Luthier Shelley Park Brings Gypsy Jazz Flavor to Her Moodyville Ukuleles


The Hot Club of France didn’t have a ukulele player. But that didn’t stop Canadian luthier Shelley Park from imagining what it might look like if they did. Now, she makes ukuleles under the name Moodyville Ukulele Co. that would look right at home in any Gypsy jazz band. 

Park’s love of Hot Club of France guitarist Django Reinhardt’s music led her to building guitars based on the distinctive Selmer-Maccaferri build he favored. But the decision to make ukuleles in that “manouche” style challenged her to think outside the box to create an instrument that not only looked the part, but had a sound versatile enough to work outside of that genre. 

Moodyville selmer-maccaferri–style ukuleles

“There’s a sort of crispness and focus and clarity to the tone of those instruments,” says Park, referring to the guitars. “Now, if you took that and placed it on a small-bodied instrument, to me that isn’t quite as appealing.” Her solution was to reverse engineer that visual style with a more traditional ukulele build on the inside. “The ukes I build carried that look, but they still sound like a ukulele. They don’t sound like the Maccaferri guitar in particular.”

Park has never been one to back away from a challenge. As a young guitar player disenchanted with the high price of quality guitars, her solution was to just make her own. She took a flier on a community college course on guitar building in Vancouver, Canada, a city 1,400 miles away from her hometown of Winnipeg. “Within a week I had quit my job and come to Vancouver, and miraculously everything sort of fell into place,” says Park. “I didn’t land on my face.” She completed the ten-month course and then found work as a guitar builder for renowned Canadian guitar company Larrivée for four years before striking out on her own under the name Park Guitars. And as is so often the case, the ukulele called to her not too long after.

After taking a few weeks off to move into a new, more comfortable workshop in Vancouver, Park was just getting back to building when she sat down to chat about getting a full, rich tone from the traditionally limited tonal spectrum of a Maccaferri-style instrument, sustainability in instrument building, and her favorite wood smells. 

Moodyville selmer-maccaferri–style ukulele

How did you get started in lutherie?

When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a Yamaha guitar and I started taking some lessons with a local teacher back in Winnipeg. As I became more and more excited about playing guitar, I realized that there was a whole world of better instruments out there. At that time in my life, I was thinking, you know, $800 guitars, $1,000 guitars, and never being able to have that much money to buy something better. I mentioned this to my teacher at the time and he said maybe (I should) learn to build them. So he planted this seed in my head about building guitars.

About a year later, I was working kind of a dead-end job in a resort town, and I don’t even know how that thought came back to mind, but I went down to the town library and leafed through books of college courses and found that there was a guitar making course offered at a community college in the Vancouver area. I managed to get through the course work and then went to work for Larrivée and another fellow named David Webber after that.

Did you have woodworking experience before this?

Not really. My parents are retired school teachers, but my dad has always been a hobbyist woodworker. I can now see what an exceptional woodworker he is. Doing it in a basement shop, he built a bunch of furniture that we had in the house. He made a lot of teak furniture for us in the ’70s, sort of mid-century modern–looking stuff with bare minimum tools, filling the house with dust. I can remember times when I would sit perched on a step stool, so I was out of his way, and watch him work. I was never really doing anything, but I maybe absorbed a little bit. Other than that, I just had a typical high school shop class. Maybe one or two years of that, but nothing very serious.

That smell of freshly cut wood still takes me back to watching my dad work as a kid, too.

Absolutely, yeah. And every time you cut into something new you never know what you’re going to get out of it. Some things smell absolutely delightful. I hate to say it, but boy, Brazilian rosewood is still my favorite smelling wood. It should be made into a perfume. And then there are other ones that smell like the wall of a stable in a barn, you know? And everything in between, from the pleasant to the horrendous.

How long have you been making instruments on your own? And when did you start making ukuleles?

I took that college course back when the earth was cooling, in 1991, and from there I went to work at Larrivée. I think I spent about four years there, so that takes me to the mid ’90s. Then I spent two years with David Webber. So I think it was about 1998 when I sort of started to work on my own in my own shop. I think started with ukuleles around 2012.


Why did you start making ukuleles?

I was certainly aware of the resurgence of interest in them, and I was interested in whether I could take the Selmer-Maccaferri guitar shape that I’d been working with for so long and just compress it in a way where it still had a good tone, but kept the original design elements. So it was a bit of a thought experiment at first. But when I actually got into it, I really enjoyed the size and shape and sound of them, and it just felt like I had opened up a door to another instrument that I could work on, produce comfortably, and feel good about.

Tell me about the ukes you make. Are there any particular touches you like to include?

I tend to build the ukuleles with a little bit more of a light touch than the guitars. I don’t consider myself a real expert in the ukulele world, so I stand to be corrected on a lot of things, but it just feels instinctively like as you add ornamentation to a smaller instrument, as you apply heavier finishes, then you risk losing some of the responsiveness and some of the richness that these instruments deserve. So I wouldn’t say there’s any particular elements other than sort of showing restraint in the way they’re built, building them lightly but not too lightly because you don’t want an instrument to fail, using finishes that are a little more favorable for their total qualities. And then just trying to keep that clean design look of the original Maccaferris without getting too heavy handed about being tied to the original elements.

In your experimentation with this style, what have you found that transfers well to ukulele, and what did you have to leave out or alter to fit that mold?

