The Rockin Chair: My Ukulele and Me

By: Tom Speed

It was just a lark, but it had to come from somewhere. Didn't it?

Washburn Oscar Schmitt ukulele
I was fooling around with the "wish list" feature on one of the friendly mom and pop, giant corporate conglomerate Internet retail sites one day when I added an item without much thought. I had a birthday coming up, and among the paperbacks, CDs and DVDs I'd listed as suitable gifts for yours truly, I figured I might as well throw up some long shots: a new laptop, fancy camera, Xbox 360, elaborately packaged boxed sets, a few power tools and... a ukulele. I don't know why. Maybe because it was so effortless. There it was: a Washburn Oscar Schmitt ukulele and all I had to do was click "add to wish list." I didn't spend much time pondering why I'd done it.

Then my birthday came and with it a weirdly triangular-shaped UPS package courtesy of my sister who lives a few states away. I opened the cardboard box and released the instrument. It was beautiful. Its Hawaiian koa wood was seductively curved, radiating a deep, rich luxuriousness. The nylon strings glistened. They sang to me. Like Nigel Tufnel, I could hear their enchanting sustain without even touching them.

Then I touched it. If its aesthetic beauty was inspiring, the noise pulled from it by my fingers was an excruciating wail, a caterwauling shriek far from any definition of music, an unharmonious affront to the mathematical precision of agreeably spaced frequencies. The sound was bad enough. What made it worse was that I was introducing this un-music to a household that was also home to a weeks-old crying newborn human, two disoriented and yelping dogs, three screeching cats, a partridge in a pear tree and an ever less patient spouse.

In the interest of marital harmony and possibly my own physical well-being, I forthwith obtained a magical device called a chromatic tuner. Very soon I was coaxing something entirely different out of the ukulele. It was something that sounded very close to, yes, music! In fact, the music was downright pretty, enchanting even. The ukulele produced a sound that flourished in wide spaces, even in my hands. It was an exhilarating transformation.

I looked up some chords and worked up a few tunes. Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea" was the first one. I don't know why I picked that song. It just seemed like a carefree ukulele tune, something fun and a little bit goofy to sing. The next song was "Sky Blue Sky" by Wilco. I couldn't get that opening line out of my head at the time and something about it made me think of strumming a ukulele. I memorized the two songs, and soon I was strolling around the house and yard, strumming and singing "Beyond The Sea" and "Sky Blue Sky."

George Harrison and his uke
I was getting quite proud of myself, some people might have even said smug. I fancied myself a ukulele aficionado, even with just these two simple songs under my belt. I would tell anybody who would listen about how George Harrison was known to carry two ukuleles with him in case he ran across someone who would play with him. I haughtily informed people at parties that the uke (by this point, I was just calling it a "uke," given that I was an expert and everything) was similar but not the same as a tenor guitar, and no it was not the same as the banjo, although there was something called a banjo uke. It was easy being a ukologist. Not many people know much about it. I was falling in love with the ukulele. I had no shame. It was embarrassing.

I'd played guitar for 15 years or so, learning dozens of other people's songs and writing a few stinkers of my own, and I'd hit enough plateaus to finally find one I liked. I'd occasionally pick up my guitar and fool around with it, play a few riffs or songs, or amble along long enough to lose interest and put it back in the corner for another three months. Long gone were the days when I would sit down to commit songs to memory or collect them in a three ring binder. But the ukulele, that was something new and exciting! It was fresh and fun. Love sprung eternal. I was getting dangerously close to putting my ukulele songs in a three ring binder as I tackled The Beatles' "Honey Pie" and thought about other songs that would translate to the uke. At night I would dream of being called onto the stage to perform with one of my favorite bands as special ukulele guest. Visions of setlist asterisks danced in my head.

Then things changed. I was watching TV one day and I noticed a commercial that I'd probably seen dozens of times but had filed away in the deep recesses of the mind without a second thought. The soundtrack to the ad was the very same song that I'd been playing on the ukulele, "Beyond the Sea," my quirky little tune that made me all giddy and happy and smug. Is that where I got the idea? Had that song seeped into my consciousness as part of a sales pitch to seniors? Indeed, "Beyond The Sea" was the tune for Carnival Cruise lines' commercials. Sure, it's a well-known song. I could have pulled it from any number of sources, but this was a current commercial that was played all the time. It had to be it.

