Ukulele Russ - The Got A Ukulele Interview

18 Oct 2015

Ukulele Russ - The Got A Ukulele Interview

A ukulele interview session that has been far too long in the gestation this one. Some years ago now I first came across some ukulele music videos that just ticked the right box for me. A great blues style, a great voice, dark humour and most of all, a player who prefers to do things his way rather than what some people prefer to dictate.

The wild man of ukulele - Ukulele Russ - aka Russell Copelin. We talk regularly online but only recently have schedules collided to enable us to talk in more detail about his stuff.

(Is 'the wild man of ukulele' that his nickname? I have no idea - but I just called him that. Well, bear in mind I live in mild mannered Cheshire in the UK, whereas Russ spends most of the year in the heart of Alaska USA. Believe me - that is indeed wild compared to here!). Outside of Alaska - Russ has appeared on stages around the world including Australia (could that be any further from Alaska?) together with numerous TV spots in the US. I caught with him recently to talk gigs, ukulele and Alaska!

Ukulele Russ - credit Nick Pitsas
Credit Nick Pitsas

I always consider you as one of the most travelled musicians in the ukulele world. Tell us about some of your trips.

Every time I take a week or more to leave my cabin for a string of gigs in Alaska it is a trip in more ways than one. For the road hardened and resourceful individual Alaska offers a lot of challenges, opportunities, and rewards. For example this summer I decided it would be fun to buy an old RV from the 1980s and headed 550 miles south to play a three night stretch at a carnival and held a private concert / ukulele clinic for a local ukulele group. On the ride home the flex plate got chewed up by the starter and I was forced to have it towed to my place, drop the transmission, and fix the thing. Gotta be resourceful up here especially if you are poor. I’m working on a ukulele budget here not some grandiose guitar salary! 

So, how do you break up all the travelling to keep things sane?

On the way to and from my gigs I get to stop at several of my favorite salmon fishing spots, run my dogs on some trails with my wife, and visit friends along the way. I always find myself calling acquaintances on my route to see if they want me to bring them some fresh vegetables or supplies from either Fairbanks or Anchorage depending on if I am heading north or south. In the middle of nowhere during the winter a fresh tomato can bring a smile to anyone’s face. Lettuce? Don’t even get me started on crisp lettuce. Try to keep it from wilting as you walk to your car in -40F (about -40C -- the scales meet up at -44) through the parking lot at the grocery store. The race is on! 

To a Brit like me, the distances seem enormous. But they are even enormous within your own state right?

Enormous is a good word for it. It is just the regular grind for me. I live in the largest state in the U.S. (Texas, eat your heart out) so it is never a short ride for anything. To give you an idea how large Alaska physically is we could split Alaska into three states thus making Texas the third largest state in the union. Best part is we would still have enough leftover to make another South Carolina. It’s big. 

But not that many people there?

The population is only 700K people in the whole state which gives us all a lot of breathing room. You can go into the city and do your socializing, but you can also drive right outside of town and never see a soul. Just for me to get to the edge of the closest town it is a good 20 minutes in the car with absolutely no traffic rolling at 55mph. This is also the same distance (plus ten minutes) for me to take a shower. Nothing is easy and running water is for fancy people. I sure do wish I can become fancy one day. 

What sort of mileage are we talking here?

My average week on the road when I’m gigging in Alaska will put around 1000 miles on my vehicle. One way from Fairbanks to Anchorage, which is my most regular Alaskan commute, is about 6-8 hours (370 miles) in the car depending on weather and road construction. I have had it take as long as 15 hours. So any average work week for me will include around 20+ hours in the car. Last year, which wasn’t one of my heaviest driving years, I put around 30,000 miles on my vehicles just driving to gigs in Alaska. Let me tell you… the roads are so nice and smooth. (I wish I could insert a scratch and sniff sticker for sarcasm here. What would it really smell like? Your guess would be as good as mine.)    

So let's get on to music. What were your beginnings? 

Well I think I was always destined to play the trumpet, however, when I was a young child my father stepped on my plastic trumpet toy I had left on the living room floor in the night stumbling his way in the dark to the bathroom. Thus shattering my dreams to blow. haha. I eventually decided after my older brother started playing the guitar that I should rock the drums. I took lessons for several years through my pre-teen and teen years, participated in marching, concert, and pep bands in high school. Making beats finally started to bore me. I plateaued as a drummer and moved on. From there I got into programming music with programs like Cakewalk, Fruity Loops, and Rebirth. I guess you could call this my techno / electronica phase. 

Well, I honestly didn't expect that!

