Being Beatle George’s son has its advantages, but also great responsibilities as a ukulele custodian. Interview by Michael Dwyer
Dhani Harrison is on a mission. Yes, he’s here to promote his new Fender signature ukulele: a sleek, ovangkol tenor that comes in two shades of blue with inbuilt tuner/pick-up and mystical fretboard inlays. But he’s more concerned about the billion other ukuleles languishing out there in lesser states of repair.
“Whenever I see a uke in a room, I always tune it,” he says. “I went in a house the other day and I saw there was a ukulele on the side. And I picked it up and I strummed the strings, and it was in tune perfectly, which is rare… I was like, ‘That person actually plays the ukulele’.
“You can tell a lot about a person by how they leave their uke.”
It’s fair to guess that Dhani Harrison had to leave home to find his first neglected uke. His father George, as the whole world knows, was a flag-flying devotee of the instrument in his post-Beatles years. “It used to make him happy. I think it reminded him of his childhood,” his son says.
“I think it started as kind of a childhood obsession with George Formby and wartime music, and how it was a happy thing. And then he started trying to be able to master all the stuff that Formby could do. And he got it. And he then became a legit, really good ukulele player.”
Young Dhani’s first instrument was a Wendell Hall Ludwig banjolele with a white whalebone headstock. He remembers learning a lot of Formby songs — Auntie Maggie’s Remedy, Hitting the High Spots Now, Home Guard Blues — “because that’s all you can play on those things”.
“I wasn’t approaching it from a Hawaiian mellow perspective. It was from a very rack and raucous, sort of vaudeville perspective.”
The Hawaiian connection came later, as the Harrison family increasingly spent time in Maui in the 1980s and ’90s. As a teenager, Dhani fell for Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Gabby Pahinui and Bennie Nawahi, and so began his own journey as a musician.
As well as family friends Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, he’s since collaborated with artists as diverse as Wu-Tang Clan, UNKLE and Pearl Jam — a connection his father helped facilitate back in 1993, backstage at a massive Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden.
“Dad had to go and rehearse with Booker T and the MGs and he left me with Pearl Jam for the afternoon, with Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder,” he remembers. “They were super nice and my dad thought that was funny because he knew how much I loved them.”
Years later, Dhani was touring Seattle with Fistful of Mercy, his trio with Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur, and decided to visit Vedder — by now one of the rock world’s foremost ukulele aficionados and ambassadors. He wound up playing with Pearl Jam at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and at their 20th anniversary shows in Wisconsin.
“I think the only time we’ve ever played ukes together was [when Vedder] was playing a solo show at Brixton Academy. I came on and we covered Should I Stay Or Should I Go by The Clash on steel-string ukuleles. I remember really cutting my fingers on the strings because I always play with my fingers.
“He has some kind of metal ukuleles with metal strings and all kinds of fun stuff. He’s in his own ukulele world, I’m in my own ukulele world, but our mutual love for Hawaii, surfing and ukuleles is kind of the heart of our lives.”
So far, the uke has been a modest presence on Dhani’s Harrison’s records. Check out his soundtrack to the 2013 movie Beautiful Creatures, and the occasional track by his band, thenewno2. But “I’m sitting in the middle of tons of them right now,” he says. “So the chances of them ending up on a piece of music is pretty high.”
Meanwhile, his advice to uke players — and not coincidentally, one of Fender’s obvious strengths — begins with good machine heads. The old tuning pegs are charming enough if they hold, but too many new players are put off by the fact that they won’t stay in tune. “If you’ve got crap ones, it’s no fun to play whatsoever.”
And after the hardware is sorted?
“It’s really in the right hand where you can soar in ukulele, you know what I mean? When you lock it in the right hand, and you know you’ve got some tricks, like scissors and all that kind of stuff… [then] it’s just practice, all the time. Play as much as you can. Take one with you, wherever you go, then you play it everywhere… And if you take two, then you can play with someone else.”
Funny. His dad used to say much the same thing. Maybe the evangelistic fervour is a tiny bit contagious.
