles Altmann

    While he’s not an international star, Charles Altmann is an integral part of the ukulele scene in Sydney, Australia. At the age of 91, he’s still extremely active and an inspiration to many. And he has a fascinating story to tell!