Not too many years ago, any guitarist worth his or her salt was strumming the power chords of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joan Jett, Poison and Prince. Today you’re just as likely to hear the happy, melodic sound of Over the Rainbow, Ain’t She Sweet, Five Foot Two and Princess Poopooli.
Welcome to the Third Coming of the Ukulele.
The smallest member of the guitar family is currently enjoying a renaissance in coffee houses and concert halls around the world. One was even employed for a worship service here in Baltimore by a Christian congregation while their new pipe organ was under construction.
This week, earnest newcomers and seasoned strummers alike will gather at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown for the Charm City Ukulele Festival.
The event kicks off this evening at 7:30 with a screening of the 2009 film, Mighty Uke. It continues on Saturday with a daylong series of workshops, followed by a closing concert featuring more than a dozen performers, including Baltimore’s own Victoria Vox.
The ukulele was considered the instrument of choice for comics and crooners in the 1920’s. A second wave broke in the 1950’s with the emergence of Hawaiian music, only to ebb in the late 60’s as flower-child Tiny Tim faded away.
Emory Knode of the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe has witnessed the latest revival of the ukulele from the comfort of his handsomely stocked Catonsville store.
“We’ve been selling ukuleles forever but they’ve really taken off in the last ten years. There is rarely a day that we don’t sell a uke. They’re that hot. And the buyers run the gamut from families with young kids to old timers who played Don Ho and Hawaiian stuff in the 50’s and 60’s. But 18-28 is probably the predominant age range of our buyers.”
The prices for ukuleles at Appalachian Bluegrass run from about $40 for an entry level product to $1200 for a hand-crafted, concert quality instrument. Most buyers tend to gravitate toward instruments in the $100-300 range.
Knode said Appalachian Bluegrass offers classes every Monday evening and hosts an unrehearsed uke jam at 1:00pm the third Saturday of the month.
What advice would Knode give the first time buyer?
“If they are already a guitar player, I explain that the instrument is very similar to what they have been playing. I encourage buyers to practice as much as they can. Get a good book to become familiar with the basics and look for tutorials on YouTube. There is a lot of help out there for the novice player.”
“Try to get together regularly with other people and play.”
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Playing with other people has led to steady gigs for Brooklyn, New York musician “Uke” Goldberg.
Goldberg told the Baltimore Post-Examiner he has been playing the ukulele for some 13 years. In that time, he has seen a growing appreciation for ukulele artists.
“Most of my shows are at the Ukulele Cabaret at Jimmy’s 43, which is a great audience. They are there to hear uke players and really pay attention to what is happening on stage. That is not always the case at a random bar gig.”
Goldberg, who first gained YouTube fame as a member of the New York Naked Ukulele Ensemble, said his favorite instrument is a Chinese made Martin knock-off. Understandably, he added, “I play a plastic uke at the beach.”
Goldberg said his favorite players include Alan Drogin, The Naked Uke Guy, Andru Cann and Ben Lerman just to name a few. And his advice for the beginner?
“Learn how to spin your uke in the air, then learn how to play. Wear outlandish costumes and forget tradition.”
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Wearing outlandish costumes is part of the schtick for burlesque performers Stanley Bothered and Bal’d Ligthning. The duo often pair as the baggy pants team of Hot and Bothered.
Bal’d said he has been playing the uke for 17 years. The seasoned artist noted that for a performer, the uke makes, “A fantastic prop, plus it is a functional instrument for both melody and rhythm.”
Bal’d prefers an acoustic uke for performing, observing that, “Internal pick-ups are cool, but for intimate venues, any good acoustic uke carries itself.”
Conversely, Stanley’s on-stage instrument of choice these days is his Rally banjolele.
A 6th year player, Stanley said, “The banjolele really fits my stage persona. It sounds great when I don’t have amplification and sounds great when I do. I kinda really love it. For a while I played my Stagg solid body electric uke on stage. I’ll still pull that out occasionally for some ironic shredding. It sounds cool through a pedal.”
“And when I’m at home I always keep my first ever uke on hand. It’s an Oscar-Schmidt that I got for $60 when I first started to play. It’s not as loud as the banjolele and easier to keep within reach. I actually do most of my writing on that instrument.”
Stanley Bothered’s advice for the beginner?
“Buy a ukulele. Spend about $100 on it. Not much less because you want a real instrument; not much more – you’ll buy nicer ones if it sticks. Then pick a song you like with 2 or 3 chords and practice it til your family members threaten to bust your instrument. Then find another song. Just play because it’s fun. It’s really fun.”
“Also, join a club. I did for a while when I first started and I got a lot out of it. And finally, check out YouTube. There is so much there. Song walkthroughs, strumming patterns, riffs. If you want to know how to do something, someone has made a YouTube tutorial. I still get lost for hours down that rabbit hole. Just have fun! That’s the best way to learn anything, of course. That’s the real secret, I think.”
Bal’d Lightning added, “Always remember, everybody loves the uke.”
“They’re so durn cute.”
Almost as cute as Victoria Vox and her mouth trumpet.
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The Creative Alliance presents the Charm City Ukulele Festival this week with workshops, a concert and a film. The film Mighty Uke will be screened tonight, Thursday July 24 at 7:30pm. The Creative Alliance is located at 3134 Eastern Ave, Baltimore, MD. Tickets for the screening are $12 ($9 for members) and may be purchased online.
The festival continues at the Creative Alliance on Saturday, July 26 with an assortment of workshops followed by an evening concert. The cost for the workshops is $50 ($40 for members). More information may be found by visiting the Creative Alliance online.
Hot and Bothered may be followed on Twitter @hotbotheredshow