FROM THE FALL 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE | BY GREG RUL
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with technology. From the earliest personal computers and synthesizers to the latest virtual instruments and music-software apps, I’ve lived my life and career on the cutting edge. So what in the wired world brings me here to Ukulele magazine?
A virus called COVID-19.
Allow me to explain. Like many of you, I was the recipient of a swift, unexpected work shutdown during the rise of the pandemic. One day I was a gainfully employed keyboard tech on an international tour, and the next day I was flying back home to hunker down and “shelter in place.” Suddenly, the three most important rules of life became: wash hands, wear mask, and stay away from others. Ouch.
So, what are people to do when they’re all locked up with nowhere to go? In my case, as the quarantine progressed, I began tackling the long list of rainy-day projects I’d been putting off for months. By the end of quarantine week number two, I’d taken care of some old kitchen plumbing problems, scrubbed the balcony, watched a series of online music lessons (thank you Masterclass), caught up on my archiving and scrapbooking, and, of course, enjoyed a good Netflix binge or two. Ozark, anyone?
And then one morning… drum roll… something special happened. My mother—a recently retired school teacher in Kansas—sent me a couple of homemade videos. Much to my surprise, she’d decided to dust off her old ukulele and learn some new tunes. I had a good chuckle at first, but as I re-watched, I started to realize how awesome it was. What a great way for her to pass the time cooped up at home by exercising her fingers and brain and, best of all, spreading some joyful vibes to others! The more that sunk in, the more I realized I wanted to do the same. So, poof! Off I went down the rabbit hole of all things ukulele. I decided I was going to get myself a uke and attempt to learn a song or two along with mom.
Objective #1 was to research the styles, materials, brands, and prices of ukuleles on the market. I really had no idea of what was out there, so I spent several days scouring forums, reading reviews, and watching informative videos. Budget was a major consideration for me, as I didn’t know how long I might be laid off and quarantined. I obviously wasn’t comfortable spending a lot of money, but I also didn’t want to cut too many corners and end up with an inferior instrument that might discourage me from learning.
Once I narrowed the field a bit, I started scanning every retail and used-gear site I could find. Dailylister.com is a great source for doing a one-shot nationwide sweep of Craigslist, eBay, and other auction sites. Lucky for me, I live in a big city full of musicians (Los Angeles) and it didn’t take long to find a nice pre-owned Martin for sale on Craigslist. It was a no-frills S-O soprano but in mint condition, and the price was excellent. My skinny fingers seemed to feel comfortable enough on the neck, the intonation was good, and I sure liked the sound of it, so I brought it home and gave it the name “Ol’ 55,” since my 55-year “double nickels” birthday was just a few days away.
The next steps were to fill my laptop with instructional videos and load my smartphone with helpful apps. I found some inspiring YouTube instructors to get me started, including Uke Like the Pros, Bernadette Teaches Music, and Cynthia Lin.
For iOS phone apps, my necessities were a tuner and chord finder, so I started with a trio of freebies: TrueStudio’s Ukutuna Ukulele Tuner, Gismart’s Real Ukulele (such a fun graphical interface), and JSplash Apps’ UkeLib Chords. I was off to the races! These free apps were all good taste testers for the more elaborate versions available on the App Store. I also downloaded and printed a few chord- and finger-charts, and I purchased Hal Leonard’s Ukulele Fake Book.
So, fast-forward two weeks later and there I was, fingers hurting like hell but slowly starting to strum my way through a few basic songs. I crooned along at times too, causing the dog to bark and howl, ha-ha. I even started to bounce a few videos back and forth with my mother, the person who got this ball a-rolling. It was hilarious yet absolutely wonderful!
To wrap it up, my goal in writing this article is to hopefully inspire others just like my mother inspired me. If a tech-obsessed geek like me can learn to slow down, unplug, and enjoy music on its purest level, then anyone else can too. I probably won’t be posting public videos or performing live anytime soon, but learning to play the ukulele has given me a great amount of joy. Best of all, I now have a new tool of creativity, a new avenue of expression, and a compact, travel-friendly musical companion to accompany me on my future journeys.
Greg Rule is the former Editor-in-Chief of Keyboard magazine, and current keyboard technician for the classic-rock band Foreigner. He says that since he finished writing this article, “I finally learned to ‘chuck’ properly thanks to a YouTube tutorial [by The Ukulele Fool]. I was so happy once I started to get it consistently, I almost did cartwheels down the hallway!”
The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.