Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Guitar Hero III and the 'ukulele?

Before becoming a 'ukulele nut, I was an avid air guitarist whacking on a plastic Gibson SG and playing a Playstation 2 videogame called Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero has become a smash hit and on Oct. 28th, 2007, Guitar Hero III was released. Since I started playing the 'ukulele, I have hardly touched my video game systems at all, and my PS2 Guitar Hero controllers (I had 3, not counting the new one that came with GHIII, which means I suffered from GHCAS - Guitar Hero Controller Acquisition Syndrome - long before UAS) sat around gathering dust. I still thought the Guitar Hero games were great games, but I was much too busy trying to learn to play the 'ukulele. Even so, I always knew that I would buy Guitar Hero III as soon as it came out, especially since it is available for the Nintendo Wii.

I got the game on October 28th and started playing it that night. Before I had played the 'ukulele, I always wondered if a video game such as this could be fun for someone who played the guitar. After all, when you can play the real thing, would a small toy guitar be much fun? While I do not know how to play the real guitar, I now have several months of 'ukulele playing under my belt and I figured I would have some idea about this question I had. It turns out that Guitar Hero III is still a pretty fun game for me. It's not close to the fun derived from playing my ukes, but fun nontheless. Some of the songs in the game were from my junior high years, and stuff like Poison's "Talk Dirty To Me" was surprisingly fun to play. And the new Gibson Les Paul controller rocked as well. It is really well made, feels substantial, and offers good control of the game. Heck, it was almost like getting another 'ukulele! Can't beat that right?

Maybe my love of the 'ukulele was originated from playing this game. I mean, the controller is just a smidge bigger than my Pono Cedar top tenor. If they ever made "Ukulele Hero", they could include a life-sized 'ukulele controller! And you could play songs by Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill! How cool would that be??? Ok, maybe not. One thing I know is that before Guitar Hero, I really would play the air guitar to rock songs that I like. Guitar Hero kind of fulfilled the desire to "rock out" while playing something tangible, and the 'ukulele represents fulfilling that desire with a real musical instrument.

So in my strange world, the progression went from: Air guitar -> Guitar Hero controller -> 'Ukelele. Sounds good to me.

Learning Jake Shimabukuro songs

I plan on doing some blogging about my learning process for the ukulele up to this point. Before I get to that, I just wanted to write a little bit about learning to play some songs by Jake Shimabukuro.

I first learned about Jake when I was browsing Youtube looking for ukulele related videos and lessons. I think it was maybe a month or two after I started learning the ukulele when I came across this video, which had already been seen by millions of people:

I was so completely blown away by it I searched iTunes store and downloaded his "Gently Weeps" album almost immediately. For me, the album showed me just what can be done on the humble instrument that is the ukulele. I dreamed of one day learning to play "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". I was listening to the song in my car constantly, over and over again. I thought I would never be able to play it or any of the other Jake songs.

After learning various chords and being somewhat adapt at chord changes in the first position during the first few months of my ukulele playing, I thought I'd try for more of a challenge. In May of this year, I contacted Dominator about obtaining the tabs for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". I had searched high and low for it and it seemed like he was the only one who had these tabs but was asked to remove them from his site. I thought it was worth a shot to ask him for it, and he was very generous in sharing it with me. I was really excited about trying to learn it and got to work on it right away. To my surprise, the gist of the song wasn't all that difficult. I was playing something that resembles the song within a few days. Maybe because I already knew what the song sounded like forwards and backwards, but it wasn't the impossible song to learn as I had previously thought. So after getting to the point where I can play it from memory, I asked Dominator for another one of Jake's tabs. He asked me to send him a video or MP3 of me playing the song to make sure I had put forth enough effort in learning it before sending me another set of tabs. I thought this was very good of him as it kept me working on one song at a time.