“Absolutely,” he says. “It brings smiles, joy, heals, unites. They’re powerful little things. In the right hands they’re also very disarming. I think that’s why they help unite, because people tend to be disarmed by them. You can’t hate on a ukulele. Simple as that.”
Dhani Harrison’s signature Fender ukulele retails in Australia for $549.
Michael Dwyer is a Melbourne journalist and tenor ukulele player with The Thin White Ukes, who launch their second album, A Better Future, at Brunswick Ballroom on Sunday, August 29.
If you are a fairly novice player and don’t know about stringed instruments, it’s nice to have an experienced player with you to help you choose your instrument. But that may not be possible and, ultimately, it is you who will live with the choice. So if you can do the choosing yourself, it promises to be a satisfying and memorable experience.
Here are 10 basic things to help you be more confident with your choice.
Remember you will be spending more time with this object than possibly anything else you own outside of your furniture. So don’t be cheap.
A great-sounding instrument can uplift you, make you want to play more and will make you sound good from the first strum.
How much are you willing to spend? Or, what is the most you can afford to part with? Think about how much you spend in other areas of your life (like your car or clothes) and figure out what an appropriate amount should be for you.
There are 3 main sizes of uke:
Small = Soprano (or the slightly larger but less available Concert)
Medium = Tenor
Large = Baritone
Try all three and decide which suits you best. This could be for physical reasons (large or small hands) or it might be the sound you prefer. Soprano and Tenor have the bouncy ukulele sound whereas the Baritone uke tends to be closer to a guitar – if that’s what you want.
Look closely at all the points where the various parts of the instrument have been joined. Check out the frets. Are they straight and cleanly inserted into the fingerboard or raggedy looking? If all the wooden joins are smooth and pleasing to look at, it’s a visual sign that the maker has taken care.
Does it look good on you? It’s unfortunate but true that modern audiences listen as much with their eyes as with their ears. How your instrument looks will send a message to your audience about you and the music you’re about to play. A beautifully inlaid uke will say one thing and a bright pink uke will say another. It’s not really a huge deal though and, if you play well, people will eventually listen no matter what. Generally, I would say don’t choose your instrument according to the colour, that is unless it also fulfils the other qualities you’re looking for.
With the uke facing you on the wall or on a stand, strum across the open strings. What does the sound make you think or feel? If you like the basic tone, that is a good starting point. Once you’re holding it and pressing the wood with the sound-hole pointed away, it will sound different again. However, some instruments lose their tone when you play them. Find out if the uke holds the tone all the way up the neck by pressing a finger across all four strings at some of the higher frets. Does the tone still sound full and ringing or has it become dull?
Does it feel good to hold while resting easily in your arms? If the neck and headstock are too heavy for the body, the instrument will be constantly tipping to one side. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker, because you can use a strap to hold the uke in place, but is that what you want?
A beautiful-sounding ukulele has great resonance. It sounds loud and full and the sound carries on without disappearing right away. This happens because a good uke is made from thin wood that is free to vibrate thanks to well-placed bracing (thin pieces of internal supporting wood). The physical light weight of your instrument is a clue that it is well-made and potentially great sounding.
Check that the instrument holds its tuning. The tuning pegs need to be sturdy and tight while also being easy to adjust. Planetary tuners with their hidden gearing (1:4) make tuning quick and precise while still looking like friction pegs. There is nothing wrong with good friction pegs either, so long as they stay in place and don’t slip during the middle of a song or when you accidentally brush them with your finger. Guitar-style geared pegs (they may come out sideways from the headstock) work well too if good quality.
There are several ways to check intonation and I offer this one as a way of doing a quick and easy test:
Tune the strings. Then play a chord like say G7, or E minor, and notice if the string that is not being pressed sounds in tune with the 3 strings that are being played as part of the chord. Does it still sound sweet?
Next move the chord up one fret with the fourth string still open. How does that sound? Move the chord all the way up the neck one fret at a time, strumming as you go. Even the discords along the way will sound sweet if the intonation is good. If it gets nasty and jarring, it means that the build of the uke is poor and the intonation is off. You will never sound good with this instrument no matter how how much you practice.
