25.2.15

Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain - Flat Foot Floogie

Ok, so this old uke vid has done the rounds on more than one occasion, but I was reminded of it again recently - figured it needed revisiting. A VERY early Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain from way back when in 1989!


Filmed at a Ukulele Society Of Great Britain meet at Digswell, it features early UOGB members such as Jo Brindley, Andy Astle and uke luthier Marshall Stapleton, but also current members George Hinchcliffe and Kitty Lux too.  I think it's an absolute delight and a nice look back at the early beginnings of this much loved group.

Enjoy. (and you thought the current popularity of the uke is a recent thing??)



( DIRECT LINK )

19.2.15

A Ukulele Handbook For Beginners by Aaron and Nicole Keim - REVIEW

I do like 'nice' things. You know, where somebody has gone that extra mile on presentation of something. That's what immediately came to mind when I opened the new ukulele guidebook by Aaron Keim - 'A Ukulele Handbook For Beginners'.


Aaron Keim Ukulele Book



Aaron is one of those performers quietly but widely admired in ukulele circles. Quietly seems apt as Aaron performs with his wife Nicole as an act called 'The Quiet American' playing 'old time American folk music for modern times'. I'm not sure if he took the name from the Graham Greene novel (but I certainly hope so!).... Anyway, get back on track Barry.

So Aaron and Nicole have put out a rather lovely looking ukulele beginners book (Aaron doing the writing, Nicole on the artwork) which has recently arrived with me to take a look at. And I think they did go the extra mile as it has a really nice 'feel' to it.

Aaron Keim Ukulele Book ilustrations


Ukulele handbooks by performers are nothing new, but I do always find it interesting to see how different performers do 'their take' on the genre. In this case, we have a book that oozes style and humour too.

As I say above, Aaron is widely admired as a player, so it comes as no surprise to find the advice contained within it is sound. It's a beginners book so doesn't aim to teach 100mph shredding - but cover all the bases, chords, chord theory, scales and other interesting stuff such as 'frequently asked questions', uke history and much else. But it's the way it's brought together by a couple who LOVE music that shines through.

For me, it's like picking up a musicians notebook or journal - delivered in a laid back, relaxed style and accompanied throughout by Nicole's wonderful illustrations (all with a nautical kind of theme).

There are a good many song sheets in here too for you to work through. As a Brit, some of these came across to me as a little on the US side of things (I freely admit not knowing them all) but that's cool - all are great for beginners and I knew plenty of others. And of course - the selection fits with the 'Quiet American' ethos - American Folk of course!

Aaron Keim Ukulele Book exerpt


Even more helpful - all the songs come with tuition videos that you can download to help you along too!

To sum up, it's a book that exudes their love for the instrument and is (in my opinion) a great option for beginners looking for a sound beginners guide. It oozes style!



The book can be obtained via Aarons site at http://quietamericanmusic.com/storestore/

The Quiet American is also playing a small tour of the UK later this year, and will be one of the headliners at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in Huddersfield 22-24 May. I am sure he will have copies available as part of his Merch!


17.2.15

Tobias Elof - Moon River

Amongst all the YouTube noise, it's always so nice to come across a new video that blows you away.  Say hello to Tobias Elof


I say 'blows you away' - this is not aggressive or overly energetic - it's just beautifully played. I first saw Tobias perform on stage at the Ukulele Festival Of Great Britain as part of Elof and Wamberg and was a total highlight of the festival.

Sure, this is an advert for aNueNue - but give the guy credit where credit is due. He plays wonderfully. Oh, and speaking to him at Cheltenham, I realised he is also one of the nicest, most humble players I have met.

And, yes, I also 'covet' his dreads too...




15.2.15

Once Again on Ukulele Strumming Patterns.

It has actually been a while since I ranted on this blog on this subject, but it seems that people still get me wrong on this subject. So, what do I really think about the whole 'strumming pattern' discussion?


