Archive | Interviews

Jake Shimabukuro Interview – The Greatest Day

Nick Cody: Hi Jake,it’s so great you have a new album coming out.So the first question is,- there’s a big range of songs on the album. How did you decide which songs to actually include in the end?

Jake Shimabukuro: Well, with this album we wanted to include some covers, because the previous album was all original material. So we tried to write a little bit, but we also wanted to try some recognisable tunes … I remember early on  we were talking about covering tunes as I know “Time of the Season” was one that was on this. And we were talking about covering  Hendrix too. But we weren’t sure which one at that moment. We also talked about “Little Wing”. My all time favourite was “If 6 Was 9”. So that’s why we did a little mashup of “If 6 Was 9” with the Little Wing guitar solo at the end.

Jake Shimabukuro: And then, yeah,  we just tried writing and coming up with some ideas. And Nolan and I got to spend a lot of time on the road, writing together and putting ideas together. So we started a lot more prepared when we went into this together this time around. And that was kind of the intention,we wanted to at least have a majority of the material ready before going into the studio.

Nick Cody: And how did you happen to be working with Jerry Douglas?

Jake Shimabukuro: Oh man. Well, I’ve always been a huge fan of his. And my manager Van new Jerry from before. And also the producer of the record, R.S. Field, he also produced the Nashville Sessions record. I think Jerry is married to his cousin, or sister. I think he’s married to his cousin. So yes, I did. They’re sort of related, too. So I know that he had also mentioned to Jerry that we would love to have him on the new record as a special guest.

Nick Cody: And I read that you were originally going to do one track, but you ended up doing three!

JakeShimabukuro: Yeah. It was only supposed to be one track. But I think he had a lot of fun and enjoyed himself. So after we did the first track, then he kind of- I guess- looked at us and was like, “You guys want me on anything else?” And we’re like, “Yeah sure.” And then after that, “Another one?” It’s like “yeah!”. So it was really awesome. We were so honoured that he stuck around for so long. And stayed in the studio. It was just so generous of his time.
It’s was really a great experience playing with him.

Nick Cody: The tracks sound absolutely phenomenal. When Van told me, he says, “Oh, and Jerry Douglas is playing on this,” I thought, “What?!!!” Because I’m a big fan of his stuff with Allison Krauss.

Jake Shimabukuro: Yeah. Oh yeah, yeah. That was my first time getting to play with him. And it was just so much fun because we did everything live. Everything was tracked live. So just Jerry, Nolan Verner on bass, Evan Hutchings on drums. And that was it. Yeah, we just did a couple takes of each tune, and picked the best one out of the several.

Nick Cody: Wow. And not only have you been playing with Jerry Douglas, but also Warren Haynes as well, at the Xmas jam.

Jake Shimabukuro: Yeah, that was another great experience being able to collaborate with him. He’s an incredible guitar player. He’s just the nicest guy as well. That was this past December actually. It was such a great show. We got invited to play that the year before, but it just didn’t work out the schedule.

Our schedules didn’t jive with that. But yeah, when he invited us again, we were like oh yeah, we couldn’t miss it the second time around. And I’m so glad I went there because getting to play with Warren and some of the other musicians out there was just a tremendous experience.

Nick Cody: Well, his shows are the best of the best of the best.

JakeShimabukuro: Yeah, they are.

Nick Cody: Do you think you might record one day with Warren? That would be something to hear.

Jake Shimabukuro: Oh, yeah. Oh, that would be. Yeah. Would love to do that. We’re actually working on a duets record right now. So I’m getting pretty excited about that. Got a few tracks already recorded. And a few to work with. It’s going to take about 18 months to put this stuff together with everything’s schedule and all that. But yeah, it’s not far off to a good start.

Nick Cody: Wow!

Jake Shimabukuro: So that’d be great to get Warren out there as well.

Nick Cody: I was looking at a YouTube clip where you were talking about different pedals. And how some pedals respond very differently because they may be great with a guitar, but they’re not necessarily with a Uke. Because obviously, it’s a Piezo, it’s a different whole set up. Have you found any new pedals since the Nashville album? Or are you pretty much staying with what you’ve had so far?

Jake Shimabukuro: Oh, yeah. No, it’s changed drastically from the last time. But yeah, it’s always just experimenting and trying new things. And I think recently, some of the things that I’m just throwing out there, I’ve got this electro-harmonics thing. It’s a freeze pedal. That is so much fun to use. And yeah. On this run, I don’t have it on my board though. But I have had it on my board the beginning of the year. And it’s just been so much fun using that. And what else? I got a new reverb pedal up there. I’m still using that JAM pedals, the Delay Llama. Still my favourite delay pedal. And let’s see, what else? I’m trying to think if I have anything else new. I set up the pause. Still using the Jam pedals from my overdrive, distortions out.

Nick Cody: Have you come across the Dude pedal, the Rocket Dude pedal which is like the Dumble set?

Jake Shimabukuro: Yeah. I haven’t tried it. But I’ve heard a couple of demos on it. And yeah, those are pretty cool. You know which one I’ve also been looking at  … Oh, what do they call it? That really freaky pedal that Game Changer Audio just came out with. It’s like a lightning rod, so you’ve got to make sure it creates that distortion sound. I’ve been wanting to try that, it’s pretty wicked.

Nick Cody: Well it’s interesting you say the freeze pedal because my friend in New York who knows Bill Frisell really well said, “Bill said, this pedal will change your life.”

Jake Shimabukuro:  It has. It’s really helped us in so many new ideas. It’s a different tone, different … Yeah, it’s just an awesome, awesome tool, I think

Nick Cody: Wow. A friend of mine in Georgia, Alan Thornton asked me this question to ask you. He said that years ago you said that the right thumb was really important in playing. How has this developed with your playing over the years?

Jake  Shimabukuro: Yeah, the thumb has always been a key part to my playing because your thumb has the thickest and the largest nail. So you’re able to, I think to reach the fattest tone out of your thumb. It’s like using a really thick pick, right? So you get a really big sound.

Whenever I play a melody, or play something, as much as possible, I like to use my thumb. Just because I can get the tone that I want.

nick Cody: Yeah.

 

Jake Shimabukuro: But obviously the are tines when you need to use your other fingers to play different things, whether it’s a string skipping thing, or if it’s just a really fast quick passage. And can’t just use one finger. You have to compromise the other fingers. But the thumb has always given me the tone that I like, and I’ve been trying to work on the other fingers to get a fatter sound. But yeah, it’s never ever going to be as fat as the thumb.

Nick Cody: Yeah. … Do you have a favourite track on the new album? There’s a big, there’s a really nice diversity of material on it. Is there a particular favourite that you have on it?

Jake Shimabukuro: I don’t know if I have a favourite. But I think with a lot of the tracks, there are certain things that I really like about it. Like I really like the tone of the ukulele on Time of the Season, the opening track. And especially the distortion sound of the ukulele. I thought it just had such a great colour to it. Yeah, I think it’s one of the better … It’s one of the best … This album captured some of the best overtures of sounds that I ever recorded. And I was really happy with that. And I think just some of the tones that we’re able to hone in on sounds great. I really love the way the bass and the drums sound. They just sound so big, and so live.

And I think some of the original pieces of the album turned out pretty cool. Like “Double Pangram”, Nolan and I had written that one together. And I think the idea for that one was based on the chromatic scale. So it’s a song that utilises 12 tones of the western scale. So I thought “Pangram” it’s something that uses all the letters of the alphabet. It’s good to have a cool title for the song, it uses all 12 tones. And then the “Straight Heat”one, I really like the way that one turned out. The idea for that one was kind of like you know the Joe Beam song “One Note Samba”?