But keep checking the open tuning of the strings. New strings have a tendency to stretch and need to be regularly retuned for the first few days. If the strings keep going out of tune, this will confuse the above intonation technique.
(It’s worth noting that banjo ukuleles have a moveable bridge which can be adjusted to get good intonation. That is if all the frets have been well placed to begin with.)
Find out what is available in your music shop within your price range and read reviews about the instruments you’ll be handling. You might discover a fine instrument that is also a reasonable price. But try several if you can. Some companies can be inconsistent in their quality and two identical-looking ukuleles may sound and feel quite different.
If you really want to get into research, then the variety of tone-woods, strings and building styles will provide you with a world of interest but essentially if you are happy with the sound, the look and the feel of your new ukulele, then you’ve made a good choice.
A founding member of The Aliis, a group that performed with legendary Hawaiian entertainer Don Ho for decades, Benny Chong is one of the most respected and influential jazz ukulele players in the world today. Cameron Murray learns from a master.
What did you think of the uke when you were growing up in Hawaii?
I’ve always thought the ukulele was a unique instrument. The best part about it was its size, I could take it anywhere with me to practice. My uncles were professional musicians who played the ukulele as a secondary instrument, so I was fortunate to be exposed to it as a 10 year old. I was just a normal kid who learnt to play the ukulele by listening and asking my peers. It didn’t matter if they were younger or older; if they could play, I wanted to learn whatever they would teach me. Some of the first tunes I learnt were Crazy G, Stars and Stripes, Hilo March, Lady of Spain and Granada. Those were some of the songs that were commonplace among the players at that time.
Who were your ukulele idols when you were a kid?
During the 1950s, there weren’t that many albums I was aware of which featured the ukulele as a solo instrument. The ones I heard of and purchased were done by Harry ‘Mungo’ Kalahiki and Kiha Kinney, and I had a 45 single of Perry Botkins playing On The Beach At Waikiki. In actuality, my favourite ukulele players of that time were my uncles Dennis (‘Kuki’) and Alex Among. It was their style of playing that attracted me. They were the first uke players I heard play tunes in a style using mostly chords to play the melody. This contemporary style of playing always made the song sound full, rich and vibrant, so when you played a solo you didn’t need anyone to accompany you because the melody and the chords were sounded simultaneously. It was my uncles who introduced me to Lyle Ritz’s first album.
What did you hear in the playing of Lyle Ritz that you hadn’t heard before?
It is no secret among my friends and fans which uke player is my all-time favourite: Lyle Ritz, whose playing influenced many of Hawaii’s finest musicians. His style of playing brought the uke to a whole new level. Pure jazz on the uke had never been done before. Some of us still call him the ‘Godfather of Jazz Ukulele’. Besides his amazing technique, the most inspiring aspect of his playing is his creativity. Technique can always be learnt, developed and improved upon to accommodate a player’s style, but creativity cannot be taught. It comes from a passion that cannot be duplicated because we are all individuals who have different interpretations on what we create.
You almost made an album with Lyle. Tell us about that.
About 1969, the manager of The Aliis heard me play the uke at a party and told me I should do a uke album. He asked me who I thought would be a good producer for the album and I suggested Lyle Ritz. Lyle lived in LA and I lived in Hawaii. There were no computers at that time and we were both full-time musicians. To make a long story short, it was difficult to correspond with cassette tapes when we both travelled. Things happen for a reason and maybe it wasn’t the right time. I could have followed up and pursued it, even though it may have taken a long time, but I made the mistake of not doing so. Big mistake! But at least I got to meet Lyle in person and we have performed together within the past eight to 10 years.
Technique can always be learnt, developed and improved upon to accommodate a player’s style, but creativity cannot be taught
Who are your favourite players right now?
I’m always asked who my favourite uke player today is. There are many good players out there. For me, it’s not the art of playing the uke upside-down, behind your head or while tap dancing, etc. It’s also not about styles or types of music being played or how great your technique is. It’s about pure music, passion and, mainly, creativity. You already know how I feel about Lyle, so here are some of my favourite players and the reasons why…
John King: In my opinion, he was the finest classical uke player in the world. Sadly, he died too young. You were fortunate if you saw him perform in person. His transcriptions for the uke of classical compositions were true to the structure and not watered down. You had to be very creative to transcribe some of these masterpieces to a four-string instrument. He used a re-entrant tuning and was the only person to play a true soprano-size uke.