The depth of the instrument and the soundboard of the instrument is significantly different on a ukulele than on the Gypsy jazz guitar. In my case, on the Maccaferri ukulele I am using a fixed bridge, whereas on my steel-string guitars I’m using a floating bridge and a tailpiece. Those two configurations act completely different from an engineering point of view… I know there are a few folks out there who have built them with the tailpiece, and I think they’re really interesting instruments. I just like the idea of the fixed bridge and a pretty conventional fan bracing underneath to give it a rich warm sound as opposed to the sort of more focused, nasal sound that you get from the tailpiece and floating bridge.

Can you expand on the tonal qualities?  You mentioned the Maccaferri sound doesn’t really transfer as much to the ukulele…

Yeah. With the Selmer-Maccaferri guitars, the biggest tonal element is that floating bridge and tailpiece, and the underlying construction that supports it. It’s a relatively stiffly braced soundboard on the guitar. It’s built, in a lot of ways, for structure, with a very thin soundboard over it. You’re trying to counteract the strings wanting to push down through the top, and with that, in combination with the oval soundhole or D-shaped soundhole, you get a very focused sound.

You know, one person’s “focus” is another person’s “nasal.” Some people consider those guitars nasal sounding. But it is part of that style of music. You don’t want a big ringing sustain, you want it to be a quick projection, a short speaking voice, so that you’re not in a band situation where there are violins and additional rhythm guitars and creating layers of mud. 

So I rethought the building of the soundboard to accommodate the glued-on bridge, where it’s kind of trying to pull the bridge off the soundboard. You build to resist those forces as opposed to the downward forces, and in doing that you just get a richer, rounder sound. 

How does the wide soundhole shape affect the overall sound from the instrument?
To my ear it gives it a rich, round sound. You probably get a little bit more of a wash. I haven’t found that it in any way decreases the projection or anything. I think there’s a balancing act to do when you either shrink or enlarge in the soundhole—you have to land within a range, otherwise you get something that’s too quiet or sort of washes out. Between the body size and that soundhole, it seems to work really well. It’s not a thin-sounding instrument, and it also has lots of projection and some nice resonance and clarity to it without being dangly.

Do you have a particular tonewood that you like to use with this design?
I’m skewing toward what I can find domestically. I’ve used a lot of walnuts and maples. They’re handsome materials; they sound great, they look great. I don’t foresee using a lot of tropical hardwoods on these instruments. To me it feels a little bit heavy-handed for something that I want to be light and airy. But I’m still using ebony for the bridge and the fingerboard and the head plate. So I’ve got lots of blind spots where that is concerned, but I’m trying to skew towards more domestic materials on these instruments.

Is that in part for the sustainability aspect?
Totally. You know, 20-odd years ago I bought a lot of Indian rosewood and a lot of ebony, so I’m going to work my way through those materials, probably primarily in my guitars. But on the ukuleles, where I’m sourcing materials more regularly for those, it feels more comfortable to be a little more thoughtful about where those materials come from. There are some interesting options coming in replacing those materials with treated domestic materials that look like ebony, but are maple that’s been roasted.

How many ukuleles would you say you make per year?
It’s pretty modest. I’m sending most of the ukuleles I build to Japan. There’s a great dealer in Tokyo called Ukulele Bird, and they are taking most of what I build. It’s maybe a dozen ukuleles over the course of the year.

Some builders are much more custom oriented than I am. I have a fixture and a jig for every part of the process, so ramping up to building an instrument is dreadful. It’s a lot of making all these fixtures. But once that work is done, I can be relatively efficient. I like the efficiency of that and I like the fact that it makes me consistent. If someone has seen one of my instruments, chances are that an instrument they order is going to land well within the range of what they’ve already seen.


How many guitars do you make per year?
It’s probably around eight to ten.

Do you make standard ukuleles in addition to the Maccaferri style?
I do. I started with a fairly standard figure-eight body, 17-inch tenor with 14-fret neck joint. Japanese players enjoy concert ukuleles, so we figured out a concert design. And last fall they asked for some soprano ukuleles, so I’ve built a handful of those as well.

You mentioned with the Maccaferris that you like to keep them lighter. Does that translate over to your standard builds too?
Yeah. I tend to keep them relatively conservatively dressed, not a lot of ornamentation. I don’t bind the backs on my ukuleles, so the connection is just between the top, back, and the sides. There’s no binding or purfling around the back. I kind of like that simple look. And I think there are those who would say that sometimes instruments with less binding have a certain favorable tonal quality.

I use materials like alder for the neck. It’s quite lightweight, but with a little bit of carbon reinforcement to keep things from getting squirrely under tension. 

Do you still play guitar or ukulele?
Hardly at all. Almost only when I’m setting up an instrument. I can remember how much I just couldn’t wait to get home from work to play guitar and, for whatever reason, that instinct has just left me. I keep hoping it’ll come back someday because there’s so much music. I often say to my partner, when I see somebody playing some incredible music, “You know, if I had that talent, I wouldn’t sleep at all. I’d be doing that all day. And all night.” But the muse hasn’t struck. I’m open to it, but yeah, I’m retired as a guitar player now.

I know one song on the ukulele. That’s another thing that I would like to be more proficient at. I mostly play ukulele when I pick one up to set it up. I know the chords to “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” and that’s about it.

Every once in a while I’ll build myself a guitar, and then that’ll make me play it. Inevitably, it collects dust and I sell it. Or I build myself a ukulele and then I play it for a week, and then I play once a week, and then I play it once a month, and then it’s onto the next owner. I really hope it comes again, because I remember how exciting and how stimulating it was to feel that.