Duane Pitre | Pat Gubler | Alan Davidson
Wes Covey | Heather Lev | Bob Buzas | Nick Castro | Fred Baue | Megan Moncrief / Lazurite
Ukelin Tale | Ukelin Report
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Here's a new section I call The Ukelin Five Interviews. These are five simple questions put to a variety of professional musicians (and me) who use the ukelin. I'm hoping these interviews will give us an better picture of contemporary ukelin use.
Duane Pitre duanepitre.com
1. How did you meet the ukelin? The Amvets off Pacific Highway in San Diego, in the “boutique” section.
2. How do you play it, what do you do with it?
I play it with two plectrums, one in each hand. The instrument sits on my lap in a horizontal fashion, so where the bass strings are to my left and “treble” strings are to my right. So it is sorta set up like a piano, in the sense that my left hand handles bass duties and right hand treble duties. But just like playing a piano both hands, together, end up in the bass and treble sections quite often.
As far as tuning goes, well this is why I bought the instrument in the first place. At the time I found my Ukelin I was somewhat at the beginning of my explorations of the Just Intonation tuning system and was ultra limited in what I could do with the instruments I possessed at the time (created for Equal Temperament). So the fact that the Ukelin had 32 open, and playable, strings that I could tune to just intervals (along with unisons) without having to deal with an multi-stringed instrument fretted for 12-Tone Equal Temperament…well it was a no-brainer that I need to buy this unusual instrument.
3. What does the ukelin evoke, and how do you use this sound? Well I’d imagine different Ukelins evoke different things. Mine evokes a dark and “old” sound. It has a serious sound I’d say, engaging as well. For such a small instrument it has a relatively big sound...very resonant and semi-caverness. The Just intervals may be responsible for some of this, but then again I don’t know, as I’ve never had it tuned to anything but. 4. Any advice on playing the ukelin? Explore and take your time, the instrument takes patience. 5. Any good ukelin stories for us?
Well two short ones; guess they are not really even stories. Firstly, getting this thing to initially hold the Just tuning, well I had to re-tune it over and over (matching the strings to sine tones) for about a week. The wood and strings were so old that they would shift daily while trying to adjust to this new tuning. I thought of it like a very old dog learning to lay a new way, haha. But finally it took to the tuning, well sorta…I spend more time tuning it then playing it as it takes about 15 minutes to tune and I get probably 8-10 minutes out of it before it goes out of tune.
Second one is regarding how I found Bob Buzas. I went home and googled “ukelin” and his ukelin site was the first result. The site said to “register” your ukelin with him so he could keep a database of sorts. I did this and a few months later I recorded my “Comprovisation for Justly Tuned Ukelin No. 1” piece, he dug it and here we are. This track will be available on a compilation that I am curating which will be comprised of works in Just Intonation.
1. How did you meet the ukelin? It was actually a present from my friend Rob, that I used to play with in Tower Recordings (my old band) He had found it in a Salvation Army or Goodwill in Stamford, CT. Something like 40 bucks. He said he had to buy it, it was just too interesting to pass up! Mine is in pretty decent condition compared to ones I've seen since then. I was really blown away...such an interesting find.
2. How do you play it, what do you do with it? I usually tune the strings that was meant for the strummed accompanying chords to a single chord with alot of unisons & octaves. Then I tune the bowed strings to a scale (much like intended) although I could alter it a little depending on the music. I use a K&K contact pickup and use some effects on it. (echo, phaser, etc) Sometimes I use only the bowed strings. Sometimes I pluck the strings that are intended for bowing. I've done some things multitracking multiple ukelins on a single song. 3. What does the ukelin evoke, and how do you use this sound? Well, it has a such haunting, mysterious sound--the open bowed strings. I use it as a textural device. I wouldn't that I play it particularly "well". But it's been a really enjoyable addition. I'm kind of addicted to instruments--I've accumulated a lot of stuff of the years. 4. Any advice on playing the ukelin? Gosh. I guess the main thing is just finding tunings that might work for what you are doing. I would take care not to set the tension too high. Err on the side of tuning the instrument on the low side. 5. Any good ukelin stories for us?
I get alot of people asking what the heck the thing is. Even in the case, I've had a couple of people ask if it's a lapsteel while walking down the street. And then that has sparked a conversation when you describe what it actually is.
I suppose you've seen the photos of Lilli St Cyr (burlesque performer) posing with the ukelin. That's a pretty awesome moment in its rich history...
[In case you missed that reference, here's a photo from that session.]
The Kitchen Cynics
1. How did you meet the ukelin? I met the ukelin after hearing it played on a PG Six album. I wrote to Pat and asked what exactly a ukelin was (I thought it might look like a mandolin/ukelele, although it didn't sound at all like one). He kindly sent me a photo, which looked very cool indeed. Not long after I saw one for sale and snapped it up.