Bill Tapia: I first met Bill about 2004 or 2005 through Byron Yasui, who called me one night when I was on my way home from work. When I arrived at the Moana Hotel, Bill was on stage singing, playing the uke and yelling out the chords to the band in between the lyrics of the song. After, we found a place in the hotel where we could play and not bother anyone. Two uke players jamming from 10pm until 1am. Bill loved jam sessions. His sense of rhythm, articulation and on-the-spot ad lib solos were exceptionally creative, even more so because he was 96 years old at the time. Bill played a tenor and used a non re-entrant tuning.
Dr Byron Yasui: Byron is a composer, classical guitarist, bassist, educator and ukulelist. When I first heard Byron play the uke, the style he played was similar to styles we all played when I first started. The difference with Byron was the form of the music and the melody and chords were always correct. When most of us learnt a song that had been passed on from one person to another, the form, melody or chords eventually got altered to a point of becoming musically incorrect. Through the past 10 years or so, Byron has developed a style of arranging that employs classical guitar right-hand technique and applications of contemporary art music concepts of harmony and counterpoint. It is truly a groundbreaking achievement that can change the way the uke is looked at as a solo instrument. His arrangements are at a level never before achieved and very difficult to play. You would be amazed to hear how beautiful the music sounds. Byron plays a tenor and uses a re-entrant tuning.
Abe Lagrimas: Abe is one of the most gifted and talented young musicians to emerge from Hawaii. He is a jazz drummer, mainly, but also plays the vibraphone and uke. I know he has released at least three uke CDs. He plays jazz uke with a creativity that puts him among the best instrumentalists in the world. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Abe as a uke player and drummer and look forward to the day I get to play with him on the vibes. Abe plays a tenor and uses a re-entrant tuning.
Jake Shimabukuro: Jake, Byron, Gordon Mark and I toured the islands in 2000 in a tour put together by Jay Junker called The Art of Solo Ukulele. There could be no doubt of Jake’s passion for the uke. In those early years, his passion for music was expressed in part through his amazing technical abilities. Since then, he has developed into one of the most creative ukulelists. His arrangements, whether they are of standards or of new compositions, are created passionately and his feelings are expressed through his playing. He has great sensitivity for his music and has achieved a level of artistry that very few instrumentalists are able to reach. He will definitely take uke playing to higher levels. Jake plays a tenor and uses a re-entrant tuning.
These masters of the uke are serious advocates of treating the uke as a solo instrument. There are no gimmicks in their playing – just pure music. Their persistence and dedication show in their playing, yet it’s the fun of creating and the enjoyment of playing that remains on top for them.
What are your thoughts on the current ukulele boom?
It is wonderful to see the uke grow internationally. For the majority of players, it’s not about how well you can play solos. It’s all about the gratification of playing an instrument, singing, getting together and just having fun. I have seen this in Japan, Australia, the United States and Hawaii, at uke festivals and gatherings. For these people, taking their playing ability to whatever level they want is achieving their goal. There is nothing wrong with that. The good thing is that, with so many uke players in the world, there will always be that small percentage of players who will take the instrument seriously; to explore, invent and use their imagination. The possibilities are endless.
It is wonderful to see the uke grow internationally
What’s the trickiest part about being an instrumentalist?
Probably the question most frequently asked of my uke playing is about the way I form some of the chords I play. Understanding how chords are formed from scales, knowledge of intervals between notes that form a chord and ear training are all part of music theory. Basically, it’s a matter of changing the pitches an octave up or down or changing the interval of the notes within the chord. It is the creation of playing the same chord with the harmony spread apart or close together. As a uke soloist, I find that the most challenging aspect is trying to imply chords with 5, 6, and 7 notes on four strings. Finding the right combination of notes to make the melody sound harmonically correct and interesting is always a challenge. It is the placement of a chord on a melody note that adds harmonic value and sense to a song.
