Transitioning from guitar to ukulele

A few thoughts on the transition from guitar to ukulele, from a professional guitarist of over 30 years.

On a family trip to Honolulu, Hawaii last summer I was asked many times if I was going to buy a ukulele. My answer was always something like, "No. I'm not going to waste money on a toy," and I went on my merry way without much more thought.

When we got there, though I loved the sights, I was kinda' stuck in Tourist Purgatory. My hotel was about 200 yards from the beach in one direction, and super swanky stores and hotels in the other. I couldn't really find any kind of music scene. Most of the live music I heard was touristy as well. Guitarplayer/singer types with Karaoke tracks, bands playing out of time/tune, the usual arggh-inducing sort of thing. I should mention that one afternoon I did see a trio of sisters (upright bass, guitar & tenor 6-string ukulele) playing traditional Hawaiian music—beautiful sisterly vocal harmonies, wonderful melodies &dance. But most of the other acts were as Hawaiian as chicken-fried steak.

Although I occasionally saw someone walking around with what appeared to be a ukulele (violin, Tommy-gun?) in a nice case, I didn't hear anyone playing one. If memory serves, the rest of the ukuleles I saw were of the "toy" type I wanted to avoid. I began to keep my eye-balls peeled for nicer ukes. The first I saw was in a window in an art co-op. I strolled in to take a look, but the sales guy didn't know anything about how to play and the thing was cracked. Strike One. The second "nice ones" were in a lobby shop in one of those swanky hotels. The sales guy there knew quite a lot, but the instruments seemed overpriced and not cleanly finished, etc. Strike Two. At that point, I was feeling disappointed and vindicated in my preconceptions of not wanting a toy.

I later found myself walking past a mural showing the history of Hawaiian music—really interesting stuff! I had no idea that the ukulele has its origins in a Portuguese instrument called the machete de braga. It turns out that Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira brought along the machete (as it is commonly called). Then sometime in late 1879, a twenty-five year old fellow named João Fernandes arrived and commenced a spontaneous celebration and broke into song while accompanying himself with a machete, to some note. There was also info about three cabinet makers who settled in Honolulu: Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes and Jose do Espirito Santo. Evidently these were the men who created a hybrid instrument that became known as the ukulele, basically a machete with the "my-dog-has-fleas" tuning. When I walked away from that mural, I couldn't get the thing out of my mind. I even dreamt about it that night. If you'd like more history, check out John King's website (rest his soul):

The next day I got out my laptop and did a little investigating. I found some music stores in the area, but I've already spent too much of my life in such places(sales, lessons & such). All of a sudden, I saw a name I recognized from the mural: Samuel Kamaka, who set up his first shop in 1916, the "Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works." The Kamaka Ukulele factory was less than two miles from my hotel! I grabbed my nephews (they both play guitar & sing) and my wife, jumped in the rental car, and off we went.

The outside of the building was somewhat spartan, but as soon as I walked in the front door, I knew it was my kind of place. Ah, the smell of fresh cut wood! We said our hellos and looked around the "sales floor." This basically consisted of a couple of display cabinets with treasures inside, demo models on the wall, and the ONE instrument that was for sale that day. Sales to-order; you have to pay and wait.

The staff were kind enough to give us the grand tour ... you can look it up on YouTube, to get a feel for the place. I will say that I've been to the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville, TN a couple of times and it's always been a really cool experience, the proverbial pilgrimage to Mecca for me. The Kamaka folks were equally, absolutely, gracious and friendly. The craftspeople didn't mind answering questions or showing how the different steps ultimately come together. I had a blast. They even showed us a Jake Shimabukuro Signature Model. Brazilian rosewood back & sides, western cedar top, ebony fingerboard & bridge, slotted Martin-style headstock. This baby looked like the little sister to my '74 Ramirez 1aSegovia model. Holy-moley! The Kamaka facility can hold up a couple of candles to any of them.

When the tour was over, my whole conception of the ukulele as a "toy" had been completely blown out of the water. On a demo model, I improvised around the Beatles' Let It Be on the fly. My wife had been planning a spa day for the girls, but decided (bless her heart) that my very own custom appointed ukulele would be cheaper and a lot longer lasting. I could hardly contain my excitement while placing the order. I chose a concert model to better fit my hands, with geared Schaller tuners instead of friction pegs, and a Fishman bridge pickup inside. Check out Kamaka:

I got her about 7 weeks later and have been tickled pink ever since ... "toy," indeed! I laugh at myself, now. It is possible to do just about anything on a ukulele that can be done on any other stringed instrument. The limitations are range (lowest note to highest) and imagination. I've had "Lil' Sis" barely six months and am already working out things like John King's arrangement of Gavotte II from Cello Suite VI by JS Bach. I'll get that solid before I tackle any of Jake Shimabukuro's arrangements... .

In subsequent articles, I will be discussing some of the Ins & Outs of making the transition from guitar to ukulele. To get the ball rolling, I will end with this: Put a capo on the fifth fret of your guitar. Take a cotton ball and place it under the fifth & sixth strings close to the capo so as to mute those two strings. Effectively, you now have a ukulele tuned guitar with one small exception: the D string (fourth on guitar) is an octave lower than the G string on a standard tuned ukelele. This high-octave string gives the ukulele a lot of its traditional sound, but more on that later.

With your guitar set like this, you can play as you would normally, capo'ed. All of the chord shapes will translate directly to a ukulele, minus a couple of muted strings.