16.10.14

UkePunk - Punk Police - REVIEW

I've been looking to writing this one up. The first album from Lancashire's (Ramsbottom's to be precise) own ukulele punk outfit -  UkePunk, with Punk Police.

UkePunk are a trio consisting of Paul Davies (UkePunk himself, songwriter and uke player) with Andy Moore on Bass and Murf on Percussion. All three performers provide vocals, with UkePunk taking the lead.

UkePunk
UkePunk - Paul Davies centre. Credit: UkePunk

I've been looking forward to it because (and he may not know this) since before I starting this site I've enjoyed watching Pauls videos on YouTube. In fact, the band go back to 2009, and have supported the likes of Stiff Little Fingers, The Fall and UK Subs creating quite a following on the punk circuit. I've enjoyed all of it.

As I have said before on this site, not only am I a punk fan, but I am always drawn to anyone who chooses to play a ukulele in a style that steps to the side of 'the norm'. Most of his stuff is (and all of this album is) self penned, and that is also something I always take my hat off to.

So on Punk Police we have 10 tracks of punk uke goodness penned by Davies. We open with the title track 'Punk Police' in which the band rally against those in the uke community who choose to rally and rant against those who don't 'DO' punk in they way they think it should be done.... "We were at the Free Trade Hall where we wrote the book of rules".... Sounds like the ukulele world generally  to me.... It's a spiky opener that sets the scene perfectly.

UkePunk Punk Police


After Imaginary Girlfriend  (a creepily fun take on internet porn.. ("I know you'll never disappear from my screen") is my next favourite - James Bond - a superbly witty and fun tribute to the Bond myth, complete with a tip of the cap at the end to Barry Nelson (Wikipedia if you don't know!).

Throughout the album we have a mix or rants against the establishment (I'm A European, Mister Mister), unrequited  love tales (Girl Across The Road) and vignettes on past times and today (Thrill - a song written by Paul just before the IRA bombing in Manchester and another favourite that has shades of the Blockheads, The Specials and others to me - perhaps a touch of the Arctic Monkeys if that doesn't offend too much Paul!).

Northern Girls Are Gravy, aside from having the best title on the album is a bouncing salute to disco fumblings with the Northern Girls of our youth -  "She only lived round the corner, I used to fancy her mother".  

Then a final couple of songs before the end where we move from straight up punk to punk dub reggae and I love them both. Hate to mention comparisons again, but I am sure Paul won't be too upset with reflections of later era Clash. Who wouldn't want to be compared to Joe Strummer? This Is The Business has a superb groove hook, and Mister Mister just drives along complete with some great keys work by Damien Heakin. Ska punk!

The album ends with Frack Off, his track in support of the anti Fracking lobby which is standing up against the hugely controversial industrial drilling works in his native Lancashire amongst other places. It's a great rallying cry and something I know is important to him. Starting and ending in a honky tonk style, complete with tinkling piano, the band ramp up the punk with a great chant mid way. It's a great end to the CD.



Overall, the album does what every good punk album should. There are those who (still..) class punk as something that meant 'no talent'. Anyone who knows good punk realises that there is some great musicianship out there. This album has just that - a very tight band, good tunes, excellent lyrics and I have really enjoyed it.  It's not really a uke album and I like that. Its a punk album.. with a band. Whilst the uke is there, it never tries to be in your face and it's all nicely balanced.. It's not the longest album in the world though at just under 33 minutes, but, yes, its a punk album...There have been far shorter ones!

And as the cover states, 'NO guitars were used in the making of this album'..!

For those tiring of the noodly uke style, I'd encourage you to grab a copy and do check out the band site at http://www.ukepunk.com. Recommended.

