the root cellar: smoking little 4-strings

“He really got into the ukulele. It sounds kind of corny, but it gave him so much joy, you know. I was there when he first discovered it. The rest of his life was ukulele. He played the hell out of the thing.

– Tom Petty on George Harrison


by john pinamonti


Things you should know.

You spell it u-k-u-l-e-l-e.

It means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian.

It was developed in Hawaii after some Portuguese sailors brought small 4-string instruments with them on their travels in the late 1800’s (1879, to be exact).

It was George Harrison’s favorite instrument.

It comes in lots of cool shapes, materials and sizes and sometimes has amazing detail work.

Uke players come in all shapes and sizes too, and the uke can be easily learned and played by a child and yet can also be used effectively and beautifully by a virtuoso.

Make no mistake, I am a self-confessed uke freak, but since you probably aren’t, I decided to start you off with a few tantalizing tidbits to pique your curiosity!

The first thing that any (potential) uke fan should do (besides to get a uke) is to check out a fine site run by ukist-writer-illustrator Mark Frauenfelder called Ukelelia. It is one of the best sources about anything and everything concerning the ukulele. Among the things you will find there are links to the Rolling Stone interview quoted above with Tom Petty, where he discusses Mr. Harrison’s devotion to the little 4-string wonder.

To those uke skeptics out there, you gotta admit – the fact that George dug the uke so much gives it a little more credibility!

If you are now curious to hear and read more, then check out some or all of the following:

The best place to start hearing uke music is Legends of the Ukulele (Rhino). It will introduce you to such greats as Johnny Marvin, Ohta San, Arthur Godfrey and Lyle Ritz, and it is a wonderful compilation of many different styles and personalities. One of the main reasons I like it is because it displays the amazing diversity of the uke and truly shows that it is a “legitimate” instrument. The disc was compiled by the ubiquitous Jim Beloff, who is also one of the featured artists on it and who wrote the indispensible The Ukulele: A Visual History. In addtion, he has put together a terrific show currently in place at the Stamford, CT Museum and Nature Center called Uke Fever: The Craze that Swept America (running through May 26). I highly recommend the show for anyone who can make it, and for those of you who can’t, the book and CD are a nice substitute. The show is a cool kind of 3-D version of the book – it’s literally like walking through it – and they play the CD as background music.

Also worth hearing are Roy Smeck – Plays Hawaiian Guitar, Banjo, Ukelele & Guitar 1926-1949 and King Bennie Nawahi – Hawaiian String Virtuoso / Classic Acoustic Steel Guitar Recordings of the 1920’s, both on Yazoo Records.

As well as Sol HoopiiMaster of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar, Vol. 1 and 2 (Rounder).

While these albums feature primarily slide guitar, they do have some uke in the mix, and are a must simply for the skill and soul of these players. As they say on the Rounder site about Hoopii, “His sophistication, swing, and chops are a wonder to behold — this music defies category, and you don’t even have to be a fan of Hawaiian guitar to love this recording.” The same could be said of Smeck and Nawahi – all of these guys are worth having in your collection because they are great musicians who made great music, period. And don’t forget, it was guys like Hoopii and Nawahi who influenced an entire generation of blues and country slide guitarists, so even though the “uke factor” is pretty minimal on these records, I’m suggesting them simply for their historical and musical importance.

Last but not least if you aren’t in the mood to spring some spread for the above mentioned CDs, then check out some of the great Cliff Edwards a.k.a. Ukulele Ike cuts at this website that Mark told me about:

If none of the above has even made you remotely curious, then you can go back to watching the WWF Smackdown now.

Catch you on the flip side!

ps Hey — I got through this whole piece without mentioning Tiny Tim!


Originally published:
Issue Eighteen
March 2002


John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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