The iUke


This is the iUke and you wouldn’t need a very large screen to see this little beauty lifesize. I first heard about them in a conversation with a fellow ukejammer and then went and looked at them online at Omega Music. This is a piccolo ukulele, which means that it is tuned an octave higher than a soprano. To get an idea of what that sounds like, if you’re a uke player, then play your C string at the 12th fret. That’s the lowest note I can get from the iUke.

Two things to say at first: this is not a toy, it’s a working musical instrument that plays very well and it’s tiny. Pictures don’t do it justice, you have to hold it to realise how very, very small it is. Surprisingly, it’s not that tricky to play, four finger (and some three finger) chords can be a bit tricky because the everything is so close together, but barre chords are easy and can substitute quite well.

As part of ensemble playing, it stands out because it’s in a different part of the sound spectrum. But, you probably need a plectrum to get the most out of its limited volume (not a large body to resonate). I’ve played it at large ukejam evenings in the pub and in smaller group performances and it really holds its own against the larger cousins.

One caveat, this uke was designed with Aquila, the string manufacturer, and it needs special strings. That’s not necessarily an issue, except that they don’t supply single strings, only the full pack. So, when I broke an A string recently I had to buy three additional strings I didn’t need. If breaking strings becomes a habit, it could be quite an expensive one (not to say time consuming).

Oh and any questions about the CD collection behind the iUke are welcome 🙂

Ukulele Shops – Macari

This is another article in our occasional look at ukulele stores. Note that if you buy from a store, it may cost you a little more than online, but you get access to advice and expertise, and you can try out the instrument. If you want your local store to survive, it’s worth paying a small premium for this facility.

Like Wunjo, Macaris are a London based shop, with branches on Denmark Street and Charing Cross Road. The main Charing Cross Road store is rather busy and has a lot of passing trade, but they have a much quieter basement.

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As you enter Macaris, immediately on the right there is a ‘wall of ukulele’. There’s a significant number of ‘novelty’ ukes there, which can be quite fun. They’ve quite a few other instruments near the entrance that could be classed as ‘impulse buys’, such as the stylophone and mouth harp. Generally speaking, if you’re more than three feet from the door it gets both more serious and quieter.

Due to their location, Macaris get a lot of people wandering in from a busy street, and as a result it can feel quite busy. I have been in there several times and I regret to report that I’ve felt it to be quite a rushed environment. As a result the staff have on occasion been a little brusque. It is understandable given how busy they can get, but regrettable, especially when one is going from shop to shop deciding between different options – this is a store to visit outside of peak hours, if you can.

They’re certainly worth a visit, and they have items in their that you would find difficult to source elsewhere.

Macaris website.

Making a Ukulele Case – Case one

I wanted to make my own ukulele case. I used 6mm ply for the box and 12mm ply for the lid. Ridiculously, for most people this won’t be a cheaper option than buying commercially, but there is a sense of satisfaction – and I have enough raw materials to make several cases which brings the per case cost down. This is therefore my first case, and the plan is for there to be more.

The first step was to measure the ukulele. I placed the ukulele on the 6mm ply and drew around it, then cut out a straight edge shape which enclosed the uke, with room to spare. Using this shape as a guide, I cut side walls to fit.

Here was mistake one – I only have a ‘jigsaw’ type of saw, a circular saw would have given me straighter edges – and so when it came to putting the box together, there were gaps. This wasn’t too big a problem as I would be covering these.

I used some wood at each corner and screwed the sides into it, reinforcing with plenty of wood glue (which helped fill the gaps).

This shows the newly constructed ukulele case. Note the sides are held on with both glue and screws.

This is a close up of the first uke case I constructed. Wood glue is used to hold the sides on, as well as filling out some of the gaps due to dodgy cutting. The blocks are there to allow me to screw the sides together and provide additional mechanical fastening.

To make the lid to fit, I used the box itself to draw onto the 12mm ply before cutting (I should have done this by cutting both lid and base at the same time, clamping the 6mm and 12mm ply together).

