It is a truth long overdue universal acknowledgement that there is no musical instrument in the world superior to the mighty ukulele.
No other instrument can raise a smile so quickly. None can bring so much chirpy spirit to up-beat songs, or such hollow melancholy to the sad. And none sounds so defiantly good out of tune. The guitar may be the undisputed daddy of 20th century popular music, but the ukulele is his feisty, cheeky, soulful, and utterly irresistible little sidekick.
When you start looking, you realise the ukulele crops up everywhere. Stan Laurel dances to Oliver Hardy strumming ‘Honolulu Baby’. George Harrison included ukulele tracks on his albums, and I’ve seen Paul McCartney in concert playing a uke given to him by George (in fact, all the Beatles played except Ringo – which partly explains why he is only my second favourite. The other three are joint first).
Marilyn Monroe played ukulele. Elvis Presley played it. Even Neil Armstrong played it.
And I, despite long harbouring ambitions to do so, have thus far in my life not played it. Until this past Monday, when I snuck home from work at lunchtime to take my brand new ukulele, a sexy little black number, out of its case to start my first lesson. Although this first half-hour session was in the end mostly spent in tuning, I was not to be downhearted. Thenceforward I stuck to my self-imposed regimen with the diligence of a monk reciting his prayers. I practised before work, at lunch times, and after work. On Thursday I even practised (briefly) at work, when I had a jamming session of sorts with ma colleague and fellow uke-fan Hannah, to the amusement of some colleagues and the irritation of others. So much did we enjoy our little office-jam that talk even began of a mini-band, with Hannah and I on rhythm and lead uke and another colleague, Sarah, on the bongos.
For blistered fingers and repetitive strain disorder in my wrist, I was rewarded with steady progress. Over Monday and Tuesday I learnt half-a-dozen chords, which I found far easier to remember than I expected to. On Wednesday my focus shifted to strumming, as I found this in contrast rather more difficult. My confidence that day wobbled as I failed to maintain a regular rhythm, in particular when changing chords; so low did my spirits fall, I even toyed with the idea of investing in a guitar pick. Thursday’s jam session however restored a little hope in my ability to one day grasp simple strumming skills, and thenceforward I began thinking of songs.
That I would have to make a video of myself playing a song was unavoidable, it having been suggested by everyone I talked to about my challenge. The question was, which song? While many songs have been written specifically for the ukulele, there are hundreds of others which sound great on them.
In my search I went through rock, pop, folk, comedy and motown, I scoured the catalogues of Simon and Garfunkel, the Kinks, the Supremes, Monty Python and of course the Beatles. Some I dismissed as too simple to impress, far more I rejected as being too difficult. Anything with an E chord I did not contemplate as this chord was contrived by Satan himself and my fingers cannot yet contort to it. Others I decided against as being but half a song without a singer, and a singer I am not.
At least in casting my net so wide I have added a number of songs, however haltingly I play them, to my repertoire: I can now manage passable renditions of ‘La Bamba’, ‘Rock and Roll Music’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Baby Love’. But in the end I settled on an old standard, ‘Bring Me Sunshine’, in the no doubt false conviction that being such a lovely, warm sort of a tune, no one could possibly be so mean-spirited as to criticise my playing after hearing it, however awful the playing may be.
For fair warning is due: my playing is bad. Before pressing play therefore, please bear in mind that the point of this video is not to give a good performance, but to show that I have begun to learn to play, as here in this blog claimed. Perhaps in the future there will be a time when I can impress you with smooth chord changes and deft fingerpicking. But that time is not today.
Whatever though you may say about the audio-visual conclusion to this week’s new thing (and please feel free to say what you will!), you will never sway me from my new convictions, which are:
- The ukulele is a joy.
- The ukulele is Rock & Roll.
- It is possible to write a blog about the ukulele without once mentioning George Formby.