Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Making soup (and music) on a uke
- Feb 23, 2011
PHOTO: Pops Bayless teaches ukulele
George Harrison composed hit songs on it, Steve Allen made Lipton soup in it, and at one time it was the most popular instrument in the United States.
It is the ukulele, and apparently this diminutive cousin of the guitar is enjoying a resurgence in the Hill Country.
Recently Club Ed teamed up with Bob Miller’s Acoustic Music Camp to sponsor an all-day camp and concert featuring guitar, banjo, and ukulele. It surprised me that a dozen players of all ages showed up with their ukes.
Pops Bayless - actor, songwriter, pitchman, all around entertainer, and top ukulele instructor - recognizes and revels in the disrespect a large man gets from playing a small instrument.
Where did this new popularity for the uke spring from? “I honestly don’t know,” Bayless said.
He explained that the ukulele keeps coming back in popularity. He guesses this is the fourth big wave for the instrument. The first was in the 1920s, when it was linked with the exotic Hawaiian lifestyle. TV personality Arthur Godfrey brought it back in the 1950s. Godfrey literally sold a million of them made of plastic. That is the model comedian Steve Allen used to mix up a batch of Lipton instant soup on TV.
In the early 1990s, rock, progressive, and punk musicians discovered its sound. In 1993 Israel Kamakawiwo'ole released a popular radio version of Over The Rainbow using the uke.
Now, for some reason, it seems to be popular again.
“I think it’s something that comes on like malaria,” Bayless joked. “Now, any song that can be covered, is covered on the uke. They are even doing rock and roll covers.”
Besides having only four strings, the uke is different than a guitar in another fundamental way.
“What really sets it apart from other instruments is the high string on the back end.” This is called reentrant tuning, with a high G, then C, E, and A - the classic “my dog has fleas” mnenomic. That quirk allows good players to stretch the range, which Bayless demonstrated by playing a bit from Rhapsody in Blue.
Bayless - a founding member of the Asylum Street Spankers - started on mandolin and banjo, but switched to playing the uke “because someone had one.” When he formed his next band, it was all ukes, all the time.
“I got hooked on it,” the self-professed attention-seeker admitted. “I’m a musical performer. In drama you have to go eight weeks through this whole process before you get your ‘cookie.’ With the uke, you can go to an open mic and get your cookie just like that!”
Apparently there are others who share this affinity for the ukulele. The Stringalongs gather every Thursday afternoon at the Dietert Center for their ukulele fix.
Ron Sutton of Hill Country Music reports that the ukes are popular with all ages. “The older folks like them because of their memories of uke music when they were young, and they are drawing the interest of the younger crowd because of all the use of ukes in today's music,” Sutton said.
If nothing else, Bayless points out that the resonator model, with its aluminum cone, makes a handy weapon. “Yes,” he deadpanned, “the National will stop anything smaller than a Fender bass.”
Club Ed offers music classes on guitar, piano, voice, fiddle, washtub bass, and sometimes, the ukulele. For information or to sign up, click www.clubed.net, or call 830-895-4386.