TRACK LISTING

1.  Punk Police
2.  Imaginary Girlfriend
3.  James Bond
4.  Girl Across The Road
5.  I'm A European
6.  Thrill
7.  Northern Girls Are Gravy
8.  This Is The Business
9.  Mister Mister
10.  Frack Off

Paul Davies - UkePunk
Paul Davies - credit UkePunk

10.10.14

Parts Of The Ukulele - VIDEO

Back to absolute basics for a moment - one for people yet to buy their first ukulele. Time to look at the various parts of the uke.


Enjoy!


5.10.14

Online Ukulele Shopping and the Setup Myth

On of the most common pieces of advice you will see being given to any ukulele beginner is to always try the instrument out before you buy it. But that really isn't always possible for some people and they revert to buying online. Are there any pitfalls here? What can you expect?




The opening piece of advice is completely sound. Despite what uke you have your heart set on, playing a few ukuleles in a shop may well change your mind, and it will also allow you to inspect the build, consider how it plays to YOUR fingers and ears. It certainly vastly reduces the chances of  issues later on. But for many people living in remote places, a visit to a dealer may be several hours drive away. Even for me, the nearest dealers I TRUST (and more on that trust a little later) are either several hours drive north or south and very few in-between. As such, the vast majority of my ukes have been bought online (and some internationally).

So how do I deal with risks? Well mainly, I have taught myself the ins and outs of setting a uke up. I know that if a uke needs work on the nut or saddle action, I can do it. I know that if I don't like the strings I will change them immediately. I can deal with setting the friction correctly on peg tuners. As such, I can deal with most things, but of course cannot deal with the potential that I just won't like the uke. That is the risk I knowingly take.  For beginners though, who may find even tuning the instrument a challenge to start with, how should they buy if online shopping is their only option?

Well my advice is to be extremely careful where you buy. I actually only really buy from two or three stores, and they are shops where I have built a relationship with the people who run them. They have always been consistent and care about what they send out and how they send them. Please do beware with the many new online only stores that are cropping up all the time - you will spot them, no real bricks and mortar shops, product ranges at the lower end only..... bandwagon jumping really.  I am not saying all these are bad, but let us just say I have heard some horror stories of ukes unfit for play being sent out, or instruments arriving in next to no packaging... broken.

I actually set up a list of trusted uke stores on this very site ( SEE HERE ).  You will note that there are not many, but that is because I either haven't had experience with others, or haven't had enough sound testimonials from others.  For now though, these are the stores I recommend.

( A side note here - I get many emails from stores around the world asking to feature, some with less than impressive product ranges or websites. This page is not intended to be a Yellow Pages of stores, so please don't ask. If I experience great service then I will add you. If I hear about great service enough from people I really trust, I may add the store. If I simply added every shop then the page would become pointless.)

But back to the point.  Even with a great shop you may get iffy instruments sneaking through. It is natural, and at the end of the day, a busy store doesn't have the time to spend over an hour on each uke that goes out. Perhaps some do, but what I am saying is that I think it is unreasonable to expect that. You would think that all ukes should come from the factory ready to go, but sadly that just isn't the case. Even at the high end, problems can materialise. At the lower end, these instruments are made in vast quantities on a factory production line, put in boxes and shipped around the world with fairly minimal QC checks at the factory in many cases. Problems do arise (and the cheaper you go, the problems get more likely). But a GOOD store will at least give the uke a once over and will also deal with any issues with the customer promptly and politely. I have experienced that with the stores I choose to shop with.

So on to that issue of 'setup'. I think that term is incorrectly used in many cases (and I guess I am guilty of it too). To say 'choose this store, because they will give the uke a full setup' is misleading. Perhaps it would be better to say that a good store will 'give the uke a pre-sale check' . There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, a full setup takes a good deal of time to run through. But also remember that there are elements of a setup that are personal to the uke player and no dealer knows exactly how you like your action for example.