Jake Shimabukuro
Dread encompassed me. I remembered that Wilco had somewhat infamously licensed a handful of tunes from their new album to the folks at Volkswagen. So my other tune, "Sky Blue Sky," was also used in a commercial. Could it be that my supposedly whimsical ukulele repertoire, so quirky and unique, was influenced by something as pedestrian as television commercials? "I watch far too much TV," I thought to myself, kicking the imaginary dirt at my feet and hanging my head in shame.

I started wondering why I clicked that "wish list" button to begin with. Was it because I saw Jake Shimabukuro playing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on YouTube? Did it have something to do with catching Joe Versus The Volcano on late night cable? Did my parents subject me to Tiny Tim listening parties in the '70s? Was my supposedly spur of the moment decision and subsequent fascination and flirtation with the ukulele the result of the not so gentle shoving of various media influences into my cranium by nefarious corporate entities? I wondered what other shameful nooks or crannies of my grey matter had been similarly influenced. I worried that less than healthy ingredients populated the soup of my brain.

The thought made me sick. It made me want to check out, blow up the TV, unplug the laptop and turn it all off, just stop the barrage of images and sounds and messages and somehow purify my mind. In time, I settled. I realized that our actions and interests are the sum total of a variety of inputs, swirled together in our noggins at night and snuck past the ego guards in the form of intuition and gut feelings. Regardless of their origins, the things we do on a lark are often the most rewarding. You can toy with the inputs if you want, you can keep things at bay if you try, but it's the output that's most important. It's how you cook the ingredients. It's what you do with the things that go in. So, if you listen for it, you'll hear that the lark's song comes from the sweetest recipe. And it sounds kinda like a ukulele.

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Nibble starstarstarstarstar Wed 2/6/2008 04:17PM
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Great article. I have played the ukulele for a few years and it began with me seeing Jake online at my brothers house. I had toyed with the idea of getting one for a while then my girlfriend at the time bought me my first one. That was when I decided to make her my wife. I now have 4 ukulele's and it has become a very important part in our lives. I think regardless of where inspiration comes from it is what makes us individuals. As you stated we are all the sum of a variety of inputs. Hopefully, more variety than anything. Thanks for the article and thanks to JamBase for years of various musical insirations.

toestothenose Thu 2/7/2008 07:49AM
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Tom - Great tale! Now I kinda want a ukulele after ready that article.

matlock starstarstarstar Thu 2/7/2008 11:10AM
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"Could it be that my supposedly whimsical ukulele repertoire, so quirky and unique, was influenced?"

Yes, Tom. Your mind is totally controlled. It has been stuffed into my mold.

And you will do as you are told. Until the rights to you are sold.

musikmike420 starstarstarstarstar Fri 2/8/2008 08:51AM
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Great Article!! I recently revieved a Martin S-O Ukulele for Chistmas this past year and love converting my guitar skills to the UkE Lots of fun. Ive been very inspired by hearing that my Grate-Grandfather Frank Ferreria was one of the first poineers to bring the ukulele to the mainland. Keep picking friend!!

potman1 starstarstarstar Fri 2/8/2008 12:59PM
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If you want to her some great uke work check out Melvern Taylor and His Fabulous Meltones. Some of the best songwriting ever in my mind.

theguykeator Fri 2/8/2008 01:56PM
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Jake Shimabukuro played on an Etown recording with String Cheese Incident in Boulder back in the day and I was very impressed. Im a fan of his ukeing ability, but he's never made it around the midwest so it's hard to show support.

black_mtn_mama starstarstarstarstar Fri 2/8/2008 03:31PM
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The rockin' chair is always my favorite place to sit. Well thought, well conveyed. thank you for a good read!

snappy Sun 2/10/2008 11:47AM
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My fave installment of the Rockin' Chair yet. Conveying the ways thoughts and motivations move through a human brain is no easy thing. Tom nailed it.

onearmguitarist starstarstarstarstar Mon 2/11/2008 03:01PM
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this sounds a little goofy but on the new "Song of America" compilation there is a incredible version of Jake doing "Stars and Stripes Forever" I listened to that and realized I would never quite master the uke.....then I saw him in concert and that cemented my position on that issue....any way check out that song fellow ukers!

p.s. My neighbor passed away a few mponths ago and his kids were going through his stuff and found 2 roy schmeck ukes and sold them to me fo $2 a peice....amazingly they sound quite nice :)

ezrockn starstarstarstarstar Fri 2/22/2008 08:26PM
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