I’ve played in rock n’ roll bands since I was 13 years old, typically serving as lead singer and rhythm guitar player. But in the mid/late 1990s, I met a couple of talented musicians who were as crazy about ukuleles as I was. Eric Conly, Rick “Ukulele Dick” McKee, and I first got together to play a couple of Elvis songs at a Millennium Party and New Year’s celebration in 2000. We had so much fun playing together that we decided to form a working trio: The UkeAholics. Besides our three voices singing in harmony, the band featured Rick on soprano uke, Eric on 4- and 8-string tenor, and me on baritone. Our repertoire included a variety of ’50s/’60s classics from The Platters, Buddy Holly, and Elvis to The Beatles, Mamas and Papas, and Beach Boys.
When a song required a little more low-end support that a uke could supply, I switched from my usual Martin baritone ukulele to a Guild Ashbory bass; a small fretless electric with thick silicone strings (the forerunner of the modern U-Bass). But I often craved an instrument with a range in between bass and baritone uke. Since there was nothing in the ukulele family that fit the bill, I decided to create a custom uke, based on the iconic Hofner 500 series “Beatle” bass, made famous by Paul McCartney.
The resulting instrument, built by ukulele maestro Tony Graziano in Santa Cruz, CA, is about 3/4 the size of a Hofner bass guitar. Like the original, it has a violin-shaped body with a carved top, white bindings, a sunburst finish, and a brass tailpiece which I fabricated myself (I was a metalworker in my early 20s). For amplification, I fitted the instrument with a pair of Bartolini P-bass type bass pickups. There’s a pair of volume control pots, one for each pickup, each fitted with a vintage radio knob. A small sliding switch between the knobs allows the pickups to run in series or parallel. I used some old mother-of-toilet-seat pearl pickguard material for the plate that covers the electronics, but didn’t have enough for a full pickguard, which the original Hofners sported. Once the instrument was complete, I just to attend to one last detail: I pasted small slip of paper to the upper bout bearing a hand-written copy of the set list from The Beatles’ last live concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick park in August of 1966 (famously, one of McCartney’s original Hofner basses still has this set list taped in place).
To get the sound I desired, I tuned my mini-Hofner’s steel strings: A D G B (low to high). Played through a small tube amp like a Vox AC-15, it sounded fantastic and lent just the right rock n’ roll tone to the covers we played. The only drawback was, that the instrument’s unorthodox tuning required me to play entirely different chord shapes, which meant I had to really keep sharp during performances when I switched between baritone uke, bass, and the mini Hofner. For more than a half dozen years, I used my Hofner clone for UkeAholics performances; it’s also featured on our 2008 album, Vintage Rock n’ Roll With a Twist. Although the band broke up sometime around 2010, I still love to pull out my custom Hofner, plug it into my Fender Blues Deluxe amp, and shake the plaster off the walls.
Sandor Nagyszalanczy is a regular contributor to Ukulele Magazine and a woodworking expert, an avid ukulele collector, and a uke club member living in Santa Cruz, California.