You often perform with a double-bassist. What is it about the combination of uke and bass that you love so much?
My favourite instrument to play with is the double bass. Dr Byron Yasui is the bassist I work with the most in Hawaii. It is obvious that the more instruments in an ensemble, the easier it is to perform and the fuller it sounds. As a duo, it’s not about the uke or bass separately, but the two instruments creating music together. There is a lot of demand on creativity, which makes it challenging and fun. Byron and I have performed together for many years, in Hawaii, the US and Japan. We perform together mainly as a bass-and-uke duo, but also do uke duets. Most recently, we were featured with the Hawai’i Symphony Pops Orchestra, each of us as soloist, but also together as a uke duo. It was the second time for us with the Symphony and for me the biggest accomplishment of my instrumental career. The whole experience was beyond words.
Why do you prefer the baritone uke?
I play the baritone uke mainly because I have large hands and when playing chords above the twelfth fret, my fingers tend to cover two frets on the tenor or smaller ukes. I have grown to love the baritone because of the warmness of its tone.
Finally, what does the ukulele mean to you?
The majority of what I learnt on the ukulele was when I first started from 1953 to about 1959. From 1960 to 1970, I rarely played, except for one recording I did in 1965 with The Aliis on our first album. From mid-1970 to about the year 2000, I stopped completely. I never thought that the ukulele, being my first instrument, would make its way back into my life. It is as if it’s been looking for me to rekindle our relationship after all of these years. Well, it found me 12 years ago. Call it fate or whatever you want. It has given me new life as an instrumentalist and musician. Almost like being born again. There are endless bounds to what can be created on the ukulele for the soloist of today and the future.
This article first appeared in Issue 4 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store
June 1, 1949 – a young man named Robert Fernandez left the Hawaiian islands for the first time, on his way to New York to accept his appointment at the United States Military Academy West Point. Not yet 19, Robert left with big dreams in his head, love for Hawaii in his heart and a Kamaka ukulele in his hand. Throughout his 30-year military career, Robert carried that little soprano ukulele with him. Upon his retirement in May 1978, Colonel Fernandez could focus on other endeavors, including pursuing a master’s degree, performing in the theater and spending time with his family. Parties, “kanikapila” (impromptu jam sessions) and smiles seemed to follow Robert wherever he went. All the while, his ukulele by his side.
On June 9, 2018, Col. Robert Nolasco Fernandez passed away surrounded by his loving family, including four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The precious ukulele was passed down to Col. Fernandez’s son, Robbie, who happens to be my best friend. That’s where I come in.
Knowing that I’m a luthier, Robbie asked me if I could refurbish his dad’s ukulele, and maybe upgrade it with some inlays as a tribute to his dad. I was honored to be asked to work on this very special instrument. Up until then, I had only seen it in pictures, Robert smiling brightly as he strummed it at a party. As I held the instrument in my hand, I was surprised by just how small this thing actually was. I’m used to making jumbo-bodied acoustic guitars, so a ukulele that tops out at 18” (46cm) long is a bit of a novelty. I also noticed that this instrument was well loved. The years of playing had worn the koa top thin, the constant warmth and sweat had started to separate the top from the sides and the wood was dry and brittle. I could tell I had my work cut out for me.
I started off with a full disassembly, every part came off. I steamed the top and back to separate it from the sides (the bridge had fallen off some time ago), the neck was removed, all the internal bracing was removed and the tuners and hardware was stripped. For the first time since it was assembled in Hawaii in the ’40s, this ukulele was back to its basic elements. As I carefully removed and catalogued the pieces, I noticed the Kamaka tag was in very bad shape, pieces flaking off at the slightest movement. This was concerning, as I wanted the instrument to remain original. Once I had the uke apart, it was time to clean up and condition the wood. Years of travel and several vastly different climates had taken their toll on every piece.
