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?

Do you need another ukulele? Susan asked. How can anyone answer that? Do I need another book? Do I need another jazz CD? Do we need another cat? Harmonica? Or hosta? Need isn’t want. And every instrument is unique; different in feel, in tone, in response. Like a plant, or a cat or dog. Life with multiple ukuleles is far richer than life with just one. Ask any guitarist.

Martin has a great reputation for making ukes, given that the company became a ukulele builder much earlier than most other guitar and instrument builders. It started designing them in 1907, and made uncounted number of them in the 1920s and 30s (14,000 were made in 1926 alone!), and continued to make them – at a diminished volume, mind you – until the 1970s, after many others had quit.

Then, in 1977, like other manufacturers, they stopped. The ukulele wave was over. It had lasted six decades, but other interests, other instruments, had taken over. Manufacturers moved on. There was but one Hawaiian manufacturer left in the late 1970s. But the cycle continued, and ukes became the most popular musical instrument a few decades after most companies had given them up as dead. Today it’s more popular than in its heyday of the 1920s.

Today those old Martin ukes are much sought after for their quality build and superb tone. Martin also started making ukes out of koa before anyone else, first in 1920, recognizing the tonal qualities of the Hawaiian wood were perfect for the ukulele. However, when the wood became hard to get during WWII, they switched to other tonewoods in 1940 (mahogany seems to have been their alternate choice).

When the uke renaissance returned the diminutive instrument to popular favour, a decade or so ago, many companies rushed to get on the bandwagon and supply the growing demand for them. Martin finally did too, with multiple offerings: premium American-made (at a price well outside my reach) and an offshore line, made in Mexico. That’s my Martin.

Mexico has a lot of excellent guitar makers, mostly in the village of Paracho, Michoacan, up in the Sierra Madre mountains south-southwest of Morelia. It’s off the highway that runs through Uruapan from the coast. I’ve never been there (although we went past it by bus on the way to Morelia), but I’ve been told it’s a magical place for musicians, and almost every Mexican stringed instrument is made there. Some day, I’ll get there…

I don’t know if that’s where Martin makes its ukes, but I hope so. I have a high respect for Mexican culture and their musical instruments, and consider many superior to the usual run of Chinese factory-produced instruments. Had I found the T1K in a store in Mexico, I would have bought it even without the Martin decal on the headstock.

The T1K is an unadorned, all-koa instrument, solid top. No frills, aside from a thin rosette around the sound hole. Unadorned, Grover geared tuners. Simple and subtle with a clear sound.

It’s quite loud, and promises some greater tonal complexity with alternate strings, perhaps Aquilas. Martin strings are okay, but my tonal tastes run to other brands. I suspect it will also age well, as most Martins do. A review for my uke website is in order.

In the mid-1980s, I had a Martin guitar, a D-35, bought when I was flush with book royalties and had a passel of clients for my tech writing. I had a room full of musical equipment: amps, keyboards, electronic devices, guitars, basses, microphones, recorders… but the Martin stood out.

It was beautiful, sound was stunning, and it simply made every other instrument I had sound pale in comparison. But I was too nervous to take it to jam sessions often – I was always afraid it would get dinged or a glass of beer or wine spilled on it. Worse, someone might find it too attractive to resist stealing. After a couple of years, I sold it, and instead stuck with more pedestrian and more beat-up-able guitars.

But I missed the D-35. Ever since, I’ve wanted to own another Martin, but the price has kept me from them. Until this line of more modestly-priced ukuleles, that is. I’ve looked at vintage Martin ukes, of course, but many have escalated into the price stratosphere now the uke craze is in full blossom. I was really only able to afford this one because it was discounted and I promised to sell either another uke (maybe my custom-made cigar-box tenor?) or my Ergo upright five-string bass to help pay for it.

