BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE WINTER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
By the time Fred Sokolow produced his first ukulele instructional videos and books during the first decade of the 21st century for Jim Beloff’s Flea Market Music ukulele empire, the L.A.-based multi-instrumentalist had been churning out successful lesson vids, methods, and songbooks for more than 30 years, teaching technique for banjo, guitar, mandolin, dobro, lap steel, bass, and even autoharp for a wide range of styles, including rock, folk, blues, jazz, country, old-time, ragtime, and bluegrass. Sokolow was a fixture teaching music at workshops and camps, while also making time to bring his astonishing array of stringed-instrument skills to a variety of different groups and players. He recorded numerous albums of his own and as a sideman/bandmember for various folks, including Tom Paxton, Jim Stafford, Bobbie Gentry, and the great but tremendously underrated Ian Whitcomb (1941–2020)—a British-born SoCal transplant singer-songwriter-entertainer whose main instrument was the ukulele (which he played left-handed).
Though Sokolow came to the ukulele relatively late in his musical explorations, around the age of 50, he dove into the instrument with his characteristic curiosity and passion. And since his first Flea Market videos—Ukulele Fretboard Maps (with Jim Beloff, 2006), Blues Ukulele (2008) and Bluegrass Ukulele (2010), he has gone on to become one of the most respected and successful ukulele teachers in the U.S., creating dozens of DVDs, instruction books, and online seminars, many marketed through his own Fred Sokolow Music company, as well as others for Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop and Hal Leonard Publications.
Known for his calm, clear, easy-to-follow teaching style and appealing, avuncular personality, Sokolow is also a popular uke workshop and festival participant (though less so since the pandemic), and he has also contributed many instructional articles to music magazines through the years, including Ukulele, where he has covered such disparate topics as playing Earl Scruggs-style banjo rolls, blues fingerpicking, pick-hand patterns, bottleneck blues, and even his own transcription of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” No style of music seems to be beyond his grasp, which is a major reason he has so many dedicated followers around the world.
“Fred is a consummate musician and master of all stringed instruments,” comments his old friend Jim Beloff. “And yet, he was like a jigsaw puzzle with one missing piece. When Fred finally embraced the ukulele, everything fell into place!”
“I have to say,” Sokolow told me during our interview this past summer, “my ukulele journey has been one of the major highlights of my life. I’ve loved the teaching, performing, traveling, meeting all the other uke teachers and performers, and connecting with thousands of enthusiastic ukers on two continents!”
Before we get to the ukulele, I wonder if you can outline for me the progression of the many instruments you play—which came first, which was second, etc.—and can you talk generally about the mentality and discipline it takes to master so many disparate instruments, each of which has its own technical challenges and its own “language,” so to speak?
When I was four-and-a-half, I asked for a guitar. I think it was to complete my cowboy outfit! I dug the singing cowboys—Roy Rogers and Gene Autry—and my parents took me to see the live musical Oklahoma, and when Curly came out singing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” pretending to strum a guitar, that was it—I needed one! I took lessons for a year and learned the basic chords and some picking and strumming patterns. Seven years later, Elvis happened and I found I could play lots of his songs, like “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” by ear. Then, when I was about 13, the folk revival with the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, and Joan Baez was happening, so I got in a folk trio and naturally needed a banjo—nearly all the groups had one, and I was already a Pete Seeger fan. I taught myself to play using his instruction book, which had a matching record. I learned clawhammer and two-finger picking.
Listening to an FM folk music program, I learned about acoustic blues players like Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly, and taught myself to fingerpick guitar. At a music camp, I saw a guy playing bluegrass banjo; my first exposure to bluegrass. He gave me tab for a few Scruggs songs and I became a fanatic, slowing down LPs of Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and other players, spending six or seven hours in my room most days, writing down the solos and licks. I don’t know why, but I was just driven to learn that stuff.