Nick Cody: Yeah, yeah.

Jake Shimabukuro: I always thought that was so cool how the melody could be a single note. But it’s very interesting because the way the harmony changes around it, even though it’s the same note but at a section, because the harmony’s changing in all these different ways. It makes the sustained melodic note very interesting because it’s always functioning at the different interval, every time the chords change. So I thought it would be cool to write a piece lie that, and that’s another one that Nolan and I wrote together. And the idea was if I were to have someone jam along to that song with us, I could just tell them to just play the A note throughout the entire song, and they would be contributing to the piece. You know?

Nick Cody: Yeah.

Jake Shimabukuro: So I went through all the different key changes, and all of the different signs, the whole chord progression like the A is always present. And it’s always functioning. Maybe, in the beginning, it’s functioning as a root, and then it functions at the fifth, and then functions at the thirds

You know it just … F Sharp 11, then the 9. It just keeps changing throughout the piece. I thought that was a cool concept. Especially with the ukulele, the A string, that first string, is always so prominent in your voice.

So I just thought it was cool to move the second, third, and fourth string around it, just keeping that A open throughout the whole piece.

Nick Cody: When I had some of the mixes in Van’s basement, he has the history of box sets and music from A to Zed there. You know?

Jake Shimabukuro: Yeah.

Nick Cody: So it’s like he has everything. And I was blown away by the tracks. I think they were still being mastered at that point. And they sound absolute … The production is first class on the album. It’s really, really good.

Jake Shimabukuro: Thank you. Thank you very much. Yeah, we really had a lot of fun working on this record. And I can’t believe it’s only coming out now. It’s just like we recorded this years ago. But yeah, I’m glad that it’s finally coming out. But yeah, we’re just being on tour, playing all the new songs from the upcoming record. Just it’s been a lot of fun playing these live. But yeah, we just can’t wait to back into the recording studio. We’re ready to start working on the next one, and this one’s not even out yet.

Nick Cody: Oh, when you’re writing yourself do you have a … when you’re writing original material, do you have a particular way of going about that?

Jake Shimabukuro: Not really. Gosh, sometimes it’s just sitting with the ukulele and just playing for an hour or two. And then you’ll come across something that, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.” It just brings up some ideas, then you just start working on it then. But I love it, Nolan and I have been writing a lot together and that’s been a lot of fun because it’s so great to have someone to just bounce ideas off of. And he can suggest things like, “Oh, we need to get this.” And I’m like, “Ah, that’s cool.” And that’ll inspire me to try and come up with a part to match what he’s doing. And so it’s really nice to have people to write with.

Jake Shimabukuro: And Dave Preston, whose out with us now, the guitar player, he’s just so creative. And it’s really good shit, you know Nolan and Dave are such great musicians. I’m so lucky to have these guys. But yeah, we’ve been talking about the three of us just coming up with new stuff. And writing things together as a trio. So I think on the next record, there’s going to be some … We’re just going to take it a whole different direction. Do something very different from the last two records. I’m looking forward to it.

Nick Cody: What I find is impressive is that you all continually developing and moving things forward. So it’s not like the same thing but slightly different. “Nashville” was very, very different. And I think when people hear the new album, and when they hear “If 6 Was 9”, minds will be blown.

Jake Shimabukuro: Oh good. I’m happy to hear that. And yeah, thanks for taking the time to listen. I really appreciate it.

Nick Cody: You’ve often cited Jeff Beck and Eddie VanHalen as influences. Have you ever been tempted to move across to the guitar at any point?

Jake Shimabukuro: No. Never had any desire to play the guitar. It’s always been the ukulele.

Nick Cody: Well, I thank you, and certainly from al the people I know for your continued development, enthusiasm, and really taking the ukulele to a different place. And showing people possibilities that most people have never, ever thought about.

Jake Shimabukuro: Thank you. I really appreciate it. And yeah, I don’t know, I’m just a big fan of the instrument. And I just love that so many people are … I just come across so many people who play it. And they share stories with me about the instrument that has transformed their lives. And it just brought them so much joy. And I love hearing things like that because that’s exactly what the ukulele does for me. And how being able to just play it all the time, and share it with people is really a dream come true. We just love doing this. And just have so much fun every night, on stage and off stage. And just constantly talking about music. Coming up with new ideas. Just trying out these things on stage in front of an audience. And it’s just a dream come true.

Nick Cody: Are you going to be over in the UK again at any point?

Jake Shimabukuro: Yeah, well we hope so. I know we’ve talked a couple times. We hope to get back there because we really had a blast the last time. So yeah, I think we’re trying to plan something for next year.

Nick Cody: Well, that would be great to meet up when you come over. It’s always an absolute pleasure to talk to you,

Jake Shimabukuro And it’s a delight to talk to you and Van.

Nick Cody :And thank you for all the work that you’re doing because it just moves the listening and the instrument to a much bigger audience. And that can only be a good thing.

Jake Shimabukuro: Thank you. I appreciate that. Thanks so much. Thanks for your time. And thanks for the support. And really hope to get back to the UK again very soon.

Nick Cody: Great, well listen, I’m going to get this interview up in the next week or so. And I’ve done a review of the album, which I think is just great as well. And I wish you all the best, you guys on the road. And take care of yourselves.

Jake Shimabukuro: Okay. Sounds great. All right, Nick, I appreciate it. You take care, and we’ll talk soon.

Nick Cody: Will do. Take care bye.

Jake Shimabukuro: Okay, aloha. Bye.

 

Jake Shimabukuro Tour Dates: http://www.jakeshimabukuro.com/tour

 

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For more information on Jake Shimabukuro, contact Erin Cook (erin@jensencom.com) and Ryan Romenesko (ryan@jensencom.com), Jensen Communications, 626.585.9575

 

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The Greatest Day by Jake Shimabukuro

In 2017 I was lucky enough to be invited by Van Fletcher, Jake’s manager to his house in Nashville to listen to the latest mixes of the new Jake album. Interviewed Jake in the UK in 2016 and we had a fascinating discussion about music and it was clear to me that he has a great love of all kinds of music. Of course Jake is well known for his brilliant Queen and Beatles covers and I had his excellent Nashville album. Now he has released The Greatest Day and its excellent.
The new album is a brilliant choice of material with some fantastic guest musicians, including Jerry Douglas who is on three tracks – If 6 Was 9, Eleanor Rigby and Go For Broke
Jake commented
“It was such an honor to have Jerry guest on the record” He was only going to play on one tune, but we had such a great time that he stayed and played on two more tracks.”

You can preorder online here 

Here is the tracklisting
  1. Time of the Season
  2. The Greatest Day
  3. Eleanor Rigby
  4. Pangram
  5. Bizarre Love Triangle
  6. Straight A’s
  7. If 6 Was 9
  8. Shape of You
  9. Go For Broke
  10. Little Echoes
  11. Mahalo John Wayne
  12. Hallelujah
I have long maintained that the ukulele is a terrific instrument, but often many (not all) ukulele players don’t explore more of its real potential. This album is a brilliant example of pushing the sonic boundaries and raises the bar for all ukulele players, but then Jake is far from just a ukulele virtuoso. In my opinion he is a superb musician who just happens to play the ukulele.
The album has a diverse range of material and kicks off with the great Zombies song “Time of the season” which has a fantastic melodic hook. The production is excellent on this track and throughout the album. The rhythm part reminds me of something Michael Jackson might arrange, a really great driving beat. The Greatest Day is a Jake composition and swings wonderfully with Jake’s part soaring in the mix. There’s also a great use of effects on the uke, which I’m not usually in favor of, but here it works really well. As with all the other tracks on the album, there is a real consideration to sonic dynamics which is essential especially for instrumental work. Few artists truly pull this off.

