BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Call me clueless or late to the party, but it is only very recently that I stumbled across Gary Peare’s invaluable and endlessly entertaining Ukulelia.com blog. For more than two decades, Peare has been posting a lively assortment of ukulele news items; videos; unusual historical tidbits and photographs; promotions for uke events, books, and albums; reprints from songbooks; uke-related Instagram posts that catch his eye… It’s a glorious potpourri of stuff plucked from the universe and dropped into the blog whenever he feels like posting it. Though his output has decreased considerably over the last few years, he’s still occasionally unearthing cool gems and always supporting the scene. Plowing through 20 years of the archives is like jumping headfirst into a swirling multimedia history of ukulele’s third wave.
You’re originally from Michigan. How and when did you get into ukulele?
In 1979, I went to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and then performed for a year with the show. I learned my first [ukulele] tune from one of the other clowns: “I Like Bananas (Because They Have No Bones).” For nearly 20 years it was one of two songs I played.
After Ringling, I returned to Michigan State to finish up my degree and thought I’d get my own uke. I went to Elderly Instruments [profiled in the Fall 2022 Ukulele], which was then right across the street from campus. They had a sweet vintage Style 3 Gibson for $85 and a cheap Hohner. The sales clerk—Gerald Ross—urged me to get the Gibson, but being a starving student and mostly looking for a juggling prop, I opted for the Hohner.
What inspired you to do Ukulelia?
In the ’90s, I stumbled upon a workshop taught by Robert Armstrong of the Cheap Suit Serenaders and it was a revelation! I couldn’t get enough. I played for at least an hour and a half every day. This was right about when Jim Beloff started publishing his books, but aside from the Jumpin’ Jim titles, there wasn’t a lot of information out there. This was also the very early days of the internet, and I spent hours poking around, trying to find anything I could about instruments, players, music, and recordings.
Mark Frauenfelder, one of the founders of Boingboing.net, caught the uke bug and set up a blog called “Ukulelia.” I sent him so many links that he made me an editor. I published my first post in 2001. Eventually, Mark gave me the site and I’ve maintained it ever since.
In the early years, most of the stuff is what I dug up myself, scouring the fringes of the web. There were only a few sites dedicated to ukuleles, and search engines were clunky so you had to be really clever to discover new things. Basically, anything I found, I posted.
You travel around doing workshops and also give lessons. How did you get into that?
Friends started a local music store—Lamorinda Music [in Lafayette, California, where Peare lives]—and I talked them into stocking ukuleles. Sales took off, but they had no teachers. So I volunteered to lead one 60-minute boot camp, and now, 14 years later, I have about 30 private students and have taught at workshops and retreats in the U.S. and internationally. Along the way, I earned a Level-3 certification from the James Hill Ukulele Initiative. I’ve followed James’s career from the time he graduated high school, so it was a real honor when he asked me to be an instructor at a few of his programs.
I love helping students discover the full potential of the ukulele: to understand the how and why behind what they’re playing so they can really make this instrument their own. My next project is setting up a learning ensemble–or ukestra–for players that want to take this thing up to the next level.
Are you a uke collector?
I probably have about 20 ukes, but am not really a collector. And I still have that $19 Hohner. I use a ’70s vintage Kamaka soprano and a Kala Tenor with low-G tuning for teaching. I have an early 1920s Martin Style 1 soprano that I treasure, but my favorite uke is a custom Gary Zimnicki soprano made using reclaimed wood from a 100-year-old house in Detroit. [That’s the Zimnicki uke in the photo above.] Several years ago I suggested to Gary that he’d find some amazing wood in the beautiful houses that were being pulled down. He graciously gifted me one to thank me for the idea.