# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Miscellaneous - August 2011

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 20 / 7 / 2011

Miscellaneous - August 2011


Ben Howarth in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column argues the case for defence for the much derided ukelele

Some of Pennyblackmusic’s writers met up in a quiet pub recently, and conversation turned to the ukulele. We were all sad to learn that the Duke Of Uke shop, which sells four-stringed instruments in all shapes and sizes, might be closing down. Then, to my surprise, ukuleles came in for some pretty strong criticism. One of our writers sees them as just something for wannabes to carry around if they can’t play the guitar. Luckily, I have my column in which to put up the case for the defence. I’ve heard the ukulele compared to the recorder – some people seem to think it incapable of producing real music. Indeed, some classical music purists won’t deign to call it a real instrument. To them, it’s a toy. What nonsense! While it is true that few people could build a full time career in music with just a ukulele, there are some very talented musicians who play it regularly. Beirut, Darren Hayman and Patrick Wolf spring instantly to mind. Paul McCartney used one for 'Ram On' back in 1971, and now does an excellent live version of George Harrison’s 'Something' with a uke – George, he tells us, was also a big fan of the instrument. If you have real talent, and plenty of imagination, the ukulele can be used to make a wide range of sound. Just search for Jake Shimabukuro on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. But, really, the ukulele isn’t for the virtuosos or the full-time musicians. It’s the people’s instrument. It’s cheap and small, easy to play and so very, very fun. I was given a ukulele for my birthday, and I’m quickly becoming obsessed. I’d be lying if I said I had mastered it – my fingers rarely do exactly what I want them to. But, with so many chords requiring only one or two fingers, anyone will quickly get strumming along. One of my favourite things about the instrument is that it completely changes how you think about songs. Songs that were previously too simple are now songs that are perfect for the uke. A great example is the Ramones. Regular readers will know I’ve never been a fan. With a uke, however, I find that there is possibly no easier song than ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ – and I’m finally able to see what everyone else likes about it. One of my favourite albums of the last year has been Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder’s 'Ukulele Songs'. Despite coming from someone whose curmudgeonly reputation seems well earned, this is a joyous album – a man revelling in playing and singing, not needing to try hard. The best song is the album’s first – a ukulele take on Pearl Jam’s ‘Can’t Keep’, which loses nothing in translation from darkly meditative hard-rock into a breezy strum. Time and again, Vedder writes gentle love songs that are poignant because of their simplicity, not in spite of it. What I like most is that it’s an album you could recreate in full yourself, if you wanted to. My one regret is that Vedder didn’t package it with a chord-sheet. Maybe, as some have suggested, the ukulele is just a fad. Perhaps we’ll look back on the recent craze for ukuleles like we do at the strange obsession with yo-yos in the late 1990s. But, if it is a fad, then I like the fact that it hasn’t needed an iPhone add-on to become one. I hope my own ukulele craze lasts. Of all of life’s many simple pleasures, it has to be one of the simplest and the most pleasurable. Being small, the ukulele can be there for you when you are most in need – namely, when you are bored. Waiting for your computer to start up? For the British Gas engineer to call? For Jonathan Trott to get out and Ian Bell to come in? Then it’s ukulele time. If you must spend what should be your fun time downloading music from the internet or putting in an extra few hours of office work (I advocate neither activity), at least do it with a uke besides you. Strum a chord, hum a tune and banish the boredom. I can see myself learning chords to all the Beatles songs and singing Clash songs at ten in the morning. I see myself, one day, learning to play all the chords that use three fingers, not just two. With my ukulele, life seems to stretch ahead of me, gloriously.

Also In Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll

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