The title track “The Greatest Day” follows and here’s Jake talking about it

I know Jake has a love of Beatles music and Eleanor Rigby is really well arranged and sounds great especially with Jerry Douglas. I’ll kill to see Jake and Jerry play live as they work brilliantly together. “If six was nine” is where Jake takes this album to a whole new level. The playing is superb and I suspect Jimi would have approved.

The challenge for uke players in playing guitar classics is to do something new. Otherwise why not just play the guitar? On this version, there’s, a great arrangement and this could sit comfortably on “Electric Ladyland” which from me is the ultimate compliment. Jake’s playing throughout is wonderfully fluid with a lot of dynamics. He’s been described as “the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele”, but I think of him more as “The Eric Johnson of the uke” Both musicians are world class and have a very distinctive sound.
“Straight As’ is an original composition by Jake and has a great feel. Its good to see Jake writing his own original material and continuing to explore new sound combinations.

The album concludes with Hallelujah another great cover of a classic song. Those who know me, know that generally, I favor original material, but Jake is a rare individual who has the talent and creativity to bring something entirely new to such great tunes. He literally set the world alight with “While my guitar gently weeps” and I was blown away by Bohemian Rhasphody on his Ted talk. The Greatest Day will in my view continue to showcase the magic of the tiny uke to a much wider public, which is most welcome. He’s also on a trajectory for exploring new territory and that is always the sign of a smart musician.
Clearly, a great deal of time and care has gone into this recording and it shows in the result. Jake is touring extensively in the USA and Asia and audiences are in for a treat.
1

Interview with Percy Copley

When did you first become involved in music?

At an early age. I started out with a ukulele banjo and some “teach yourself” books around the age of ten. I played songs from old songbooks I found from the twenties and thirties. They had the ukulele chord windows in them and I learnt a lot about chords and chord sequences from them. I learnt a bit of piano at school. Later on I moved on to banjo in a jazz band, 5 string bluegrass banjo, guitar, mandolin, tenor guitar, harmonica – and bagpipes. I got into early jazz then folk and bluegrass and country and blues.

How similar or different is your attitude/approach towards the different instruments you play?

I think each instrument is different. In its voice or style or application. Taking up a different instrument means there is a certain sound or style I want that I don’t get from another I already play. Some songs or tunes sound better on some instruments than others. Each instrument has its place.
Perhaps the guitar is more of an all round player than the others. You can do a wider variety of things on the guitar. That’s not to say the others are limited. Perhaps the banjo, for example, has a more particular sound, especially in the mind of the public, that can make it more applicable to certain things than others. But it’s also good to surprise people by doing something unusual or unexpected.
That’s part of the fun with the ukulele. It has generally managed to stay uncategorised, apart from the Hawaiian or Formby sound, and is used in so many different styles. In some ways it is a blank page, and you can do what you want with it. Once people have got over the “when I’m cleaning windows” and “over the rainbow” thing they are happy to hear whatever you want to play.
Basically each instrument has its place in what I do. There are some similarities or influences but they all do different things.

How did you become involved in Sorefingers and what can people expect from attending that workshop?

First, let me say that SoreFingers is a lot more than a workshop! It is a week or weekend (depending on which one you go to) of immersion in music, learning and playing. It is based in bluegrass and old time music but has now opened a ukulele class too.
There are several instrument courses – banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, ukulele, singing etc etc – so you are surrounded by different sounds and sessions all the time. The students are encouraged to participate in bands and sessions, from the student bands that play on stage to the evening socializing in the bar. It is a full on experience and made better by the fact that you can play with other people on other instruments.
I first went as a student many years ago and later returned as a tutor. I have taught banjo and mandolin and recently started the ukulele course which also has brought in Phil Doleman to teach.
The teaching sessions range from straightforward techniques to individual styles and tunes. The important thing is that there is time to really work on things. It’s not just an hour long workshop to give a taster. The easter week is five days of learning and playing giving you time to really get to grips with it. You go away with your head full of stuff to work on and a happy, tired grin on your face!

What did you most learn from your experience of working with Disney?

I worked at Disney full time for nearly 25 years. And I still work there on an intermittent basis.
Working in a corporate atmosphere, especially in music, can be  challenge. Also playing every day, five days a week, to a room full of hungry, tired or overexcited people can be a tough job. It is also a very enriching experience. You get to perform music and songs over and over, giving you the chance to really work on them. It is a great way to get used to being in contact with the public on a daily basis. Part of the job I love is the contact with people. Especially people who are not necessarily there just for you as a performer. You and your music are a surprise to them – hopefully a good one!
I think the Disney job helps you to be consistent, professional and able to do the job on a daily basis.
Even if you do the same set every day – every day is different and will bring you into contact with some amazing people if you reach out to them. Music can do that.

What advice would you give to somebody starting out learning to play a musical instrument?

Get good advice. Preferably from someone you know and trust, or several people.
Get a playable instrument. Not the cheapest or the most expensive. Get one reasonably priced that will play well, but won’t ruin you if you decide to not go on with it. Too many people are discouraged by buying cheap instruments that are hard to play. If you continue you can move on to a better instrument that will inspire you, once you know more about which direction you want to go in.
Get a teacher if you can. Early help will make you progress in leaps and bounds. Teaching yourself alone can be a long hard struggle, and you can learn a lot of bad habits that will be hard to undo.
Beware of bad teaching on Youtube! There are a lot of weekend wonders out there who think they can teach you a miraculous way to do something quicker or easier. It doesn’t work. The only way to get better is work and practice. And that takes time and effort.
Enjoy learning the little steps rather than being frustrated that you aren’t a flash player yet.

What are the biggest misconceptions that people have about learning and playing the ukulele?

It’s easy.
Is it? Well lucky you then. Show me how easy it is. Go on. Play me something.
There are qualities in a ukulele that make it easier to approach but the techniques and habits you need are the same as any other stringed instrument. Practice, precision and perseverance.

It’s a small guitar.
No it isn’t. There are two bass strings missing and the notes of the strings are different and the 4th string is tuned an octave up. There are similarities between the chord shapes of the ukulele and guitar. But give a ukulele to a guitar player who’s never played one and watch their face contort as they try to figure out where to put the fingers where there are no bass strings!

It’s meant for children.
It’s meant for everyone. The ukulele’s small size can make it easier for a child to get to grips with at first and may encourage them to continue with music. But it is also an instrument that is played by people of all sizes. You can get “child size” guitars if you like. But a ukulele is a “one size fits all”, whatever size ukulele you have.

It’s not a proper instrument.
What’s a proper instrument? The ukulele is played by young and old, large and small, all across the world, from pop to classical, jazz to rock, folk to funk. Not a proper instrument? – don’t go to Hawaii!

Play any chord you like – they all fit.
The chords to a song are the chords the songwriter wanted. They decided on those chords. If the arrangement says E then play an E. Or learn to play an E. If it says Bb then play Bb. E7 and Bb6 are not substitutes except in certain circumstances. It is better to choose to play an E7 because you think it sounds better than an E in that particular circumstance rather than just because you can’t play an E. Practice, precision and perseverance!

My fingers are too fat/big/long/short/stiff…..
We all find excuses for why we can’t do things. Look at the people who play well. Look at their hands. You will see short, fat, stubby fingers and long, skinny, pointy ones. All doing the same things. Some may have a better reach over some chord stretches. But they get the job done. Maybe you need to do some finger or hand exercises to get the fingers moving. But they will. With – practice, precision and perseverance!

Which artists have you most enjoyed playing with and why?