First off, if you are of the view that, 'that Baz from Got A Ukulele HATES strumming patterns', then, frankly you are dead wrong. And if I may say so, what a bizarre suggestion. You see, I use strumming patterns all the time - everyone does if they strum. Whatever you are playing you are strumming something of a pattern. It might be rigid and simple, it might be more freeform and abstract. You may just be making it up. Whichever, it is still a pattern of some sorts. So not a rant really, more a clarification.

If you are learning I totally support the concept of teachers recommending people work on basic patterns in order for them to start to understand how basic patterns can suit different styles of music and then can apply them to anything they play (Swing, Bossanova, Country, whatever). This is GOOD practice and will only help you as you develop your playing style.

So, no. I am not against strumming patterns in that sense at all and I would encourage you to get comfortable with quite a few of these in order to add some colour to your playing style. When you know how to play a pattern that, say, adds a Swing style to a piece of music, you can apply it to many songs that wouldn't normally use that pattern and then TOTALLY change the feel of that piece of music. This is how beginners move on from just playing rigidly to starting to feel the music and understand how they can put their own take on things.



What I do get irritated with is when people take a song sheet and feel so totally lost with the concept of how to play the song UNLESS they have a strumming pattern to tell them exactly how to play it. OK, OK, if you want to play the song exactly like somebody else, go for your life, but I think that is a bit limiting. Also bear in mind that the vast majority of stuff you may be trying to learn was not written for a ukulele in the first place, so any rigid pattern is only somebody elses interpretation. Sure, their interpretation might be a good one, but who says you have to copy them so precisely. I think this is probably the most asked question that gets posted on YouTube Uke performance videos: 'please let me know your strumming pattern...'

I fear there is another danger too. I have had many beginners get in touch with me who have not focussed first of all on the important basics and choose something complex (a song they love) with a complex 'pattern' and want to follow that rigidly. I have met beginners who get these patterns memorised and can play them accurately, but their basic rhythm and timing of chord changes is all over the place. Surely that is all the wrong way around?

Be my guest on copying patterns if you wish, but first ask yourself whether you have started to understand the feel of the basic rhythm of a song.


  • Can you strum a basic up / down pattern in time with the beat of the song? Ignore chords to start with - can you keep time with the song in it's original tempo? I would suggest that if your answer to that is 'NO' then you should focus there before worrying about patterns.
  • Can you make the required chord changes cleanly AND in time with the song you are playing? Again, concentrate here if the answer is 'NO'.
  • Is your playing very up down up down simple? If you want to add flavour to your playing, then take a look at pattern suggestions for different 'styles' of music. I just don't believe that has to be a rigidly transcribed pattern specific to one individual song.

You may say (as I have had put to me) - but this is 'boring'... Sure, it might be, but then this comes down to the mythical assumption that the ukulele is easy. Learning the very basics of strumming an instrument like the uke just MUST be more important that launching straight into rigid patterns. I suppose it comes down to whether you want to play and feel music or just copy something parrot fashion.

But Baz, surely you need patterns to then move on to more complex stuff? Well, yes, I suppose they can help give you some inspiration, but I would always encourage you to have the confidence to go 'off piste' when you want to as well. If you have mastered the basic rhythm and chord and have a few stock strumming 'styles' in your repertoire you WILL be able to do this. Try playing some songs you can play well in different styles to experiment. This is where interesting and unique ideas will fall out of your play.

Some tips for this for those who are not yet fully confident with patterns - Try picking out a different beat in the song you are playing. Perhaps from the vocal line and play along with that. Mix that up with beats (strums) from the main songs pattern and see what you come up with.

But as I always say - your uke, your choice. I am NOT against patterns, I just don't feel that prescribed patterns for specific songs are all that helpful in the long run. Use them if you must, but don't ask me what my patterns are - I am not sure I have EVER written them down. Oh, and if your pattern is just Down Up Down Up Down Up forever... then I think you DO need to look at your styles repertoire.

