13.8.14

EEK For Eurovision - Bingy Bingy Bangy Bong.

I can't resist getting behind this song.  A little while ago the excellent Omega Music launched an online competition called the Ukuvision Song Contest 2014, in which people submitted videos of original songs which then went to public vote to win a Kala Uke.

Matt from Omega got in touch today to tell me that Martyn 'Eek' Cooper who wrote this one is going to submit it for the actual Eurovision Song Contest 2015. And you know, he is just about crazy and loveable enough to pull it off.

Martyn, better known as his clowning alter ego 'Eek' is a well known face on ukulele circuits over here in the UK, and has performed at the largest festivals. He's also a very funny and jolly nice chap. Here he is on stage at the 2013 Grand Northern Ukulele Festival (thats him on the left!) with Phil Doleman, Tony Casey and Mary Agnes Krell. He also compered the Saturday.



Anyway - enough waffling, here's the video.  Give it a like!

11.8.14

Workshops With A Difference at The Grand Northern Ukulele Festival

One thing that you will always find at a ukulele festival are players workshops. Its something of a peculiarity that goes with the instrument I guess, but they are always hugely popular with those attending. The most common sort of workshops are the 'learn how to play' type, where you can often learn along with some of the headline acts from the show. This year though, the team at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival have decided to offer some extra workshops with a difference which certainly look exciting!

In fact, GNUF this year are promising that EVERY playing workshop is brand new - they have never been done at other UK festivals, ever! Their workshops cover three distinct types this year - playing, performing and making. Check out the full listing on the grid below.

GNUF Workshop clash finder
Click to enlarge

Phil Doleman ukulele workshop
Phil Doleman




On the playing side you can learn tips and tricks from the likes of Phil Doleman (who has created brand new classes for this festival covering unlocking the fingerboard and blues) and Chonkinfeckle's Les Hilton looking at open tunings, this year based around the Van Morrison classic, Brown Eyed Girl. Ken Middleton also makes a return to the workshop section.













Andy Eastwood
Andy Eastwood



GNUF also have new workshop additions from the likes of Del Ray (one of the festival headliners, with a Jug Band Blues party), Andy Eastwood  (one of the most technically gifted players I have seen on stage) who is teaching Formby styles, and the magnificent Ukulelezaza teaching the 12th Street Rag. Also recently added is a workshop from Peter Moss - a hugely talented player and well respected tutor who is teaching chord sequences, minor chords and timing.  Like your jazz? Adam Franklin will be on hand to teach 20's and 30's hot jazz rhythm picking styles.


The Mother Ukers
The Mother Ukers


On offer are a singing / busking workshop with the Mersey Belles in which you will get to perform on stage with them, musical clowning with Vonck and Vlam, and one I particularly like in which you will get to learn to record a song with the Mother Ukers, and then get a download of it after the festival. It will also appear on a future Mother Ukers album!




And finally, what a delight it would be to appear on the main festival stage with Tricity Vogue and her All Girl Swing Band! Yes, you can do that too.

Tricity Vogue
Tricity Vogue and her All Girl Swing Band

And then on to 'making', GNUF returns with two great hands on workshops from last year which were HUGELY popular last year. Making a wash tub bass or making a Diddly Bow with master UK Luthier Rob Collins. At both you get to keep the instrument you made!

Rob Collins with Diddly Bow

So why am I telling you all this? Well places on these are going really FAST, with some I didn't mention sold out now, so not long to go. The festival takes place on 13-14 September in Huddersfield. If you want to attend a workshop, DON'T leave it until you get there as you may be disappointed.

All details on the workshops can be found at http://www.northernuke.com/2014-festival/workshops/

I will be at the festival too if you want to come and say hello! Roll on September!



7.8.14

Kamoa E3E Bass Ukulele REVIEW

You know, it surprises me that out of all the instruments I have reviewed on this site, I haven't yet looked at a ukulele bass. I suppose there are not that many about if the truth be told, but they are becoming increasingly popular. I was therefore delighted to have this Kamoa E3E Bass ukulele sent to me on loan by the good folks at Southern Ukulele Store.


Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass


Confession first though. I am not a fan of ukulele basses. When I started on uke, there really was no such thing and then Kala came through with their U Bass models, the ones with the rubbery strings. I don't want to be controversial but I just don't like them. I just cannot get on with those thick, grippy strings that kind of twist on the fingertip and take an age to settle into tune. Don't get me wrong, in the right hands (and I am no bass player) they have a terrific woody sound, very like a double bass, but those strings and their low tension just niggle with me. But there is another reason too..... Why a 'ukulele' bass? A ukulele is the size it is because of its history and heritage. Its a ukulele, that is how they look! So why the drive to make a bass guitar smaller? Why does it need to match the ukulele on scale?  At a gig of ours some time ago somebody said to me afterwards (having spied our full scale bass guitar) 'oh I suppose you 'get away with' playing a bass guitar because it has four strings?'.... I was lost for words.... Getting away with what??  Because we play ukes doesnt mean everything has to be miniaturised... We use a regular bass guitar because we like the sound. End of! As such I have always been confused as to why there is a U Bass market. But... there is, and it is growing, I just  never felt compelled to join the clamour for one on account of THOSE STRINGS!

The Kamoa arrived though and I was extremely pleased. You see the E3E is a bass in every way, down to the fact it uses steel flat wound bass strings and not the rubbery ones.  I was always led to believe that Kala went with the plastic strings to keep the tension down and therefore not destroy the uke, but Kamoa seem to have done it, and with more tension than a U Bass too! Let us take a closer look.

The Kamoa E3E is essentially a far eastern made baritone ukulele body with a wider bass neck stuck on to it. The body is in traditional figure of eight shape and is made from solid woods (spruce on the top and maple on the back and sides).  The top is made from two pieces and is stained in red satin finish which just about allows the wood grain to show through. The sides are finished in a similar way and there are no flaws in the finish whatsoever making it feel very tactile if a little one dimensional. The top and back are joined to the sides with inner notched kerfing, and outer cream binding with some black white black trim. The back has a slight arch to it too.  It all looks very clean though I think and goes together well.

Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass body


The saddle (which appears to be NuBone or similar) sits in a rosewood bridge mount with a nice shape to it, and the strings are held by traditional acoustic guitar pins. I find pins fiddly on ukuleles but with this instrument using ball end bass guitar strings, tying knots in the 'ukulele way' would look a total mess. Aside from a small simple sound hole ring (a transfer) there is little other bling on the E3E at all.

Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass bridge

Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass sound hole


The neck is wide to accommodate the extra string girth but is fairly shallow in profile. It is made from two pieces of maple with a joint at the heel and again is stained to match the body. The fingerboard is rosewood and appears to be edge bound (though that may just be darker stain) to hide the fret edges. It is a nice even piece of wood and holds 17 nickel silver frets with 12 to the body. One really nice thing to see is that the fretboard is 'radiused' meaning it has a very slight curve across the face to allow for easier playing, particularly with a wide fingerboard such as this.  Edges of the rather chunky frets (this is a bass!) are very nicely finished and we have large pearloid fret markers at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th and a double marker at the 12th. For the player there is a single small side marker at the 7th (well done Kamoa!).

Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass fingerboard


Past the chunky dark wood nut (rosewood again I think) we have the standard Kamoa headstock shape. I do like it, and whilst it is still yet another crown shape it tapers from the base to the top and I think looks very classy. It is faced with what I think is rosewood with a  small diamond Kamoa logo inlay in maple. All I would say is this headstock shows how nice a finish Kamoa can come up with but it kind of jars against the expanse of red on the rest of the instrument.

Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass headstock

The tuners are unbranded metal sealed gears finished in black. Basically they are small ish bass guitar tuners and work just fine.

Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass tuners


Finishing the package is an onboard active pickup system which is branded Kamoa but looks generic to me, perhaps a Belcat. It comes with volume, bass and treble faders and a low battery indicator and runs from a 9v battery. I am not much of a fan of these systems, but there you go. It is functional enough at this price.

Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass pickup controls


So in short, it is a bass acoustic guitar in baritone uke size and retails in the UK for about £300. It is also designed to be tuned EADG like a regular bass but an octave up (same tuning as a U Bass, but the U Bass is the same as a regular bass guitar or double bass).