Too many to mention any one or two by name. But always most enjoyment comes from inspiration. Bouncing stuff off somebody who then bounces something off you. A collaboration of ideas and attitudes that create great music on stage. The best feeling is playing on stage with someone you know will catch you if you stumble or fall. To be in a situation where everyone is holding each other up to be the best they can, because they want to hear that other person play, and to contribute to that great moment.
There’s nothing worse than being on stage with someone who only cares about how they look and sound, and who will do their best to make you look bad because they think that will make them look good. I’ve been in that situation and it never ends well – particularly for the person doing it. They are a lonely breed.

8. Tell us something about yourself that you have never revealed in an interview to date

I’m not very keen on oysters. I wish I was. Those who love them seem to get such pleasure out of them. So I’m always happy to give my share away to others!

Percy Copley

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Interview with Manitoba Hal by Nick Cody

What is it about the blues that you love?

I love that the music is all about the feeling and emotion. It’s built on a simple accessible framework that makes the music accessible and immediate. It’s also not important that you play well. Many great blues acts are not great musicians but they absolutely have the feel and the emotional connection. Of course, playing well doesn’t hurt.

What in your experience are the biggest misconceptions people have about earning a living from being a musician?

I think the biggest misconception is the “made it” myth. The reality in today’s music business is the new “made it” is just continuing to be able to have a job. There is no big “discovery” moment anymore, it’s a series of small discoveries and one-at-a-time marketing now. Your career is made on multiple small streams of income. CD sales, merchandise, touring income, workshops are just a few of mine. I’ve been blessed to make a good living the past 8 years from music alone.

How did your previous experience as guitarist help or hinder learning the ukulele?

It was useful in that the basic shapes and tuning are soooo related. But it took me a while to play a uke like a uke. (do I even do this now? Not sure.) Also, the fact that I knew a little about stringed instruments and scales has helped a ton with playing skills.

What’s the best advice anyone gave to you as a musician and who gave it to you?

The best advice I ever got was from my grandfather. He was a piano player in the depression years here in Canada. And he told me that being a musician is a lousy living but a great life. And he was absolutely correct. He also added that when you become a musician you take a vow of poverty and the better you stick to that vow the more you’ll enjoy the life. What I took from that is that you have to make peace with the idea that you can’t do everything. You can’t own the latest gadgets. Good things come but they come from planning and hard work.

If you could play with any musician on planet Earth that you have not yet played with, who would it be and why?

It would be my grandfather. He wasn’t famous or even influential really but by the time I came along he had quit playing publicly and by the time I could really play he was close to the end of his life. I often think how lovely it would have been to be a professional player with him and play shows together.

You are known for touring Canada, Europe and Australia. Do you have any favourite festivals that you look forward to playing and why those ones specifically?

Honestly, I love them all. They all have their special flavour and things that they do well and things they sometimes don’t do well. The bottom line for me is interaction with the fans. I am really into just hanging out with the people. I’ve never wanted to be the big “star” who hides away and then makes a grand entrance. I prefer hanging out in the pub or at the coffee shop with the folks that make it possible for me to have a living.

What are the most common issues students struggle with learning the uke and what advice would you give to someone starting out?

The most common thing I run into is the notion that playing all the songs in your songbook constitutes practice. While this is technically true, all you are practising is your repertoire. You aren’t learning anything new or building new skills. I run into tons of players who think they’re intermediate because they have been playing for several months but all they’ve done is play the same 6 or 8 chords over and over again with the same rhythm. I always suggest that students spend 15 to 20 minutes a day on pure skills development. Work on a hard strum pattern. Play the chords of a key you don’t know. Work on the chords up the neck. Learn a scale. Then after that, you can move onto practising your repertoire.

If you could go back in time 20 years and give yourself one piece of useful advice, what would it be?

The only advice I could offer my early self would be to stay positive and open to possibilities. I’ve been playing uke for over 20 years and for the first 10 I never took it that seriously. I was certain that the guitar was going to be my ticket to “making it”. In the end, it is the ukulele that has carried me around the world. I often wonder how far I could have gotten if I had spent more time with it at the beginning. That said we are where we are meant to be. So maybe I wouldn’t have even made it here. It’s hard to say I suppose and I’m just thrilled to be here.

 

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Interview with Phil Doleman by Nick Cody

Phil DolemanI understand you are currently recording in the studio, what can people expect from this new recording?

Well, the ‘studio’ is a nest of blankets and foam sheets at the bottom of my stairs! I’m recording onto my laptop with a single large diaphragm condenser mic into a Focusrite interface. With the exception of the laptop, the whole setup can be had for around £250. I think that people that know me for playing uke might be a little surprised as not only are there several 5-string banjo tracks on there, I’m also playing the guitar, bass, percussion, harmonica, etc. and there are some great guest musicians too (including my daughters!)
It’ll be released in plenty of time for me to take a box full to the Ukulele Festival of Scotland in April ?

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to record their own material?

Do it! Don’t expect amazing results at first, but just get used to how things work and how you sound. Recording yourself is a great way to improve as it can be really difficult to concentrate on playing AND listening critically! We’re all so spoilt now, many of us have recording technology in our phones that Abbey Road would have been envious of, so why not use it! Also, keep it simple. We have access to such amazing technology now you can end up with 48 tracks of nonsense in no time! If your song doesn’t work with voice and a uke or guitar, then it won’t work whatever you do with it. As it happens I’m going through all of my recordings at the moment and asking, “does it really need that extra instrument?”!
All that said, a great song well played but recorded on an answerphone is worth more than any expensively produced but soulless hit.

Phil Doleman

I see you are teaching at Sore Fingers as well as another retreat in the UK as well as a workshop in the USA. What is unique from each of these learning experiences for any student?

Sore Fingers is a bluegrass and old-time music camp, not a uke camp, so students get to mix with lots of other singers and instrumentalists, all of whom have some common musical ground. Also, the students stay with the same teacher for the whole week, so there’s a lot of opportunities to get really deep into the material. At the West Coast Retreat, people pick different tutors for different workshop sessions, but there are still workshops that continue over 3 sessions (one each day) so again you can take it further than a single hour-long session. Plus of course, both situations have plenty of time for extra-curricular playing & jamming! As for the Uke Room retreat, it’s brand new! I’m really looking forward to doing it and finding out what we can achieve!

What in your experience are the biggest misconceptions people have about learning the ukulele and other instruments?

That it’s about notes, chords, etc. or even what the best instrument or set of strings is! Of course, those are important parts, but music is about feeling, it’s about getting a reaction from you, your friends, your audience. It’s about connecting with other musicians as well as the listener. It’s about making feet tap, making people dance, smile or cry. That sounds really naff, but I don’t understand why anyone would want to make music if they haven’t been profoundly affected by listening to it at some point. There are songs I cannot listen to without the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. That’s why we learn an instrument, and the technicalities of learning it are just so you can make that happen, even if it’s only to yourself.
Oh, and the ukulele is no easier than any other instrument if you play it well ?

What’s the best advice anyone gave to you as a musician and who gave it to you?

Wow! So many… The wonderful Seattle busker Howlin’ Hobbit once said (I paraphrase), “if your prime concern isn’t entertaining people, get off the stage” which I think is brilliant! Another one, which many musicians have said at some point but I got from Bob Brozman, is “Just because you can don’t mean you should”.

If you could play with any musician on planet Earth that you have not yet played with, who would it be and why?

I’ve been really lucky to play with lots of great musicians and some of my heroes, but sadly many of those I would love to play with are no longer around. I’d have to say Dom Flemons, he’s such a great performer who really knows his music and history. If I’m allowed to pick someone who’s deceased, I’d love to strum few songs with Pete Seeger.

