Words by Neil Boland
Photography by Indya Connley
The ukulele has become an unlikely phenomenon in the last few years, revived as a portable stringed instrument, now spanning genres far beyond the music of Elvis Presley’s amusingly cheesy films and the absurdist ditties of Tiny Tim.
Today, from Brunswick to Brooklyn, you hear the ukulele in beardy folk bands, alt-country bands, semi-twee pop country duos with movie stars like Zooey Deschanel, children’s programs and TV advertising soundtracks.
In Australia, Melbourne’s at the centre of this renaissance.
Born on Brunswick St Fitzroy and now based in Carlton under new ownership, former guitar-only shop, Fretted Instruments, has now become a portion of Australia’s pioneering specialist ukulele store — Lord Uke. Seems kinda niche, wouldn’t you say? Well, within one step inside the Elgin St store, you realise where the real business is generated.
Justin Garner of Fretted Instruments has been in the music industry for a handful of decades, currently playing guitar with Nick Barker’s Heartache States and loving watching the ukulele craze grow by the year.
In most music stores, the ukulele was considered a small part of a music store’s display; almost a toy.
“There was already a section of the shop devoted to ukes beforehand for about three or four years,” Garner says.
But something happened.
It could have been the sudden discovery and rise of Hawaiian ukulele YouTube virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro in the early new millennium, or Eddie Vedder’s solo album recorded entirely on uke, or the fact that Elvis Costello, when carrying a uke looks, well, really cool as usual.
Whatever happened, it has also spawned the formation of successful community groups like the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective (MUK) and the associated annual Melbourne Ukulele Festival (MUF), now in its sixth year.
Now, the emphasis at the store is of course ukuleles, from entry level to boutique, with a handful of very nice non-uke fretted instruments out the back — Japanese Fender electric guitars and other nice things that are worth dropping by to play.
Guitarists who remember the Brunswick St days might lament the shift in stock emphasis, but alas, uke can’t please everyone…
“It’s sort of like a mullet haircut. It’s business at the front, party at the back,” says Garner.
The range has grown due to the public’s increasing demand for quality beyond the jokey campfire-type ukulele.
“I would say we’ve got more ukuleles than anyone else now. We’ve got ukes from $30 to a couple of grand. But ukes around, say, $150 to $300, maybe even up to $500, is what a lot of people seem to buy.”
Garner has also seen people take up the instrument at entry level, and having caught the bug, return to the store within months to continue the journey.
“It’s a case of people sticking with it and getting better instruments. It’s kind of a nice thing. People who have originally bought the $30 JB Ukes are now getting something a bit more serious. And then they’re getting a bit more serious again.”
When buying a ukulele, the criteria for finding the right instrument isn’t too far from that of an acoustic guitar. It’s a good idea to check the neck for any warping, whether ply or solid wood is a consideration for you, whether you want to plug it in or not (yes, ukes with pickups!), and price. And like guitars, the more you pay, the more you get.
Like any hobby, it’s common to start small.
“People generally pick up the soprano just because they might get given one of the colour-painted ukes as a gift. So they’ll learn on soprano and go up to concert or tenor from there,” says Garner.
It’s good to ask plenty of questions. Some people even get into real spec nitty gritty these days.
“People have become more demanding. They want to know the wood, they want to know where it’s come from. And there are four different sizes, so they’ll collect the range. They’ll get the soprano, get the tenor, the concert…”
For those who dream of being on stage, Garner also has advice for being heard from the beginning.
“We tell people if you’re even thinking you’re going to need a pickup, get one from the get go, because it’s so expensive (installed) to get one later on.”
Electronics such as pickups are essential in one particular instrument: the ukulele bass. Yes, you heard right. This instrument has opened a lot of sonic avenues in some surprising genre contexts.
“All uke basses are plug-in. They, to me, are super dub reggae-sounding. You plug them in, and they’re just so subby. And the fretless ones really sound a hell of a lot like a double bass, even though they’re small.”
A ukulele’s origins have become a thing now, too. Intermediate to advanced players are now seeking out Hawaiian (Kamaka, for example) instruments, much the same way that guitar players take US origins into consideration when looking for that special vibe. To the enthusiast, Garner says it’s worth the money.
“The Kamakas are made in Hawaii. They’re all solid (wood) and come with beautiful hard cases. They’re really, really lovely. The tenor’s about $2200. It sounds beautiful.”
With the upcoming tour of Jake Shimabukuro in 2015 and the next instalment of the Melbourne Ukulele Festival in March, Lord Uke is the premium destination for inspired punters to drop in on while they have the itch.