From the Winter 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY JIM D’VILLE
What happens when you give a certain little four-year-old girl a classical guitar and make her practice every day? In this case, you get Del Rey, one of the most rhythmic and musical ukulele players currently plying their trade on the third planet from the sun. How the 56-year-old Seattle resident became an influential ukulele master is a fascinating story of practice, coincidence, and meeting the musical mentors that guided her through classical and blues guitar styles, and finally, to the ukulele.
In 1964, Del’s mother Eileen decided she wanted to play guitar. She bought a guitar and a Mel Bay classical guitar book. Eileen says, “Del would sit on the bed holding my guitar, strumming discordantly, and singing songs like ‘Ragtime Cowboy Joe.’ So my husband, Stan, got her a small guitar and we started the Mel Bay lessons together. Del adds, “We were living in southern California, near Venice, when a television show came along called Guitar with Frederick Noad, a PBS series. We didn’t have a TV at the time but the trailer park we were living in had one, so once a week we would commandeer the TV in the trailer park rec room to watch the lesson, and my mom sent away for the book that went along with the series. That’s why I have some classical training—from watching television. I hate to admit that,” she laughs. Eileen adds, “It’s thrilling to see her play now, it’s so extraordinary. I wonder how it’s possible, even though I know it’s practice, practice, practice.”
By the age of 13 Del had been playing guitar for nine years and was beginning to discover the music she wanted to play. “I was hanging around with another young musician, Dave Egan, and as teenagers with nothing to do we would swap tunes.” Dave says, “I taught her how to play ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ that’s my claim to fame. It was a real rite of passage at the time.” But it was Del’s ears that most impressed Dave back then. “I was continually amazed that she could absorb anything she heard. She’d listen to a recording and she wouldn’t just hear the guitar part, she would hear the whole arrangement. Then she would incorporate every important musical aspect of the recording, be it a bass line, horn riff, whatever, in her arrangement. She has an ear that just translates everything she hears to her instrument. It’s amazing.”
One day, Del and Dave were walking down the street in the Hillcrest district near downtown San Diego and heard music coming from a tiny record shop called Folk Arts Rare Records. Del remembers, “They would host concerts in the store and that day a 20-something Tom Waits was playing. The Tom Waits before the gravelly voice. He was just this weird kid who wrote songs and worked at the pizza parlor in National City. We were like, ‘This is really great, what else goes on here?’”
Lou Curtiss, owner of Folk Arts Rare Records for nearly 50 years, says, “Del was only 13 when she first came into the store, but she looked and carried herself like she was 18 or 19. We were doing a Wednesday night hootenanny thing in the store and she came in and got up to do a set. I said to her later, ‘You’re good. Would you like to do a weekend?’ She told me those were the only six songs she knew, so I said, ‘Come back to the store later and I’ll play some stuff for you.’” Del adds, “Lou started handing me tapes. The first were of [’30s and ’40s blues star] Memphis Minnie. So I started listening to those tunes and figuring them out. Then, a couple of months later, Lou told me to come down on Thursday and bring my guitar, and he stuck me onstage with Sam Chatmon.”
Chatmon was a legendary country-blues guitarist and member of the 1930s Mississippi Sheiks, best known for their American string band classic “Sitting on Top of the World.”
“After hearing the Memphis Minnie stuff and then seeing and hearing Sam Chatmon play—that was it for me. Sam was very patient. He would play a song as many times as you wanted to hear it, but he wouldn’t slow it down or explain it. All those old guys were like that. You would just sit with them and listen and it kind of soaks in. And since I had all that classical training, I wasn’t starting from scratch. I already knew how to play, I just didn’t have a style. The classical guitar and traditional fingerstyle blues repertoires basically require the same skills—the finger separation, the ability to hold position while moving a finger to play another thing, and so on. So I had the physical facility from having practiced from the age of four to the age of 12. My mom made me play every day: ‘Oh, no, you can’t go out ’til you practice your guitar,’ and I’d say OK.”