How useful is it to play a variety of instruments in musical development?

It’s extremely useful to be able to realise ideas. If you play bass, for example, not only can you add a bassline to your song, you also understand how basslines work, how they can drive the song along, change the harmony, etc. All of the instruments you play cross-pollinate, so you’ll get inspiration for a guitar part from something you discovered on say, a banjo. Instruments are just tools, the more tools in your box the more jobs you can do!

If you could go back in time 20 years and give yourself one piece of useful advice, what would it be?

Play what you love, regardless of whether others think you should. The music I play now is music I have been seeking out and listening to for 30 years (and playing for myself, in private), but only in the last 6 or 7 years have I been playing it in public in any meaningful way. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Oh, and get used to beans on toast and charity shop clothes!

Phil Doleman

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Jake Shimabukuro – Pushing the ukulele boundaries

I spent some time in Nashville talking to Van Fletcher Jake Shimabukuro’s manager about the next Jake record after Nashville which was already a departure from what many uke folk might expect. Van and his wife were good enough to invite me to listen to some of the new tracks which are yet to be fully mixed and mastered. Its clear to me that Van is a 100% music lover and his basement is remarkably similar in some ways to my onw music listening room – serious high end hi fi with multi speaker set up and a collection of box sets, CDs and Vinyl that essentially tells the history of all great music.

Michael Ross who runs Guitar Moderne and who is a long time friend and our wives were in for a treat that was really quite something. I’m not going to go into detail about who is playing on the next album or the tracks, but let me say now, this is a whole new jump for ukulele playing. Like many folks I love Jake’s brilliant covers of Queen and The Beatles tracks that made him so famous. When I interviewed him literally two years ago I was amazed at his diverse musical interest and I now know where a lot of this came from. The Nashville album hinted at what Jake is capable of in terms of pushing the boundaries of the uke. The next album is a whole quantum leap that I think will amaze many folks and really show just how this mighty instrument can be used in a really exciting way.

I for one really welcome these explorations which will only help show that the uke can be used for a huge range of sonic expression far beyond what many folks might imagine. Keep an eye out for Jake in 2018 and prepare for something that will really rock your musical world.

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Matthew Stead and Rob Ash

Matthew Stead and Robert Ash are a ukulele and bass duo from the UK. They write original ukulele instrumental music with a filmic and ambient feel.

Matthew and Rob were in previous bands A Fine Day for Sailing and The Mighty Stars who were championed by Steve Lamacq on Radio One. Pop impresario Kim Fowley once called them ‘godlike geniuses of pop.’

Last year Matthew, a full time professional ukulele tutor, played a sell out ukulele show at The Phoenix Theatre in Ross as well as performances at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival and the Ukulele Festival of Scotland. Matthew also wrote a piece for Uke Magazine on Hawaiian ukulele music and slack key.

This winter they are recording their first album for release in 2017 and will be touring the U.K. later in the year.

Pete Howlett

The H – Z of Ukulele Magic at the Foot of the Mountain – Interviewing Pete Howlett

