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.