2. How do you play it, what do you do with it? I use it more for recording...being pretty incapable, I record the chords first, then bow lines on top. Sometimes I use it with local experimental/improv bands, Mickel Mass and Matricarians, as it's versatile, with the warm chords, and the ghostly bowed notes. 3. What does the ukelin evoke, and how do you use this sound? Although it's an American instrument, the ukelin evokes a sense of the 1930s....it reminds me of the strange instruments being played in photos of my grandfather and great-uncles from that period (they've got phono-fiddles, banjos etc). [Editor's Note: the Kitchen Cynics are currently based in Scotland.] 4. Any advice on playing the ukelin? I'm the wrong person to ask for advice on playing the ukelin.....best advice is keep it in tune...but that's almost a full-time occupation. Also..don't be scared by all the strings..it's good fun wrestling with it, as it's basically a friendly instrument which responds well to a loving touch. : ) 5. Any good ukelin stories for us? Not really anything startling story-wise, but I've 'interesting' memories of doing a gig where the main band (a Tuvan throat-singing band called, I think Uly Tau) took 2 and a half hours to sound check, and we were thrown onstage without having time for our own soundcheck. Our instruments were...sitar, flute, ukelin, cello, phono-fiddle and psaltery....the resulting cacophony certainly turned a few heads, until we got our 'tuning-issues' sorted). Top
The Ten Thousand Things
1. How did you meet the ukelin? we first met at an antique store on the illinois/indiana border. i think it was just inside illinois, but am not sure. the uke was badly in need of repair (the ends had pulled up), but i did a bit of research and found out that one of professors at grad school played and repaired them, so i went back and bought it. my professor (garry harrison) actually traded with me, so i got one that was in good condition. 2. How do you play it, what do you do with it? i played fingerpick guitar for a while first, and decided it was easier to learn to bow with my left hand than to learn to pick with my left. so i fingerpick with my right hand on the bass notes, and bow with the left. i usually keep it tuned to a C# harmonic minor. i also sometimes mic it through a guitar processor, to apply various effects. 3. What does the ukelin evoke, and how do you use this sound? i find the sound very haunting, like something that should play in the ruins of a cathedral. that admittedly also has to do with the harmonic minor tuning, as the sound can also be very folky and mountainous, though still somewhat eerie, i think. 4. Any advice on playing the ukelin? do what you will. very few people have even seen one before, so no one will ever tell you you're doing it wrong... 5. Any good ukelin stories for us?
i played a piece i wrote at my grandfather's funeral.
i also had never owned a bowed instrument before, and buying the ukelin led to me bowing my electric bass, which led to my forming The Ten Thousand Things. the ukelin is therefore directly responsible for my starting this project.
Heather Lev heatherlev.com
1. How did you meet the ukelin? I met the ukelin from a colleague who is a member of the Peoples Music Network; she lives in New Hampshire and owns and plays ukelin, Marxophone, and Appollo Harp, and any number of other turn-of-the-century instruments.
I finally got one at an antique musical instrument store, the Music Inn in NYC.
2. How do you play it, what do you do with it? It's been hard to learn and I haven't gotten to far with it, but I appreciate its eerie sound. 3. What does the ukelin evoke, and how do you use this sound? It's a very creepy sounding instrument, which can be used for slow and evocative songs. I played the ukelin in a concert once for the folksong "Silkie" and it worked pretty well since that's a song about supernatural beings. 4. Any advice on playing the ukelin? Practice! And maybe tune it down a notch--they're old instruments and the extra string tension might be tough for the instrument to bear. 5. Any good ukelin stories for us? Can't think of one right now, but I enjoy owning such a funky instrument. Top
Bob's Ukelin Home
1. How did you meet the ukelin?
I was first introduced to the ukelin by my parents, who gave me a ukelin when I was but 10 years old. They acquired it in an antique store in Nyack, New York for $35, the same price printed on the ornate decal in the soundhole. I referred to it as my 'egg slicer'.
The ukelin hung on my wall for twenty years. I would take it down now and then and pluck at the strings by putting a finger through the hoops and strumming at the chords. A sometimes conversation piece, the conversation regarding it usually was: where did it come from and how do you play it?
The questions remained unanswered until years later when I began recording with a friend. I brought the ukelin by to see what we could make of it. He took it to a music specialty shop and found out what I should have realized years earlier: that it was bowed! The feeling I had of finally actually knowing how to play the thing was like suddenly realizing the true intent of Stonehenge! I was exhilarated. Thus began my ukelin odyssey.
2. How do you play it, what do you do with it? I play traditional ukelin (thumb pick and one bow), or with two bows on the melody strings (for soundtrack work). Lately I've been working on four bows, which allows for some soaring chordal and harmonic possibilities. 3. What does the ukelin evoke, and how do you use this sound?
I used the ukelin's sound in a soundtrack to try to convey surrealism and a sort of spirituality and longing. That's what was needed for the film.
I find it ancient, huge, mysterious. An organ may be the instrument of a cathedral, but as Wes Covey says, the ukelin is the instrument to play in that cathedral's ruins.
4. Any advice on playing the ukelin?
A few odd tips:
Tuning is the hardest part, and the secret is to have patience. It was much harder before electronic tuners.
Make sure the bow has plenty of rosin. Learning proper hand posture from fiddle lessons has helped my bowing. Don't be afraid to lay into the strings, most stringed instruments like it when you play a little rough.