It’s often said that fact is stranger than fiction. With this in mind what exactly are the chances of a bagpipe playing German ukulele builder, and a ukulele artisan of 23 year’s standing, working together at the foot of the glorious Welsh mountains?
Earlier this year I discovered the answer to this question for myself when I visited Pete Howlett and his assistant Tommy Ziegenspeck. I arrived at the workshop early one Saturday morning, which is at the foot of a quite breath taking mountain with (that day) a dusting of snow on the top. I had planned to interview both Pete and Tommy for a couple of hours, as I was mindful that it was the weekend and I didn’t want to intrude on their private time. I actually stayed for hours and quite frankly I could have kept going, if it wasn’t for having to get back to Leeds for other commitments. Pete’s generosity is also reflected massively in many other ways, including this year he is working with Uke magazine to offer a gift Howlett to a nonprofessional deserving player.
I started the interview by asking Pete about his philosophy for building instruments
“The reason I build ukes is I have a short attention span. I am 61 , I have Parkinson’s, I have an undefined future. What I want to do is to produce a product which people say “gosh that is so good “-which has that magic to it! I also get asked a lot of technical questions about what I do and I haven’t got an answer!
I failed physics as a kid and I can’t maintain my machinery because I don’t understand what they do I don’t understand science! I am not technical in the least which astonishes people!
In blues parlance it is mojo, in artistic parlance it is being that artist that enables you to put something together intuitively because you love what you do
pete howlett
I often quote Hokusai who is the Japanese print maker who printed “The Wave “. He made that when he was 73 and thought he was just about learning how to do it, and said by 86 he may have understood, and said at 90 if I am granted that-he may know what to do, and the idea is that effectively he is saying that it takes a long time to get to the point where you get to know what you are doing.  After about 22 years I am sure footed enough that I know what I am doing when I am doing it, but ask me how it works and I have no idea!
Holtzafel was an ornamental turner and he wrote a book called “An Ornamental Turning” and he said a really important thing- he said that the finish on the work is never as good as the finish on the tool- and if you link that with what Coleridge said -which is that poetry is the best words in the best order- you have the 2 principles about making.
Making is about taking the best materials that you have and putting them together in the best way possible, to respect those materials, to do the very best that you can, to take what God has created in my system, and make it as beautiful as it naturally is, and to make sure you have respect, not only for the materials, but all the tools that you use.
The idea is to always have in my mind the following when I come to work “hands to work hearts to God” This way you build for a perfect supreme being who is going to judge your work, so your peer is a perfectionist who is going to judge your work, so what would you do?
You would have to get it as good as you can. That is a quotation from the Quakers in Pennsylvania and when you look at their work you see perfection in simplicity and that is what am aiming for. I wouldn’t have a ukulele that looked like a piece of art.”
Pete also made the point that he specialises only in making ukuleles and how the internet has become a game changer in communicating to a wider audience. This is no surprise to me as he has a very active FB group and a well-designed and informative website
 “I’ve started the business 4 times because the internet and the ukulele consciousness wasn’t there at the time but I kept going. I am the first ukulele maker in the UK who concentrates solely on ukuleles I don’t make any other instruments”
One of the many things that struck me about talking to Pete and Tommy is that they have a total love for creating great instruments.  This means an almost obsessive attention to detail to ensure that all work is of the finest quality.
“When you are building there is a tightrope walk between it falling apart and holding together. You often think as a luthier as you work in isolation you know where you are in building and what works and what doesn’t.  It is kind of interesting that boutique builders have a different take on what they do than production builders…”
We also talked about the resurgence in interest for the ukulele and Pete made a very interesting observation
“Everyone quotes the 1984 George Harrison memorial concert with Paul McCartney and Jo brown on uke but it wasn’t that which lit the spark it was the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain playing Smells like Teen Spirit on Jools Holland”
Pete describes Tommy as “a luthier” and himself as “an artisan” and with some degree of humour today reconfirms this on his Facebook page –
“Just so you know – there is only one luthier working at Pete Howlett Ukulele; his name is Tom Ziegenspeck. Pete is an artisan builder, autodidact who by doing has become multi skilled across a range of disciplines. I think he could say with absolute assurance he is leading Tommy gradually astray down the artisan pathway… smile emoticon Let’s hope they both don’t get lost and one of them has the sense to keep their phone fully charged and the other brings a torch!”
TOMMYTommy is in his own right a skilled builder and brought some of his instruments for us to see. It was interesting to note the differences and similarities between these and Pete’s designs. Tommy’s ukuleles are also extremely well made, and noticeably heavier than the Howletts. It’s clear to me that there’s a great deal of mutual affection and respect between Pete and Tommy and Pete was keen when we set up the interview that we should also interview his bagpipe playing colleague from Germany! The standout instrument was Tommy’s harp ukulele, that plays as great as it looks and clearly caught Pete’s attention!
PH
“The thing which really did it for me was his degree masterpiece! I looked it and thought “This is a perfect piece”, it warrants its degree award and qualification. Very rarely do you get a perfect piece…When you are building there are anomalies which you are trying to resolve but rarely do you get a perfect piece!”
NC
what interested you in ukes how did you first get into building them?
TZ
“I started playing classical guitars at 6 years old, and I had a really good classical training, and my plan was to study classical guitar, and then I came into a guitar workshop because my instrument needed a repair and I thought “wow “and I asked him for an internship. A few days became a few weeks and he told me about the instrument making university in Germany, so I applied for a place, and they took me. Then I started studying, I specialised in plucked instruments. The first 2 years I made classical guitars, then a friend gave me a really nice small set and I couldn’t make a guitar out of it ,so I made a ukulele just for fun and I really enjoyed it.
In the 3rd year of study you have to do a longer internship for half a year and I asked for one at a guitar making workshop, but I really WANTED a ukulele making workshop, so I searched on the internet and an American Uke maker recommended Pete. “
“This was 2014 for 4 and a half months, after which I went back to Germany and finished my study. We had chats over the internet, his work is great and he was abroad which was important for me, and at this moment I was not really well informed about the ukulele scene so Pete was really the only one good instrument maker I knew. At the moment I would still say the same so it was a rally good decision to get into this workshop”
NC
so what makes for a really good instrument for you?
TZ
“I’m a guy who really likes a bit of character in an instrument, visual character, not too much, just a character. The feeling is important when you take the instrument out of the case, this decides whether you like it or not, and of course the most importation thing the tone”
NC
in building do you have a favourite wood or construction?
TZ
“For my ukuleles because I was classically trained I still use some guitar making techniques inside the instrument.You need a good design, a shape can be nice or just awful, the way you work on the instrument the quality of hand work -the first thing I do when I take an instrument is to check whether it is well made or not ,this is important as a luthier to do a really good quality build. Pete totally changed my head. When I first came here it was to do what the customer wants-so it takes 1 and a half months to build a ukulele ,but this is not practical ,so Pete taught me how to make good quality in a reasonable time. He showed me how to get a really good routine, this was really great and I see how a running business works now, so it is a really good experience for me”
NC
What is your routine on a weekly basis?
TZ
“We don’t have a big plan about what I do and what Pete does, but we are in a good relationship, in the workshop it just works. Pete has his favourite parts, so do I.I like to do all the finishes stuff, and set up. Pete really likes making the necks, so everyone has his favourite parts to do”
PH
“Tommy carves a Tommy neck shape; I build a Pete neck shape. When it comes to the neck we do a completely different process, the rest we do much the same. With my health I am restricted with my movements, so Tommy does finishes and detailing, and I do the necks. Tommy is better at finishing than me. it’s one of the things which Tommy really excels at!”
As an outside observer I can confirm Pete’s comments. The finishes on the three ukuleles Tommy brought for me to look at are excellent. Similarly, all his finishes on Howlett’s are similarly excellent and this is one of many reasons why this partnership works so well.
Tommy is also a very accomplished player and during our interaction when Tommy had one of Pete’s ukuleles in his hands there was a slightly surreal moment when Pete shouts out
“JAKE IT TOMMY!” who then proceeds to play “While my guitar gently weeps” with some relish.
Pete commented “Yes all instruments are “Jaked…”
“Team Howlett” is clearly in full demand and I for one am not at all surprised that there is so much interest in these instruments. Tommy brings additional energy to the creative process and it was quite fascinating to see these guys in action.
PH
“Tommy brings the energy of youth he would work 12 hours every day if I let him but I tell him to go home. He has a great vision of where he wants to be and is very fixed in his mind as to where he wants to be. At some point in the future he really does need his own business, and he needs to take everything from this that he needs to take back to Germany with him. If he can build on what he has learnt from here, then he can take that back to his own market.”
TZ
“If I was in Germany now I would never have the chance to make so many instruments, and that is important at this time in my life to make so many instruments.”
PH
“It really helped me to make those instruments for Hawaii really early on in 1994
carving that number of necks every month teaches you how to carve necks, hand bending difficult woods repeatedly, having loads of repeatable constant exercises to do, it is priceless to be able to do that, to learn how to do tasks ,and I can give that to Tommy. I’m about sharing my work and it is so worthwhile sharing that with Tommy, as I know he will do something with it. He has a passion for this and we have so much fun!”
Regardless of Tommy’s input it’s clear that Pete is pretty driven and has a genuine love for creating the very best instruments possible. Like all smart creative individuals, he has a genuine curiosity and love for what he does which is reflected in the final builds.
PH
“I am hoping to get to Hawaii this year. I am in the second round interview for a Winston Churchill travelling fellowship, so next week I am in London being interviewed for that.
If I am successful, my project is to meet luthiers in America and Hawaii and to discuss with them building techniques, then write the definitive book.  I am a religious person and I believe I am living in a world which has been created for me, and there is a spiritual aspect to everything that I make, which I think is where instruments find themselves.”
I highly recommend checking out Pete’s site http://petehowlettukulele.co.ukas well as his FB group page and YouTube channel.
Tommy’s site is http://www.ziegenspeck-ukulele.de/
Harp Ukulele photos courtesy of Tommy Ziegenspeck
All other photos courtesy of Susan Elton
 pete howlett