That led to learning bluegrass dobro, copying Uncle Josh of the Foggy Mountain Boys, and mandolin, copying Bill Monroe. Around this time I also learned to play autoharp after watching Mother Maybelle Carter play it at the Ash Grove, the local L.A. folk club. When I graduated from high school, I formed a bluegrass trio with a local guitar player and a fiddler from North Carolina, Brantley Kearns.
I listened to B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and other electric players and found I could follow what they were doing because they were playing acoustic styles I had learned, but moving them up the neck! By accident, I learned guitar styles in the order they evolved, historically, which made it all make sense!
I joined a rock cover band that played in lots of San Francisco venues, and then my high school buddy Mark came up to Berkeley and we formed a band called Notes from the Underground. When my rock band broke up, I became a freelance sideman in rock, bluegrass, country, and R&B bands. I started listening to Billie Holiday and other jazz singers and began figuring out the chords and progressions of songs from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s so I could play in bands that did some jazz standards. Along the way, I picked up a lap steel, inspired by Western swing players, and it was so similar to dobro, I could play it. Now, I often do Hawaiian gigs and play lap steel while someone else plays uke.
Moving back to L.A., I eventually met Jim Beloff and started playing uke with him and other players. It was easy to learn, because of my guitar knowledge. I can’t really explain how I taught myself all the styles, except to say that I listened to music incessantly and I was blessed with an excellent ear. I was able to decode the positions, licks, and styles other players used.
Did you have mentors you could rely on for each instrument? After all, those are the days before there were instructional videos, and even “methods” were few and far between.
My mentors were records, and I stole from the best: Mississippi John Hurt, Lightin’ Hopkins, Merle Travis, Scotty Moore, Buddy Holly, the Three Kings—B.B., Albert, and Freddie—Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Django Reinhardt, Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Josh Graves, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers, Cliff Edwards, and on and on. I was able to see many of those innovators perform live, and that helped.
The only instruction book I ever used was Pete Seeger’s banjo book, bless his heart! I took two brief lessons from a bluegrass banjo player named Claude Reeve; he set me on the right path.
You were exposed to the ukulele a lot through working so extensively with the late Ian Whitcomb. Can you talk a bit about his love of the ukulele and how being around him and playing on all those great old tunes and his cool originals affected your own opinion of the ukulele? On his albums, and in the Bungalow Boys groups, it appears you stuck to guitar, banjo, dobro, and mandolin. Did you ever mess around on his uke?
I started playing with Ian in the late ’70s. He played the uke and, as you said, I played other instruments. But Ian was a great inspiration in other ways. I learned so many wonderful old Tin Pan Alley songs from him, and his enthusiasm for the uke and vintage music was contagious. His repertoire went back well over 100 years. Also, his vast knowledge of the performers and composers of the music he played was amazing and very entertaining when he told his stories on stage.
Boy, do I miss that guy! I once did the math: I played literally a thousand gigs with him, and on most of them he’d come up with a song I hadn’t heard before. He was a great, lively performer, and a great guy, one of a kind. I strummed one of his ukes once in a while, and I probably picked up a few tips watching him play. He never used the uke to solo, only as an accompaniment. He had a vigorous strumming style and great rhythm, and he didn’t really need a band to put a song over. But he didn’t think the uke should be a soloing instrument. Oh well, nobody’s perfect!
It was really Jim Beloff who pulled me into the uke orbit and got me started playing the uke. Through Jim, at the “UKEtopia” shows he organized at McCabe’s Guitar Shop [in Santa Monica], I met and played with lots of talented uke players and saw a growing audience for ukulele music. The uke renaissance was beginning, and I jumped on the bandwagon. I’ve always made a living playing and teaching music, and I go where the work is, as long as it’s music I like. Because of the worldwide uke movement, I was able to perform and teach all over the U.S. at festivals and music stores, as well as in England, Ireland, and Scotland. It was a great opportunity!
The whole process was delightful, because the uke people were very friendly and sociable and open to new uke ideas, and most of them knew who I was. They were not as serious and competitive as guitar players, they mostly wanted to play in groups and sing, and learn new stuff.