In short, they are not the holy grail to learning the uke and I feel beginners have enough on their plates when learning than worrying about what some other player is doing with their strumming hand. Use your ears and your internal rhythm to feel the song. Start with the boring 'basics' and go from there. There is no right and wrong in covering a song if you get the basic beat and chord progression right. Listen to uke tutors and get some pattern styles under your belts for sure though. Just don't assume that beyond that you MUST apply them to certain songs.

Rant (clarification) over!

13.2.15

Alic Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

Straight up with another review of a very affordable uke, and perhaps a viewpoint that may put the cat amongst the pigeons (again!). Say hello to the Alic Soprano ukulele.

Alic Soprano Ukulele


Remind you of anything? You know, when I first saw these I immediately thought 'Flea' - what with the moulded plastic back, wooden neck and plastic fingerboard and all. But somewhat surprisingly found that there are people who totally disagree with that.  Hmmm. Maybe, maybe not, but if you agree this is not the first uke I have seen to borrow ideas from the Flea concept. Some say its just the same concept as the Applause Ovation system of bowl backed ukes, but I think the plastic fingerboard is really the giveaway here - the Ovations don't have those. Either way, its lazy to me.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER - I am NOT saying that Alic have deliberately set out to copy to the Flea directly. I am saying that the concept is very similar and seems to me to be lazy in its inception...read on...

Regular readers may remember that rather woeful Schoenhut... Worth a read for comparison with this one.

The Alic is a low priced offering from a company I had not heard of before, and this comes in at a shade under £50. I bought this one myself wanting to see what the fuss was about, and for the first time it comes from a music shop I have not used before - Sounds Great in Cheshire. (I do like to keep my reviews from as many sources as I can to maintain impartiality).

So as I say, sorry, but to me it smacks of Flea all over it. Sure it might not have the same body or headstock shape - but really... Wooden neck attached to plastic lunchbox and a separate plastic moulded fretboard? All the key features are there as I see it. And I will say from the off that I don't like that. I know some may say all is fair in business, but I just think it's lazy and irritating when a firm decides to just use somebody elses idea. The Fleas are made by a family business led by a very nice guy in Jim Beloff - the Alics are made in Chinese factories. What happened to innovation and people having fresh ideas of their own?

Alic Soprano Ukulele body


So lets take a closer look. We have a more traditional body shape on this one with a double bout. The back and sides are one moulded piece of ABS type plastic and into that is dropped a laminate wood top, in this case stained orange. In the range they either offer a selection of flat colours like this one or their range of "3D images". The 3D ones are, I don't mind admitting, some of the worst looking things I have yet come across. You may remember those lenticular coated postcards from the 1970's that gave an impression of 3D which was more a case of making the image shimmer... Well, that, basically. And that, on top of gaudy Hawaiian types scenes of beaches, palm trees and waterfalls. Note to the ukulele industry: We 'get' that the uke was originally from Hawaii, but not every player is from there or associates themselves with that place. I think the whole Hawaiian imagery thing  is just a lazy attempt at cash in, but perhaps that is just me, and thankfully they do plain colours too. (Sorry to rant, but just covering everything in palm trees, beach scenes and tropical flowers does nothing to shake off the usual assumptions made about  the uke).

Alic Soprano Ukulele back and sides


The stain is not a high finish like on the Fleas, and is quite matte on the touch. You can just about make out some wood grain through it, but closer examination of the top shows it's just a fairly plain piece of plywood. Fleas too are made from laminate, but are much thinner woods and claim to be 'pure' Australian Hoop Pine laminate. This is unspecified and looking at the edge of the sound hole is pretty thick.

We have a plastic bridge mounting with moulded saddle. Unlike the Flea, the saddle is compensated. I've never totally bought the need for a massively compensated saddle on a soprano scale uke, but there you go. I don't suppose it can do any harm. It's also a slotted variety, so string changes will be a breeze.