What I WOULD expect from a good store

1. A check that the action at nut and saddle are within acceptable tolerances. Importantly this does not mean that they will be perfect for you, but just that they are playable in tune.
2. A check that fittings like tuners and buttons are tight
3. A check that strings do not have any nicks in them
4. Most importantly, an all over visual check of the build to ensure that the body is not twisted or cracked, the neck is not twisted or mis set, that the bridge is not lifting or the top sinking etc. If they find one of those I would expect them to have already returned it to their supplier and not have sent it to you!

Some dealers may do more, some may do less, but I consider these the basics.

When we use the term 'setup' though this can include changing strings, adjusting the saddle height to a position that the player  wants, filing fret edges, oiling dry fingerboards, inspecting bracing and the like. Whilst you may be able to pay a store to do that, personally I think this should be for the player to learn. For example, the height of the saddle, adjusting the action of the uke as it does, is not a universal thing. There is no one right height for every player, only a range within which the uke will accurately intonate. Some people prefer a slightly higher action, some very close to the fretboard. Personally I like an action set at about 3mm (or just under ⅛ inch) above the top of the 12th fret, but that doesn't mean it is right for you.

And I say this because I have read people commenting on stores saying the action was 'all wrong' and I often genuinely wonder what the hell they mean. Personally I have never been in a receipt of a uke from a trusted dealer where the action was 'all wrong' (and I assume that to mean either the strings were touching the frets or they were an inch above!). In my reviews I will not mark a uke down if the action is tolerable, but not quite to my liking as I will adjust that. Send me a uke though with an action ridiculously high and I WILL mark it down!   In fact, most factories and stores will tend to send ukes out with action a little on the high side for the simple reason that it is safer in terms of returns and complaints.

You really wouldn't want this through your letterbox...


I HAVE however bought cheaper ukes from random dealers on places like ebay or Amazon and found exactly that. I once bought a Mahalo (direct from Amazon) to find the neck was mis set, the bridge was mis set and the action was way, way too high. And that really highlights my point. A good dealer would have had trouble getting that through the pre-sale checks, and I would never have received it. Still it made for a good review to highlight the flaws that can plague ukuleles at the lower end. Do I blame the dealer? Partly I suppose for letting it through, but ultimately the manufacturer needs to answer for allowing it out of China too!

I've even received ukes with a slight bit of buzz, but don't consider that to be a capital crime necessarily. These things can often be fixed with a string change, a thin shim under the saddle, or even just letting the uke settle down from transit. I would never take to the internet to slam a store if that happened to me.

So to sum up, knowing that buying a first uke can be a daunting experience, take note of these bullet points.
  • If you can buy a uke in person, DO SO. If you are in a random store and the dealer refuses to check it over or simply has a wall of £19.99 ukes,  choose another shop!
  • Problems can be found in ALL ukes whether cheap or highly expensive. The chances of problems as you go cheaper rises considerably though!
  • A trusted dealer should not let flawed instruments go out, but bear in mind mistakes DO happen. A trusted dealer is also one who will deal with your problems professionally.
  • Do not assume that a dealer is going to spend hours on your ukulele setting it up to a standard fit for Jake Shimabukuro. Expect to need to do some tweaking yourself and learn how to do so.
  • If you are buying online, choose a bricks and mortar shop, and try to place your order over the phone. Actually ask the dealer to give it a once over.
  • There is only so much a dealer can inspect in the process of a sale. I would challenge anyone to spot that a brace is about to pop loose, or there is a hairline crack starting on the underside of the soundboard that may, in time, manifest itself as a full on split. If they happen, you have your manufacturers warranty
  • If you don't like the strings the uke arrives with, that isn't the dealers fault. A good dealer though will stock good string brands and for a charge will fit them before they ship to you
  • Generally speaking, avoid eBay, Amazon, Walmart etc. They will simply ship you the uke straight as it arrived from the factory without opening the box. (There are some exceptions, as some trusted dealers run eBay and Amazon marketplace stores). 
  • Remember, going to a random shop or supermarket to save $2 in the instrument price is crazy logic. There are specialist stores out there, so use them. (Try calling Amazon Customer Support lines to explain that you have a problem with a fret or nut action and see if they have a single clue as to what you mean....)