Testing it for play is not the easiest thing I can do as I am not a bass guitar player, but the thing that struck me first is that it is considerably louder unplugged than a Kala U Bass, and dare I say it, feels more solid and 'bassy' too. An acoustic bass is never going to be super loud, even at full scale guitar sized, but it sounds great for unplugged practice on account of those steel strings. Oh, and a pick makes it even louder!

The neck feels great in the hand and very much like a full scale bass to me. The setup arrived spot on with very little buzz (in my clumsy bass experience I always tend to create a bit of resonance buzz when I play one), but it is all nice and clear. Accurate across the neck too.

Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass jack socket


As I said above, the tuners work just fine. They are perhaps a little sloppy when starting to wind, but when in tune they hold just fine.

But it was the pickup I really wanted to try out and it works. I did find that strings 1 and 4 were a touch louder on this, with string 4 giving the uke an overly bass sound even without the bass fader anywhere high. This  would just be a simple tweak to ensure the bottom of the saddle is seated properly and through a fuller bass rig I am not sure I would notice all that much.  It doesn't sound anywhere as woody and thumpy as the Kala U Bass, and you may not like that, but these are steel strings so it is natural I guess. I do find it a lot brighter sounding than I would expect from a bass though and think that cheaper Piezo pickup has something to do with that as it sounds very 'electric' if that makes sense. A good pre amp or amp generally may well work wonders here.

Overall though it is very well put together and looks the part. I like the red colour I guess, but underneath it is actually a fairly plain ukulele and some more glamorous wood choices may have improved it I guess, as it looks a touch uninspired to me.  As I say though, the build is great.

Kamoa E3E Ukulele Bass back


To me though it is really just a small acoustic bass guitar and the jury is still out for me as to why there is a need to call it a ukulele when it isn't...  That isn't a criticism of the instrument itself, more of the uke bass fad - the instrument is a great little thing I think. If you are already a regular bass guitar player or a Kala player who doesn't get on with U Bass strings, these have got to be worth having a look at.

But it is the price that should really turn your head - £300 is on a par with the Kala Rumbler, and cheaper than other U Basses including the Ortega. Great great value in my view and a must see for anyone moving to the bass side!

Check out the video review below and then the scores on the doors!

PRO's

Price
Steel strings
Build quality

CON's

Cheap pickup system
Striking red finish but underwhelming woods underneath


VIDEO REVIEW



SCORES

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

OVERALL - 8.5 out of 10

4.8.14

Ukulele Amplification - Roland Mobile Cube REVIEW

Ukulele amplification... Some love it, some hate it, but this is clearly something that is becoming more and more popular. As such I thought I would take a look at a reasonable option for amplifying your ukulele. The Roland Mobile Cube.


Roland Mobile Cube


I must say, I don't really understand the 'you can't amplify your uke' brigade. Amplification means different things depending on the circumstances. Go to any large festival and you will see professional after professional plugging their instrument in to ensure they can be heard! Equally you can go rock with a ukulele or perhaps you just want a bit more oomph for busking. Its all good.

Perhaps the most common type of amp I am seeing beginners going for are the small battery powered units, such as the HoneyTone amps, or the Orange Cubes. Personally I don't like the ultra small amps as I find they give a very very thin sound to an instrument which is already kind of thin sounding. At the other end of the scale there are full on stage amps, but these are not really practical for bedroom practice or busking on the street. But there are a few amps in the middle ground, and having played many, the Roland Cube series is something I think is well worth looking at.

The Mobile Cube is something a couple of members of my band use and I have been so impressed I bought one myself. When we are on a big stage, we use a large PA - so why do they have them? Well, for a bit of fun, for busking, one has used one as a keyboard monitor in practice sessions. We even had our bass player run through one when we appeared on BBC radio and didn't have space to take our full rig in.

The Roland Mobile Cube is part of a wider line of smaller and larger amps in the cube series, but I have long thought that the Mobile gives about the best bang for buck, features versus tone versus money in the range. And at £120 to buy, it really is a good deal. Sure, its a lot more than a £20 battery belt clip amp, but.... well, you get what you pay for....

The Mobile Cube is a battery powered 5 Watt unit with an array of inputs and tweaks that make it shine. (note - it can be plugged in with an optional AC adapter too). But the real trick is the battery life. Roland claim this will run for 15 hours straight on 6 AA batteries, which really is some going I am sure you will agree.

