American singer-songwriter Tom Freund is a fairly recent convert to the uke, but he’s making up for lost time. As soon as I heard his single Happy Uke, I thought it’d be fun to have a chat with him about it, and I was right!
Over the years, Tom has collaborated with Ben Harper, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, KT Tunstall, Dave Matthews, Diana Krall and many others. He’s also done a lot of work on TV shows such as One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, Parenthood, Las Vegas and Pete The Cat, and he performed with Graham Parker in the 2012 Judd Apatow comedy This Is 40.
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.
I TRY not to be too effusive when it comes to reviews, but this album is a rare gem! Thoughtful arrangements, impressive musicianship and great production combine to create a foot-tapping listening experience.
Based in Liverpool, England, The Ukulele Uff Trio has been wowing audiences since 2014. Breezin’ Along With The Breeze is their second album and they’ve put together a diverse selection of 15 excellent tunes, most of them dating from the 1920s. Anyone who’s already a fan of Janet Klein & Her Parlor Boys, the Sweet Hollywaiians and Ukulelezaza will find a lot to like here.
While the vintage Martin soprano of Chris ‘Ukulele Uff’ Hough shines through on almost every track, he’s accompanied superbly by Dave Searson on guitar and Bill Leach on Hawaiian steel guitar. Singing duties are shared throughout and special mention must go to John Lewis, who adds some lovely, lyrical clarinet on Oh How She Could Play A Ukulele.
Highlights include the jumpy Red Lips, Kiss My Blues Away, a pacy version of the English folk classic The Leaving Of Liverpool and Singin’ In The Rain, which may as well be retitled Swingin’ In The Rain, such is its inherent grooviness.
For uke purists, it’s hard to go past the two marches from 1893, Under The Double Eagle and The Liberty Bell, and the final tune on the record, Uke Medley, gives Chris a chance to show off his solo skills.
Make yourself a cup of tea (or a dry martini), put your feet up and prepare to be carried away with the breeze. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Daniel Ho & Cameron Murray at the 2019 NAMM Show in Los Angeles
Born in Hawaii and based in California, Daniel Ho is a one-man industry. The talented singer-songwriter, producer, arranger, composer and audio engineer has won six Grammy Awards and shows no signs of slowing down…even during a global pandemic!
In our wide-ranging chat, Daniel talks about the future of the music industry, gives us an insight into co-designing Romero Creations instruments, and tells us exactly what the ukulele means to him. And you won’t want to miss his fantastic tips for players and songwriters.
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.
WHEN it comes to Hawaiian music, perhaps no other artist looms larger than the great Eddie Kamae. Credited as a major proponent of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance in the late 1960s and ’70s, he was one of the first people to treat the ukulele as a serious solo instrument.
Born into a music-loving family on August 4, 1927, Kamae started playing uke when he was 15. His first instrument was a gift from his brother Sam, who found it on a bus he was driving for Hawaii Rapid Transit.
“From that day onward, Eddie was hooked,” says author James D. Houston in his excellent biography Hawaiian Son. “He just liked the sound of it, the size of it, the feel of the strings, the hum of the wood.”
It was another brother, Joe, who became Eddie’s first teacher. Joe passed on basic chords and strums and soon his younger sibling was hungry to learn more.
When Eddie turned 18 in 1945, he was still eligible for the draft and was sent to New Caledonia in the Coral Sea, where it was his job to pack up US military supplies for shipping back to America. With plenty of spare time on his hands, Kamae practised day and night and developed an impressive repertoire of instrumental solos.
On his return to Hawaii, Eddie started attending weekend music sessions in downtown Honolulu. He received a standing ovation the first time he revealed his stunning solo tunes and it was there he met a fellow uke enthusiast named Shoi Ikemi. The pair eventually began working together, calling themselves The Ukulele Rascals and wowing the crowd with complex duets.
