In 2006, I went to Honolulu to build a ukulele by hand.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hunger Strike

I always tell people that my stage name is Skip Lunch. Considering the fact that I don't actually perform on stage, it's a joke. But if I don't start eating my midday meal, it's not going to be a joke much longer.

Truth is, class was much slower again today. Fitting the soundboard to the neck was a slow and frustrating experience, sanding micrometers of wood here and there for eternity. Other than that, the main task of the day was to turn a rectangle of wood into a fretboard. I don't know how they did this in the days before table saws, but kudos to those poor folks. That sensation that Mike talked about--of getting worried about making a mistake--is growing. Now that all these pieces of wood are starting to look like a ukulele, I'm terrified of screwing anything up. When I'm teaching, kids always make mistakes, but sometimes they make tiny little errors and ask for a whole new paper or start over completely, and I get so annoyed that they are wasting all the progress they've made so far, but now I understand. I mean, I'm a perfectionist anyway, but I have this notion in the back of my head that if something goes wrong, I can just start over. Mike is not that kind of teacher though. If you make a mistake, he's all about doing something to fix it--find the patch. There's no "do overs" with him. More like "undo overs." It hasn't happened to me yet, but I know it will. In class today, Phil--who is a perfectionist like me--made a mistake on his fretboard. I could tell he was disappointed, but we all know that Mike will make things work out, so Phil's frustration soon subsided. We all make mistakes. I just wonder when I'm going to make mine.

I knew that Byron was going to pick me up from the shop again for a lesson today, so I didn't feel like I had time for lunch. With Mike away at lunch, doing any work was scary. There was no one to fix my mistakes, so everything I did was hesitant. By the time Byron picked me up, I couldn't work any more and was playing on Mike's and Asa's instruments--really wonderful ukes.

Byron is too kind, and we stopped at Zippy's for a bit to eat on the way to his office, where we covered a lot more music theory. By the end of the lesson, Byron said that the only way to go further into theory is to start looking at the way sonatas and concertos are put together. We both agreed that that was not exactly my thing. I'm really more of a fugue guy. For the next week or so, I'll be practicing what he tought me and then I'll go back for a lesson before I go home. We'll see where I am then.

All of the sudden, it seems like I've come a long way since I started playing guitar when I was 14, when I took group lessons once a week for a total of 32 weeks. Until I met Byron on Tuesday, those lessons were the sum total of my musical education. I know why I didn't get started earlier. In fifth grade, we were given a choice between band class or study hall. I'll be honest: I'm lazy, so I chose study hall. I was in fifth grade for Pete's sake--I knew I wouldn't be studying. Why would I have refused the chance for free time? But, come junior high, when I started on guitar, I knew I had found something cool. Soon I was in a band with my buddies named Uranium 235 (cool, eh?). But as Bryan Adams would say, "nothin' can last forever," and Uranium 235 underwent radioactive decay. So I stagnated on guitar by myself for the next decade or so.

Many years later, I was out with my wife, Allison, and my friend Carolyn, and the two of them got to talking about taking hula lessons. In New York, if you wanted to take sasquatch wrestling lessons, you could probably find a class somewhere, so this wasn't the craziest idea I've ever heard. I actually thought it was a cool idea so I made a challenge: I told them if they took a hula class, I would learn to play the ukulele. But they didn't.

So I forgot about it.

Months later, Christmas rolled around and Allison handed me a present. It was a Fluke. It would be safe to say this was a turning point in my life, and the particular uke that she gave me was key. It would have been relatively easy for her to have found some toy ukulele, and I might likely have tossed the thing in the corner and said, "That's cute." But she did her research and found the Fluke, which hasn't been around for long but has rapidly become the entry-level ukulele for people who actually want to play ukulele. Not a toy by any means. It turns out that--completely unbeknownst to me at the time--the ukulele has been in a sort of renaissance in the last few years, and a lot of people were getting started with Flukes. I don't know how she did it, but at that point Allison knew more about ukuleles than I did. Then again, I knew nothing.

When Allison ordered the Fluke from Elderly Instruments, she also got me a video, but it was a bit above my skill level. Okay, way above my skill level, so I sent it back to exchange it for another that was more introductory. A week later the replacement video arrived, but by then I didn't need an introductory video. I played my new uke nonstop for days and was well beyond learning to tune and playing "Skip to My Lou." I guess I should have kept the first video.

A year or so later, I bought a Flea ukulele made by the same company that makes the Fluke. It doesn't sound as good as the Fluke, but the one I bought is awfully pretty, with a pineapple design on the front designed by a uker and artist named Tiki King (not his given name). This was when things got dangerous.

Uke players talk about an affliction dubbed UAS, or Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome. I've met plenty of guitar players who have rooms full of guitars, but most guitar players only own one or two. Not so with ukers. Maybe it's because they're so small that owning a bunch doesn't mean building an addition to your home, or maybe it's that you can get a decent instrument for under $200, but it is no joke that serious players end up with uke collections. Not long after I bought my Flea, I eBayed myself a banjo-ukulele hybrid known--appropriately enough--as a banjolele, that was built in the late '20s or early '30s by a company called Sovereign.

But UAS doesn't stop. A few summers later, I was walking along the banks of the river Thames in London (I was taking a summer class there) and saw a trio of buskers, one on sax, one with an upright bass, and one with a uke...or so I thought. then I noticed his uke had 10 strings. After they finished playing, I talked to the uke(?) player and learned about his instrument, which is called a tiple. Obviously I had to have one, so I eBayed, and picked up one that is also late '20s or early '30s vintage. (It's no coincidence that my banjolele and tiple were built at around the same time, but more on that in a future post.) Some ukers consider the tiple to be the bastard cousin of the uke, but I am free from prejudice.

The last instrument I bought may be the oddest. I was simply googling around some uke websites one day and learned about a South American instrument called a charango. Legend has it that when the Spanish colonists arrived, the natives took a liking to their stringed instruments, but lacked the skill to shape the wood properly, so they used what was handy: dead armadillos. Most charangos are made of wood nowadays--and wood is generally considered to be a better medium for sound amplification than dead armadillos are--but I just had to have the dead armadillo kind. So I eBayed one.

Q: How can you beat a dead armadillo?
A: You can't.

[view my uke collection]

[view today's photos]


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