So go carefully people. Question anybody suggesting you buy from 'WeSellAnyUke.com' just because they are a dollar or two cheaper. Understand that dealers can only do so much, but their reputation rests on you being happy so work with them if things go wrong. And most of all, support your local specialist shops!

3.10.14

Get Plucky With The Ukulele by Will Grove-White - REVIEW

There have been a few ukulele books published over the last few years (dang, even I wrote some), but when you hear that a performer from the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain is writing one, then my ears pricked up. He will KNOW what he is talking about. I've been lucky to have a look at an early copy and can tell you now that it comes highly recommended.


Get Plucky With The Ukulele


Get Plucky ( A reference to the inspired cover of Get Lucky that Will put out, complete with chicken noises) describes itself as a Quick And Easy Guide To All Things Ukulele. And that word 'All' is kind of important here. Sure there are chord books out there, tuition books, ukulele history books, but Will has chosen to squeeze in all bases in this beautifully presented tome. After a very nice foreword from the UOGB's George Hinchcliffe we are off with some background to Will, a brief introduction to the uke, a look back at the original ukulele greats (and yes Formby Fans, he's in there) but thankfully also looking to the stars of the present day

We have a look at ukulele history, the boom, the decline and the current revival and to the future in which Will describes the uke as being able to reinvent itself if the time comes for the nay sayers to claim it is dead and buried.

We look at celebrity uke players, and not just the usual faces,  but really interesting pieces about some names that I have to admit were new to me.

Get Plucky With The Ukulele Elvis


The book then switches to tutor mode, but throughout is done in a very simple and easy follow way. How to buy one, how to hold one, reading chord boxes. etc. We have some songs to play along to, and many one chord songs for absolute beginners. All are recognisable, but then some that I have never seen in a beginners song book for any instrument (Sweet Home Chicago, Midnight Special). And NO Folsom Prison! (Actually, there is a reference to Folsom Prison in the book, but its not what you think.. I won't spoil it for you though).  And as you progress you can move to the advanced section where Will looks at strumming variations, Inversions, alternate tunings and more.

Throughout it is written in plain english with an undercurrent of Wills wit and humour. As a grumpy blogger it is also refreshing to see Will prepared to speak his mind too (like me he thinks Hawaiian shirts should be kept to a minimum, knows that not everybody holds a special place in their heart for George Formby and that the term 'uke-tastic' is a crime against the ukulele), but then the book oozes encouragement and good humour so this is not a case of Will being argumentative.  Hmmmm, perhaps I should take notes.

Oh - and he also, like me, thinks there is no rule against plectrums.... but we've been over that on this site before....

As someone who seems to spend all my waking hours immersed in the ukulele, I learned much from this book and that pleased me immensely. The tuition sections are not prescriptive and throughout Will does not bark at the reader that it MUST me done this way - quite the opposite. He is clearly a champion for putting fun and making music above being a purist. My kind of guy.

Get Plucky With The Ukulele clubs


I really think there is something in here for everyone (and yes, in his Reference section he gives a plug to this very website calling it a 'Hive of Ukulele Activity' - I am just making that clear for when someone 'ah yes Barry but you WOULD say you liked it wouldn't you? - My answer to that is, 'Yes I would, because its a damn nice book'...)

And a final word on that term 'nice'. It's beautifully presented and illustrated throughout. Nice glossy pictures, beautiful cover and illustrative doodles by Jonny Hannah - hats off to him.

I started this review mentioning that there are a good few uke books out there, but no 'catch all'. Whether you are just starting out or a seasoned pro, I cannot think of a reason why you wouldn't like this one on your shelf. Highly recommended.