The neck is hardwood finished with a light satin coating that shows the grain. Unfortunately it is made from three pieces with very obvious joints and changes in both the wood colour and the grain direction which looks messy and cheap. The satin finish is, however, nice to the touch and it feels more like a normal uke neck than the Flea does (the Flea has a quite angular neck). Then again, the Flea uses a single piece neck if such things matter to you.

Alic Soprano Ukulele neck


On to the top of the neck is a one piece fingerboard complete with moulded frets and nut. The advantages of this system are well known - perfect accuracy in reproduction with every one, and the addition of a zero fret as on the Flea means action at the nut will always be pretty much perfect. We have a total of 15 frets with 12 to the body. Rather twee looking fret markers in the shape of flowers and butterflies (me not like!) are provided in white plastic inlays at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th. There are no side markers.

Alic Soprano Ukulele fingerboard


Some words on this fretboard. As you may have learned with the Schoenhut, I did some tests on the durability of the frets. The Flea you see does eventually wear down, but mine is 5 years old and got loads of life left in it. The Schoenhut was very easy to mark, and I took it on holiday and played it each day for two weeks to find the frets were wearing down. What does that wear do? Well in the intermediate stages it creates click sounds as you fret and move the strings, but eventually will lead to strings 'bottoming out' on the fingerboard and buzzing. Useless.

So, I have tried the same test with this one. I'm sad to say that the edge of a screwdriver can easily mark the frets in a way that it won't on the Flea. I've also not had this one all that long but have noticed some wear marks on the lower frets.  One thing about the Schoenhut was pointed out to me - it is IDENTICAL to the Flea so you could (I suppose) replace it with a spare. The Alic is not quite the same shape or design so that doesn't look possible. Now, I have mentioned this to a couple of owners who claim theirs shows no wear. I don't know if there is some variability in manufacture going on here, but I can only report what I have found and that is fret wear. And fret wear with very little play.  I don't think that looks great for this one, but you mileage may vary I guess.

Up to the headstock and we have a real departure from the Flea with a fairly standard (plain) shaped headstock and geared tuners. The Alic logo is applied by a screen print, and mine is badly applied with a fault in it. The tuners look fairly generic, like those on a Makala Dolphin with open gears and pearloid buttons in white. They are cheap looking to me, but I suppose at £50 you get what you pay for. They work find though, with no grinding or uneven turning.

Alic Soprano Ukulele headstock


Completing the deal are what look at first glance to be Aquila strings, but I doubt they are (there are a LOT of copies about). Let us just say they are opaque white strings... (Hey, they MIGHT be Aquilas, but you rarely see any uke with Aquilas that don't come with a peg head tag saying so - this didn't. Somebody please correct me if I am wrong - it really doesn't change the review at all as the strings sound quite decent as you will see).

Alic Soprano Ukulele Tuners


How does it play. Well, I have to admit it, it is scarily close to the Flea in every way. I think the Flea just edges it on breadth of tone, but really, there is little in it. The way it is built also means that the setup is pretty much spot on and it's just as easy to play as a Flea. In fact, as I say, I actually prefer the neck somewhat - I just wish it looked nicer!

The volume is great and it really does have a nice tone. In a market that is seeing yet more and more plastic ukes hitting shelves, this does sound closer to a 'real' uke to my ears than they do - much like the Flea does. As I say, scarily close.

Sure, there are some flaws on it which at £50 I can expect and are not the end of the world (no lifting bridge or dodgy tuners like on the Schoenhut for example) and it sounds great. I am however worried about long term effects on the fingerboard, and maybe I got a bad one. Either way, that worry is now there for me.