So lately, these Jake songs I've learned are all I've been playing on my spare time, as you can deduce from my Youtube postings. These songs are fairly challenging but not at all impossible to learn, even for a relative novice like me. It is so much fun playing these songs and thanks to these songs, my ukulele experience has been exponentially more enjoyable than it had been before. And it wasn't bad before.:)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Revisiting the Honu

Ever since I first saw the Honu ukuleles from musicguymic's ebay store, I've been interested in getting one, since I seem be a big fan of honus (sea turtles) as I have lots of honu themed Hawaiian t-shirts. In August, Mike put up a Honu Super Deluxe concert uke up for auction. It was a newer design that's only sold in Japan at the moment. He had put one up earlier for sale and I was mesmerized by it as it seem to have every cool feature and decorative element you can think of. Plus it had that sweet looking honu shaped bridge. At that time I wasn't in the market for another uke so I did not go for it. But when it came up for auction in August, I was ready to go for it. Fortunately for me, I was willing to pay more than anyone else was willing to pay for it at the time and won the auction at $500. Given that the retail price for this particular uke in Japan (model #CT-KXXX) was closer to $800, I was happy with the price.

When it arrived to me, I wasn't all that impressed with the sound. It looked like a million bucks and the workmanship was flawless, but the sound didn't really impress me too much. It was a bit thin and quiet. Now keep in mind that since the uke I got right before this was a KoAloha Pineapple Sunday, which is in a class by itself, it probably would have taken something truly special to impress me at that point. After a day or two, I changed the stock Aquila strings to some Worth BM's (Brown Medium). It made the uke sound quite a bit better, especially at the higher frets, where it made a really nice and extremely clear sound. I also noticed that this uke has some serious sustain. Where all my other ukes, including the Pineapple Sunday, would sustain a picked note for about 4-5 seconds, the Honu would easily reach 6 seconds or more. It also had a 1.5" nut width with very wide string spacing, which makes it an excellent uke for fingerpicking. The sound still seemed a bit quiet and thin, but I was much happier with it and determined that it was a worthy purchase.

A month or so after getting the Honu, I ordered some new Worth strings, which included some CD's (Clear Dense) that I have not tried before. I decided to try those CD on the Honu. These worked very well and I thought I liked them on the Honu even better than the BM's. While the tone with the BM's sounded very nice, the uke felt a bit "slappy" sounding. With the CD's, that "slappy" sound seem to be minimized and the uke retained a nice crystal clear sound. By that time, however, I had acquired a Kanile'a super soprano and was very much enjoying that uke and the Honu was not played much.

Fast forward to this past week. I've been rotating between playing my ukes (mainly the 4 koa ukes I have) during the night time. I've come to apprieciate the Honu more and more in the past week. It no longer seem quiet and the crystal clear sound is becoming more appealing to me each day. Compared to the Kanile'a SS, the Honu is more trebly and seem a bit clearer sounding. While I felt I had preferred the Kanile'a's sound before, I now enjoy the sound of the Honu more and it is fast becoming my favorite uke.

So it has taken me a while to truly apprieciate what I had in the Honu concert uke, but I'd say it's never too late to apprieciate your ukes.

Here is a sound file of me playing Blue Roses Falling on the Honu concert.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Uke playin' on the road

Recently I went on an overseas business trip to Taiwan. Since I did not want to be uke-less for an entire week, I took along my Risa uke solid. It's a uke that I hardly ever play but perfect for trips since it is almost indestructible and also is silent unless plugged in, which is handy if you are staying at hotels and wish to keep it quiet for the people next door. I also got a Marshall mini-amp and took it along as well since I wasn't staying at a hotel. I was very busy during the trip and only managed to play my uke a couple of times. But it was nice to strum an 'ukulele during the trip.
Now that I've returned home, I'm probably going to give selling the Risa uke solid some thought. The reason is that, given it's unorthodox design, it is not especially enjoyable to play and that it doesn't have quite as many frets as I'd like. I'm thinking about selling it and getting a BugsGear Eleuke. The BugGear Eleuke has plenty of frets and is more similar to a traditional uke yet should be almost as sturdy as the Risa uke solid. It won't be as portable though, but since I don't go on very many week long trips, it's probably not a big problem. If I ever go through with getting the BugsGear, I'll post my impressions here.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Going to California

No, I'm not going to California, but I played it. Here it is:

Friday, October 12, 2007

Custom Ukes: Which builder to go with?