Get Plucky With The Ukulele by Will Grove-White is published by Cassell / Octopus Publishing and is released in the UK on 6 October and the US on 4 November priced £14.99. Available at all good retailers. Some Amazon links below who are taking pre orders plus a link direct to the UOGB which gives Will a fairer deal!

AMAZON.COM

AMAZON.CO.UK

UOGB Store


Will Grove-White with mini ukulele
Credit Will Grove-White


28.9.14

The Mersey Belles - INTERVIEW

It has taken us a little bit of time to get this one together (my fault!), but I have been wanting to feature the Mersey Belles on Got A Ukulele for some time now.

The Mersey Belles are Danielle Laura Perkins (Nancy) and Lindsey Stainthorpe (Pearl) who have seen an astronomic rise in their fan base over the last year or so, performing with style and verve. They describe themselves as 'cousins who take you on a trip down memory lane,  infusing the ukulele with fabulous renditions of all the old classics from the 20's, whilst making songs from the 21st century sound better than they do on the wireless radio!'

Amber Von Nagel from Ukulele Magazine called them, 'English Uke Chanteuses who channel a retro vibe in pursuit of modern day fun'.

What I know is that I last saw them on the main stage of the recent Grand Northern Ukulele Festival and the crowd went wild for them.  I have been catching up with the duo recently.


The Mersey Belles Ukulele Duo pose
Credit - Kelly Loughlin


Hi both, lets start with your musical backgrounds.

Pearl:  I have played musical instruments since I was about six from piano to guitar.  I have also been a singer since I was 12 in choirs. My mum has been a massive influence on me as she is the musical inspiration in my life. She's a music teacher and a piano tutor.  I love music; it's good for the soul!

Nancy:  Well I have been playing music for as long as I can remember. My mum also was a grade 8 pianist and played a lot as I was growing up. I also played classical flute and piano and had lessons in both. When school was over I went to Bretton Hall,  a college for arts where I studied music and learned to play a little bit of guitar and steel drums. The rest is history really. I had a short break from music when my daughter Nancy Jr was born, but it was short lived. I'm not happy if I'm not being musical.



What brought you together as a performing duo then?

Nancy: We have a couple of mutual friends in the Liverpool music scene, and it was Elaine Kinsella from Ukulele Club Liverpool who formally introduced us.

Pearl:  Yes in early 2013 Elaine received an email from a Jennifer John who runs a company called Sense of Sound in Liverpool. She was asking if she knew anyone who was playing the ukulele who would like to join a duo. The message was passed on to me, I emailed Nancy and here we are today in 2014 - bigger and stronger than ever!


So was it at Ukulele Club Liverpool where you started playing then?

Pearl:  I first picked up the ukulele in September 2012 with a group of friends from a choir I was in at the time. I was self taught and transferred my skills from the guitar to the ukulele. I then supported Elaine in forming the UCL and played with them for about two months.


A question my blog readers are always interested in. Tell me about your ukes and what you are playing today.

Pearl:  My first ukulele was a £30 soprano from a Liverpool music store called Curlys music. It was a Redwood brand.  We now have brand spanking new Kala SEME ukes following our endorsement by the brand. They are electro acoustics and we have been waiting so long for them to come out. Beautiful instruments.

Nancy: My first uke was a Kala KA FMS904 and it was a gift from Ian McNabb (the front man for The Icicle Works) in return for singing on his album 'Little Episodes'. I think that was about March 2012 but don't quote me! It's the nicest uke I've played and I still play it most days.

I'm going to sound like an advert for Kala now but they are what I have always played. I have a Kala tenor KA-JTE/2TS (the one with the F holes). We also both have Kala sopranos (the KA-ASAC-S) and I also have an iUke which I LOVE.


OK, so you met, got together, but when did you first perform as The Mersey Belles?

Nancy:  My old music manager used to own a little coffee shop in Liverpool. He had heard about us and asked us to do a weekly residency there. It was a good way to start out actually, now I think about it.


Yes, I think a residency can be a great way to start out. Were the receptions good? (I presume they were!)