Alic Soprano Ukulele Soundboard


Writing this review put me in a dilemma. You see first of all I LOVE the Flea ukes - I know they are expensive, but you are paying for a family business in the USA not a Chinese factory uke.  You are also paying for an original IDEA. Secondly, my reviews are all scored on the same basis, and I don't have a category for 'I think your design idea is just lazy'. As such, I can't score it down for that reason and have not done so. I am at liberty to say so here though! Alic - get your own ideas!

Alic Soprano Ukulele thick laminate


But I can't get over the good sound it makes - no question of it. Would I buy one for myself? Well, of course I actually DID do that, but I did that to get it on the reviews page of this site more than anything else. It now resides in the hands of my 5 year old daughter. If I had no daughter then, no, I doubt I would. Partly because I own a Flea and a Fluke original, but even if I didn't have those, I think I prefer the originals. Maybe that is me cutting my nose of to spite my face, but that is my choice. I'd rather support Jim Beloff with my money. But like everything else on Got A Ukulele, I don't like telling anyone what choices to make, I can only give my opinions.

I can see therefore how these will be a very attractive proposition to buyers. In fact I would go so far as saying it's refreshing to see ukes at this price that actually work and sound good - regular readers will know that is hardly the case in most cases.  So, I won't shout at you if you buy one (much) ! Check out the fretboards though...

STOP PRESS! I have been alerted to the fact that the Alic parent company also make these under the 'Mahilele' brand for European shops - I believe Alic is the original factory brand.


PROS

Sound almost identical to the Flea
Tough as old boots
Price

CONS

Some finish flaws and cheap look (neck, headstock)
Worry about the resilience of the fretboard

SCORES

Looks - 7
Fit and Finish 7
Sound - 8
Value For Money - 9

OVERALL - 7.8 out of 10

VIDEO REVIEW



11.2.15

Snake Oil in the Ukulele World

Coming to the uke some years ago from a guitar background, there is something I have noticed of late as this current boom in ukulele buying shows no signs of slowing. Where an instrument has a big buyers market, so the mythical ideas and gadgetry start to follow. Is Snake Oil on the rise in the uke world?



So aside from the myths that continue to perpetuate the uke world ( and I have exposed a few before on this blog - see here ) it seems that the wonder treatments are also on the rise.

At the simplest level, strings seem to have been a hot topic on social media (and this site) of late, but I am really starting to lose patience with the endless debates as to 'which string is best'. In the simplest terms strings come in three types of material, either nylon, synthetic gut  (or nylgut) solely made by the Aquila company or Fluorocarbon. Whilst traditionalists may occasionally still state they like nylon, by far the most strings are sold in the latter two categories. But let us look at fluorocarbon as a material. It is an increasingly well known fact that there are not factories set up around the world to make fluorocarbon ukulele strings - it just would not be cost effective. As such the suggestion is that they are actually sourced from fishing line makers, mainly in Japan, who make miles of the stuff already. It figures, and I believe that Worth have admitted that they source their string materials from Seaguar fishing line makers. Waverly Street ukes ship theirs with the same fishing lines.  (Note - i am not saying any old cheap fishing line will work here, we are talking about high quality fluorocarbon)

(note - I am not saying it is wrong for companies to repackage fishing line into ukulele sets - they provide a service that allows people to buy strings in a variety of gauges and brands for a lot less money than it would cost to buy lots of reels in bulk. My point is more about how people will endlessly debate the differences that I am not totally convinced are there (or if they are, not to a degree that really matters))

Here is a sound test of a few - the final ones being fishing lines https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KR6Y6m3Mn2Y. And here is a discussion on the subject - http://forum.ukuleleunderground.com/showthread.php?9232-Fluorocarbon-String-Conspiracy/page4

And so, despite differences in gauges (that might be only minimally different) and densities, most fluorocarbon strings are made of the same stuff. So why then do people argue until they are blue in the face that brand X is better than brand Y? I am increasingly of the view that people believe what they want to believe, and this is precisely why I don't tend to recommend particular strings. The best string is the one that sounds best to your ears. Pure and simple.