The unit is cased in typical Roland bombproof type construction. Yes, it is plastic, but it feels like a tank. And having seen one of our band drop one from table height to a tiled floor leaving not even a scratch... well.... I wouldn't recommend it, but it goes to show.

The batteries power two separate 2.5W channels, left and right, which power two 4 inch speakers behind a grille. Yes, this can be a stereo amp too!

Inputs to the Mobile Cube are on the side with an input for microphone (sadly a line jack in and not an XLR socket), stereo jack input for either guitars, ukes etc (using one of the inputs) or stereo instruments like keyboards (using two). We also have a mini jack input allowing you to play back an MP3 track or similar and left and right RCA inputs for a feed from, say, a CD player, a mixer or sound processor. Pretty fully featured.

Roland Mobile Cube inputs


On the other side of the amp is a headphone socket, a power switch and a socket for the optional AC adapter.

Roland Mobile Cube power and headphone


Controls for the amp are on the top, and split into three sections, Mic, Instrument and Effects. The mic channel has a volume control and nothing more. The instrument channel has a selector knob for acoustic guitar, keyboards, Audio (for MP3 playback) and three electric guitar inputs - clean, overdrive and distortion. With a uke plugged in, any of these can really be used, but I had best results with either the acoustic guitar input or the electric guitar on clean. Also within the instrument section is a chorus button which applies a spacey chorus to the instrument sound. Sadly, this is just on or off and cannot be adjusted. To my ears, chorus can easily be over done, and I think this one would benefit from being toned down a little. Its also a shame that the chorus can't be applied to the vocal microphone input too.

Roland Mobile Cube controls


The effects section consists of an overall tone control (and something that applies to the whole output. It would have been nice to have a separate tone for the microphone) and a fairly basic but useable effects section that offers both delay and reverb. Sadly though, not at the same time! It uses a rotary dial that builds up the delay, and when you get past 12 o clock, the delay turns off and it builds the reverb. I've seen this system on a number of amps and find it a bit limiting to be honest. That said, the effects sound nice, what with Roland owning Boss, they should do! Personally though, I think I would use them sparingly. And remember, you do have other effects (of sorts) on the electric guitar section where you have an overdrive and a distortion).

Batteries are inserted in an easy to open hatch on the back of the amp, and the back also has a grounding screw in case you get any hum or worse.

Roland Mobile Cube strap


Another couple of neat features are the screw on the base of the unit that allows you to attach it to a vertical microphone stand - useful for getting sound at head height for busking, and the roland branded hand strap with super strong button connectors - you can feel at ease carrying this as it is going nowhere! (Incidentally, with batteries installed it weighs 2.5kg!).  Finally we have a button called 'Centre Cancel' on the AUX channel. That takes the MP3 or CD player input and cuts out the centre frequencies from the track you are playing, ideally leaving just the instruments for you to jam along to. Results will vary on this, but its a neat feature.

Roland Mobile Cube mic stand adapter


Finally, the looks. Well, like a lot of Roland gear, it is somewhat utilitarian, but its more about function over form!

So all in all, a sweet looking package. On to the sound!

Do not let that 5W power put you off, this thing can go surprisingly loud and would work perfectly on the street on a busking slot (especially if, in a band, you had a few of them). It stays pretty clean on tone all the way up to ten, though it is possible to overdrive it if your uke is pre amped and running hot. The unit then doesnt so much distort as clip, but I found it rarely happened with my Godin electro which does output a high gain signal when turned up.

As I said above, I found the nicest sounds for uke on either the acoustic or clean electric settings. The overdrive is a little muddy sounding to my ears, but the distortion is huge fun.  I actually found a very nice atmospheric type sound with the amp on clean electric, delay up to about one third and the chorus on. But then, its each to their own and you will find all sorts of combinations.

I was surprised at the natural tone which, for such a small unit was erring on the bassy side and I found I preferred the tone knob a little higher - even with a  uke!

But overall it is pretty no nonsense and sounds great!