Nancy:  We did have great receptions back then, but we have really perfected our act in the last 18 months. We have developed so much as players.

Pearl:  It was great getting that coffee shop residency. It provided a great platform to where we are now as performers.



Tell me about your gig highlights. There must be a few!

Pearl:  Every gig we have ever done is so special in my eyes and they are all equally amazing. Just getting up on stage and being a Mersey Belle for me is the highlight.  I love the audience reactions and i've found at the most recent gigs people are now singing along to our versions of the songs we do. Awesome!

Nancy:  You know what? Pearl is right. We have done so many awesome gigs it's hard to pin point one. But I will, and that was our recent performance at GNUF. We have been playing all summer in preparation for that gig and all the hard work paid off for us in the end. Best gig I have ever done I think. We absolutely loved the whole event, workshop and all.


Mersey Belles on stage at GNUF 2014
Mersey Belles on stage at GNUF 2014



Within my readership are a lot of players taking steps to getting out and performing. What are your best beginners tips for stage performance?

Nancy:  One tip from me is to try and not take yourself too seriously. Obviously me and Pearl DO take our music seriously, but we are doing what we do because of the love of it and to have fun. I think it's important to always remember that.

Pearl: Be prepared, be organised, and lastly, get up and love what you are doing. It comes across when you are on stage.



I can agree with all of that! But what about nerves though? We all get them!

Pearl: I get terrible nerves. Even though I'm a confident person it is still really nerve wracking performing to large AND small audiences. But as soon as I get on stage and look at Nancy I forget those nerves and sing my heart out!

Nancy: I do get nervous, yes, but not as much as I used to back when we first started. My problem with my nerves is that it's my uke playing that suffers, not my singing. I've been a professional singer for a good few years now and only playing the uke for a couple, so that's probably why.

The Mersey Belles Ukulele Duo laughing
Credit - Kelly Loughlin



Lets look to the future now. Is the duo model the one you intend to stick with? I know you have collaborated with other bands in the past.

Pearl: Personally, I love the duo concept, but we also love collaborating with other uke groups and bands and sharing the love of the ukulele.

Nancy: Yeah, we are just Nancy and Pearl and that's the way we are gonna mainly keep it. But we do like to have the odd collaboration. We recently had a 'band' play with us at the Summer Strum festival where we had a uBass played by Steve from UkeBox, Elaine from UCL on cajon and Sophie Gray playing accordion. We loved every minute of it and the sound was so full and rich. But for me i'd like to save the collaborations as one offs. That way you appreciate them more I think.



Who really impresses you in the ukulele world today?

Pearl:  We were at GNUF as we said, and I enjoyed all the performers. I was really impressed with Tricity Vogue and ZoĆ« Bestel.

Nancy: I have to keep with the girl theme too with Danielle Ate The Sandwich. I like her style a lot. And of course, Sarah Maisel who I fully intend on watching at next years GNUF.  I think one of my favourite players though is our mate Ukulele Uff. I've had a couple of lessons off him and I intend on going back as soon as we have a spare minute!

The Mersey Belles Ukulele Duo on wall
Credit - Kelly Loughlin


So what is next in the diary for the Belles?

Nancy: Well we have a few private events to play first, and then...

Gala Dinner for Macmillan at Crewe Hall on 3rd October
Heswall Hall 10th October
Liverpool Everyman Theatre on 22nd October
Hoose Bar, Hoylake on 31 October
Old Swan Pub, Liverpool on 8th November
Wallasey Village Christmas Fair on 27th November
Thornton Hough Village Club on 29th November
The Old Swan Pub again on 6th December
Grand And Newton Ladies Guild at West Kirby on 18th December.

I could go on........


Well, I look forward to seeing you on a stage again soon. Been a lot of fun talking to you and thanks. Let's end this with a song!  And to my readers - make sure you check out http://merseybelles.co.uk