As I worked on restoring the core of this instrument, I met with the family to design the tribute aspects of the piece. It was clear that the family wanted to focus on Robert’s distinguished military career. Several meetings later, it was decided: a mother-of-pearl Colonel insignia was to adorn the fretboard, a tribute to his Hawaiian roots on the headstock and a large inlay of the West Point crest on the back. Knowing what this would take, and knowing I was to present this to the family at the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in a few short months, it was time to dive in and get to it.
Having already cleaned up and sanded every wooden part, I now had a beautiful hardwood canvas from which to work. I drew up what I wanted to inlay and cut out the pieces, 53 in all. I smiled at that because Col. Fernandez graduated from West Point in 1953. With all my inlay cut, it was time to route and glue the pieces in to the body. Then came the sanding and final detailing, which was the most time consuming and tedious part. I don’t use CNC machines or laser engravers in my shop, all my work is by hand. As I detailed the crest on the back, I began to see what I envisioned from the start: a beautifully restored instrument and inlay tributes that are worthy of the man they honor.
Through the process, I encountered issues with one part or another. The butt joint, where the sides meet, was separating and was a bit unsightly. Also, the top was badly worn away from constant play. If a particular area didn’t meet my standards, I had to come up with a solution, one that not only fixed the problem, but also kept with the original look of the instrument. I was able to inlay some beautiful pāua abalone to fill in where needed. As I previously mentioned, the Kamaka label was in bad shape and I was heartbroken I couldn’t save it. I did, however, come up with an acceptable alternative. I contacted the Kamaka ukulele company in Honolulu, Hawaii and told them about my project and the man it was honoring. I was overwhelmed by their willingness to help, providing me with an original ’40s “gold label”, inscribed with “Col. Robert N. Fernandez” and signed by both Samuel Kamaka and his brother Fred Kamaka, the latter a retired Lt. Col. who also wrote an amazing letter recounting fond memories spent with Robert and his family, playing ukulele on the beach and “sharing aloha”.
As anybody who knows me will tell you, I don’t do anything halfway. I tend to jump into anything I do with both feet and this was no exception. I already had an authentic 1940s Kamaka label and a wonderful letter from the Kamakas themselves. I wanted to do more. Having obtained permission to use the West Point crest from the Licensing and Trademark office, the ukulele’s story made its way to the office of Hawaii’s governor, David Ige. I was honored by a call from his office and offered a beautifully written memoriam from his office. Add to that a special Congressional Recognition from US Senator Mazie Hirono’s office and I had the makings of a pretty special presentation come October.
I flew out to Washington DC with the family. I made a special walnut presentation box fashioned after a military ammunition crate and carried it on the flight the whole way. The family hadn’t seen any progress on the instrument, a standard practice for my shop. Nobody sees the instrument until it’s meant to be unveiled. The morning of the memorial, I secured the ukulele in Patton Hall, where we were to gather after the service. It was then that I let my buddy Robbie see the restored ukulele for the first time. I’ve done a few memorable reveals, but this one will always have a special place in my heart. The sheer awe and emotion that Robbie expressed was all I needed to assure me that expectations were exceeded.
We gathered in the Old Post Chapel for the service, after which we all walked behind the caisson, slowly, making our way to the gravesite. All the while, the United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own” played out strong. After the beautiful ceremony, we made our way to Patton Hall, where I was pleased to unveil and present the ukulele to the family, all of whom know the instrument well. I was humbled to hear all the compliments and praise for my work and was proud to know I accomplished what I set out to do – honor a great Hawaiian man, a soldier, a family man and a musician. It is my hope that the aloha spirit Robert spread throughout this world will forever live on through this instrument.
NO OTHER player in recent decades has popularised the ukulele to the same extent as Jake Shimabukuro. Since shooting to stardom in 2006 with his YouTube cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the Hawaiian virtuoso has been touring the world and inspiring millions. In our exclusive interview, Jake takes time out from his Uke Nations world tour to chat about his ukulele idols, a brush with royalty and what the instrument means to him.
Which uke players did you look up to when you were a kid?
My all-time favourite ukulele player is Eddie Kamae. He is regarded as the first ukulele virtuoso here in Hawaii. Some of my other heroes include Peter Moon, Ohta-San and Troy Fernandez.