Eddie was to get more time to practise when he was caught trying to pass off vials of cornstarch and flour as household medicine and was sentenced to three years in prison. “I didn’t know how I was going to last three years in there,” says Eddie in Hawaiian Son. “My uke was my companion and my way to find some peace of mind. Music got me through.”
With a newfound appreciation for Hawaiian music, Eddie teamed up with slack-key guitar star Gabby Pahinui to form a band and, in 1960, the Sons Of Hawaii was born. Despite Pahinui later leaving to pursue a solo career, the group went on to record 14 critically acclaimed albums.
Eddie set up a production company called Hawaii Sons, Inc. and was among the first Hawaiian musicians to establish his own recording label. Outside of music, he and his wife Myrna produced a set of 10 culturally important documentaries that examine the history of the islands.
Without Eddie’s powerful impact, it’s fair to say the ukulele would not be where it is today. The great Ohta-San was mentored by Eddie and Jake Shimabukuro credits him as a major influence and his favourite player.
On January 7, 2017, Eddie passed away in Honolulu, surrounded by family and friends and while his best-known song, E Ku`u Morning Dew, played softly in the background. Mahalo, Mr Kamae.
By Cameron Murray
This article originally appeared in Issue 11 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in theStore
For Episode 10 of the podcast, it’s my great pleasure to bring you an interview with the incredible Janet Klein. Since 1998, the charming uke-playing chanteuse and her hot band The Parlor Boys have been recording and performing rare and forgotten musical gems from the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s.
During lockdown, she’s been presenting her “Hit Of The Week” Parlor Party, an online hootenanny that features interviews with fascinating artists and historians, as well as plenty of fabulous music.
Growing up in Hawaii, my ukulele journey began in the fourth grade where we first learnt our basic chords – C, F, and G7. My passion for the instrument developed a few years later during a resurgence of ukulele playing in Hawaii. Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole had just released his Facing Future album, Ka’au Crater Boys came out with Valley Style and Pure Heart featuring Jake Shimabukuro and solo ukulele albums by Daniel Ho were looming on the horizon. The mid-’90s brought ukulele back to the forefront of the local airwaves in a stripped-down acoustic format where you could hear each artist hitting the strings and even breathing in the studio microphones in quieter sections. I would listen to these albums on repeat, inspired by their playing techniques, which I still use in my performances today.
In middle school, I was thrust into a new world on the opposite side of campus, where the cool kids were ukulele players and they were playing all the songs I loved listening to on the radio. Not only were they having fun jamming, but people were listening – more importantly, girls were listening and singing along. Now my calling was clear: I would be a ukulele player.
My ukulele at home was a Martin soprano passed down from my great-uncle, who had worn a thumb groove into the back of the neck in first position and had worn the frets nearly flat from playing. I set out on the daunting task of teaching myself to play, pre-internet. My cousin’s friend, who happened to be a guitar player, helped tighten up the tuning pegs so they would hold their tune. My dad showed me how to tune the instrument using the piano and taught me the Hawaiian Vamp – D7, G7, C. My family helped me set up my first ukulele, but no-one thought anything of my new-found musical interest as I’d failed miserably on other instruments from a lack of motivation and practice.
I would have to learn a few basics on my own before I would dare take my ukulele to school. This presented a few challenges: one, I didn’t have a chord book, and two, I was supposed to be doing my schoolwork. I quickly discovered the best way to play in secret was to use my thumb. Using the side of my thumb as opposed to the nail made for a nice fleshy surface with a rich, mellow tone that was pleasant, subtle and quiet. It was perfect for late-night practicing propped up in bed when I was supposed to be asleep or studying.
While practicing in secret, I surprised my parents a few months later by playing IZ’s version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World off a photocopied chart from the Roy Sakuma school that I got for trading some choice baseball cards. Soon I was asked to play the song at every family party, wedding and funeral. The core of the IZ strum to me is the use of the thumb as a different tone in the strum.
Many flashy techniques use the index finger as the main strumming finger – the nail on the down-strum produces a brighter, harder sound that sonically cuts through. The techniques I enjoy playing the most use both thumb and finger in the strum. The juxtaposition of tones helps to create a more sophisticated sonic landscape and in many ways is easier to keep in time.