How did your skills on other instruments inform your own ability to master the ukulele? For instance, are there certain mandolin strums that were easily translatable to equivalent strums on the uke? Guitar chord shapes? Right-hand banjo fingerings?
Playing guitar in rock, country, and R&B bands, I learned how to strum and create all kinds of rhythm grooves, and that carried over to the ukulele very well. And as many uke players are aware, the ukulele chord shapes are exactly like the shapes played on the four treble strings of the guitar, so any proficient guitar player can pick up a uke and immediately play it—as George Harrison used to prove to his guitar buddies. Also the high G string is similar to the high G fifth string on the banjo, so I could use some of my banjo chops on the ukulele.
What was the most challenging aspect of taking up the uke when you did?
The high fourth string took some getting used to when playing melodies and chord-melody solos. Eventually I came to find it useful. Most of the uke performer-teachers I’ve met at festivals don’t play a high-G uke, and that surprised me. It’s a little like cheating: It makes it easier to port over your guitar skills to the uke, but loses some of the charm of the traditional tuning. I don’t even own a uke with a low-G, though I probably should, and will, at some point.
One other thing that was difficult, and still gets to me sometimes: Because the uke chord shapes duplicate guitar shapes but are a fourth higher—a guitar D shape is a G chord on the uke—I sometimes call out the wrong chord letter names when teaching uke classes!
You said you mostly learned other instruments from listening intently to records. Did you have a uke mentor? Did you look at any existing method books or videos? Dive into listening to either contemporary or early uke players, or both?
I didn’t study other uke players for techniques, but I did listen to all the Cliff Edwards recordings I could find. I think his singing and uke accompaniment are genius. I’m blown away whenever I hear him. Also, like so many uke players, I was amazed by that iconic video of Jake Shimabukuro playing the George Harrison song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
When that came out, I had no idea the ukulele could be that effective as a soloing instrument.
His performance was not just technically marvelous, it was very emotional and soulful. It made me realize it was possible to play beautiful chord solos on the uke in any genre: jazz, pop, rock, Tin Pan Alley, Hawaiian, whatever.
Can you tell me about the first ukuleles you acquired and what you own and play today? Favorite body, size?
Before I was playing, I had an inexpensive beginner uke for my kids, because it was just the right size for little ones. So I would occasionally pick it up and play something to get them interested. When the “UKEtopias” started at McCabe’s, Jim Beloff hired me to play guitar to back up the uke players, but he also loaned me his baritone and said, “I see you with this instrument!” and had me play a few tunes on it during the show. Then, when we worked on the Roadmaps book, he gave me a Fluke [the distinctive uke Beloff commissioned and has marketed], and I still have it and play it quite often.
When I started being invited to play at festivals, I bought a Kamaka tenor, and it’s my main ukulele. I have fat fingers, so the larger the fretboard, the better. I also own a green, plastic Makala that you can play in the bathtub, and the Aklot people gave me a nice tenor uke. I also have a very old banjo-uke with a resonator that I got from Ian [Whitcomb]. And a concert cheapie Hilo uke that any kids around my house can play. Also, a very small Clarophone banjo-uke someone gave me; it’s strung with wire strings. And a Harmony baritone from the ’50s or ’60s.
You have produced so many instructional uke videos in a variety of formats, from DVDs to Zoom sessions. Can you talk a little about the evolution of that?
I was already creating instructional guitar videos for Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop before the ukulele craze was underway, and when the uke started taking off, I finally got Stefan interested in doing some uke videos; in his very extensive catalog he had only done guitar videos before. By now I’ve done 11 uke videos for Stefan. We’ve done jazz chord solos, Hawaiian songs, a How to Solo method, an Understanding Chord Progressions lesson and a collection of Bawdy Blues Songs, to name a few.
The pandemic threw everyone onto Zoom, how did it affect your business?