If I had a tablesaw I would have made a solid box, and then sliced it into base and lid afterwards, making a thicker lid section.

Next, I covered the box and lid in canvas, held on by glue and spraypainted red. This hid the imperfections in the box itself. I added a black piece of webbing (again glued) to prevent any edges of canvas ‘starting to ‘lift’ (I had the ends of the case done like a birthday present), and attached the lid to the base with hinges and fasteners.

Spraypainted and covered ukulele case

The fasteners I chose are quite sensitive to positioning, it is very easy to get it too loose or too tight. The trick is to fasten the smaller section to the lid, and then use this to position the clasp ‘in situ’, just below where it wants to sit naturally whilst ‘closed’. On the clasps that I bought, the clasp hinge was actually a small slot, and so pushing in on the clasp slides the hinge away from the box and gives a ‘locking’ effect. There’s also a place to put a locking pin should the clasp be too loose.

To make a handle I used a piece of webbing and screwed it to the case using several screws, this was backed up with more glue. I glued a second piece of webbing inside the first in order to hide the screw heads and make a thicker handle.

My next step was to line the case. I used an old camping mat to pad the base and lid,leaving a gap for the bridge. I got a block of foam from a local habidashers. Simply cutting the foam with a knife to give me the shape of my uke – for the neck I cut out the chunk of foam, and then sliced this in half so I would have foam under the neck. With headstock I just cut the foam away completely as the ukulele was held securely elsewhere.

I got some foam cut at a local fabric store, and cut the inserts myself with a knife.

Finally, I wrapped the foam in faux-fur material (tasteful) held on with fabric glue. This makes for a very snug fit with my uke, but fit it does.

LIning foam with some faux-fur material

It may not be the neatest job, but all in all I’m quite pleased with it – and I’ve learned some lessons that I’m already applying to case two, a larger case for a concert ukulele.

Ukulele Shops – Wunjos

This is the first in a series of posts about places to buy Ukuleles. Note that if you buy from a store, it may cost you a little more than online, but you get access to advice and expertise, and you can try out the instrument. If you want your local store to survive, it’s worth paying a small premium for this facility.

If you are visiting London, Denmark street (otherwise known as ‘Tin Pan Alley’) is a superb place to spend some time.

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Wunjos actually has two stores a few doors apart, and though they move things around from time to time, one tends to be more ‘guitar’ oriented, the other has lapsteels, mandolins etc – it is worth going into both as at different times I’ve seen ukes move from one store to the other. (Update: THREE stores, they’ve just opened ‘Wunjo Keys’ for keyboard players)

Wunjos are very friendly, and have a good range of uke from Mahalo costing a few tens of pounds up to antique ukes costing thousands. They don’t pressure sell, and are very good with advice (especially to new players). They also have a good range of hard cases for your uke, as well as accessories like spare strings and electronic tuners. I think they’re best for the ‘mid range’ uke – ukes which start to cost three figures.

Wunjos have a fantastic upstairs room in their larger shop and currently this holds their ‘folk and hawaiian‘ instruments, i.e. ukulele.

Their website (at the time of writing) doesn’t do the shop justice, I think. In terms of ukulele it often only shows a fraction of their range. Wunjos are best visited in person.

To summarise, Wunjos are, to date, my personal favourite ‘bricks and mortar’ shop the Denmark St area of London.

Left Handery

The more eagle eyed of you will have noticed that I play my uke the other way round to the rest of the group. As a long time guitar player, I’m used to hunting down the left handed models (and paying the inevitable extra). With the larger, steel strung, instruments it’s important to have the internal bracing set for left handed (not to mention scratch plates etc.) You could just reverse the strings like Hendrix, but his instruments didn’t survive long enough for the changes in stress to become evident.