Now, with a clear musical direction courtesy of Lou and Sam, Del went on to become one of the best blues guitar players in the country, especially in the realm of those playing resonator instruments. “I was 21 years old and doing some gigs in Santa Cruz in 1980 playing with this resonator-guitar player named Bob Brozman. He was so annoyingly loud. Every time we had rehearsal I said to myself, I’m gonna get me one of those things, I’m tired of getting drowned out! So I bought a ’38 National Style O and played that for years. Later, I met Ron Phillips, who made me a resonator guitar. It was a real upgrade in sound because Ron’s instruments are made out of nickel silver and that’s perfect for me.”
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But it was a cute dress that would forever change Del Rey’s musical life. Her friend Sandy Hines explains: “I first met Del in passing around 1995 at the Augusta Heritage music camp. She told me my dress was cute. A few years later, Del came to Charleston, South Carolina, where I was living, to do a show at a swanky downtown hotel. I wore a fancy vintage suit to the show which she also liked and we ended up becoming friends.”
“Sandy Hines was the first girl I ever met who was obsessed with the ukulele,” says Del. “About five years after we met, she and some of her ukulele friends from the South came to Seattle, where I was living, for a ukulele festival.
I felt like I was surrounded by all these people going, ‘Four strings good, six strings bad.’ I was like, ‘I need a ukulele,’ and I ended up buying one at a flea market that weekend.”
“Of course, she was fabulous on it the very first time she played it,” Sandy says. “So we said, ‘That’s really good, but you are just doing guitar stuff. You need to learn to play it ukulele style.’”
Del: “So I had this funky pineapple ukulele in my purse with no case, ’cause I had to have the ukulele with me at all times because I now had the bug. Well, it was a hot summer day and this amazing noise happened in my purse. It was the neck unsetting. Right about that same time, Ron Phillips, my guitar maker, had built resonator ukuleles for him and his son. When I saw those I said, ‘I really need one of those,’ and that’s the one I still play.”
The next step in Del’s ukulele conversion was taking Sandy’s advice and learning to play the ukulele like a ukulele. “A while ago, James Hill, our young, handsome King of Ukulele Players, said to me ‘Wow, Del, you’re really starting to think like a ukulele player,’ and I was so pleased. I think what that means is you’re starting to use the re-entrant string in a way that incorporates it not just as a weird drone, but also as part of a chord shape or as part of a melodic line. Also, guitar players cover up too many notes. With ukulele, since you only have four strings, if two of the notes are the same, you have to start thinking like a ukulele player and look for a different note that will give the chord some added color.”
Sandy adds, “I remember Del telling me that playing the ukulele and getting rid of those extra two strings was like getting rid of a musical chastity belt.”
Del first employed her new ukulele skills in an ensemble setting in 2004 with the Seattle-based band the Yes Yes Boys. “The Yes Yes Boys is my favorite band of all time,” she says. “It was a New Orleans-style skiffle jug-band with washboard, stand-up bass, sax, clarinet, and ukulele. In that context, I was trying to get banjo-type sounds, like those found on a jazz recording from the 1920s. And the resonator uke really holds up against horns.” [You can download a free copy of the group’s album Why Say No? from hobemianrecords.com.]
“Also about this time, I was working with Steve James playing and arranging traditional blues music on tunes by Mance Lipscomb, the Grey Ghost [Roosevelt Williams], and all that Texas blues stuff that Steve plays. My ukulele playing is rooted in a mix of Piedmont and upper Mississippi styles. It’s a drop-thumb style, using a thumb on every quarter note, so it’s either a bouncing back-and-forth between two or three strings—that’s the Piedmont—or it’s just a drone on the top string—that’s the Mississippi style.”
Ukulele Sessions Presents Ragtime and Blues with Del Rey and Steve James
And when it comes to the music Del likes to play the most she says, “I like ragtime from between 1900 and 1920, and I really like blues from about 1920 into the 1940s. What I really like about that era—1900 to 1950—is everything was not so commodified and mass-marketed. There were pockets of musicians who were literally only hearing the other musicians who lived around them. For example, Mance Lipscomb lived in a part of east Texas that was so quiet that when the guitar player at the next farm, five miles away, had visitors, he could hear them playing and he would walk over. Music had more regional accents back then. But by the 1950s everybody started listening to the same records.”
