Of Orcs and Ukes – the Orculele


At first glance, Orcs and ukuleles do not go together very well. Orcs, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories, are vile, petty, quarrelsome, violent…the antithesis of aloha.

Nor do I have a clever explanation for why they belong together, for instance revealing connection unearthed from Tolkien’s less known works like the Silmarillion or The Book of Lost Tales (which have so much to say about ukuleles).

One thing just led to another, starting with a curious piece of wood.

My friend Konrad, who makes astonishing hand planes, is a magnet for great wood–it seems to find him as often as he finds it (he might disagree, but that’s how it feels to me). In the course of his work he squeezes everything possible out of each precious old plank, many of which are generations old. As with great gemstones, long hours go into figuring out how to best cut it, and often little more than toothpicks and sawdust are left when he has finished.

From time to time, though, there are scraps that I can turn into a headstock overlay–the thin layer of wood on the top of the neck where the tuners and my new-moon logo are.

We were looking at one such piece a few years back, and in a Rorschach moment I said that the swirling orange and black grain looked like the eye of Sauron. As if triggered by an earthquake, we erupted with ideas and laughter, and within minutes the orculele took shape.

Two orculeles, in fact: one in austere blackwood for Isengard and the tower of Orthanc, the other in swirling orange and black woods for Mordor and Barad-dur. They bore the shield-symbols of Saruman’s white hand and Sauron’s red eye (both originally drawn by Tolkien, though you’ll have to search for them, I’m not finding stable links), and common to both, the beautiful but terrible Elvish inscription on the One Ring at the heart of the entire story.

The key woods were already in the shop. I had African blackwood slashed with pale yellow streaks, perfect for Saruman’s Orthanc themes. The pinnacle, however, was a single small billet of palisander with…volcanoes. Volcanoes! Orodruin (Mt. Doom, in Mordor)–where Sauron forged the One Ring, and where Frodo’s journey ends with the Ring’s destruction! Destiny was obviously speaking–the orculeles were inevitable.

Or not. A couple of cancer diagnoses (and a host of less dramatic things) made the path far more crooked than it first appeared. However, with the cancers at bay for now, the orculeles are once again progressing, and if providence smiles I will bring them to the Reno Ukulele Festival in April.

Volcanic terrain requires the finest of shavings. 

But…ukes simply aren’t Orkish

Ahhh…yes. I’m forced to agree. This has bothered me (on an off) since the initial rush subsided, not just because orcs and ukes are so spiritually different, but because Tolkien’s rich tales and imagery quickly spawned non-Orkish ukes.

However, my attempts at alternate names have so far been abysmal, too embarrassing to share. It doesn’t help that “orculele” rolls off the tongue so damnably well.

With no pretense of logic then, I will say that orculeles are not grim and ugly, nor nasty sounding, nor badly made–I make them to delight, as always. When I’m not obsessing over what purer minds may think, even the name (orculele) is cheerful to me, sounding so much like “ukulele”.

Though visually these first Black and Mordor orculeles reference Tolkien’s darker imagery, they are light at heart. Like our German shepherd Cap, who many folks find intimidating, these ukes just want a little loving.

But maybe not after a mud bath…

Ack! This sounds crazy! And when I complete the Elvish ukes, or Hobbit-ish ones, what then? A Galadriel orculele, or the tireless Orculeles of Rohan? Ridiculous!

If you come up with a great name–one name to rule them all (sorry!)–please, please share! I will hold you in esteem and sing your praises on this site, in the tradition of song-making that runs throughout Tolkien’s work.


Unnaturally observant readers may notice that the Elvish text at the top of this page is not the original inscription on the One Ring. It is instead a riff on the last phrase of that inscription (kindly translated by a Tolkien language expert), which says “And in the music join them”, pretty well capturing why I make instruments.



One second of fame

A while back, Doug Reynolds (czar of the Reno and Palm Strings Ukulele Festivals) and Daniel Ho (grammy winning Hawaiian music performer) collaborated to create a virtual ukulele ensemble performance of Daniel’s well known tune “Pineapple Mango”.

A virtual what? The uke-centric version of a virtual choir, in which musicians from far and wide record themselves performing the same tune and upload them, and some extremely creative (and patient) person edits them into a single magical performance–no mean feat, as technical issues abound.

This sounded like fun, so I recorded a version in the woodshop, uploaded it, and promptly forgot all about it. While preparing to sign up as a vendor for the 2016 Reno Ukulele Festival I stumbled on the finished product. Individuals and groups from all over the globe making music together!.

In a nice surprise, somewhere near the middle–for nearly an entire second–I demonstrate my command of the descending D7 scale, dominating the dominant as it were (sorry, bad music theory reference). Thanks to Daniel, Doug, and the video editor for including me.

Kimo’s Grand Tenor

Tasty wood for Kimo’s GT

There’s a delightful Italian saying that translates roughly as “this is so good you will lick your mustache”–an expression, I’m told, that works across age, gender, and subject. I’ve been feeling this way about the chance to design a long scale tenor ukulele for Kimo Hussey.

Excellent long scale tenors are made (Lichty, Kanile’a and others), but I wanted to design the entire instrument around the 19″ scale rather than put it on my standard tenor body. This would add resonance, sustain, complexity, and power to more fully render what the (naturally higher tension) long scale was contributing. Kimo was enthusiastic with the direction, so I plunged ahead.

Pulling out plans for great classical guitars by Hauser and Romanillos (plans 12, 30, and 33 for the curious), I noticed that the scale–starting from the 5th fret, equivalent to tenor C6 tuning–was just over 19″, right where Kimo likes it. Taking that as an omen, I ran down to Fedex and reduced those plans to the new scale length.

IMG_2076Studying them alongside existing long tenors, I began the alchemic process of creating a body/bracing plan; radical shape or not?; computing string pull; adjusting the sound hole and transverse bars to define the primary resonating surface; open harmonic design?; a little more fullness here if the bridge goes there; fairing the curves so the wood will take the shape without tension; testing ideas with luthier friends and mentors, and on–sketching and shaping bits of wood and paper until a form emerged with an appealing balance, technically and aesthetically.

Comparing it to my current tenor plan, they were clearly siblings, no surprise I suppose as the same technical considerations and sense of allure guided my original tenor design. Yet subtle differences between the siblings exist, which makes me happy–what if I could have simply photocopied my current tenor plan at larger scale and saved all that work?

What to call it? “Super-tenor” and “long scale tenor” normally refer to a 19″ scale on a more or less standard tenor-sized body. It quickly became apparent that a body designed around the 19″ scale would be about the size of the baritone uke. As a baritone singer, I was drawn to the name “lyric baritone”, a singer’s description for a baritone with a higher range and generally lighter and sweeter quality (not my voice, sadly). One tiny problem–no one would realize from the name that it’s a tenor uke. Scratch.

Borrowing again from guitar history, we settled on grand tenor, a naming convention signifying a step up in size and power. I’m concerned that “grand” sounds a little bit, well…grand. Holding a mockup in my hands, it doesn’t feel big or flashy; it feels balanced and sweet, with the charm and friendliness that so appeals to me about ukes.

In the meantime I’ve already shortened it to GT to save keystrokes, though GT now makes me think of Mustangs (the car). However, I learned to drive in my mom’s powder blue ’66 Mustang (not a GT), a nice memory, so I think it will be OK. 

Erasing–lots and lots of erasing



Setting sail with Kimo

A blissful moment: Kimo plays my first uke

Kimo Hussey has been a powerful source of inspiration for me. His spirit of aloha and encouraging advice when I was new to ukuleles have been like a lighthouse.

Befitting these lofty duties and his renown in the ukulele world–and despite his approachability and warmth even at our first meeting–I had him on a pedestal, with a little mist swirling below to heighten the effect.

So it was a huge surprise when we were corresponding recently and he suggested that I make him an instrument. Had he not been home in Hawaii he might have felt my jaw bounce off the floor–seismic detectors throughout the Northwest recorded it. I recovered sufficiently to agree enthusiastically, and we began discussing possibilities.

I’ve been intrigued for years with longer scales for tenor ukes, and Kimo has been exploring this with Jay Lichty and other wonderful makers. Kimo’s warm sound also suggested a larger body to go with the longer scale’s sustain; a more resonant, ringing, and complex palate to complement the juicy chords and melody lines of his playing. The larger box also promised a sweet balance for the longer neck.

What a wonderful way to start the year!


Farewell to a rough year

Ann and Cap at Cape Perpetua in near gale winds just after Christmas.

Despite the good things that happened in 2015, I’m afraid the date I will always recall is August 20, the day we learned that my wife Ann had cancer. Stage 4 lung cancer.

Naturally the first thing you do is look it up online, and the information is…terrifying.

No risk factors, clean living, healthy as the proverbial ox, long lived parents. Yet within weeks Ann was winded just walking across the kitchen, losing weight by the day, going down before my eyes.

Long story short, she is on a targeted therapy that dramatically reversed the symptoms–as evidenced by our hikes at Cape Perpetua in the picture–but will have to fight this from here on out, with no prospect for remission. A game changer, we’re still processing it, taking things a day at a time with a sharpened sense of what matters and what doesn’t.

We have been humbled by an outpouring of love, help, prayers, healing thoughts and more. It makes a huge difference, and we thank  you deeply.


Thankfully, this was not the only story of the year. New Year’s eve marked our first anniversary with Cap, the extremely charming and high intensity German shepherd in the above picture with Ann. Cap all but requires that he accompany us when we leave the house, and sits up so straight in the car that he could comfortably wear a seatbelt much of the time. On the other hand, he hangs his head out the window in classic dog fashion too, so we haven’t buckled him in.

Thenardiers dance
wedding dance

In spring I played the vile M. Thenardier in a production of Les Miserables. It was a beautiful show and a wonderful bunch of friends new and old who shared this labor of love. This picture is the wedding scene, where I was no less evil, but a good deal more presentable than in the other scenes.

Woodley and major koa!

Just after Les Mis I traveled to Hawaii to build flamenco guitars with Woodley White and Tom Harper. We stayed at Woodley and Julie’s place in Naalehu, at the south tip of the big island. Working like beavers in his basement shop, we built the best part of four guitars. Woodley set the pace with two at once, while Tom pushed his the furthest. It was very snug, as Woodley also had more than a dozen ukes and one or two other guitars in the shop. It was a revelation for me to work with these guys, and I still benefit from it every day in the shop. Overlooking the ocean as we had fresh mango out on the lanai each morning wasn’t bad either.

Evening thunderclouds fade.

If you don’t hate me now, presumably it’s safe to mention hiking in the Sierra Nevada around Mammoth Lakes. The Sierras were in their 4th year of drought, but relatively heavy summer rains made for unexpectedly good flowers. For some reason this year my hikes often ended after dark. In the picture you can see the shadows lengthening while I’m still miles from the roadend. A teeny tiny flashlight saved my neck more than once.

Among the ukulele building highlights of the year were delivering instruments to two very special friends in my musical life (and beyond), folks who bring joy to a wide circle through their teaching studios and ensembles. Longtime friend and choir mate Anne Loewen conducted a nefarious campaign over several years that eventually lead me to building ukes, and Suz Doyle has been a mainstay of the local musical scene for as long as I can remember. Thanks!

Wishing you (and us) a good 2016!