Six Strings Good. Four Strings Better!

I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture.

Back in August, when we were six months into lockdown and my livelihood–standup comedy–was being slowly strangled, I finally made it through all five of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.


After all, I could only wallow in denial, anger, bargaining and depression for so long before I finally accepted that I had no control over politics, the economy, viruses, social media mobs and death!

Clearly, the only way to deal with life as it existed was:

Learning to play the ukulele, of course! I joined the vast “self-improvement” tsunami!

As virus restrictions mounted and metastasized, millions of people who were trapped in their homes turned to “self-improvement.” The MSM, in an effort to plaster a smiley face on lockdown madness, went nutty and published multiple stories on cooped-up millennials baking bread, learning a new language or doing ZOOM Pilates classes.

But perhaps the most frequently mentioned endeavor was learning to play the ukulele.

The Washington Post, NPR and countless outlets from Brisbane to Bangalore told the tales of thousands of new ukulele players, chasing the pandemic blues by wailing away on tiny, 23-inch ukes!

My own association with the instrument began during a two-week visit back east. I seized upon a Costco-bought tenor uke owned–but rarely played–by my niece.

I immediately succumbed to ukulele fever, which is even less fatal than you-know-what.

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I have always wanted to learn an instrument.

When I was a kid, my sister (three years my senior) bugged my parents into buying her a guitar, and they complied, because 1966. They threw in the “Mel Bay Modern Guitar Method” instruction booklet. She never got past a rickety rendition of “Ol’ Black Joe.” The guitar moldered in a closet for a year or two until one night, when my parents left us kids at home and my brother and sister (my other sister) got into a row and he broke the guitar over her head. (I hid the stringed wreckage under an armchair in the living room so my parents wouldn’t find out. I was the baby of the family, so I was the “fixer.”)

I plinked on that guitar a few times here and there before it bit the dust. I never could get the hang of it, despite the guidance of Mel Bay and the elegance of his “Modern Method.”

My cousin gave my oldest brother a ukulele for Christmas one year. But he took it with him when, shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the Army (yeah, I’m old), leaving behind only the “How to Play Ukulele with Roy Smeck” instruction booklet.

Outside of that uke and the smashed guitar, the only object resembling an instrument in our house was an old metal slide whistle my father picked up in Germany when he was mopping up after the Nazis (most likely in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions). Perfect for annoying others, but not really good for making listenable music.

We were not a musical household.

No one in my immediate or extended family knew how to play an instrument. No one sang much. My father bought a “stereophonic console” and played a bunch of Limeliters albums, but that’s the extent of domestic music-making in the household of my youth. I had an aunt who could sing (even cut a coupla records!), and my cousin (her son) was a multi-instrumentalist who played in a Seattle grunge band, but that’s about it. Pity, really.

Our house was just a block-and-a-half from Henry W. Longfellow School, a public elementary school. I would occasionally see my peers walking past our house on their way to and from the school carrying small cases, which, I learned, contained piccolos or trumpets or clarinets. I wondered what it was like to learn an instrument, but I pretty much kept my trap shut.

Myself, I attended St. Cecilia’s School, from kindergarten through 8th grade. It was a modest, middle-/working-class Catholic grade school that had no real music education program–rather ironic considering that St. Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians. The closest thing we came to musical instruction was a brief run of excruciating, once-a-week session in the cafeteria (we had no auditorium) with Mrs. Gannon. She was a parishioner who sang in church all the time and knew something about music. The only thing I remember about that was Mrs. Gannon struggling mightily to put our hearts into a feeble, gang-adaptation of “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” (“Mary Poppins” was a cultural juggernaut at the time.) There was never a chance that we’d ever learn an instrument, however.

But I loved music!

I can remember one of my favorite activities, when I was four or so, was sitting in a tiny rocking chair, in front of a “portable” record player and a stack of 78s (yeah, I’m old), and playing them for hours. For some odd reason, my favorite song was “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” by Johnnie Ray, the overwrought balladeer whose style and onstage antics were said to be a precursor of rock ‘n’ roll.

I loved radio, too. As evidenced by the fact that my mother once had me belt out “Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash at a family gathering. I was four. It was probably unbearable, but the incongruity was probably hysterical!

But I never had what it took to learn to play an instrument.

I have always enjoyed watching documentaries about musicians. And one thing that I find remarkable is the number of times the subject in these documentaries is said to have bugged his dad or mom to buy him an instrument. (It’s usually Dad who buys it, typically at a pawn shop, and it’s often a guitar. And, from that humble beginning, a musical legend blossoms!)

I lacked such pluck. I was content mainly to passively sit and consume music, not make it.

When I became an adult and landed my first, real, full-time job, I bought a Casio MT-60 keyboard (“49 Full-Size Keys!”) and took piano lessons at the local university. What got into me? I loved it, but, very soon after the course was over, progress stalled and the 49 keys were soon collecting dust! And, for decades, I regretted not having put more energy into the process.

Which makes this recent obsession with the ukulele so unusual that it surprises even me.