ukulele

Takahiro Shimo, Ukulele Master Builder from Japan

It was a privilege to meet up with Shimo for a delightful hour or so over coffee in Tokyo this July, (fortunately the day before a typhoon hit the city,) and he was kind enough to agree to this interview. This is the third time I have met him in Tokyo and he is always a fascinating person to talk to and as with all master instrument builders he has a very definite point of view on how best to build great musical instruments. Here he talks about what makes for a great instruments, his love of Ry Cooder and his unique philosophy when making a wide range of different instruments.
shimo ukulele
NC When did you first start to make ukuleles?
TS I graduated from luthier school
NC This was in in America?
TS Yes, at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix Arizona 1980. I opened Shimo guitars in 1982 and I bought 20 sets of guitar materials from the United States Do you know the luthier Macintyre?
NC Yes
TS Yes in Los Angeles, I bought woods from there. The most interesting thing I bought was 2 sets of Koa. At that time nobody was making Koa guitars. This is strange but interesting, because when I graduated from luthier school in 1980, and during when I was student, I had a chance to play an old Martin Koa guitar, which was maybe 100 years old, from the 1800s or something, so I had experience of Koa guitars. So when I was going to buy materials for guitars I decided to get Koa too.  So in 1992 I got an order for a ukulele, it was ordered by a ukulele player from a Hawaiian band in Japan. This band had been going from the 1970s.At that time I already had the Koa wood. So it was something strange and something interesting for me. So now I feel I have to make a ukulele, maybe this is my destiny. I feel so, because at that time nobody was buying Koa wood for guitars or even at that time for ukulele!
In Japan in 1980 it was very hard to get a ukulele at any stores because nobody played them. Maybe a few music stores had them in stock, Kamaka or something similar.
shimo comet 3NC I’ve played a number of your instruments and they all sound fantastic, so- What makes for a great sounding/playing instrument?
Of course the right materials are an important thing, this is in no doubt for everybody, including myself!
But I also have another answer, during the making of the ukulele, the luthier must love music, and must love the instrument, and make the instrument with joy. This is for me most important. And for me background music is also important, so sometimes when I am making a ukulele I have as background music the music of the future owner. If I am making your ukulele I will play your Small Change Diaries cd. This is important for me, because listening to your music and sometimes dancing, during the making of the ukulele, the ukulele is already listening to your music, so when she was born she already knows your music, like a baby, like mothers sing for their babies!
NC How long does it take from beginning to finish to create a custom ukulele?
TS Well a simple ukulele with no inlay, no binding, no decoration or anything maybe one month.
NC So for a custom build instrument that’s going to be longer?
TS 0h yes, 2 months or more, not so long-60-70 days like this.
NC Do you make one at a time or more than one-
TS Yes always, I make 4 or 5 ukuleles at once-
NC Is that just you or do you have help as well?
TS Just me, this is my “Way”- If I have my clone I don’t like him maybe!
NC I remember you saying last time we met it was like the Morgan cars philosophy you had in mind when you build instruments
TS Yes-I think so very much, now even more because I watched a video on the making of Morgan cars so I think more and more about the similarity in production philosophy.
NC That’s a great example of everything being about quality, just make the best! No Compromise!
TS Yes this is my life, my “Way”(Smiles)
NC Who have you made instruments for in terms of artists?
TS Many Japanese artists including Boo Takagi, IWAO(Yamaguchi Iwao), Yuki ‘Alani’ Yamauchi, Kazuyuki Sekiguchi, Koichi Fujii, Katsuhisa ‘Katz’ Nagao as well as Ry Cooder and Eric Clapton. Those two did not pay me but I gave them each an instrument as gifts!
NC Ry Cooder is great
TS I met him in 1988 in Tokyo He is my idol. Yes. I can sing all his songs! So when I heard he was coming to play I had to make a guitar for him. Eric Clapton was a fan of Japanese wrestling, so when he came here I met him and gave him an electric arch top guitar. A few years ago he sold some of his guitars for a donation to a hospital for alcoholics, and I saw that guitar was in this auction.
NC Why do you think the ukulele is so popular in Japan, and indeed round the world including the U.K. right now?
TS Yeah. This is very popular in Japan. Yes
NC There are some great stores just for ukuleles here
TS Ukulele is a very special instrument, lovely, cute, easy to play easy to carry. Everybody likes the sound of a ukulele.
NC Especially your ukuleles!
TS Thank you very much
NC Musicians I know Martin Simpson a friend of mine I showed him the comet 3 and the comet 7 and he said it was the best sounding ukulele he had heard.
TS I am very honored.
And I think the feeling of friendship from the ukulele is strong. I don’t know why, but everybody says the same thing.
NC I agree I never intended to play ukuleles but I really like this tiny little instrument and it went from there. The comet 7 and the comet 3, because they sound so good it inspires one to play more. I do think your instruments are in a league of their own. It was completely obvious to us when we were recording that they were the instruments to use.
TS I think I forgot something with question 2.I think the thickness of material and type of lacquer is also relevant for me , but the figures obtained from measurements and any kinds of number are for me garbage. The important thing for me is how much I love and how much I enjoy making the instrument. I think the creator of the piece and the piece are similar. If you make a teddy bear this bear is like you
So I think if I want to make a wonderful instrument I have to be a wonderful person So this is the most important thing for me So maybe I have a friend who is a funny guy and the guy makes everybody happy. With me I want to be, so maybe my creations will be the same
NC Some of the designs are definitely not traditional designs. When I saw your website there are some big variations in design, is that driven by you or by clients?
TS Always mine. Not only mine, some of them came in my dreams. From somewhere.
NC Another plane!
TS (Laugh)Yeah
I believe there are things we can’t explain, that is the simple answer. Something different from another luthier from another planet.
NC Do you insist on a certain type of string for your instruments or do you like different strings for different models? I have scoured the planet for Hilo strings since you mentioned them
TS I only think about the intonation, not sound, this is very important, because musical instruments have to make a connection, so strings are important for this. Ukulele strings are made from nylon or carbon. Not all strings are good, sometimes you know if you have 10 sets maybe one of them is not good. I have felt this many times that maybe the intonation is wrong and maybe if I change it, a new one  is correct. This is always with nylon strings, but some makes of strings are good. Now we can’t buy hilo any more, GHS is good, Worth strings are from carbon too so they are good. Carbon is more reliable than nylon, but the sound of nylon is warm, carbon is a little cooler .
NC How many of your ukuleles end up overseas?
TS I heard that some music store are selling them second hand world-wide They said they have sold them a few times to Europe Some for Germany some for Italy ,France ,Spain, maybe a few, so let’s say maybe about 5 percent internationally. So almost all for domestic
NC Well I am glad we came to Japan. We have a lot to thank Dean from Ukulele Mania for when he said “Try one of these!”
TS Yeah! He understands my style. Thank you very much
shimo
Online Resources
Shimo’s Homepage – www.shimoguitars.com
Ukulele Mania in Tokyo  – www.ukulelemania.net
Ukulele Comet photos by Karen Turner
All other photos by Susan Elton

Bill Collings master ukulele builder interviewed in Austin

“You’ve got to care, you’ve got to say I’m going to make a ukulele that makes the difference, and I’m not going to make one that’s going to be the 35 dollar uke!”