This was a very dark portion of my life.... Eventually the hard drive crashed on my old desktop computer and all the music I wrote was lost. This is probably a good thing for the world. Trust me.

So what about strings? 

My junior year of college I discovered stringed instruments and ultimately the ukulele. I traded nights of partying and hanging out with my friends for evenings alone with a ukulele. I felt like such a loser, but I was mesmerized. The power of the ukulele is strong and when I realized you didn’t have to sing songs about rainbows and beaches the world became my oyster. Perhaps the ukulele was my oyster. That sounds deeper. I’m gonna go with that. Fast forward twelve years and now I play ukulele for a living. If you would have told me when I started that I would be doing it for a career I would have laughed at you. It has been a decade now and I couldn’t be happier. 

Ukulele Russ in bar gig

So like many people there were other stringed instruments first. What prompted you to pick up a ukulele?

It was a college day like any other. I had been surviving off of ramen noodles and cheap high alcohol content beer for over the last two years. Typical college stuff. Poor diets and over consumption of low quality booze. Nothing out of the ordinary. A strange twist of good fate had somehow landed $30 in my pocket which was a fortune to me at the time. I was flat broke constantly so I decided why not buy some beer, right? It is full of vitamin P and your body needs that stuff. So I walked into town on a mission. On the way to the store I stopped in the local music shop. There it was. A $30 ukulele. I reached in my pocket. Counted my money. Paused. Then finally decided why the hell not? ...Still kinda would have enjoyed that case of beer though. I really wish it was more complicated than that or at least cool. I just had a clear sober moment. It was destiny. I think it would have been way cooler if it was like the sword in the stone. A ukulele half sticking out of a giant rock that no one can pull out until I come along and when I do the town rejoices around me. Yeah. That’s the ticket. Forget my initial true story and exchange it in your mind for the sword in the stone one. 

So turning to your performances today. You have a real knack for blues and rock – what is on your CD player these days? 

CD player? Who has one of those? haha. Since I’m not a guitar player and I am living on a ukulele player’s income most of my vehicles (I have way too many) are from the 1980s. I only have cassette players. I do this for two reasons. I can actually fix cars from the 1980s which saves me a lot when I’m on the road making my long trips. Secondly, cassettes are CHEAP and force you to listen to the whole album due to the inconvenience of fast forwarding just the right amount of time. Who can time that stuff right? No one. That is a science fact. I think I have Prince’s Purple Rain in my car right now. However, in my 1985 1-ton quad cab long bed Chevy pick up truck I make it a point only to listen to country music. There is something about driving an obnoxiously large pick up and cranking country on the one speaker in the dash. It feels very American and if the shoe fits, turn up the country. RIP George Jones! 

I got switched on to you first when I saw that, like me, you don’t like the idea of ukulele rules and playing what people tell you to play. Tell me more about that

If I get asked to play Somewhere Over The Rainbow one more time I think I might have an aneurysm. No I don’t play any Formby songs. Roy Smeck was awesome but I don’t really want to emulate him. Jake… well Jake is Jake. He is incredible, but I am only good at being me. Is there a rule against that? I could care less. Rules for ukulele is about the silliest concept to me. I am just me and am going to manipulate the instrument, because that’s what it is, in my own way. If you want to put the shackles of rules and regulations on yourself go for it. I don’t need that kind of burden. Just play to your strengths and work on skills where you are lacking. I just play what sounds good to me. It is only a matter of time before everyone, since some have opened their eyes to this, sees that the ukulele doesn’t have limitations only their operators do. Adding rules on top of that… well… that sounds like an awesome time

Could not agree more Russ!  Do you really think the wider ukulele world is changing in that regard, or is this way of doing things holding the instrument back? 

Obviously I think things are slowly getting more welcoming to alternative ukulele music. Slowly however isn’t a great way to more forward, but Rome wasn’t built in one day. Since most of my business isn’t completely centered around the ukulele I’m insulated from a lot of the drama. Meaning, I don’t just tour around doing ukulele festivals and clinics full time. I enjoy being in the trenches playing long sets at bars, clubs, and festivals alongside all the guitar acts that dominate the scenes. This is where we are going to change the public's view of the ukulele. Obviously ukulele people have embraced the ukulele. We have a stellar community of people all over the world, but that isn’t enough. I am in it to change everyone else’s minds. It isn’t just a toy. It is an equal contender for the championship. Ukulele world domination is possible. 