I hopped onto OfferUp, and eventually arranged for the purchase of a soprano-sized Lanikai ukulele. The seller was offering a pink Fender MA-1 (a 3/4-size guitar) for $50 and was throwing in the uke for free! A couple months later, I purchased a used Cordoba tenor-size guitar, this time in the Von’s parking lot. (Consumer tip: This country is awash in ukuleles! I guarantee you could buy one for $25-$50 in the next 48 hours, minutes from your home! And, pro consumer tip: You’ll find even more ukes on OfferUp or Craigslist if you spell it wrong! Punch in “ukelele” and see what pops up!)

I have been hammering away at these ukes a minimum of two hours EVERY DAY for FIVE MONTHS! And actually figuring out how to play it! I can’t even believe it myself!

It is the surprise culmination of my lengthy quest to find a way to make music!

Ten years ago, my lovely wife stated that we were either going to learn to speak Italian or learn to play the guitar. We chose guitar. (Mi dispiace i miei amici italiani.)

I bought a Martin LX-1 “baby” guitar. Then I bought a Rogue RA-080 acoustic-electric guitar. Then I bought a Jay Turser fake Fender Stratocaster electric. (All of them used, all of them for next to nothing!)

For a few weeks, we played and learned together happily until the wife hit the pavement in the aftermath of a historic snowstorm and broke her elbow. This swiftly ended her guitar playing and dampened my enthusiasm for the project as well as hers. Two of the guits made the move west, but they never made much music over the past decade.

And my failure(s) to learn the piano, the guitar and the slide whistle haunted me. Then I picked up a ukulele!

The uke has enjoyed a wild popularity rollercoaster ride over the past century.

It seems that the instrument “blew up” at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, in San Francisco, which featured George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet waling away on guitar and ukulele at the Hawaii Pavillion.

For an entire decade, in the earliest days of television, entertainer and musician Arthur Godfrey raised the instrument’s profile on his radio and television shows. From 1948 to 1959, Godfrey led his house band in jazzy improvisations while waling on a baritone ukulele.

After his TV show disappeared, Godfrey disappeared. But he had a tremendous impact on the tiny, twangy member of the lute family that would last for…nine years?

In 1968, Tiny Tim appeared on the popular NBC television show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, playing a soprano-sized uke and singing three old-time tunes, most notably, Tiptoe Through the Tulips. A good case can be made that the eccentric entertainer turned the ukulele into a joke. His eccentric dress, falsetto voice and odd manner made it hard for many to take the uke seriously.

Two or three generations later, the diminutive, “four-stringed guitar” has managed to shake any negative associations and is now the darling of alt-comics, jazz musicians, children, retirees and, of course, Hawaiian honeymooners. And in 2004, the late Israel Kamakawiwoʻole recorded a ukulele-backed version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The record became a worldwide sensation and revived the uke’s fortunes for many years.

What is the point?

Many people might read this and think, what, exactly, is the point of a 63-year-old unemployed comedian learning to play an instrument with a kitsch factor just a notch above a kazoo?

I will answer that question with a question: Must everything have a point?

As I plunged into the chords, keys, frets, majors and minors, the “point” was, I suppose initially, to exorcise the demon–to make up for the fact that I always wanted to play an instrument, but never put in the time. And, as I had always suspected that the main reason I never stuck with it might have been because I utterly lacked any musical talent or skill, I wanted to settle the issue once and for all.

It is interesting, and more than a bit sad, that many people are of the mind that taking up a musical interest (or learning a language, or baking or cooking, etc.) must always have a point over and above any sense of pleasure or accomplishment that might result from playing and learning that instrument. That is especially true if the novice is over the age of 18 or so! The reasoning being that, if you’re not going to make money off it or become a rock star–or a master chef, or an interpreter at the Hague–there’s really no point in making music–or baking killer butter cookies, or learning German!

But that is simply false.

When I lope through “Animal Farm” by the Kinks or I mangle Lennon and McCartney’s “Across the Universe,” or I nail “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, I experience feelings of joy and accomplishment. And, perhaps, some relief that I don’t suck, tinged with regret that I didn’t do this 40 years sooner.

Recently, at the urging of my niece (the same one who owned the Costco uke), I recorded a couple of short videos of me playing to entertain her son. He’s special needs (Angelman syndrome) and he absolutely loves videos and music. (And he thinks his great uncle is endlessly fascinating!) Part of my motivation to learn to play was a desire brighten his day with the occasional wacky video. I was rewarded for my hard work with an “answer video,” which depicted him grinning broadly as he listened to my halting rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.” THAT, right there, was worth every minute of practice.

But mainly, it is fun! The two hours fly by and I occasionally go into overtime! (I don’t like to call it “practice,” as that word, to me, connotes drudgery. I say, rather, that I am “playing.”)

And the entire time I am playing, I know that I’m “improving” my “self.” I know, also, that my grey matter is being subtly re-arranged into a new, better configuration (if the science is to be believed), in much the same way that studying a new language forges new pathways in the brain.

If you read this, I hope you gather the energy and the jack to buy a uke–or a guitar or an oboe!–and start playing. There need not be a profit motive or dreams of rock stardom, just a desire to make music with just your two hands and a hunk of wood and gut or brass and reed.

Did I mention that I’ve been studying German for 15 months? But that’s a whole other story.

Auf wiedersehn!

1 comment on “Six Strings Good. Four Strings Better!

  1. Paul Hair says:

    Learning to play a musical instrument is a great idea. I’ve been working on a few folk art wood projects of late–a cherry wood hot pad and a set of white pine wood bookends.

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