I have gripes, but they are really things that can be solved by looking at the bigger amps in the Cube series (XLR input for the microphone, dedicated microphone tone control, adjustable chorus etc). And bear in mind, the features on this alone far outweigh pretty much any 9V belt clip amp you may be thinking of.  One thing that would be great for them to change is for power to be cut when things are disconnected. The power switch is kind of hidden away and the light that shows the unit is on is tiny. Twice now I have unplugged and forgot to switch off the master power. Something as simple as the power switch being larger and on the top would help!

If you are thinking about looking at amps for lower key, practice or busking type play on your uke, I would suggest that this needs to be near the top of your shopping list. Highly recommended.

VIDEO REVIEW

30.7.14

The pUKEs - Too Drunk To Pluck - CD Review

Regular readers of this blog will know I have a lot of time for ukulele punk outfit The pUKEs, so was thrilled to get my hands on their new full album 'Too Drunk To Pluck'.

The pUKEs ukulele CD Too Drunk To Pluck

The pUKEs are a pretty massive gaggle / collective of punk fans who also have their soft spots for the ukulele. Founded by Clara Wiseman (who herself had a previous music career with acts like the UK Subs) there is real punk heritage across the board too and the album itself was recorded and produced by Patrick Collier of the Vibrators.

They are an outfit I've kept an eye on for several years now and have watched them get increasingly impressive gig bookings (including touring with Bad Manners), get Arts Council funding for their excellent ukulele punk workshops across the UK, and also writing their own stuff, complete with always brilliant videos.  Can they translate that success into a full album?

The first thing that pleased me was to see that this was not just a covers album. Its actually a pretty even mix of covers and pUKEs originals. Performed with lead vocals from Clara and Debs, each track comes with great gang vocals from the rest of the band in true collective style that works really well.

It kicks off how it means to go on with a cover of the Ramones 'Sheena Is A Punk Rocker' at full tilt before moving straight into the pUKEs original 'Fight Song', which I recently shared the video for on this blog. In fact the video for that shows you exactly what the pUKEs are about!



We race through Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys, through to Banned From The Pubs by Peter and The Test Tube Babies before we come back to one of the first professional videos I saw by the pUKEs - another original written by Clara Wiseman 'Will I Learn'. I still adore this song.



Dismedley by Discharge gives over to another original written by Cil Wong called '453' which is another high point on the album for me.

By this point you should have the real feel of the album and that is one of classic punk, with a ukulele flavour (well, naturally eh?). But this is anything but a 'ukulele album'. Sure the ukes are there, clearly, but the album is very well put together and full force in sound with great driving drums and bass throughout. Hey - its punk - what do you expect? George Formby?? (no, please don't tell me you were expecting Formby....)

12XU by Wire is covered, then another Wong original called Turn It Off, before we come to another song that the pUKEs put out on video to a great response - Because You're Young by East London punk outfit Cock Sparrer.



And after all that.. we calm down a touch for the close and a great cover of Baby Baby by the Vibrators.  I thought this one was really nicely delivered and makes for a calm closer and shows they are not a one trick pony. Minimal punk strumming here,  but more picking and great harmonies on the voices.  Throughout the album, they sound like they are having an absolute ball, as the videos show. There is clever songwriting on display here (yes, in a punk band...) with a nice balance of humour and angst, but a band who have clearly put the work in to get their sound tight and biting is also clearly evident.

And with that, the exquisite punk styled CD packaging and a typical punk running time of just under 30 minutes it ticks all the boxes for current or lapsed (like me) punk fans out there. But I take my hat of to them all for another important reason. At the present time, the ukulele world is becoming quite polarised between the 'traditional', the 'You Can't Do That' brigade' (aka 'The Ukulele Police') and those who are trying to push out in different directions. The pUKEs sit firmly in the latter camp. And if the album sends a big middle finger to those that think the ukulele can only be for one style and one style only - well.... if that isn't punk I don't know what is. Good on them I say.

Recommended.




( Too Drunk To Pluck is released on 4 August and can be obtained from pUKEs central at http://thepukes.co.uk/drunk-pluck/ on both CD and limited green vinyl. It will also release on iTunes on the same day)


TRACK LISTING

1. Sheena Is A Punk Rocker
2. Fight Song
3. Holiday In Cambodia
4. The Ballad Of Mickey Fitz
5. Banned From The Pubs
6. Will I Learn
7. Dismedley
8. 453
9. 12XU
10. Turn It Off
11. Because You're Young
12. Baby Baby