Either that or face the Wrath of Susan. Remind me to post that Kijiji ad…

Anyway, new uke in hand, we got back into the car and drove to the hotel. There I unpacked it and played it a bit. Clearly the new strings were still stretching, and needed some time and playing – and constant tightening – to settle. They slipped out of tune easily. A day before the gig and the uke was temperamental. The tuner got its use that day. I played, tuned, and played again.

As the hour approached, I tried to get in as much practice as possible. The strings settled somewhat, but constant tuning was still required. I couldn’t play an entire song without one string or more dropping a half, even a whole tone. Sigh.

Nothing to do but attach the tuner and head off to the pub (the Imperial Pub on Dundas, not the usual Dominion Pub on Queen this time). We walked in at 7:30, about 30 minutes early, in time to order beer (Steamwhistle and a wedge of lime) and greet people at nearby seats. And to tune again.

It’s like being at a motorcycle event. Everyone asks, “What do you ride?” Well, at a uke event everyone wants to know what you play – what brand, model, size. No lack of conversation. Is that a Kala? An Ohana? Mainland? Do you like soprano more? What strings have you tried? Pick up lines, they might sound like, but they’re motivated by sincere passion. Thirty, maybe 40 or more uke players filled the room.

Steve McNie came in, organizing everything as usual, setting up the screens for the songs to be shown, and asking if anyone other than the three who had signed up if they wanted to get on stage to perform. I kept silent, tuning my uke. Waiting. Playing.

The singalong started about 8, and Steve asked several times for performers. I held back, thinking if I waited a bit longer the uke was more likely to stay in tune for a whole song. And I wanted the time to get used to the uke itself – the neck, the frets, the weight were all different from my Boat Paddle, plus I had no strap, so I had to hold it and restrict my arm movement, something I hadn’t planned for. Confidence took time to build. And a pint of beer.

Then suddenly it was 11 p.m. and it was over. Goodbye, thanks for coming, see you next week. It was too late. Sigh. My fingertips were buzzing with all the playing, a little sore, but I was ready… and no one to play to. Ah well, next time.

Even without the opportunity to play, I had a great time playing and singing – Susan even sang along with the crowd. Maybe I can convince her to learn to play the uke… the family that strums together, and all that….

It’s been a few years since I played solo in public – those weekly jams at the Pine Street Cafe, or the gigs with Rocky West at such elegant watering holes as the Tremont… those were the days. More than a decade ago, they were. When did I get that old?

Even before we moved here, I played a lot, jammed a lot with friends. Weekends were often based around who we wanted to play with and what instruments to bring. I don’t think I can really express the delight we had in playing music unless you’re already a musician or – like me – a passionate albeit untalented amateur.

My playing-in-front-of-people skills have become rusty. I have some experience talking to an audience and I’m only mildly nervous about it (I have recently been asked to give a talk to two different municipal organization conferences this fall and winter, with a third conference possible). I have to admit I feel more nervous playing music than speaking in public. Need to get more practice playing in public, but where? Might want to go to the Orangeville uke group’s monthly jam this summer. Get some more jam time in.

Anyway, we had a good time in Toronto, as usual. A few days away is good for the psyche. We walked many, many kilometers in our perambulations, walking from Gerrard and Yonge to the Distillery District, to St. Lawrence Market, to Spadina, the Art Gallery, Chinatown, College Street, Eaton Centre, Queen St West and back… all by foot. We love to take the time, to meander, to look at the architecture, the store windows, the people.

It’s nice, too, to stop in at little restaurants, to have Indian, Thai, Japanese and other foods. We love the multiculturalism of Toronto, the rich blend of people, cultures, music, food, stores, art…

But it’s nice to come home to one of the nicest, prettiest towns in Ontario, to our home, our pets, our friends. And to come back with a new ukulele (plus a new hot sauce, boxes of green tea, several books, DVDs and music CDs) is so much the better.

Tonight we’re sitting outside, enjoying the late evening sun, a glass of wine, and the garden in its finery, and maybe it’s time to bring out a new uke and play a song… and pour another glass of wine… damn, but it’s nice to be home. Let’s see how that TK1 sounds…

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