You were already a respected musician in 2006, but how did that YouTube video change your life?
YouTube opened so many doors for me in 2006. It helped to introduce my ukulele playing to millions of people around the world and allowed me to establish a consistent touring schedule. YouTube is a great vehicle for artists like myself to be heard.
What advice do you have for the next generation of YouTube hopefuls?
I think the most important thing is to be yourself. The video that you post will be around for a very long time, so make sure that you post something you’ll still be proud of 20 years later.
You’re always touring. What’s been your most memorable gig so far?
By far one of my most memorable moments is a performance with Bette Midler in England, for Queen Elizabeth. I even shook Her Majesty’s hand after the performance.
Why do you choose to play Kamaka instruments?
I always wanted to play a Kamaka tenor ukulele – they are the Excalibur of ukes. The tone is what sets it apart from other brands and Kamaka is the world’s leading ukulele manufacturer when it comes to quality, with almost 100 years of experience.
Where is your favourite place to practice?
I can practice anywhere. That’s the beauty of the ukulele. I could be at the airport, in a taxi or on a boat strumming away and not have to worry about ruining the instrument.
What’s your No. 1 tip for intermediate players who are looking to step up?
I always tell players that the most important thing is your tone. If you can get a good tone out of your instrument, people will want to listen and you will be inspired to play.
You’ve performed in Australia. What do you think of the uke scene down-under?
The ukulele scene is growing rapidly in Australia. The last time I toured there, a lot of people brought their ukes for me to sign after the show. I’m looking forward to touring there again next year. I’m sure I’ll meet a lot more uke players.
If you could record a fantasy duet with any artist, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
My fantasy duet would have to be with Eddie Kamae. I wouldn’t be playing the ukulele the way I play it today if it weren’t for him and his vision for the instrument.
What’s on heavy rotation on your iPod right now?
I’ve been listening to the Rocky IV soundtrack recently. It’s very inspiring and definitely motivates me to work hard and not be lazy!
In terms of its development, where would you like to see the ukulele movement go in the next five to 10 years?
I hope that gear manufacturers will start to make quality products specifically for the ukulele. For example, pickups, tube amps and effect pedals that are calibrated for the range of the instrument.
What can we expect from your 2014 Uke Nations tour?
I’ve been touring with a bass player this year. That’s been a lot of fun. The bass guitar and ukulele complement each other very well. They don’t get in each other’s way sonically and the low bass notes allows for more harmonic complexity in the ukulele.
Finally, what has the ukulele given you?
The ukulele has been a great mentor in my life. I try to think and be like an ukulele – to live simple, be humble, friendly, child-like, positive, and always keep my roots in Hawaii.
On December 2, 2011, Bill Tapia passed away. Two months earlier, Cameron Murray had the honour and privilege of talking to the 103-year-old ukulele legend for what proved to be Bill’s final interview. KAMUKE pays tribute to an inspirational man who lived life to the fullest.
IN 2004, I lucked out on a ticket to one of Jim Beloff’s UKEtopia concerts at the renowned McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, and it was there I saw Bill Tapia for the first time. He was 96 and blew away the sell-out crowd with his musical virtuosity, wit and charm. That same year, despite having been a professional musician for some 85 years, Bill released his first-ever solo album – the fantastic Tropical Swing – and the worldwide ukulele community sat up and took notice.
Born in Honolulu on January 1, 1908 to Portuguese parents, Tapia bought his first uke from a neighbour for about US$1.75. He was seven years old and that neighbour was none other than Manuel Nunes, the self-proclaimed “inventor” of the ukulele.
“A fellow by the name of Jim Crowl taught me,” says Bill. “I was just a kid, but they put me in all these contests, amateur contests, and I won every one.”
Tapia was soon playing his own arrangement of The Stars And Stripes Forever for American troops en route to World War I and by 12 he had quit school and got into vaudeville.
In 1927, Bill performed at the grand opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. He subsequently landed a job there as a chauffeur, driving VIP guests to scenic spots on the island and entertaining them with his uke at stops along the way. Naturally, a lot of celebrities entered his car and he would often teach them a few chords. Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Shirley Temple and Arthur Godfrey all benefitted from Tapia’s impromptu tuition.
