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“I’m not good enough”

Meghan and I have just returned from Uke U-7, the super-fun annual festival by the Bend Ukulele Group (thanks, you guys–talk about a labor of love!). A dozen or more times each day at festivals we hear some variation of “I’m not good enough for a $3500 uke”.

A new one this year: “you’ll be the 2nd person I call when I win the lottery!”. I should probably build a $2,000,000 uke just in case.

“I’m not good enough” is a too-familiar feeling, but a few pivotal experiences gradually changed how I think about it, sinking in further over a period of many years.

Uke players may find it astonishing–I sure did–but around the campfires at bluegrass festivals one regularly sees instruments in the $6,000 to $20,000+ range, and I’ve played $200,000 mandolins on multiple occasions–that’s not a typo!

At one festival I was playing in a “band scramble”—an impromptu band given a couple hours to prepare songs for the main stage—when an acquaintance saw me practicing on my $1000 vintage Gibson and handed me his $7,000 Gilchrist (now $20,000+), saying I needed a “real bluegrass mandolin” for the stage.

I replied there was no way I’d risk it, but he looked me in the eye and said “it’s built to make music, not sit in the case–just go and play the heck out of it”. I did as ordered…and it was a wonder. A year or so later I did the previously unthinkable and ordered a Gilchrist (named Cecilia, after the opera singer Cecilia Bartoli—the first instrument I named).

One can hardly count the ways in which I wasn’t good enough for this mandolin, and why it was absurdly impractical. It cost more than my first new car. Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, and collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma) played one, as did many other bluegrass and classical luminaries. Ridiculous. Unworthy!

But what a joy. I’ve treasured our time together, for almost twenty years experiencing delight each time I pluck so much as a single note. She has lifted my playing, and been both a catalyst and partner in many lovely experiences and relationships.

Cecilia has scratches, the finish is worn and rumpled, and repairs have been needed–like any long relationship. Long periods have passed when I didn’t play much. On several occasions I felt I should let her go to someone to someone who would play more (and better)–“worthiness” once again.

Thankfully a violin maker gave me a deeper perspective, reminding me that I’m only Cecilia’s first relationship–albeit the critical one that supported the luthier’s labors of creation–and that instrument relationships (like others) ebb and flow. He suggested that if there is still joy—however quiet, or perhaps even hidden at the moment—then it’s worth staying the course. She will inevitably pass on to others someday, but why abandon the seasons of a rich relationship before they run their course?

I’m still not remotely “good enough”, but I count Cecilia among the best decisions in my life.

(Full disclosure—many years later I got a 2nd different-but-equally-wonderful mandolin from Lynn Dudenbostel; think of it as needing both a high G and low G!)

I’m painfully aware this may sound like an elaborate sales pitch, but it’s as a player that I first experienced joy, inspiration, and even healing in connection with wonderful instruments, and it’s as a player as well as maker that I experience the wistful comments of festival goers. Maybe it’s a uke from Chuck Moore, Woodley White, Steve Grimes, Noa Bonk, or Jay Lichty (among others) that will speak to you instead of mine. That’s OK–find what is alluring to you and play the heck out of it.

Caveat: there are of course many situations in which expensive instruments make little sense. If you must leave your uke in a hot vehicle, get one that’s indestructible (carbon fiber/plywood/etc.). If ukes are a casual hobby that may shift next year to golf or quilting, then find something that plays decently and have fun. If you love your current uke, hurray!

But if there’s a longing that arises over and over…well…(climbing onto a soapbox far above my pay grade, and speaking not only of music but of the whole of our lives): it’s not about whether you are good enough–joy is a grace, not a paycheck; and it’s not about certainty–joy follows curious paths, and often appears impractical if not downright foolish beforehand. Sometimes it boils down to taking a chance on yourself (and others), trusting that taking a beckoning path will offer vastly more than wondering what might have been.

[I was having a seriously “I’m not good enough” day when I took the picture at the top of this posting, one hot afternoon in the Sierra Nevada mountains]

My hula lesson

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Jake better not get lazy, there are young players with amazing chops

Well before dawn one rainy Tuesday last November—“depression month”, when Oregon rains begin in earnest and the daylight hours shorten by half—I arrived at Portland airport with a green backpack and two ukuleles.

I was bound for O’ahu; the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii Exhibition at the Moana Surfrider on Waikiki beach, with a brief visit to the north shore beforehand. Honolulu, Waikiki, Diamond Head, Hale’iwa, the North Shore during surf season—a dream trip.

But I wasn’t feeling it. I wanted to exhibit of course, meet great ukulele makers and players, see fine instruments new and old, and (for my goal-oriented self) see just how high the bar is set in the ukulele world. But the anticipation of major travel stresses me out no matter how good the destination sounds in theory. 

The flight took 1500 hours as I recall, during which hundreds of movies played simultaneously on screens on every side. I consumed cup after cup of orange juice, including the ice cubes, but none of the little Chex’n’pretzel packets. 

But then…

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Ka’ena point, looking southeast

Sunshine. Warm soft air. Birds and flowers. Rainbows in profusion. A food cart waffle-n-fruit breakfast watching squalls over Shark Cove, moving as I learned where the canopy would intermittently unload rainwater. The great folks at the Ukulele Site/Hawaii Music Supply and Ko’olau. Albatrosses slicing a wind that tried to blow me off Ka’ena point (the westernmost tip of O’ahu), whipping the ocean to a stern blue-gray as it hurtled toward Kauai.

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An unassuming landmark of the ukulele world

After the relative peace of the north shore, Honolulu was intense…but not nearly what I had built up in my mind. There were a prodigious number of tourists, but by staying at a backstreet AirBnb and eating at small local joints it was manageable. Two cafes with good baristas within walking distance assisted this urban transition. 

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Joe Sousa of Kanilea leads singing out on the porch

The Exhibition itself was an enjoyable blur of activity, and the people were so kind it felt like a massive expansion of my family. The ukes were amazing. Hot and cold running music, workshops, meals, jam sessions, conversations.

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Measuring a historic uke, sans ruler

By the end I was saturated—ready for a zen garden or empty beach—when a good friend said we have to check out the kanikapila on Waikiki beach. I managed to avoid whimpering, barely. We made our way to police station, took a right turn toward the water, passed the window with six kinds of ahi poke, almost to the sand…and discovered them tucked behind the building.

“Them” was a group of folks in a dis-array of chairs and picnic tables, as if waves had deposited them among the bike racks and surfboard concessions behind the police station. Despite shorts and a camouflaging old Hawaiian shirt I felt conspicuous; this was a local group. I sat at a picnic table discreetly tangent to the circle.

After each song the next person would name a tune, working in this way around the circle. Several played uke, including a blind woman who as far as I could tell never missed a chord change. Most folks sang, mostly in Hawaiian–a local man joined my table and explained the songs. It seemed as if everyone knew every tune. 

What mesmerized me, however, was the hula. On any given song, one or more folks would say “Oh this is a good song”, or “I think I remember this one”, and make their way to the middle; regular folks, in everyday clothes…dancing the stories of the songs through hula.

Well past dark, a group of high school girls—looking as if they’d come from soccer practice—headed past us to the beach. One of the frequent dancers, apparently a hula teacher, called out and coaxed them into the now-crowded circle, coaching and encouraging them.

As fatigue nonetheless overtook me I decided to slip away, but a local held my arm and urged me to stay–“not too much longer, and we will sing the last song together”.  

The players and dancers and hula teacher and soccer girls laughed and danced and sang until it was nearly time for the last bus that could take the blind woman home.

And just as my companion had said, we gathered into one big circle, held hands, and sang (or hummed) “Aloha Oe”; and the kanikapila ended for the night.

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Katniss

Model: GT (Grand Tenor, 19″ scale large body tenor)
Back and Sides: tiger myrtle (from the “Richard Parker” tree)
Top: Swiss bearclaw spruce
Binding: Santos Rosewood
Rosette: Paua abalone (electric blue/purple/green)
Neck: Port Orford cedar, slothead with Waverly tuning machines
Fretboard: Gabon ebony
Finish: Nitrocellulose lacquer

Katniss is the larger of the myrtle ukes in the following pictures, Prim is the small, and Bimal is the GT in darker woods.

 

Kimo Hussey in Corvallis

Kimo strums

Hawaiian ukulele master Kimo Hussey will give a workshop and concert here in Corvallis on September 24 and 25. Kimo brings a wide range of standards, hits, and Hawaiian tunes to life with his sweet chord-melody playing, and in the workshop gives insight into how this magic happens.

The small venue ensures a close encounter with the music, and tasty hors d’oeuvres will be served at both events. See the attached flyer for details.

Kimo and Pat event Sep 2016

Ukes for Reno – a tale

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Prim, as I prepare to locate the bridge.

As the new year started, and Ann was feeling stronger with an effective cancer therapy, I felt a surge of energy in the shop and decided to start a tenor uke (Little Mac) to have available at the #renoukulelefestival.

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Little Mac–Macassar ebony (from two different trees)
But another set of wood begged to come to Reno, and I thought “I can pull off two spec (non-commissioned) ukes by April”.
In the mean time, Kimo’s commission became the GT model, which entailed making new plans, dozens of dedicated patterns/fixtures/forms/tools, and a prototype. I can handle this.
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Kimo’s GT, ready for finish
The family resemblance of the new body style, however, all but demanded a sibling pair (made from the the same tree), and–in a moment of euphoria, I suppose (it passed)–a third Reno uke entered the mix (the siblings are Katniss and Prim). At this point I tried not to think about whether it was possible, and just worked as many hours as possible.
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Katniss (Catching Fire, yes?) and Prim
Then a commissioned instrument was involved in a catastrophic accident (outside the shop). Perfect timing :-\.
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Heartbreak. Needs a new top at the minimum.
In hindsight, I probably had time for Little Mac (on top of commissions, and assuming I wanted to sleep and function in the rest of life). And so my booth at Reno will be stocked almost entirely with incomplete ukes.
I tell myself (and anyone who will listen) that this is great–they’re still customizable! Want a different neck shape, inlays, different tuners, a slothead?
Peter Luongo reminded me “they’re ukes–be happy!), and he is right. I actually am happy; these are SO pretty, and instead of rushing them with compromises they will get a full measure of care and aloha. Sure, I may have to wear a scarlet letter at Reno (“S”, for slowpoke…), but it’s true, and it’s all good.
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Necks for Lakshmi, Reynard, Little Mac, and Prim.

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.

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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.

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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.

Postscript

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

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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. 

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Erasing–lots and lots of erasing

 

 

Setting sail with Kimo

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!