One of the many things I learned from spending a lot of time with Martin Simpson is to learn new instruments. This trend started with a National dobro, a mandola, a walking bass dulcimer and now an entirely non fret board instrument that I will reveal in due course.
There is usually a learning curve with new learning and once I can past the “I hate this” phase, some semblance of acceptable sound begins to emerge. One of secrets is to keep practicing and to ensure that each instrument is used in creating new material. On The Small Change Diaries “Protest Songs” EP, I used the mandola on “Commons Sense” and on the next album “Lullabies for Cynics” I use the walking bass dulcimer on a new track “Lullaby” With the dobro, it took me six months to get any kind of reasonable sound, but once that started to appear, it was an absolute joy. Of course within the whole ukulele family there is a massive range of sonic possibilities. I currently have 23 ukuleles, ranging from a 1920s Martin to a 5 string baritone, an 8 string baritone, a 5 string tenor and a range of sopranos, concerts and tenors, all very different.
There is something wonderfully liberating about a new instrument when you have little or no idea about how to play it. Of course in time its essential to know what you are doing, BUT a lack of any initial musical awareness can produce all manner of fascinating possibilities. These days I am listening for new sounds which then inspire new compositions. Each instrument provokes a new way of playing and new sonic territory and its fascinating to start to combine instruments in new ways, always of course creating ORIGINAL songs.
Since forming The Small Change Diaries I have increasingly become more aware about the importance of practice. Yes, I always understood this intellectually, but from playing in a band its blindingly obvious that if you want to improve as a musician, singer or songwriter, you need to dedicate ongoing time to skill development. I make a point of having instruments to hand on stands so I can pick them up at any time. I’m far more likely to pick up and play an instrument if its to hand rather than if its in a case. Sometimes just a few minutes playing can inspire a new melody or a riff, so I always like to have an instrument at arm’s length.
As well as individual practice it’s really useful to play with other artists if you want to really develop skills. With The Small Change Diaries Jessica Bowie and I meet every week for a couple of hours to work on and practice material. This is out longstanding formalized work time and we’ve been doing this for two and a half years. This investment in time has helped us really develop The Small Change Diaries sound. The full band meet every few weeks usually for 2 – 3 hours to work on arrangements. If we have upcoming gigs and especially overseas festivals like The Lagoa Guitar Festival in Portugal, we’ll meet more often.
As well as these practice sessions I have had specific vocal lessons as well as meeting up with other music teachers including Martin Simpson and Phil Doleman. All of this a significant investment of time and money, but 100% worth it. I’m fortunate in that my other work allows me to fund band activities and not have to sweat about generating income solely from music.
Ongoing and regular practice also means being prepared to step out of comfort zones and that’s usually when IMO we all really develop skills. There can be moments of both immense frustration as well as great inspiration. The key is to keep at it and always hang around artists with great skills maintaining a consistent and regular routine, come rain or shine.
I was asked recently by a fellow musician, who my inspirations are as singers. I have talked a lot in the past about songwriter inspirations, but singers are slightly different.
Here are some examples that have been a big influence on my own work
As you can see and hear, these are very different artists, but they all have a unique style and write great lyrics. I’m a massive fan of original music and all four artists have in my view done a great deal to push the boundaries in a world that’s too full of “cookie cutter” music.
Aside from Tom Waits I have seen the other artists live and they have never failed to disappoint. The smartest and best music is usually ahead of the curve in terms of popular opinion. Other singer songwriters I love include Stevie Wonder, John Hiatt, Ani Difranco, Daryl Hall, Joni Mitchell, Steve Earle, Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan among others. All have a definite point of view and regularly inspire as well as frustrate me with their output!
If you are going to do cover versions as well as original songs, then it doesn’t get much better than Daryl Hall and “Daryl’s House” is essential viewing/listening for any singer
Below is a quick workout with a Stefan Sobell African Blackwood New World guitar. I first came across Stefan’s instruments at a Martin Simpson workshop a number of years ago. I have always enjoyed Martin’s sound and for many years he exclusively used Sobells. My first Sobell was a model 0 which I bought second hand and then after hearing Martin’s African Blackwood New World. Stefan made three of these, Jackson Browne has the other one.
