Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part IV

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

I bought three new ukuleles when I took Anne to Hawai’i, bringing my collection up to five. (If you haven’t yet, read those stories in Parts I, II, and III.) So what happened after Hawai’i?

It wasn’t hard to maintain the enthusiasm I’d built up over the vacation. I’d bought a bunch of new strings, and went straight into restringing my old instruments. Then the first order of business was choosing a “primary” ukulele, one I intended to use most of the time. That, along with stretching all the new strings, kept me busy early on, trying to get my strumming back into shape, as I played around with the books I’d bought, along with my old material from the Royal Hawaiian Ukulele Band.

The best book I picked up was Barry Maz’s The Complete What Ukulele Players Want To Know. So much useful information, but the biggest help was the chapter on finger exercises. See, my fingers were killing me, especially on the smaller soprano ukuleles, and with weak fingers came bad picking, bad chording- just a bad sound all over. But as I stuck with my Kala tenor, and did the exercises, after two or three weeks I started seeing real improvements in my ability to work the fretboard without killing my hands.

The next break came when I found a tutor in my local area, Dave from Pacific Music. I still hadn’t found a book that I liked, and knew I needed some structure and accountability if I was going to make this thing work. Dave’s been a great resource, helping me get my sight-reading into shape, as well as exposing me to a ton of easy to play songs, (and yes, skipping Mary). He got me using Lil Rev’s Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book 1, which together with Jumpin Jim’s The Daily Ukulele, I have both a path to follow and a lot of material to keep me interested.

As I got better though, I still felt like the tenor was a bit too much for my hands, and I found myself accepting the pain of playing a soprano, just because the sound and size felt truer to me. I want to play ukulele, not mini-guitar. I started seriously looking at getting the medium-sized concert uke, but I just couldn’t find the variety offline here on the mainland. That is, until I got to visit a music shop in California, while visiting family. There I tested a Kala concert, and I was sold on the size almost immediately. It was the best of both worlds for me; only I wasn’t looking to get yet another Kala. I figured I’d want something cheaper, so that if I didn’t like the size after all (every uke feels great in the store when you want a new one), I wouldn’t feel bad about spending the money.

Makala Concert MK-C Ukulele
My first concert ukuele, the Makala MK-C

I waited and looked online, and after much consideration and advice from others looking at beginner concert ukes, ordered a Makala MK-C from HMS, with Aquila strings (Yes, I recognize that Makalas are made by Kala).

Turns out size really did matter.

It was big enough that I could hold it upright and not worry about it tipping over while I moved up and down the fretboard. It was small enough that I could play it standing up without needing a strap. I had enough room for my fingers without having to overstretch my hands. I could keep my arms in a more neutral position at my sides; not elbows scrunched in like on the sopranos.

It immediately became my primary instrument. I played it for a couple months, on through the holidays, having a blast the entire time. Since it was among my cheapest ukes, I wasn’t afraid of it. I could wail on it, really get into it, without having to baby it. That made me bolder on all of my instruments, so I had more fun playing those too.

But it wasn’t long before the itch for another ukulele came back. I’d found my size, but I didn’t plan on playing the Makala for the rest of my life.

I’d been given a taste of Hawai’i-made ukes, now I just needed a justification for getting one.

See, I’d told myself that I wouldn’t buy a really expensive uke until I was good enough to feel like I’d earned the right to play it. I didn’t want to drop some major cash, only to let the hobby fizzle out again, and leave me with even more expensive decorations. I hemmed and I hawed for weeks, before finally giving in.

Playing ukes makes me happy. It’s a great stress reliever. My New Year’s resolution was to reduce stress, and I’ve already got a busy year ahead of me. So I started shopping again.

I knew what I wanted. I wanted a K-Brand, solid Koa from Hawai’i. I wanted a concert-sized. And I wanted it to look traditional, like an ukulele, not a guitar, not completely blinged out. I went back and forth on several models before finally landing on a KoAloha KCM-00. I ordered it from HMS and obsessively watched the tracking number.

KoAloha Concert KCM-00 Ukulele
My perfect ukulele, a KoAloha Concert KCM-00

It’s solid Hawaiian Koa. Stylistically it’s plain, but beautiful in its plainness. I love the look of raw wood, and thankfully the gloss coat isn’t obnoxious.

It’s my first and only uke with friction tuners. I’d steered away from them before, but I wasn’t intimidated anymore, and I wanted something light and easy to handle. I was happy I did, trust me, this uke floats like a feather-weight boxer. The orange buttons are nice too.

It’s proudly traditional and someday it’ll probably become a family heirloom.

I don’t need a pickup, but I figured, if I ever did want one, now was the time to get it installed, so I got a MiSi Acoustic Trio. It’s quite amazing- no ugly controls, no tough-to-replace battery. It runs off of an easy to charge capacitor, and it’s so light you’d never know it was in there.

Oh right, the sound! I can’t describe it. It’s simply amazing.

It’s been my primary uke ever since it arrived. Don’t get me wrong, I still take out all of my ukes at least once or twice a month, to test how much better I’ve gotten at playing.

And I am getting better. I bought some basic recording equipment and ever since the Makala I’ve started posting videos on YouTube of my progress. I’m enjoying building up both my repertoire, and my techniques. I’ve got more books, am subscribed to all the best ukulele blogs, still go to classes with Dave, and even got a chance to attend a couple of Lil’ Rev’s workshops.

I practice almost every day, sometimes with a set structure, sometimes just experimenting with stuff I’ve read online. I love every minute of it.