“They liked me there because I was a good driver and I knew all these people,” says Bill. “I played ukulele and sang a little bit.”
After working on cruise ships between Hawaii and the US west coast, Tapia decided to relocate to Los Angeles after World War II, where he concentrated on playing jazz guitar and performed or jammed with the likes of Charlie Barnet, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, among many others. The ukulele took a back seat and he barely touched it for 55 years.
Enter public radio DJ and concert producer Alyssa Archambault.
“I met Bill a little over 10 years ago,” says 35-year-old Archambault. “It was the summer of 2001 and I was doing family genealogy at the time. On my mom’s side, I’ve got a pretty strong Hawaiian heritage. My great-grandparents played in vaudeville. They were part of the first wave of Hawaiians to bring their music to the mainland in the early 1900s, and when they came here, they toured the country and eventually settled in downtown LA.”
It was Hawaiian slack-key guitarist George Kahumoku Jr who suggested that Archambault should contact Bill Tapia. He knew Bill was in Los Angeles at the same time as Alyssa’s great-grandparents and thought it was possible that they may have known each other.
“I was really interested and excited about that idea,” she says, “so I gave Bill a cold call one day and started talking to him about my family. Bill basically said, ‘Why don’t you come over and show me your photos of your great-grandparents and we can talk about it?’ I had a lot of things to share, so I loaded up my car and I hung out with Bill all day. He took me out for lunch and we just had this great time.”
Although he had certainly heard of them, Tapia had never met Archambault’s relatives, but he and Alyssa quickly became friends.
“Two or three months later, I started booking him at concerts that I did locally and people were eating him up!” says Alyssa. “I started throwing ideas at him, like, ‘How would you feel about touring California?’ Or ‘How would you like to go back to Hawaii?’ And he was all for it. His wife had died just after he and I met, so I think he needed something to concentrate on. Our work together led to a record deal and more tours and more interviews.”
The year before Bill turned 100, Alyssa approached him with the idea of organising a special birthday concert.
“He didn’t even blink before he agreed,” she says. “I thought I’d give a tip of the old hat to Bill and create a vaudeville show, so I gathered all of his friends and different types of performers, from tap dancers to hula dancers and drummers and jazz bands.”
On November 18, 2007, the concert took place at the historic Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, California. Tapia had performed there once before – in either 1935 or ’36 – and he played for two solid hours before being presented with a huge birthday cake. Archambault recently released a brilliant CD recorded live at the momentous event.
Aside from his musical skill, the one thing that always set Bill apart was his sense of style.
“When I was 21, I was living in Hawaii and they had me model clothes in the theatre,” he says. “I love clothes and I wouldn’t leave the house unless I was dressed up with a jacket and everything.”
“He told me many times that being a musician back in the day was like being a doctor,” says Alyssa. “It was a big deal back then. Nowadays, for a girl to bring a musician home, it’s another story!”
Almost right up until his death, Tapia was still teaching uke, and he has some helpful hints for beginners: “Tell them to buy a ukulele and get a good book – and don’t try to learn too quick. The main thing is to learn to tune it good and learn two chords every day. And strum the chords so you can change from one to the other without breaking or stopping the rhythm. You’ll learn to play the darn thing in no time and you’ll learn it right. And tell them to put in half an hour, at least, every day.”
“I played a helluva lot of steel guitar and regular guitar and bass, but ukulele is my favourite,” reveals Bill.
Everybody likes it when you play the ukulele. I don’t know why, but they do. I played the ukulele when I was 12 years old, in 1920, when they loved it, and now it’s coming back! Everybody has a ukulele.
So what can we learn from Bill’s amazing life?
“I learnt to believe in my dreams and my passions – and to try to follow through with that in my life as much as possible,” says Archambault. “Bill did it since he was eight and it got him to 103.”
We celebrate Bill Tapia not because of his extraordinary age, but because of his extraordinary personality. In a world of fakes and imitators, he was a true original.
This article first appeared in Issue 3 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store