Anyway, despite the fact that I had been playing left handed guitar for longer than I’d been married, my wife completely forgot and bought me a right handed ukulele for a present. At first, I thought this is not going to be a bother, there’s only four strings. How hard is it going to be to play it upside down? Well, years of reversing chord diagrams in my head have taken their toll and it’s something I now do automatically.   So, when it came to playing an upside down version of the instrument, I needed to take the diagram literally and that, very quickly, started to break my old brain.  So I did some research. Turns out, that we lefties are quite well off when it comes to ukes. Because the nylon string tension is so much lower, they’re made symmetrically, so you can reverse the strings without damaging the instrument. And since, you might want to get good strings instead of the supplied ones anyway, it’s no great bother. Some shops will supply you with a left handed strung uke for little more than the price of a new set of Aquila strings.

The only hassle is with electrics. I would love one of these as it would match my Ovation guitar, but when I turn it upside down, where are the controls going to be?  And would I have to play with a jack plug sticking into my armpit?

Ovation Ukulele

So, when I saw the pretty uke on ebay that had been wired up for a left hander with a volume control in the right place. It was going to be mine.

In the meantime, do remember, for the most part, ukuleles are very left hander friendly.

My First Ukulele

My first Ukulele was a Stagg Concert, a UC-60S. I got this as it wasn’t too expensive, but it wasn’t the cheapest either. I didn’t want to spend too much in case I didn’t take to this ukulele thing, but I didn’t want to go very cheap and have a bad experience. It was also what my local music store had in stock.

So I bought it.

Ukulele Bridge
Close up of the Bridge on my Stagg Concert acoustic Uke

I soon found that I needed a tuner, if I’m new to an instrument, how can I hope to know if a problem is me, or if it is that I’ve an out of tune instrument? So I bought a small electrical clip-on snark tuner and I tuned up. I soon found that my strings were not holding their tuning. New strings take a while to settle down and require frequent tuning – just what you need as a novice! Fortunately, there are ways to help the strings keep their tune (see the end of the video).

I had my ukulele. Now what? Well, I signed up for some lessons with the lovely Lorraine, and in the meantime I downloaded some songbooks from the internet. By following chord diagrams I learned to play simple two chord songs, then learned a third chord (a song such as ‘Ring of Fire’), and eventually four chords. In this way, I gradually learned the more useful chords and began to pick up speed. Indeed, I went at such as pace that Lorraine’s ‘beginners’ class seemed rather slow for me when it came. This was great progress, I was able to play an instrument!

I may not have been great, but when I started I had said to myself ‘I’ll be happy just to strum along to a few songs’.

I joined a local ukulele group (there are groups all over the world) – and fortnightly went to a local pub to jam. By early the next year I had played my first gig, admittedly as part of a large group, at a local music venue. That summer I’d played at a music festival, and by the end of the year we’d played venues big and small, from the local theatre, to beer festivals, to small venues as part of the old folks tea afternoon. It’s been a real blast – I still have to pinch myself that I’m performing in public, having picked up a musical instrument for the first time relatively recently. I’m never going to be as good as someone who started playing at a young age, but the ukulele makes me happy, and it makes my audience happy…. … it’s a happy making instrument.

My first ukulele sits in its case, hardly touched these days as I’ve now bought ukes that I use a lot more – both better ukes, and ukes that are cheap (and hence can be battered with impunity!) – the Stagg isn’t cheap enough to use and abuse, and it’s not pricey enough to be ‘great’ – so it doesn’t get out much. I’ve added some ‘buttons’ so I could fit a guitar strap, and it has a big crack from when I dropped it in the pub. But that’s okay, it’ll be there for me. It was my first ukulele, and will always have a place in my affections for that reason.

Our Big Gig Press

From getSurrey on 19th July:

Claudia Arnold, Cardboard Carousel, The Toniks and The Surrey Ukeaholics all played, with many taking part in the busk-a-long that took place at the end led by the Surrey Ukeaholics with voices, spare instruments and kazoos that were given away as part of the event. Grainne Walsh, who attended, said: “It was really lovely to have such great music in the town, it really made a lovely atmosphere and the performers were great – a friendly event.”

Our First Bit of Press!



Here we are in the Woking Ad.
Our first bit of press! The Woking Ad, 24th May 2013

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