I commissioned one myself and have never heard any other guitar that sounds anything like this. After playing mostly ukes, it seems HUGE.
Since then I have also bought a mandola from Stefan which is also terrific. Stefans instruments are custom hand builds and quite unlike anything else except Takahiro Shimos instruments, although Stefan doesn’t build ukuleles.
I heard about Guadalupe ukulele strings from my good friend Dafydd in Wales. I had never come across them before and part of the reason is that they only sell directly to the public. If you are one of those who insists that all strings sound the same and its best to go to the local fishing store, then best not to read on! If you are someone who is interested in musical exploration and sonic possibilities, then this is worth a read.
These strings are handmade, and there is a fair wait to receive sets. As well as being patient, be aware that customs and postal delays mean that this is not an easy or cheap option to try out. It can take as long as two month to even get a set, especially when parcelforce take a full month to ship from Coventry to Leeds!
This is how they describe themselves on their site
“A HandMade Tradition
Since 1991, Guadalupe Custom Strings has been making traditional strings for traditional music, by hand. We have worked with luthiers and musicians internationally to develop the highest quality strings available for mariachi instruments, bajo quinto, ukulele, son jarocho and much more.
Our team of 3, work out of the corner of a warehouse in East L.A, we do not have regular hours, and although we sell directly to the public, it is always best to call ahead and make sure we will be there.”
My own experience is that these are very different to everything else I have tried to date. They don’t have the feel or sound of fluorocarbons and they certainly don’t sound or respond like gut strings. I have them currently on a James Triggs tenor ukulele as well as a Bill Collings UC1 concert ukulele. The Collings is a better reference for me as I own three Collings concert ukuleles, so I can compare this Guadalupe addition to the other ukes which have Worth Browns and Aquilla Red strings. The Collings concert is an all mahogany ukulele, and some strings can IMO make it sound really muddy and not bring out the best sonic potential from the instrument.
Another consideration with string choice is how the selection affects the ukulele when its amplified especially with a pickup. The Collings UC1 had a McIntyre feather pickup which is my usual pickup, but previously didn’t sound as dynamic as I would like. It was “ok” but nothing like as resonant as when played acoustically. The change to Guadalupe’s made a big difference, so now all the sonic potential of the ukulele could be heard. These strings will be a personal choice as they are tough to locate and not inexpensive, unless you live in the USA. That said, they can sound really great of certain ukuleles. Of course its ultimately always a question of choice and IMO the wider the choice the more possibilities…
I’m discovering that in the ukulele world there are lots of opinions about ukulele strings and which ones to select. At one extreme some folks insist that “brand X” is “the best string choice”, while others insist on simply going down to the local fishing store and getting some fishing line! Let me be clear in my view there are no “best strings” just different. Some folks seem to relish the idea of never changing strings and feel quite confronted by the every idea that maybe, just maybe the string choice might me one of the elements that determines who the instrument sounds, just a thought… As someone who is interested in this area, to date I have tested over 12 different string types across two dozen instruments with many surprising results…
Call me picky, BUT I would respectfully suggest that some of the following elements are worthy of some consideration BEFORE making any definitive statement about this matter.
What type of ukulele is being played – yes size matters – an 8 string bari is different to a soprano
What’s the ukulele made of? Different woods can make for very different sounds
How does the instrument sound acoustically and’or with a pickup?
What sound do you want? This can of course be very subjective…
Is the ukulele being played as a solo instrument, duo setting or in a band? Different sonic considerations here
Different people hear differently and 80 quid uke also is often going to respond differently to an 800 quid uke
Only by exploring and comparing (if that is an interest) can anyone really talk about this from actual experience
Some people are interest in the sonic possibilities of what the ukulele can do and others are not that bothered. I respect both views. That said its in my totally biased opinion to make proclamations on any matter without any actual information or exploration. It would be like trying a local pizza takeaway and then using this snapshot experience to pronounce on Italian cuisine!