What’s holding us back? I believe stigmas and stereotypes are a huge part of it and it appears that it isn’t just folks from outside the ukulele community that are perpetuating them. I find it interesting looking into the whole ukulele community that is out there. Tons of great people, but let’s face it, I’m in Alaska and on the outside. It seems attitudes are changing, but the progress is being held back by this thought that if you aren’t only playing cute happy music something is wrong with you. No jazz? How about some ragtime? That is one of my favorite parts of being an ambassador of the ukulele to the general public. Exposing them to the underbelly that isn’t so pretty, but is just as appetizing. 

My readers are always keen to know what the professionals play. Talk me through your ukulele collection

My collection consists of only one man’s ukuleles. I own several of master luthier Tom Parse’s ukuleles. During the winters he builds Hokukano Ukuleles. A small high end ukulele shop situated on the big island of Hawaii on a 31 square mile cattle / tree ranch. He is an Alaskan and lives here in the last frontier during the summers. When he makes his ukuleles in Alaska they are called Far North Ukuleles. These are the ones I play. Having a ukulele produced in Alaska is important to me. The instrument was built here and therefore is a little more acclimated to the weather changes and harsh conditions I live with. -40F (which is around -40C) in the winter and extreme dry conditions make a ukulele’s life hard here. Sure, my road instrument right now has a ton of surface cracks due to wild temperature swings it encounters, but it is as acclimated as an instrument can get for here. 

Wow. People stress about care for ukuleles in temperate climates. It must be tough in Alaska?

Alaska has a tendency to eat high end instruments. Just ask my warped Kamaka tenor that I have lost all hope for. Dear Kamaka, please start putting carbon fiber rods in the neck of your instruments. For the love of god, please. I’m basically Tom’s road tester. I beat the snot out of them and if there is a weak spot we find it and update the model. His stuff is so high quality I would never even think of switching to another brand. Not only does he make a mean ukulele he’s also a fellow Alaskan and a good friend of mine. 

So what does the rest of 2015 have in store Russ? 

The busy Alaskan summer music season is coming to an end, but there is still many gigs to rock. This summer I have been playing arts festivals, concerts, several carnivals, bars, lodges, private parties, ukulele clinics and much more. Now it is coming to the time of year where I hunker down and prepare for the winter. On top of the gigs I’m building a house on a piece of property my wife and I have been working on developing over the past two years. 7.2 acres of awesomeness way outside of civilization. Hopefully we will have a house up by winter. It is a lofty goal, however it is possible. Did I mention I am building a 200 person amphitheater on my property? Perhaps a Alaskan ukulele retreat will happen there someday and there will be very little rules other than no rainbow songs unless there is a rainbow overhead. I’m serious. 

Living in Alaska I spend a lot of my year on and off harvesting food, gathering firewood, the endless mechanical tasks of fixing our vehicles, and just getting stuff done in preparation for winter. Blueberries, fiddleheads, salmon, wild mushrooms, moose, and hopefully a caribou this year will be on the menu for some of our local foods. We don’t buy any meat from the store since we feel as though if we are going to eat it we should be connected to it. Plus it tastes better when you spend 10 days in the bush looking for your meal. I have never been afraid of hard work. Seems like most people these days are. At the end of the year I will be leaving Alaska to tour the East Coast of the States before I head west to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia again. However once it hits May - October I don’t leave Alaska. I don’t wait through / avoid six months of darkness and cold to not enjoy the midnight sun. I was under my RV last night removing the driveline at 1am without a flashlight or anything. You really can’t beat it. 

Ukulele Russ in bear suit

Are there any places you have not played yet but you would like to? 

Well, I would like to come on over to the other side of the pond and play some gigs in Europe and Scandinavia. Iceland would be fun also. I have always wanted to go perform in the Falkland Islands. I like the out of the way backwaters. Guess that’s the Alaskan in me. 

A final question I ask in all my interviews, what is your best tip for the aspiring uke player? 

Umm… if you know your open chord shapes you know most of the shapes going up the fretboard. Escape the first four frets. Don’t be scared. There is a whole world of awesome up there. 

Russ - thanks for your time - some great words here!

If you haven't done already I would urge you to hook up with Russ and check out some of his performances

And how about this mash up for a real feel of what Russ is all about?


  1. Very cool. I'm in Texas but I'm not intimidated by your hugeness, Alaska. Love Russ'a attitude and rockin' sound. Hope he heads for Texas one if these days. We've got big trucks too!

  2. Marie! Let me know when you want to book the tour and I'll pack my bags ;)

    I loves me some Texas! I have a big belt buckle I will wear to fit in!

  3. Awesome, that just made my day :-) The "chicken laying an egg" is spot on, and more relevant than most of what comes out of the average radio these days.

    When are you coming to New Zealand, and where will you be playing?


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