I have not owned or played any custom ukes in the brief time since I started playing the ukulele. That hasn't stopped me from drooling over them from various custom builders. In fact, I already have 2 on order with two builders who has sterling reputations among uke fans.

The first one I ordered, about 3 months into uke playing, was a Glyph mezzo-soprano uke built by Dave Means. Dave does some outstanding work as you can see from his uke gallery and has one of the best reputations among custom builders. The result of that is a waiting list close to 3 years long. When I placed my order in May of '07, my uke was scheduled to be completed around March of 2010! I just figured I'd better place an order sooner rather than later or I may never be able to get a Glyph. Choosing the mezzo-soprano size was partly influenced by economics and partly influenced by the desire for something different. I knew I wanted something bigger than a soprano but not quite a tenor at the time, so it was either a concert or the mezzo-soprano. Since the mezzo-soprano is a custom size Dave had dreamed up, I thought it would make for a great custom ukulele.

The second custom uke I ordered was from Kepasa Ukuleles, built by Kevin Crossett. Kevin is a relatively new builder who has been repairing instruments for many many years. Some of his customers had posted on various forums about how wonderful his ukes are so I checked out his website. One uke in particular caught my eyes. It was his Little Mac model. Previously I had seen an Po-Mahina Island Jazz uke from the cover of Mel Bay's Fingerstyle Solos and thought it was really nifty. I liked the looks of the Selmer/Maccaferri guitar design and these ukes looked very interesting to me. So I contacted Kevin about the Little Mac and learned that his prices were very affordable for custom built instruments. In addition, he would be able to accommodate my request to add a D-shaped soundhole and a cutaway body style. That made it a no-brainer. This uke is scheduled to start building in January of '08 and should be done by March. It'll be a nice birthday present for myself next April. :)

Even though I have not even received my first custom ukulele yet, I've been thinking about getting a custom built long scale (18 inch scale) tenor. I know I want one made with a spruce top and possibly koa sides and backs. I also want it to have a slotted headstock. The builder I'm most intrigued with is William King of Chantus Music. People who has played his ukes rave at the sound and playability. He also doesn't appear to have quite the long wait list as Dave Means, which is a big plus since I'm already going to wait over 2 years for a uke. The afore mentioned Po Mahina is another possibility to have a good custom tenor built. Other highly reputable custom builders include Mike DaSilva, and Dave Talsma. I guess by the time I am ready to pull the trigger on an order, I'll have decided which one to go with. If I had to choose right now, it'd probably be William King.

Anyway, as you can see, I have some rampant UAS going on here. I do plan to sell off ukes for each new one I acquire, but it only becomes harder and harder as each remaining uke becomes more and more indispensable. Or something.

Position dots: Necessity or Ornament?

Recently I posed the question on the FMM Forum about how much people rely on position dots on the fretboard of their ukuleles. Most people seem to use them as a guide but don't rely on them too much, especially the more advanced players. Someone said that it was analogous to "white lines on the road" in that you don't really look at them, but you do see them. I think that's a good analogy and is something I need to strive for. The reason I brought up the question is because I've been playing almost nothing but Jake Shimabukuro music on my ukes and find myself looking at the fretboard a lot during those songs. While I don't stare at the position dots the whole time, I definitely rely on them heavily when moving my left hand between chords that are far apart. I was at a local music store trying out some Flukes & Fleas and when I played some While My Guitar Gently Weeps on a concert sized Fluke, it came to a screeching halt when I approached a chord right around the 10th position. Why? Because concert Flukes doesn't have a dot at the 10th position! That's when I realized how much I've been relying on those position dots. Perhaps I need to get a Compass Rose ukulele, which doesn't have position dots on the fretboard, to help me develop the skills to not have to rely on those dots...How's that for a UAS excuse???