As for contemporary players of the ukulele, Del does think James Hill is the king. “I’m always inspired when I see James. I think he deserves his reputation. He’s a really musical person. How he thinks about music is really interesting to me. He comes up with solutions to make the instrument a full orchestral experience. In terms of more traditional-style players, I really enjoy Lightnin’ Wells. He plays a lot of ’20s and ’30s stuff and his arrangements are gorgeous. And he comes from a region that does have a regional style. He really sounds like where he comes from in North Carolina. Then there’s Azo Bell. He’s not well known in this hemisphere, he’s from Australia. But he’s a guy who is using reentrant tunings and thinking like a horn player. He’s a really interesting player.”
Del uses fingerpicks on her Phillips resonator to get a big sound, but she doesn’t recommend fingerpicks for everyone. “They’re very awkward. I see a few players who are trying to do it and they are getting a lot of clack from metal picks striking the strings at a poor angle. Picking without clack is hard, especially if your ukulele is not set up with enough tension. What I lose using picks is all the downstrokes. When I play ukulele for pleasure, just around the house, I often play without picks because I like doing downstrokes—the strumming stuff that’s traditional to ukulele.” Del has a unique source for her thumb picks, her guitar buddy Steve James. “I like the plastic Golden Gate thumbpicks that Steve has worn down to just a nub and they’re just about to break, and for the metal fingerpicks I use heavy-gauge Nationals.”
Resonator ukuleles, according to Del, also need special strings. “I use the Kala Pearls. I like wound strings on resonator ukuleles.” And getting back to the tension aspect of her setup, Del tunes up a whole step from standard C tuning. “So I’m playing in D tuning. My resonator does not sound good in C. Also, for my voice, the nice places where it falls is in D tuning.” For amplification, Del likes to use a one-mic system for performances. “I actually maintain a website called onemicstand.com to encourage people to stop using so many microphones and stop plugging in the damn instruments. I really hate the sound of pick-ups.”
Over the years, Del has also evolved into one of the best ukulele teachers around. “When I first started teaching ukulele, I was coming from guitar and was teaching difficult moving bass lines and things like that, and giving ukulele players too much information. Now I’ve reached a point where I can get folks playing in a really stylistic way that’s valid and interesting without killing them.”
Happy Traum, of Homespun Music Instruction, for whom Del has recorded a number of video lessons, says, “You only have to hear Del once to be knocked out by her technical ability. Of the hundreds of people we have recorded lessons with, Del is the only one where we can simply turn on the camera and let it run. She is such a natural teacher and knows her material so well—I’ve never seen anything like it.”
So has Del Rey ever thought of doing anything else other than music? “I really don’t have any other skills. I started playing when I was four and never stopped. I like what I do. I think the power of music is one of the greatest of powers. The amount of time you are engaged with music—either listening, practicing, or playing it—you’re outside of time and outside of any troubles you may have. You are literally not doing any harm. So it’s like with this whole world of trouble and harm that we live in, you can escape it with music. It’s wonderful.”
WHAT DEL REY PLAYS
While many players jump from ukulele to ukulele, Del describes herself as “very monogamous” with her Ron Phillips concert. According to Phillips, Del’s uke was made in 2000 and is the third one that he made. It features a German-silver body with a cone spun from a “proprietary aluminum alloy, with a maple biscuit and quartersawn maple saddle.” The African padauk neck has an ebony fingerboard covered in mother-of-toilet-seat. She prefers to use Golden Gate thumbpicks, worn out by frequent collaborator Steve James, and heavy-gauge metal National fingerpicks. She uses Kala Pearl strings, tuned up one full step, to D tuning, A D F# B. —Greg Olwell
Music educator and facilitator Jim D’Ville is the author of the Play Ukulele By Ear DVD series and hosts the popular Play Ukulele By Ear website www.PlayUkuleleByEar.com.
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