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by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
Santa Claus is
Comin' To Town
- Martin, ca. 1960
OK, I’ll admit it. I was a UKULELE BIGOT. Just a few short years ago I knew nothing about them and couldn’t have cared less. Now I know just enough and care somewhere in the mid three-figure$ range (Jan, 05: And now the four figures range – ouch!). If I cared a great deal, I could spend several thousand dollars for rare, unusual and often beautiful vintage ukes. I’ve heard unbelievable jazz and ragtime played on the instrument and have seen players triple-roll-stroke the living daylights out of it. There is more to this little guy than “My Dog Has Fleas!”
The ukulele, as every schoolboy knows, was first heard in Hawaii in 1879 (having sneaked over from Portugal), eventually making its debut on the mainland in 1915 (Jan, 05: I soon learned that this oft-repeated date is at least a decade late). Many are made out of beautiful koa wood, which grows only in Hawaii. Amusingly, “ukulele” means “bouncing flea” in Hawaii, which aptly describes the desired sound.
Ukes come in four different sizes. From smallest to largest, they are the standard or soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The first three sizes were originally all tuned the same (a’,d’,f#’,b’), but today’s players usually tune the larger sizes down a whole-step or more. The baritone is simply tuned to the first four strings of a guitar, and, yes, you can easily use your same guitar chords and fingerings. These are also the same fingerings used on the smaller ukes – they just sound weird because the low string has been tuned an octave higher, but the intervals come out the same (and the chord names are different because of the higher key).
Like steel-string guitars, the world standard for ukuleles was, and remains, the Martin Company. Between 1920 and 1930 Martin sold tens of thousands in all sizes, assorted models, and in both mahogany and koa wood versions. Even though they were “mass-produced,” they were each hand-made, highest-quality instruments.
Surprisingly, they didn’t offer a baritone until 1960, after Arthur Godfrey had been playing one for ten years. Martin, however, was one of the few companies to offer a taropatch. This is an eight-string four-course instrument which was supposedly an ancestor of the uke. Tuning and body-size correspond to the concert uke – or more precisely, vice versa – for the concert ukulele came into existence in 1925 when Martin reduced the slow-selling taropatch’s eight strings to four!
During the ‘teens no one could predict the duration of
the ukulele craze or the banjo fad, so someone invented the ukulele-banjo
to cover all bets – a brilliant idea, since consumers couldn’t decide either
and bought the new hybrid. Zillions were made by every company in existence (except
Martin!) – cheap ones, expensive ones, toy ones, and fancy ones. Gibson made
several models and while this UB-1 is its low-end model, it’s still a
well-built, professional instrument. As the name implies, the ukulele-banjo is
tuned and played like a uke but looks and sounds like a banjo. While normal
ukuleles are always strung in nylon, these accept either nylon or steel strings.
I think steel makes them sound too much like a banjo so I use nylon, which
sounds like the name suggests – a novel blend of the two instruments! (Jan,
05: Optional names for the ukulele-banjo include “banjolele,” and “banjo-uke”)