My own experience in trying out a dozen or more strings types across two dozen ukuleles is that the string choice can make a big difference in how an instrument sounds and feels. I have a collection of ukuleles which are very wide ranging from my recent 1920’s Martin acquisition, to some great custom made Shimo instruments to everything in between. Wound strings (often G and C) make for a radically different sound and I have yet to find any wound fishing line…lol Its about personal choice as there are no best strings, just different…
I have been conducting some testing with a Cocobolo super soprano ukulele in what I call “The Kitchen string test” Here I test the exact same ukulele in the same acoustic space, recorded with the same gear, playing the same piece of music. Its blinding obvious to me that there’s a huge difference when changing the strings, both in how the instrument responds, how it sounds from the artist perspective and how it sounds from the audience’s perspective which of course is different.
Of course many seasoned professional musicians have long realised that this is a factor in the final sound. Stevie Ray Vaughan experimented a great deal and dazzled audiences with his music. His spirit of exploration was not only in the gear he used, but in his whole approach to musical performance, see https://www.stringjoy.com/stevie-ray-vaughans-guitar-string-gauges/ My good friend Martin Simpson similarly has an attitude of exploration and experimentation. I’m seeing him next week and will take the new Martin uke to show him. Martin is also a terrific example of somebody always questions what else is possible, never settling just for a common view. When I interviewed Bill Collings in Austin Texas and Takahiro Shimo in Tokyo, both brilliant instrument builders had the same attitude of exploration and experimentation. This also goes for many of my favorite musical artists. They are always seeking out new possibilities and I applaud such thinking.
Ultimately its all about personal choice and attitude. Personally as you may have figured by now, I am a fan of exploration and that’s one of the reasons I set up the OUS platform, which is about creating something new. I have the same view in terms of exploring how different instrument combinations, including string options can provide some really interesting results. I also respect that such exploration and experimentation is not for everyone and that’s fine too of course.
I just returned from New York and met up with my good friend Zeke Schein from Matt Umanov Guitars. Zeke sold me my first ever uke, a Collings pre production concert. This one purchase was a trigger for everything that followed and without it there would be no “Small Change Diaries” no 40+ songs written, no live gigs in the UK and overseas!
On this trip Zeke mentioned a rare Martin 1920s soprano ukulele that was for sale, described below
1920s Martin Style 2 Uke An extremely early Martin ukulele and one of their higher-grade and rarer models, from 1921 or possibly even earlier. According to correspondence from Tom Walsh, co-author of the fabulous and most authoritative book on the subject The Martin Ukulele, “The lighter colored nut and saddle suggest it is early 20s or earlier, but the real giveaway is the position marks at the 5-7-9th frets. Martin switched to inlays at frets 5-7-10 by 1921 at the latest. Another sign of age is the fact that it never had patent pegs. The style 2 ukuleles got patent pegs in 1922″. In absolutely beautiful condition with no cracks or repairs anywhere and none of the usual signs of overly enthusiastic playing. The bar frets are original with virtually no wear. It has white celluloid tuning pegs, which are most likely much older very professional replacements, to match the white celluloid body bindings.
I have always wanted to own a Martin instrument, but to date have never been totally convinced. There are two notable exceptions, the first being a guitar Martin Simpson showed me and now this 1920s Martin soprano. I’m not an advocate of “old = great” but this particular ukulele which is in excellent condition sounds very unlike anything else I have played to date. It has a great tone and plays really well. Its also almost 100 years old and will be used in the studio for future recordings. It also comes with an original case which is like a violin case. I have never seen a 1920s Martin soprano before and certainly not one in such great condition. Its a wonderful sounding instrument and a joy to play.
The GNUF 2017 poster has just been released and its easy to see why so many people want to play at and/or attend this festival. Its simply the best value event with a massive range of artists, many times what you will find anywhere else. This also makes it incredible value. Rather than book the same performers that are familiar in the UK GNUF boldly offers opportunities to new creative performers as well as attracting established acts from all over the globe. This is the 5th year, which shows just how much people trust and respect the brand.