But yet the arguments can also take a turn into the ridiculous too. My particular favourite are those that attempt to hold up one of either Worth Clears or Worth Browns as being better. To the best of my knowledge they are pretty much identical (or they sound that way to me). They may have different compositions I suppose, but my suggestion is this. With these strings, or indeed with many other fluorocarbon strings - I would wager that 95% of people if given a blind listening test would not be able to pick them apart, or more importantly, pick out what they thought were 'their' preferred strings.

So not quite Snake Oil perhaps, but a case that I believe shows that the 'wild differences' people sense in string types just don't actually exist. For me, if you like fluorocarbon strings, any good reputable fluorocarbon will do you well. And most importantly of all, NO strings will make you a better player or make you sound like anyone else. The biggest impact on your playing is your own talent.

So beyond that regular dispute I see online, lately I have seen discussions that suggest only certain types of straps work well on ukes for reasons of 'dampening the soundboard'. The fact that those discussions both recommended strap hole hooks, whole body wrapped straps, half straps and full guitar style straps as all being 'good' (according to different people) seems lost on those in the debate. I've seen people claiming they won't fit a strap button to a uke because it will change the tone.... Oh please... The simple fact seems to me that this is another case of people convincing themselves that what they have chosen sounds good and 'best', and no other opinion can hold any water whatsoever. To a point, I agree with that approach - if something works for a player then it works and that is a good thing. Where I think things get crazy is when they take to the internet to tell other people that their choice is 'the best'...

I've seen debates on the effects on sustain of different weight necks and even tuners. Really? On a uke? and instrument not famed for its sustain? The other day I saw someone talking about liquid treatments to apply to strings to either (I wasn't paying too much notice, was busy preparing a noose), prolong their life / make them play better / feel better. Honestly...

What are people searching for here? A holy grail of techniques and gizmos combining tuner choices, straps and strings that convinces them they have squeezed a single 1% more tone out of their ukes over their rivals? Surely that is completely subjective? Even if true (and provable) wouldn't their efforts be better placed in just improving how they play rather than looking for technical crutches?  "Hey, I may not be able to play that difficult chord, but at least my string and strap combination has a micro amount more sustain than your uke does!"...

And then the latest one hit me the other day - the concept of techniques to speed up the process of solid woods opening up and ageing. In the guitar world this has been debated for years, but not once have I really seen a convincing argument.

With solid woods, there is no doubt that they do change over time with playing. The wood grains 'open up' and many will claim that this 'improves' the sounds. They might be right and I have certainly noted differences over the years with my solid wood instruments. Do they improve? Hard to say - and how on earth do you test or prove that reliably? If I look at my playing today compared to how it was ten years ago a lot of other things have changed. My technique, my skill level, my tastes and more than likely, my strings. Even if I had recordings from ten years ago and today, how could I take any comparison as being reliable? I can't.

Yet lately I have seen people talking about the benefits of putting a new ukulele next to a loudspeaker for hours playing bass notes to vibrate the wood. I mean, really? Would you? Why not just play the damn thing? And then I see that the company Tonerite are marketing a ukulele version of their gizmo designed to sit on the uke and speed the opening up process along. A snip at $200.... Apparently some fine ukulele players have endorsed them, and swear they work for them, so perhaps I don't know what I am talking about. But for me, I will stick to playing my uke and letting it age naturally. I know that there is no way at all I could prove that any gadget has improved the opening up process so I won't bother.

Being a ukulele player is not meant to be complicated. All it needs is a uke, some strings and your fingers - oh and your own efforts.

Yet alongside much else, it would appear owners of ukes are as easily taken along as the guitar world ever was with money making ideas that supposedly will improve your instrument and your playing. It just strikes me that if people spent as much time  playing than they did testing and debating some of the things discussed here, then maybe they will find the real holy grail of getting a better sound from a uke - practice!

What do you think?



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