Regular readers will have noticed that The Ukulele Entertainer has been a bit thin on the ground in recent weeks. After waiting two years to get back to some kind of “normal” it seems we’ve landed with everything but. The invasion of Ukraine is both a present and a historic concern in our family:
The news brings back vivid memories to my mum who was forced to flee when Russians swept through West Prussia in 1944 evicting her family from the farm that had been theirs for generations. And now we are extremely concerned for the relatives of my daughter’s fiancé who live in Ukraine. The awful news keeps adding to the shock of realisation of how fragile our everyday existence has so quickly become.
Leading up to all this, here in the UK, we’ve been lashed with storm after storm creating a cacophony of wild winds and rising waters. As these waters rose to within inches of my back door my phone decided to jump out of my pocket and go for a swim. Not good. Plus, there have been family health issues to deal with and then my car broke down blah blah blah…
In a nutshell, February has been an obstacle course of things I’d have preferred to do without. And this is why I haven’t been writing. But, somewhere in the messy mix, I managed to do the most shocking thing of all: I got a guitar.
But, before you rush to unsubscribe, please allow me to explain this seemingly unforgivable action. In mid-January I was in Eagle Music buying mandolin strings for a friend’s 1920’s banjo-lin. Whilst at the counter I casually leaned over to run my thumb across the strings of a guitar on the wall. Which is something you should never do unless you’re ready for commitment. And that’s all it took – I was hooked. I didn’t think I was hooked, but I was. For the next two weeks my mind kept returning to that shop until early February saw me back in the store for another hit – to see if this steel stringed thing was actually as sweet as it seemed.
The object on my mind was a Tenor guitar: a four-stringed instrument tuned D-G-B-E (other tunings are available) just like a baritone ukulele. The only significant differences are a slightly larger body, slightly longer neck and metal strings: essentially it gives any baritone ukulele player the ability to sound like a guitarist without having to learn anything new whatsoever.
The thing is that I have never got on with guitars. I don’t dislike or hate them; I’m just mystified by them. Long before I tried banjo and ukulele, I would occasionally pick up a guitar and wonder how you go about playing six strings with four fingers. It made no sense then – and it makes no sense now. And if you’re going to have more strings than fingers then why stop at six? If it’s more strings you want then get a harp.
Intellectually I know that there must be a reason for guitars because there are so many of them in the world; but I can’t understand why. I just want to be able to strum the thing without a whole lot of fiddling around trying to remember which strings NOT to play. It makes no sense. However, I cannot deny the fact that since teaming up with Chris McShane I have become the de facto “rhythm guitar” player of McShane & Shaw.
Chris is our main melody man so, unless I am playing harmonica, my role is to supply the rhythm while Chris either plays bass or works his melodic chops on banjo and ukulele. I could use a standard ukulele to do this but the truth is that the high register of a GCEA uke does not provide the deep foundation that a lower tuned instrument gives. Which is why, in the past few years, I’ve become more and more of a baritone ukulele player (I tune it to DGBE with a low D.)
In the spectrum of instruments that go from guitar at one end to soprano ukulele at the other there is a grey area in the middle where definitions break apart. The baritone ukulele, for example, is as much a guitar as it is a ukulele and is not a traditional Hawaiian instrument. The exact history of it is debatable. It was invented in the 1940’s or 50’s by some combination of TV star Arthur Godfrey with Eddie Connors and the Vega company and by luthier “Herk” Favilla.
The baritone ukulele is usually tuned the same as the first four strings of a guitar and can sound an awful lot like a nylon-strung classical guitar. So, you might ask, “What makes it a ukulele? A smaller body? (But there are small bodied guitars.) Is it the number of strings? (Keith Richards’ guitar only has 5 strings but they still call him a guitar player.)
And I once heard a purist argue that putting a low G-string on a standard ukulele eradicates the essential re-entrant tuning and fundamentally changes the instrument into a type of guitar. And I can sort of see where he’s coming from. So, then I have to ask, what if I put metal strings on my ukulele is it still a ukulele? Or has it become a different instrument? And, if it is still a ukulele then what if I put metal strings on my baritone uke? Is that still a ukulele or must it now be deemed a tenor guitar? And if it is still said to be a ukulele then is my tenor guitar a guitar or just a uke with superpowers?
These are the questions the world needs answers to.
The upshot is that I am loving the tenor guitar. After thirty years of nylon strings, I am enjoying the bigger sound and the sweet clarity of the metal. I did a three-hour solo gig in my local pub on Friday evening using this instrument (as well as doing a few numbers on banjo-uke) and I had a delightful time. The tenor guitar certainly packs a punch that I don’t quite get with the baritone uke. I also find that the clearer sound of the strings is inspiring me to try different creative ideas that I don’t get with the baritone uke.
Three decades ago, when I started playing ukulele my biggest wonder was, “Ukulele is awesome. Why is hardly anyone playing it?”
Well, we all know what happened there.
But now I’m thinking exactly the same thing about the tenor guitar, “With all the millions of ukulele players in the world how come hardly any of them have transitioned to tenor guitar?”
Imagine! You can get to sound like a guitarist without having to play guitar, which, to me, makes sense in a way that guitars just don’t.