                                                                                                                                                                                Bill Collings

Bill Collings
The very first ukulele I bought was a Bill Collings UC1 prototype concert ukulele from New York, which has just sounded better and better over time. I knew that Bill has a terrific global reputation for building superb electric and acoustic instruments for many years, but many people were surprised at his foray into building ukuleles. I also have on very good authority from music industry insiders that many named artists have numerous Collings instruments which have become the gold standard when it comes to build quality. I was therefore really looking forward to finally meeting Bill in person in Austin this September.
Before I met Bill he spotted me walking across to his unit, carrying my treasured Collings UC1 , and the first words I hear from him are “Ukuleles suck!” This is the start of a wonderful hour’s conversation with a master instrument builder, with a mischievous sense of humour and a very sharp eye on both the quality and business aspect of instrument building.
NC
I never intended to be even remotely interested in ukuleles, I was mostly interested in guitars, and it was Zeke in Mat Umanov in Bleecker street New York, who came back from the Namm  show with Mat Umanov with one of your pre-production UC1 concerts  ukes, and I thought -”What the hell is that?” I’ve never seen any Collings ukes so I bought this pre-production one and loved it and used it extensively on The Small Change Diaries album.
BC
Really nice! Ukuleles are a lot of work-that’s the stupid part; you wouldn’t think that would you?
NC
As I was saying to Alex, (Bill’s right hand man  who was kind enough to show us all around the facility at Collings)I’ve been all around the world, New York ,Japan and everywhere ,and I’ve never played any of your instruments which don’t sound great, and I can’t say that for any other builder.
BC
Yeah well that’s what we try to do, so we’re supposed to care!
The other day I heard from a dealer about electric guitars, that nobody cares about fit and finish in an electric guitar ,and I thought “you know, well I guess the world is done” I mean to say that  if you don’t care about something like that ,you’ve given up, you know?
NC
Well I don’t think that is the universal accepted view
BC
I hope not
NC
I was saying to Alex that I was talking to Doug Chandler (European distributor for Collings)who I’ve known from years back, and he was saying “Nick, every artist I know that is a name has at least one Collings guitar and Pete Townsend has six of them…”
BC
Yes and probably 10 ukes- did you know that?
NC
What made you first think about building ukes and when was this?
BC
There are many times when I’ve thought about this. When I start to see some really nice ukes, like some Martin ukes, any time I would see a nice, a well-made uke ,and think “Wow that’s neat !”You know, you’d always want to go “I’d like to do that,” The last time we actually did start to make ukes,a lot of people had been asking us to make ukes ,and I think it was 2007. Back then the economy was slow, and we thought let’s just go ahead and do what ukes did for a lot of companies through the years-they would fill in in the bad times -so let’s just use this as an excuse and try it-well it didn’t fill in anything but it did make some ukes! I think we made about 600 ukes or something like that!
NC
Ok, was that the first Namm show around 2007?
BC
Somewhere around there
NC
That must be when I bought my first one
BC
Yes somewhere in there, might have been 2007 2008 yeah and I think the uke boom was going on at that time
NC
it’s still pretty busy in the UK, it’s like some cult -you know people are really, same thing with guitars, you have different price points , some people just go” how much?” and  if we were sax or violin players we wouldn’t even be starting until it were a fair bit –
BC
Right
NC
So I think there is still a lot of interest in the UK, there are a lot of big festivals, same in Japan
BC
Oh here too, but I don’t know , it was almost frantic at one point ,we could not supply the need for the ukes, we’re just too slow at it ,and nothing we made ever made any money by any means , we put more in it than we should have ,but that’s what we wanted to do!
NC
Well they all sound great
BC
Good that’s the fun part
NC
From your point of view what are the key ingredients for making a really good uke
BC
The main one is care, you’ve got to care, you’ve got to say I’m going to make a uke that makes the difference, I’m not going to make one that’s going to be the 35 dollar uke! Then it would be craftsmanship of course and materials, the right materials, not too heavy, not too light, the right thicknesses, the right everything, the right finishes, playability, I mean everything making a uke great is what makes a guitar great. The problem is they’re smaller, so it’s hard to get all that work in. You can overbuild a uke really easy, you can under build a uke too
NC
From what I see you use mahogany and koa as primary materials
BC
Yeah, I think one tradition was koa, when they started making ukes in Hawaii they used a lot of koa, and then mahogany was the other. Mahogany is a great wood it’s a great guitar wood, it’s a great uke wood, mahogany sings, koa a little less, koa is a little drier, so mahogany is a great, great, uke wood
NC
I saw you also had some walnut
BC
We’ve done walnut, we’ve done rosewood, we’ve done maple, and we’ve done a lotNC
Do you have a favourite?
DC
Mahogany is probably all around my favourite overall.
NC
I keep coming back to my favourite of yours ,the concert straight mahogany UC1BC
There you go
NC
So were your ukes inspired from the Martin tradition?
BC
Basically from Martins, and from all the ukes ever made, whenever we saw a nice looking uke, we just kept looking at them, and then styled them, made our own shapes, smoothed out the edges, similar to other shapes and sizes ,and there’s a uke!
NC
I was talking to Alex about Plek technology (Plek is cutting edge technology used in calibrating instruments). I remember being in San Francisco when the first pleks started to appear. Gary Brawer had one of the first ones in San Francisco. How much has that technology assisted in your overall build of ukes?
BC
With ukes?
NC
Yeah
NC
None at all, not a bit ,but good question! We have never been able to fit it on the plek! We do mandolins on the plek, but with the softer strings they need  a little more relief, but knowing what the proper shape is ,and we see it every day, we can do it
NC
So far it’s been tenors and concerts, have you been tempted to go down the baritone or soprano route?
BC
Yeah some people in Japan want the soprano, and like I say, and it’s always been one of those things, that it’s not like we could run the company on making ukuleles, we like making them.  It runs in the back ground, we have a couple of guys making them now and then, we are not interested in making millions of them, just fine ukuleles . If you add up all the numbers in a year we get from making them, it’s not like it pays much electric bill, but we like making them ,it’s fun!
NC
We like having them! We appreciate it! I speak on behalf of the uke playing population and say all power to you, because everyone I’ve ever played sounds good
BC
Great thank you!
NC
What’s the time scale for a concert and a tenor?
BC
In terms of hours you mean?
NC
Yes
BC
The problem was when we first started making them it would be a couple of weeks to make one, cos we didn’t have the fixtures, and it took making really good fixtures accurately to speed it up enough, but it never sped it up enough to make sense out of it!
When we started it would have been 50 hours, ok, when we finish if we had 20 hours we’d be really happy ok, but that was the problem, you’d never really quite get there, so it’s never been one of those things that financially works out. You could make them quicker, I mean obviously some people make them for 35 dollars, but I don’t get it
Bill Collings
NC
Well it’s really a uke shaped object…
BC
There’s a lot to it, just keeping the neck straight, everything right on, the right space, the right heights of everything, knowing the woods going to move so much, and you don’t have an overset, those things take more time, and you can’t really put an hour on it, so could you add it up and say it works? I could just say it doesn’t ok! and if the guys, say Donovan makes one, or I make one, it may work out, if the right guys on it ,ok ,but I can unfortunately  just say, he’s got other jobs to do!
Did Alex say how many orders we have?
BC
Yeah you have a bunch waiting to be made!
Don’t tell anyone, but we put too much time in it-shhh! We’re kind of dumb that way.
That is our problem and well reputation is everything
NC
I looked up ,and picked up from your website your  recommendation for the Macintyre  feather pick up, which I put in this concert ukulele, and then was so impressed I swapped out all the Baggs from everything  else and just put Macintyre’s in.
BC
It’s all about how you pre amp it,  how I think all those could work if everything’s coupled correctly, that’s the hard part ,that’s a different deal, that’s more than we do you know,
I wish I could say I made ukuleles in 5 hours; hey we would be making the crap out of them!
NC
“Bill says you can make a uke in 60 minutes!”
BC (laughs)
It’d be great , no you just can’t, by the time you mess with stuff it just doesn’t happen, you can make it properly and all of a sudden somebodies fitting properly and centring properly and it just takes longer than you want ,you have  a couple of good days followed by a couple of slower days…
You know we have a lot of help ,assistance we say ,so we do rough parts out on a c and c ,that would be profile a top, or a laser which has not been soft cut ,and it has been accurately cut ,those things help, but we still to make it!
How long does it take to cut a perimeter out, not that long, and a band saw it takes about the same time on a laser, but its more accurate, we don’t have to mess with it afterwards, those things we can make up some time over strictly a hand builder, but there’s nothing else that’s done on it that makes it ,you know our c and c are fancy band saws you know, and slow ,but they are accurate
NC
One of the things I was so impressed about when I came out here a couple of years ago was the combination of the best technology and with an army of hand finishers.
BC
Oh my god yes that’s the problem, that army is expensive
NC
But the end result is that reputation wise everyone goes “Bills stuff’s way way beyond everyone else”
BC
That’s the thing, we use the technology to make our parts, and then we put all our time that we originally would have into the end product, so it’s better, so the time is all there on the tail end of it ,rather than in the front end of it
NC
So you’ve gone with acoustics, into electrics, and I know people at the time were thinking “what’s happening here?” then ukuleles, so what’s next for Collings?
BC
Well anything we like, I like cheaper guitars that were made in the 30s, that’s my Waterloo style guitar, and there will be lots of those that will catch the eye of many, and we will try to eliminate some steps to make them cheaper, we won’t eliminate craftsmanship, we will just eliminate frills, so the basic guitar is there, playable, great sound, not a lot of fancy stuff
NC
Well I totally applaud that
BC
Good
 NC
At the  end of the day it’s all about the sound, and wherever I’ve have been ,whether it be in Mandolin Brothers in Staten island , or in Tokyo, every one I’ve ever picked up ,whether guitar or ukulele , sounds great
BC
That’s good, that’s what we want!
NC
It’s great work, and long may it continue, and I really thank you for doing the interview
BC
Thank you
 Bill Collings
Photos courtesy of Susan Elton