Friday, October 5, 2007

Rating my ukes

Being a uke addict means acquiring a lot of ukuleles. Some people refer to this as UAS (Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome). I definitely have UAS and in the relatively short time I've played the ukulele, I've already bought 15 ukes, 10 of which I still have. Part of my excuse is that there aren't many ukes in Minnesota for me to try, so if I want to try a new uke, I pretty much have to buy it. Anyway, I thought it'd be fun to rank the ukes currently in my possession. I'll rank them in order of preference:

1. KoAloha Pineapple Sunday: My most expensive uke by far. It looks and sounds great. I'd say it sounds like a cross between a mandolin & harp, with a distinctively loud high pitched sound. Easiest playing uke I have. Sound come out of it so effortlessly it almost plays itself.

2. Kanile'a super-soprano: It has the best looking wood (wide curly Koa) of any uke I own. I really love its looks. It has a nice and deep sound for a small uke. Great for Jake Shimabukuro songs.

3. G-String Honu tatoo soprano: Great soprano tone. Very resonant. The entire uke vibrates as you strum it.

4. Big Island Ukulele Honu super deluxe concert: The best workmanship of any uke I own. Wide string spacing for easy finger picking. Looks great with distinctive Honu theme.

5. Pono Cedar top tenor: Good looking uke with big sound. Sounds guitar-like to me. I installed a Dean Markley under-saddle pickup in it and it works great.

6. '20's-'30's Martin style 1: Very loud and nice tone. Not as complex of a tone as the G-String but has more bark. Extremely light ukulele. I don't play it much because it only has 12 frets.

7. KoAlana concert: It sounds great. The sound really pops out of this uke. I would have liked it more if it had better workmanship. Pretty rough fretwork overall. Many knockoff-like touches. Still, the sound is hard to beat for the money.

8. Risa uke solid: I got it as a practice uke for occasions where I can't make a lot of sound. I hardly play it. Kind of strange to play due to lack of headstock. Too much sustain on some strings when plugged in. I might sell it and get a Bugsgear down the road.

9. Applause soprano (multi-hole): Lots of great features for the money, including compansated saddle. Sounds decent. I don't really like it due to the "V" shaped neck. Feels like my thumb needs to be centered on it or it would slide off.

10. Maccaferri Islander: Well, it's a nice novelty uke. Doesn't really sound that great and only has 12 frets, so I rarely play it. I strung it with some KoAloha blue strings and it looks pretty cool.

I'm adding at least one custom ukulele into the collection next year. Since I already have too many ukes, it means some of the above ukes have to go. It probably make sense to work from the bottom up. Anyway, I hope this has been slightly interesting for anyone who has read it.

First Post

Hello. I started learning to play the ukulele in January of 2007 during a trip to Hawaii, when a guy manning the tour train station at the Dole plantation showed me and a few others some basics about an ukulele he was playing at the time. Since then, I've been totally addicted to the ukulele. So, I've decided to keep a blog about ukuleles here. Hopefully I can make some small contributions to the ukulele world while learning to play the ukulele. To kick off the blog, here's a video of me attempting to play Jake Shimabukuro's Let's Dance.

Which uke should I bring on my next trip to Oahu???

What's the maximum you'd spend on a ukulele case for your best uke?

If you could steal one of my ukes, which one would it be???

How curly do you like your koa? (preferably on a uke)

What's the maximum number of ukes a perfectly sane person should have???

Poll: How often do you play the ukulele???

Poll: Which guitar company's approach to ukes do you prefer???

Poll: What's your favorite type of headstock???

Poll: The new basic Collings concert uke (UC-1) sells for about $1k, your reaction is: