12/17/13

Selling the electric upright bass


Ergo electric upright 5-string bassMy first experience playing a bass guitar came when I was asked to join a local garage band in the mid-1960s. I was learning rhythm guitar back then, inspired by the Beatles and the wave of British pop bands that flooded the airwaves from around 1962.

But they already had two of those. They didn’t have a bass player, though, so I became the bass player. Not a terribly good one, mind you, but it was a fun experience. As soon as I left, a year or two later, I went back to rhythm guitar. But bass stuck with me and I’ve tinkered with it on and off since then.

In the 1980s, when I had an apartment full of musical instruments and recording devices, and jammed almost every weekend, I bought a couple of bass guitars to fool around with. I also needed something different to play when I went to a jam that already had half-a-dozen guitarists.

My favourite was a short-scale (23″? 25″?) Supra bass. Wish I’d never sold it, but that was 20+ years ago. Ab antiquo, as it were.

I started tinkering with bass again in 2011, when I bought an Epiphone Viola bass, a close clone of the Hofner bass Paul McCartney used in the Beatles, but a shorter scale.  Beautiful instrument. It was on sale as a ‘scratch and dent’ item at the local Blue Mountain Music store, but I couldn’t see a single blemish.

I’d been playing ukulele for more than three years by then, but when I saw it in the store, suddenly I had an urge to play bass again. I got it and a small practice amp.

Shortly after that, I picked up a used Ibanez six-string bass from a seller on Kijiji. Six string basses are oddities to me, but I’ve always loved playing odd instruments, so I added it to the collection. I didn’t play it a lot, though, after the initial plucking. Mostly I found the Epi easier to play and I didn’t want unplayed instruments cluttering the house. Pretty soon, I sold it.

I started looking at electric upright basses a couple of months after that, mostly out of curiosity. Fretless, upright basses have always sounded beautiful to me and I’ve been a big fan of Charlie Mingus for decades.

But size-wise, they are just way too big for my little house. Susan would be most unhappy were I to fill our already-crowded dining room with a fat bass. A loud bass, too. Not exactly something I could plunk away at without disturbing her. At least with an electric bass, I can play without amplification, or with headphones.

So the alternative  was an electric upright bass. But I knew as much about EUB as most people know about quantum mechanics or the mysteries of the apostrophe. I needed to do some research. I joined bass forums and asked the typical newbie questions: what to look for, brands, sizes, etc. Did I want a flat fretboard or radiussed?
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11/3/13

In Appreciation of Vintage Music


I was listening the other day to a song sung by Cliff Edwards, Cheating on Me, recorded from an old 78 RPM single. Scratchy, warbly, and a bit thin, but it comes across beautifully across the gap of time. When you listen for a while, the scratches just disappear into the background and you hear Ukulele Ike’s lovely voice cut through the noise. I was thinking it was a song I really should learn to play myself. Listen to Edwards’s classic strumming in his version, as well as the key change towards the end:

I have it on my MP3, player along with many other tunes from the 1920s through the 50s. When I tire of listening to audio lectures and history podcasts (my usual audio fare when walking my dogs), or just want a change, I put the old music on; tunes featuring Al Bowlly, Ruth Etting, Rudy Vallee, Bessie Smith and others. Music my parents would have known. Songs like Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Why Don’t You Do Right? Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. Ukulele Lady.

Wonderful stuff. Not really all that different from today’s music, just some changes in instrumentation, in rhythm and in instrumentation. Certainly the sentiment in the lyrics is familiar: love, passion, loss, cheating, family, friends, the ups and downs of relationships. A bit more innocent than music these days (no violent, pornographic lyrics). I turn to this music increasingly often these days, less and less to modern, post-1990 tunes.

Here’s the same song, sung a few years later by Kay Brown, arranged for a somewhat later period’s musical tastes and different orchestration:

Both are undated, but I’d guess Edwards was from the late 1920s, Brown from the 40s.* One of the positive aspects of the internet has been the archiving of a lot of material from the past like these tunes, making them accessible for a new, wider audience.

Back when Edwards recorded the song, the guitar was not used a lot in popular music – it would start its ascendancy in the early 1930s when the first electric amplification was developed. But the ukulele craze brought that little instrument to the fore from around 1920 to the mid-1930s. And Edwards was the top of the pops for a while.

How well that music of yesteryear works today is evident in the numerous pop stars who have cut albums of old popular standards. Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett and Brian Ferry, for example. Then there are those who have resurrected the music in somewhat more romantic manner: Steve Tyrell comes to mind as the best of them, as the least saccharine and most authentic of many performers. Critic John Taylor writes:

…Tyrell is a romantic’s romantic, his just-slightly-craggy voice possessed of a natural and easy-going warmth. He may not be the most technically precise singer around, but there’s a just-between-us quality that renders each tune an intimate and personal performance, as though Tyrell is singing, not to a crowd but to each and every individual listener. Add impeccable production and sympathetic support from an utterly immaculate orchestra, and the results are the perfect prelude to passion.

Tyrell and the rest all know that good music is timeless and our musical past is easily resurrected, with just a little careful honing (and sincere appreciation of the music). Most of their cover songs are arranged to suit more modern tastes. Orchestrations beefed up to fit the current tastes in sound and rhythm, bass lines pumped up. But really not all that different: it remains comfortable and approachable for any modern listener.

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06/28/13

A Little Uke on the Side


T1K UkeAbout 20 kilometres from home, while mentally playing the piece I had practiced all week, I asked myself if I had remembered to pack my tuner.

I remembered taking it off the ukulele and placing it in my luggage. I had raced upstairs to put it away and grab a gig bag for the Boat Paddle uke, resting on its stand downstairs.

Whew. Of course the tuner was safely stored in the luggage. And the uke was… my mental alarm sounded. Still sitting in its stand. Back home. I had been distracted, gathering my books for the trip, forgot about the case and brought the bag downstairs by itself. In the flurry of packing the car, getting the dog inside, checking on the cats, selecting music for the trip, and packing the laptop, I forgot the most important thing: my ukulele.

Uh oh. A good part of the trip centred around a ukulele. Which, like the cheese in the Monty Python sketch, I didn’t have.

I was planning to attend a weekly jam of the Toronto Corktown Uke group, only my third ever, and had wanted to play a song of mine for the open-mic portion. I had planned to be at this session for weeks. Damn.

Well, nothing to do about it now at 80 kmh. We motored relentlessly on to the city, first to visit my mother, then on to the hotel for a three-day stay downtown. But, I reasoned, if I took the right route into town from her nursing home, I might just manage to drive by the Twelfth Fret music shop on the Danforth, and if there was a parking space nearby…

Of course there was. The stars aligned for once and the usually busy Danforth had several spaces available. Stopping was inevitable.

After an hour trying this one and that, moving from room to room while Susan restlessly followed (does it sound better or worse now?), I walked out with a Martin T1K tenor uke (not the Iz signature edition). My birthday present to myself. Susan merely rolled her eyes. Another uke?

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02/22/13

Is it time for a Collingwood ukulele group?


Cheltenham uke groupWhen a friend recently told me he had joined the new Guelph ukulele group, it made me somewhat envious. After all, having a local support-performance-practice-chat-socialize group for any hobby is always great. When your hobby is a passion that requires an audience to realize itself fully, a local group is de rigeur. You simply need others people to practice with to get better and share the joy.

Ukes in Toronto

Uke groups have been springing up all over. The ukulele is currently the most popular musical instrument in the world.

The Corktown Ukulele Jam is a weekly group get-together in Toronto that I’ve attended a couple of times. It’s amazing, fun and always packed (click the photo on the left). Ukuleles and beer… a terrific combination!

But are there enough local ukulele players to form a viable group? I’m not sure. I only know of four, perhaps six, of us (adults anyway). There may be others, of course. Maybe this post will bring a few more out.

A local group could do several other things: help new players learn, share information and tips on playing and buying, compare models and brands, encourage local music stores to stock better product, share music, buy strings in bulk, and build interest in the ukulele for others who may not have discovered it yet.

We could build a songbook everyone could share, too. I have hundreds of vintage song sheets and books already scanned we could build from. Plus there is a lot of music already posted on forums like the Ukulele Underground, personal sites (like mine) and then there are generic song sites like Chordie.com that offer arrangements for the uke.

Not sure yet where we’d meet, but space can always be found. The pub idea works well for me…

Any thoughts? Any players who’d like to gather?

07/23/12

The rise of the tenor guitar


Gold Tone tenor guitarTenor guitars have been around since the 1930s, possibly a few years earlier*, but they’ve never had a big following compared with six-string guitars. That seems to be changing, and I suspect it’s in part due to the incredible popularity of that other four-string guitar derivative: the ukulele.

In the past six-twelve months, I’ve been seeing more tenor guitars on the Net, including several new custom tenor guitars made by talented luthiers. New sites about tenor guitars have sprung up, too. Both new and vintage tenors are showing up on eBay in what seems to be increasing numbers. There’s even an annual gathering for tenor guitarists, perhaps more (the page linked above doesn’t actually say where the event takes place, and there are no maps, but it’s in the USA somewhere).

I hadn’t really given tenor guitars much thought, myself, until fairly recently. The only tenor guitarist I’ve ever known is Eugene Smith, who sometimes still plays here in Collingwood. But as a ukulele player, my interest in four- and eight- stringed instruments has widened to all sorts of instruments I’ve never really thought a lot about before (like bouzoukis). I suspect other ukulele players have also considered tenor guitars as a natural complement to uke playing, especially after trying a baritone uke.