At first I was sunk! I couldn’t teach classes or private students, or do festivals; couldn’t play gigs. Then my wife, Lynn, who gets most of the good ideas in the family, suggested we do Sunday afternoon play-along concerts live on Facebook, with a PayPal tip jar. We put chord charts on the screen so people tuning in could play along, even though we couldn’t hear them. Each one was on a theme, like songs about summer, train songs, songs of isolation. She played upright bass and I switched around on many stringed instruments. Sometimes we had over a thousand people watching them. There was such a need for that type of thing.
After about a year-and-a-half of the play-alongs, things started opening up and there wasn’t nearly as much of a need for them, so Lynn suggested I start offering group classes via Zoom. It was brilliant: I got a much larger attendance than when I taught locally at McCabe’s, and people were tuning in from all over the world.
I’ve done over a hundred of them by now, about 40 of those for ukulele. The rest were for guitar, banjo, dobro, lap steel, mandolin, and autoharp.
I know it’s hard to generalize, but is there anything you can say about ukulele players vs. the folks who play the other instruments you teach? Is there a certain personality-type that is attracted to the ukulele?
I’ve already mentioned that the folks at festivals tend to be more lighthearted about the music than guitar players. They’re anxious to learn new songs, new techniques, but they also very much enjoy getting together in groups and strumming and singing. Once, at a concert where Lynn and I were performing along with several uke professionals, the power went out for a while, and the whole audience went out into the parking lot with their ukes in hand. They started strumming and singing, and were just as happy as could be doing that, instead of listening to the pros.
Is it difficult to gauge what sort of music books, videos, and workshops will appeal to uke players? What have been your most popular books among those sorts of titles—as opposed to other the more general method/lesson titles, which I presume are your bestsellers.
The method books do seem to outsell the songbooks, except for maybe the Beatles book, and the same goes for the Zoom classes and workshops at festivals. But when it comes to teaching songs, the most popular ones I’ve done were songs by Elvis, Dylan, Hank Williams, and Willie Nelson, though some of the jazz ones did surprisingly well, too, like Gershwin and Cole Porter. I show how to strum and sing the songs, and how to play instrumental fingerstyle solos for several of them.
Tell me about your latest book, Movie Songs for Solo Fingerstyle Ukulele, and how that came together and what influenced the selections. It’s a really broad range of famous and less-known songs.
That’s a Hal Leonard book, and it was their idea. Once a year I meet with them, along with my editor/agent Ronny Schiff, and we present our ideas for new books, and usually they have some ideas as well. I liked their idea for this book because I’m a movie buff, and so many of the songs that are associated with movies are Oscar-winning, great songs. I especially like the old ones like “As Time Goes By” [from Casablanca] or “Laura” [from Laura]. Most of the songs in the book were my choice and there were a few that were their choice or that needed to be in the book because they were in recent hit movies, like “A Million Dreams,” from The Greatest Showman. Then there was “Gabriel’s Oboe,” from The Mission, relevant because it’s by Ennio Morricone. “City of Stars” is in there because I love the movie [La La Land], which was very popular, and it’s a beautiful song. Of course, “When You Wish Upon a Star” [Pinocchio] was a must-have, because it’s sung by Cliff Edwards, who was the voice of Jiminy Cricket, and because it’s one of the best songs ever written!
“What will work for ukulele” is definitely a consideration. If a song has a very big range—from very low to very high notes in the melody—it’s going to be difficult to play on the uke. Not impossible, but it’ll go way up the fretboard.
I want the arrangements to be playable even if you’re not Jake. Obviously, some are easier to play than others.
What’s up the road for you, uke-wise?
I’ve been extremely careful about Covid. I’m not doing festivals or in-person workshops unless they’re outdoors. Most of my musician friends are back to normal activities; I’m not. But I hope to get back to the festivals eventually. As far as books or videos go, I’d love to do a Cliff Edwards book that’s a collection of songs he made famous, with lots of biography as well. And I recently taught a Zoom class on “Taking Your Accompaniment Up a Notch” that was very well attended, and when some of the attendees asked, “Which of your books has this information?” I had to say, “That should be my next book!” And hey, I’m open to suggestions from your readers!