I’ve gotten over those first major humps, and though there’s still a long road ahead of me, I’m really enjoying the trip.

Okay enough writing, time to get back strumming!


P.S. There’s no Part V post planned, but rest assured I’m sticking with it this time.

P.P.S. I even learned The Inner Light!

Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part II

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

I first picked up an ukulele in the summer of 2002, but in ten years I hadn’t gotten beyond a half-dozen chords and one melody. By the time I’d moved to Washington State, my two ukes had become nothing more than decorations, empty hints that I was a musician (like guys who “accidentally” carry guitar picks in their loose change). If you haven’t yet, go read that story in Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part I.

Now, before I pick up my ukulele story in 2012, I first need backtrack a little to 2009, with my brief experience with another, inexpensive, “people’s instrument”. I’m talking about the tin whistle.

See, I like small, portable, entertainment. My favorite board games fit in a jacket pocket. I have packs of playing cards everywhere, in my bags, in drawers, even in my car. Now that I think of it, even back in college, when I was trying to learn the ukulele, I was also tried learning the harmonica. Harmonicas are legendary portable entertainment. The only problems were the breathing and all that tonguing. I could hardly keep my breath just being me, so playing wind instruments was just masochistic. Plus, I was trying to learn ukulele right? The harmonica quickly got lost in a drawer somewhere.

So, now it’s 2009, and I get the itch to learn an instrument again. I look at my ukes, but I think of my wrists, and I start shopping for alternatives. At the same time, I was also on a crazy personal mission to watch everything Star Trek, from beginning to end. Why you ask? Because I’ve been a self-claiming nerd for as long as I can remember, but when I really thought about it, I’d probably only seen a half-dozen episodes of The Next Generation as a child. So I set out to correct that.

Wait, what does this have to do with the tin whistle? Or learning the ukulele? Trekkies know the answer.

The Inner Light.

It’s one of the highest-rated Star Trek TNG episodes, and my absolute favorite. In it, Captain Picard, by virtue of a memory implant from an alien probe, experiences living an entire lifetime with a now extinct people. Most memorable is the titular song he learns to play on a little whistle. So now, sixty pounds lighter than I’d been in college, and with Captain Picard at my back, the idea of a wind instrument doesn’t terrify me anymore. I knew I’d found my new instrument.

Me and my Clarke Tin Whistle
Me and my Clarke Tin Whistle

I went online and bought myself a Clarke Tin Whistle, but much more importantly, I picked up The Clarke Tin Whistle Deluxe Edition by Bill Ochs. It was, by far, the best book on picking up a new instrument, any instrument, that I’d ever read. As I mentioned in Part I, I don’t have a musical background. And though I had a tall stack of ukulele books, most went straight into the grunt-work of learning an instrument, and just weren’t any fun. Frankly, I’d had enough of Mary and her damn little lamb.

But in Bill’s book, within a week, I had a half-dozen songs under my belt. Sure, Mary was in there, but so were others, longer, more interesting songs that sounded pretty even if I didn’t recognize them. Match that with the simplicity of playing the whistle itself, and I was having a blast. Presentation matters, especially for someone like me, with no musical background. And with the tin whistle, I had an extremely portable instrument that was fun to play, and with the book I felt like I was making real progress.

So why am I not writing about rekindling a lost six-hole love? Why did I put down that whistle?

Guilt mostly.

I felt like I should really be playing the uke. I mean I loved ukuleles. My grandmother had bought me one cause I said I was serious about learning it. I’d even bought an expensive one and dragged it around Africa with me. And so after a couple months, as I spent my time elsewhere, the little whistle went into the drawer along with the harmonica.

So why did it take another three years before I picked up the uke? Guess you’ll have to wait until Part III.

Update (02-APR-2013): Continue reading with Part III!


P.S. Though I set aside learning the whistle, I’d learned something else, something far more valuable. I’d learned that learning an instrument didn’t have to be all grunt work up front with all the fun at the end. That there was a logical progression to learning to play that didn’t need Mary and one chord over and over for hours. And in any area of study, it’s a powerful thing when you learn not just what you aim to learn, but the overall structure and progression for learning things of that category.

It just takes a good teacher. I learned my first programming language at age 8, but without any structure, any wisdom. I hadn’t internalized what it meant to program. It was through my high school computer science teacher that I got a grasp of how to learn a computer language. What to expect. What I needed to know to be able to use that language to solve the problems before me. That skill, learning how to learn a programming language, later became a cornerstone of my career as a software tester.

It’s the same thing with natural languages. When I learned French in high school, I didn’t really remember a thing later. Like most Americans, I had a scatter-shot of language education, especially grammar. Not that important if you’re a native speaker, as long as you’re surrounded by people who speak correctly, you’ll pick it up naturally. But for a foreign language, especially in my case, where immersion wasn’t possible or even encouraged, I was just parroting most of the time. I had no roadmap for turning my thoughts into words. But in college, I learned how to break a language down, to know what things I needed to learn, so that I could function in an immersive environment. By the time I was learning Swahili in Tanzania, I was driving my teacher crazy because I kept wanting to jump ahead of my classmates. I could see the bigger picture, and so knew ahead what I types of things I was going to need to know. But after ten weeks of training, when I was thrown in the deep end of completely on-my-own immersion, and I swam just fine.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I ended up teaching computer science in Swahili. No way would I have been able to do that, if I didn’t understand how to learn programming, and how to learn a natural language. And computer science is hard enough to teach in your own language!