I like to rest the ukelin against a table or podium, because the table becomes part of the soundboard and it makes the sound larger and richer.
5. Any good ukelin stories for us?
In about 1979, I was tuning it up (a constant task) and I couldn't figure out why even though I was turning the post the string didn't sound any higher. Well, my tuning key was on the wrong post (common mistake) and the tension snapped the string. I yanked off the old rusty string curled around the post, and wouldn't you know it, it went right into my finger and curled up under the skin like a fish-hook. Ouch! Had to go to the emergency room to remove it, and got a tetnis shot. O the pain we go through for those we love.
In about 1996, I was playing ukelin outside (which I don't do very often) when a woman came rushing over to me. She breathlessly informed me I needed study this instrument at Juliard School of Music, where she claimed one of her relatives was studying the very same thing. She then said Stradivarious made these instruments, and I should check if mine was one of these priceless pieces. Very sweet but very misguided.
Nick Castro and the Young Elders
1. How did you meet the ukelin? By chance, I found a little curios shop in South LA that was going out of business> It is where I got a ukelin, a cura saz and a mijwiz for $100. Lucky lucky day.
2. How do you play it, what do you do with it? Bowing, plucking, banging, generally making noise and tuning a lot. 3. What does the ukelin evoke, and how do you use this sound? It is about hundred years old, the one I have, so I always feel this ancient sound is filling the room. It really rings out forever too, you can go and have a bite and that will still be ringing out! 4. Any advice on playing the ukelin? Don't! Just buy a psaltery. Stay for for away from this lethal and dangerous instrument. Many a good man lost on this quest, not for the faint at heart. Only the bravest may survive. 5. Any good ukelin stories for us? Mine has two vintage piano strings on it. They were the only ones I could find with that winding that starts after the nut. Also, the first time I had to tune it took two days because the wood was so old it was threatening to crack. Crazy crazy crazy. Almost took my eye out the first time a string broke. Just crazy. Top
Fred W. Baue 1. How did you meet the ukelin? Saw one at Hunleth Music in St. Louis, 1968.
2. How do you play it, what do you do with it?
I tuned the "D" chord to "D modal" (in fifths) so as to be able to play Irish and Appalachian tunes that use a Dmodal-C-Dmodal progression, such as "The Unfortunate Rake" and "East Virginia". I played with a plectrum in the left hand, and a bow in the right hand. Not too hard once you get the hang of it.
3. What does the ukelin evoke, and how do you use this sound? A haunting sound, like a dying cat in the bottom of a well. I used this sound to play fiddle tunes and slow airs, also accompany folk songs like "Wild Mountain Thyme." Recorded with ukelin on Perth County Conspiracy album 1970. See discography. 4. Any advice on playing the ukelin? Be creative. 5. Any good ukelin stories for us?
My ukelin got me an invitation to the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto 1970 and 71. I was in the unusual instruments workshop. To prepare, I went to the Marx-O-Chime Colony and bought a stack of their oddball instruments, learned to play them, and presented them at Mariposa.
After the 1971 festival I sold my ukelin and other instruments to Eric Nagler at the Toronto Folklore Center and moved down to Tallahassee Florida where I studied classical guitar, taking a Bach. of Music degree in guitar performance in 1976.
Sorry to say I have not picked up the ukelin in lo these many years, but I look back on it fondly as an icon of my youth. But I did make a minor splash with it long ago.
http://lazurite.bandcamp.com/ 1. How did you meet the ukelin? I got my first ukelin around 2003. I was reading some article about weird instruments during a bout of insomnia, found one on ebay for thirty bucks, and bought it on a whim.
2. How do you play it, what do you do with it?
I sit cross-legged on the floor with the ukelin across on my lap. My setup uses two contact mics, one under each sound hole - after that, I run it through an EQ, an octave/chorus effect, an analog delay, and a looper.
3. What does the ukelin evoke, and how do you use this sound? Everything from ethereal bell tones to dying goat screeches. You can get such an amazing range of sounds out of this thing; I build my pieces by layering them on top of each other with a loop pedal. 4. Any advice on playing the ukelin?
It's fun playing an instrument with no canon - there's no such thing as standard technique. I've learned a lot of tricks through experimentation.
Try using the handle of a tuning wrench as a hammer - striking the bass strings gets a nice dulcimer sound. Bowing the bass strings is a little harder to pull off, but the effect can be really lovely - I get to them by pressing the strings around them down with my left hand. I've also never found a vocal filter I like more than the sound I get by singing into the bass sound hole. Really huge and eerie.
I keep finding all sorts of weird percussive sounds by striking and scraping different parts of the instrument - this has left my ukelin in pretty gnarly shape, actually. I'd ultimately love to build one that can stand a little more abuse.
5. Any good ukelin stories for us?
Whenever I perform, someone asks where such an exotic instrument comes from. Complicated history aside, I like saying "Jersey."
Marjorie Rommel penned a funny, touching and true story about her ukelin experiences entitled My Mother's Ukelin. It is reprinted here with kind permission from the author.
John Katona selected the ukelin as the subject of a college english report. It's fittingly titled: Irremovable Stain: The Ukelin's Forgotten History and Why It Will Never Completely Disappear.
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