1930 Gibson tenor guitarI started playing ukulele in early 2008, put down my guitars shortly after, and never picked one up again once I got bitten by the uke bug (okay, I’ve picked them up, but not played one for more than a few minutes). I quickly gravitated to tenor ukes as the best size and sound for my own playing and finger size. Tenors have a 17″ scale compared to the 13″ scale of a soprano, which I found too cramped.

I started playing baritone uke more than a year ago, after I bought one on a whim from another uke player online. Baritones have a 19″ scale and I really enjoyed the space, and fuller sound. Last year I picked up another musical whim – a four-string cigar-box guitar. I just wanted something to challenge me and give me a different sort of sound to experiment with. It’s the full, standard 25″ guitar scale. While fun to play, the body of a cigar box instrument is small and limits tonal production. That got me interested in tenor guitars.

Many uke players look askance at baritones as too close to guitar scale to be considered a “real” ukulele. I have found them tonally rich, and the lower key suits my limited singing range for many songs.

Eastwood tenor guitarI had to be in Toronto, last week, and my route into the downtown took me past the Twelfth Fret music store. What musician, even an amateur like me, can resist its siren call? I had to stop and see if they had any tenors for me to try. Only one, sadly: a 1936 Gibson priced at $999. Ouch: that’s a bit rich for my wallet, I’m afraid, but I did get to play it and compare it with a baritone uke (a Kala spruce top). I suppose for its age, the Gibson is not overpriced for most people. Since I’m not a pro nor a collector of vintage instruments, I decided to continue looking.

Mostly what I wanted to discover was how a tenor felt to hold and play: was the fretboard too narrow? Too wide? The stretch of fingers comfortable or not? How did it feel in my lap? The ergonomics of an instrument are very important.

Maybe it’s because some popular trends, even in music, seep more slowly into the Canadian consciousness, that the tenor has not taken hold here. Canada has been 10-20 years behind the USA in the tequila craze, and is at least six years behind the US, UK and Australia in the ukulele wave. Since tenor guitars seem to be a new revival, I suppose we should start to see Canadians take notice and for music stores to stock them somewhere around 2020.

I’ve called many music stores around Ontario asking if they had any, and none have – a few have responded with comments that they didn’t even know what a tenor guitar was. Yet there are at least two manufacturers – Gold Tone and Blue Ridge – who are making them (two acoustic models each; a solid and a laminate top). Gold Tone even sells a tenor resonator, metal-body model. Eastwood has a sold-body electric tenor.

Gold Tone resonator tenorI have all sorts of technical questions about a tenor resonator guitar, however, and whether the tension on the biscuit is sufficient for the cone to make the expected sound.** National made a metal-body tenor in the 1930s, and I believe the Gold Tone is homage to that.

Tenor guitars usually have a shorter scale than a standard guitar – 21 or 23 inches, although some new models seem to also share the guitar’s 25″ scale according to some comments I’ve read online. They have a narrow neck, but a big body – and steel strings. That makes them a sort of super baritone uke. However, tenor guitars traditionally have a different sort of tuning than a ukulele or guitar: often tuned in “fifths” to CGDA. Just like a tenor banjo.

A baritone uke and a guitar would be tuned DGBE. I don’t see any reason why I can’t tune one like a guitar. That would be easier than trying to learn an encyclopedia of new chord patterns.

The main attraction, for me, of a tenor guitar is the combination of large body (for fuller volume and tone production) and steel strings. While I love playing my nylon-stringed ukes, sometimes the music calls out for the more metallic, crisper sound of steel. It’s not better, just different. I also think that the combination of nylon and metal in different instruments would sound nice if I get back to recording some of my music.

All of which should suggest to readers that I intend to get one, and yes, I have found one on Kijiji and expect to pick it up next week. Actually I’m quite excited by the notion of having a new musical instrument to experiment with. Would that my talent matched my passion for playing…

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* Tenorguitar.com says they’ve been around for “100 years or more” and that “‘Lyon and Healy’, whose main guitar brand name was ‘Washburn’, claimed to have invented the tenor guitar just after the turn of the twentieth century. Certainly tenor guitars must have been around in the latter part of the first decade of the twentieth century from the existence of published and dated instructional books for both the tenor guitar and tenor banjo from this period that still exist today.”
** Traditional biscuits are made of dense wood like ebony or rosewood. I suspect one could improve the energy transfer to the cone by using a piece of brass or even glass as a saddle. I’ve never found one of these resonator tenor guitars to play in a shop, so I don’t know how they are constructed. I am very curious to try one, however.