There’s an entire stage on the Sunday for Original Ukulele Song artists and Mim’s stage is an energetic thoughtful outdoor stage that runs throughout the festival. As well as the massive main stage there is also Unplugged the Wood and a late night cabaret stage. If that were not enough, there are fringe stages and a huge number of workshops. Of course some of these artists may pop up in other festivals later in the year, but this is the ONLY place to see them ALL in one location in the UK which is easy to get to and has lots of accommodation opportunities.
I’m working my way through Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” audio autobiography, which is proving to be quite excellent. I’m a long time fan of Bruce, but with the same frustrations that I have with Dylan. At his best Bruce is extraordinary, but at times I remain mystified at his output which is often somewhat bombastic. That said just as I can forgive Dylan for his X Mas album, as he released the brilliant Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61, I can forgive Bruce for all the duff albums after he released “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The River” as well as “Born to Run”
The autobiography is fascinating for a variety of reasons. One of the main things that stands out in the early chapters is just how hard Bruce works to generate any kind of income from his music. Yes, he starts to get a local reputation in New Jersey, but excursions to California are unproductive and pretty demoralizing. Many artists would simply not have the stamina to keep going. There’s a lot of great observations about how certain clubs only want a specific type of music, how many places won’t pay for artists and how often its tough to get the right band dynamics.
This reminds me of Steve Martin’s wonderful autobiography “Born Standing up” which again details how he spent years developing his craft. Its the same for Bruce and its generally accepted that Born to Run was his roll of the dice to become well known after a few moderately well received albums. “Nebraska” was the equivalent of Neil Yong’s “Tonight’s the Night” both far from commercial mass appeal albums. I applaud both artists for such initiatives.
This reinforces my belief that the most successful artists are playing the long game. I have massive respect for this attitude. Bruce also has written some excellent songs with sharp attention to lyrics. The autobiography is also extremely well written and takes the reader or listener to the author’s word. Along with Keith Richard’s book, this is highly recommended.
In 1954 Link Wray released “The rumble” which became an all time classic rock instrumental. A big part of the sound was created by Link poking holes in his speaker cones which his producer hated with a vengeance. In 1977 Eddie Van Halen was messing about in the studio and played a piece that is now known as “Eruption” and another great rock classic. What both these artists have in common is that they had a spirit of exploration and experimentation which pushed sonic boundaries. I’m a big fan of experimentation and exploration and many of my music friends including Martin Simpson have a similar philosophy. The last time I saw Martin at his home he was playing one of my ukes through his giant magnatone amp. “Lets see how this sounds” he said.
Of course this kind of exploration is not for everybody. In the ukulele world especially there are all manner of opinions on “what is right” and “what is best” My view is that there is no “right” or “best” just different. It reminds me of my explorations with tubes in guitar amps. The old Mullard and Phillips tubes are greatly sought out by professional artists for good reason. Fifteen years ago I visited the Mesa Boogie factory in the USA and heard they had some Phillips 6L6 tubes. “Who told you about this the manager asked? These are mostly reserved for Dave Gilmour, BUT we can sell you a couple of pairs”
The ukulele continues to fascinate me and I’m discovering that different types of string combinations with different wood constructions can make a big difference. I set up The Ukulele String test to see how different strings sounded on the same ukulele. I used a Cocobolo tenor to start with and am now using a Cocobolo Super Soprano. I had no idea if there would be any noticeable difference, but was interested to find out. I made sure I recorded the same instrument with different strings in the same acoustic space with the same equipment, set to the same audio levels. The ONLY variable was the change of strings. I also made sure the strings settled in before each test.
I have posted audio and more recently video of these tests online and let others take a view on what they hear. Many folks will consider this very “train spotting” type behavior and I respect that totally. Some folks have no interest in sound exploration and some remain convinced that “ALL STRINGS ARE THE SAME” which is another opinion although I suspect not always based on any exploration. My point is that exploration and experimentation can often yield some quite fascinating results. Its a personal choice of course and not for everybody and that’s 100% fine too!