As an example, strum swung eighth notes using your index finger with down-strums falling on downbeats and up-strums on upbeats. Now accent the backbeat (beats two and four). You’ll notice you have to strum harder in order to accent. This change in velocity of your strum creates an accent, but also adds another variable to fall out of time. Now add a downbeat/down-strum with your thumb on beats one and three while keeping the finger down-strum on beats two and four. The trick is to use the same motion for both the thumb-strum and the finger-strum and let the different ‘picks’ create the accent.
The brighter nail sound of the finger on a down-strum will give you a natural accent without having to use as much effort. This translates to a more laidback-sounding strum and lets you play with more dynamic range because the thumb-strum can be made very quiet due to the fleshy nature of the thumb, while the nail of the index finger adds a loud and bright strum. Changes in volume and tone create a more textured sound, producing a more nuanced strum. This type of flow in a strum is one of the most magical sounds in ukulele playing.
For people new to using the thumb-strum, I usually recommend two practice approaches for incorporating the thumb-strum into your repertoire. First, use your thumb on downbeats only. Start with the thumb on quarter-note down-strums, then incorporate up-strums with your finger. Next, practice alternating thumb and finger on quarter-note down-strums, then incorporate up-strums with the finger.
The second approach is to use your thumb to play any of your go-to strum patterns. You’ll be using the side of your thumb on both the down and up-strums for a softer tone on both strums. Keep your thumb parallel to the strings and avoid using the nail on the up-strum – think of the feeling of swiping a touchscreen with your thumb. This will also ensure your wrist is relatively straight on the strum, which will help to minimise tension and strain and give you an even, mellow tone. Using your thumb on both the down and up-strums provides a tactile movement that will help you keep time by allowing you to physically feel the off-beats when incorporating both finger and thumb-strums.
I always use the example of listening to two very popular songs: IZ’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World and Hey, Soul Sister by Train. One strum is nuanced with an interplay of all parts of the strumming hand, while the other has a more static feel. Both fit perfectly in their respective songs – the nuances of an IZ-style strum would be buried in a larger arrangement of a pop song like Hey, Soul Sister, but there is something beautiful and meditative about playing quietly and subtly late at night while propped up in bed using your thumb-strum on your ukulele.
This article first appeared in Issue 11 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store
BORN and raised on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Makana has been lauded for his slack-key guitar stylings, but he’s also a fine uke player, as he proves on A Hawai’i Interlude.
‘Diverse’ is the first word that springs to mind when I think about describing this album. A lot of instrumental records suffer from a lack of diversity, resulting in a fairly mundane listening experience. That’s certainly not the case here. Each of the 20 tracks has been well thought out and expertly produced to showcase Makana’s impressive compositional skill and playing ability.
A few of the standout uke-centric pieces include the smooth Kahala Jazz, somewhat ethereal Waiola Wonderland and spacey Waikiki 2050, which has a sort of synthwave feel to it. And special mention goes to Pu’uale’ale’a (Bliss Hill), which features renowned jazz trumpet player Deshannon Higa. There are also some fantastic non-uke tunes – my pick is Ha’iku Zen, a layered and interesting collaboration with slack-key guitar master Jeff Peterson and shakuhachi [Japanese bamboo flute] player Riley Lee.
If you’re looking for something a little bit different to the norm, I urge you to seek out A Hawai’i Interlude. Makana has managed to create a thoroughly modern album that is quintessentially Hawaiian and pays tribute to the unique musical traditions of the islands.
AMERICAN uke star Victoria Vox put out her first solo album in 2006 and in 2018 released her 10th, the fantastic Colorful Heart. More recently, she’s been performing with her husband Jack Maher as one half of Jack & The Vox, and the couple has been presenting fun online concerts from their home in California during the COVID-19 lockdown.
It was a real pleasure to catch up with Victoria for this episode and I hope you enjoy it!