Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part I

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

I first picked up an ukulele in the summer before college- a little late you might say, considering I’d spent my childhood immersed in native Hawaiian culture.

I was surrounded by all the right an ingredients: Hawaiian music and instruments about the house, my mother who not only taught hula, but also choreographed new dances and put on performances, with all of the endless dedication and practice that that lifestyle requires.

Still, I was never forced (like many children) to learn a musical instrument. The most I’d ever done is dink around with a Casio keyboard, learning Elvis’ “Love Me Tender”. Other then that, I couldn’t read sheet music, didn’t know a thing about music theory, never showed more than a passing interest in any school musical programs.

Fast forward to 2002, when on a family vacation to Hawaii, I began fooling around with a cheap toy ukulele I’d got at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. My grandmother asked me if I was serious about the instrument, and that if I was, she’d get me a “real one.”

Lanikai Soprano LU-11 Ukulele
My first uke, a Lanikai LU-11

I said I was serious, so she bought me a little soprano Lanikai. We got it from the Hawaiian Music Supply, back when they were selling ukes out of a van, before they became the ukulele powerhouse that they are today.

I spent as much time as I could on that instrument, and while in college I even joined Berkeley’s Royal Hawaiian Ukulele Band for a time. Had a lot of fun, but it was hard to make progress: I couldn’t practice too much in the dorms, and the band’s “practices” often had 40+ participants, and was really aimed at members who could already play so they could practice the band’s set list.

The best sessions were the after-practice jams at Mike Dailva‘s workshop, who since then has been growing in recognition as a master ukulele luthier.

But I struggled a lot with the size of that soprano Lanikai; I could never keep the thing from falling over, and as this was around the time I started having RSI problems with my wrists and fingers, clutching it upright only made it harder to stay motivated and keep playing.

Thankfully by the time I’d left for the Peace Corps in 2006, I’d found part of my salvation in the larger, tenor-sized ukuleles. My grandmother had loaned me an antique Suzuki ukulele, and through it was easier to hold, it hadn’t aged well in appearance or sound quality.

Kala KA-STE-C Tenor Ukulele
First uke with my own money, a Kala KA-STE-C

So when I went back to Hawaii after graduation, I picked up a brand new tenor from Kala.

It was easier to hold than the Lanikai, easier to play, and sounded great! Problem was, I still didn’t have any real guidance on how to get any better. I took the Kala with me to Tanzania (logically I’d take my newest, largest, most expensive instrument abroad), and while it served as a great reminder of home during training, by the time I’d be assigned to Zanzibar, the uke spent more time in the case than out.

I came back from Africa no better at playing- my ukes had become decorations, ones I proudly displayed, even if I couldn’t do much with them. I brought them with me when I moved up to Washington in 2008, and I left the tenor out on guitar stand, even though the stand was too big and the uke was always at risk of toppling over.

I hardly touched them, and it wasn’t until four years later that ukulele bug bit me again, and hard. Stay tuned for that story next time.

/jon

Update (29-MAR-2013): Continue reading with Part II!

13 thoughts on “Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part I

    1. How much did you remember? I found that after almost ten years since really trying, I remembered little bits and bites, but not much else.

      1. Totally agree. I can remember some chord progressions but there’s always a point where it doesn’t sound right or I know I’m off somewhere. Grateful for youtube. 🙂

  1. Good luck with the uke – I look forward to reading more. I’ve been teaching myself for around eighteen months, attended the local free weekly uke club & have become their webmaster!
    Happy strumming.
    Jeanette

  2. Hi! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me
    of my previous room mate! He always kept talking about this.
    I will forward this article to him. Pretty
    sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

  3. Found this blog post from your other post about slack key chords. I have been looking into getting into something musical.

    Front-end development was my hobby. Now that I have a career in it, I need something else to keep from getting burnt out.

    Being born in Maui and only having a summers experience with my cousin’s Kamaka 15 years ago, I decided to get back into it. Thank you for supplying resources in slack key. Everyone’s doing pop songs on ukuleles and I wanted to do more traditional hawaiian music that wasn’t all strumming.

    1. Glad you like the charts. I’ve found that I get more enjoyment playing my ukes slack key these days. Later this year I’m planning on releasing an ukulele slack key “supplement” with chords, scales, and other resources.

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