My Next Musical Instrument?

A couple of years ago, someone asked me what was the difference between the baritone ukulele and the tenor guitar. I couldn’t answer the question since I never heard of a tenor guitar before. Later, I did a bit of research and discovered the answer.

The tenor guitar is a slightly smaller guitar with the neck of a tenor banjo, originally made so tenor banjo players could easily play guitar instead. Like the tenor banjo, standard tuning of the tenor guitar is in fifths, CGDA. However, other tunings, such as DBGE, are also very common. Compared to a baritone uke, the tenor banjo is a bit bigger but with a narrower neck.

Like many other ukulele players, I have a modest collection of instruments. I’ve never really been a fan of the baritone, and so I’ve never been tempted to add a baritone to my collection. But I rather like the tenor guitar. Sometimes, you can find a tenor guitar made by Kala at the local music store, and I must say, it sounds rather nice. It combines the sound you’d expect from a guitar with the ease of playing of a ukulele. I really can’t justify buying a new instrument right now, but I find this instrument very tempting.

So why choose a four-stringed guitar instead of a conventional six-stringed instrument? Think of those two bass strings on a normal guitar, tuned to E and A. For many chords, these strings aren’t used at all. When strumming, many chords require that you don’t touch those strings at all, and yet, they will still vibrate and contribute to the sound. This is fine for some keys, but for others, you really need a capo to avoid dissonant notes from those two strings.

Like a ukulele, the only notes you get out of a tenor guitar are from the vibrations of the four strings. That is, you get a more pure sounding chord. Many guitar players who use just a strumming style of play would get along quite nicely with this four-stringed guitar.

Don’t get me wrong, I love guitar music. The guitar is a very flexible instrument, and can produce wonderful music from a skilled player. It’s no wonder that it’s such a popular instrument. However, many who try it get discouraged and give it up, never bothering to try playing music again. Like ukulele, the tenor guitar should be given more of a chance.

Cheers! Hans

Adventures in Banjo

Is the ukulele a gateway instrument? I suppose many kids who learn ukulele in school move on to guitar, and that’s great. An instrument as easy to learn as ukulele can easily give kids an appreciation for music that can last a lifetime.

As James Hill once said, for middle-aged folk like me, ukulele can be a second chance at music. I started playing uke about seven years ago, and I’ve loved making music ever since. I know I’ll never be good enough to play professionally, but that really doesn’t matter. Ukulele has also been a gateway instrument for me. Ever since I was young, I secretly wanted a banjo. A couple of years ago, I satisfied my long-held desire, and added a banjo ukulele to my modest collection of instruments. As fun as ukulele is already, the banjo uke is even more fun. More recently, I added another banjo to my collection, a tenor banjo.

When most people think of banjo, they think of the five-string banjo, a staple of bluegrass music. While I love bluegrass music, I didn’t want to limit myself to that genre. To me, the four-string tenor banjo offers more flexibility when playing, allowing both strummed and picked styles of playing.

However, the tenor is not as common as the bluegrass banjo. You just don’t find many to choose from in the local music stores, if you can find any at all. I found an inexpensive Trinity River tenor in a local pawn shop, but one poster in an on-line banjo forum recommended against it. But a couple of months ago, while visiting Renaissance Music, I found two tenors, one a used Gold Tone tenor, which I ended up buying.

Note that there are multiple ways to tune a tenor banjo. (Heck, there are lots of ways to tune the bluegrass banjo too.) The standard way is CGDA. But other common tunings include mandolin tuning (GDAE) and “Chicago” tuning (DGBE). The latter is also how you tune a baritone ukulele. When I tried out that Gold Tone tenor in the store, I had a hard time getting what I thought was the A string into tune. When that string snapped at home and I got a new set of strings, I realized that the instrument was tuned to DGBE, not CGDA.

I noticed that CGDA tuning is similar to standard ukulele tuning, GCEA. When I installed the new strings, I reversed the C and G strings, and tuned the D up a whole note. This allowed me to play the tenor using ukulele fingering, while keeping the same range of notes as a standard tenor banjo. But that tuning sounded odd. The difference between the second and third strings was just too great. So I then took the original B string, and replaced the third string, tuning the new string to C. And so I ended up with a banjo tuned exactly like my low-G tenor ukulele. In the future, I may experiment with re-entrant high-G uke tuning on this tenor.

I still have a lot of practicing to do before I play my new toy in public. The frets are further apart and the strings closer together, making left-hand fingering a bit trickier. Like the banjo ukulele, any time you touch the instrument, it makes noise, which has to be controlled. But also like my banjo uke, my new tenor has a resonator that can be removed, which can make the instrument a tad quieter, useful when practicing at home.

Most every month, you can find me performing with my banjo uke at the Kingston Sing-along Society sessions, normally scheduled for the first Friday of the month, at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship. At some point, after more practicing, I’ll bring my new tenor.

Cheers! Hans

Open Mic Night At The Royal

The Royal Tavern in downtown Kingston has a history. Sure, there are lots of old 19th Century buildings in the city. But the Royal is significant historically for a couple of reasons. First, it’s supposedly the oldest continuously operated bar in the city. Second, the building was once owned by Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.

Note that there’s no bronze plaque outside the bar noting the fact that Sir John A. drank here. Someone said that if there were a bar in the States once owned and frequented by George Washington, there’d be a line of tour buses waiting outside today. But here in Canada, we tend not to confer mythical hero status to our founding fathers. There are plenty of sites in Kingston related to Sir John A., such as his law office, grave site, and home. But apart from the latter, we don’t make too big a deal of them.

But getting back to the Royal, in addition to its historical significance, it has a bit of a reputation as a rough bar. The owner is trying to reverse that reputation, with success. And now, the bar is establishing itself as a good place for live music. Take Thursday nights for example, when there’s an open mic or open jam. Between songs by the great house band, usually blues or jazz inspired, others can take the stage. And yesterday, I was one of those, banjo-ukulele in hand.

What’s it like going up on stage at the Royal? The place is noisy. Although it’s a few block from the university, most people here are middle-aged. It’s a place to drink, talk, and generally have a good time. Few people actually pay direct attention to the musicians, but still show their appreciation of the music at the end of each song. I’m usually nervous on stage, however I found the environment pretty comfortable, probably due to the fact that there weren’t forty pairs of eyeballs staring at me. And afterwards, a number of people asked me questions about my banjo-uke, something few if any had actually seen or heard close up.

To borrow a 1960’s cliche, on Thursday nights, this is a “happening place”. And it seems to have gotten this way without much in the way of publicity. Or much in the way of choice in beer. There’s one beer on tap, Canadian, plus a modest selection of bottled brew. But considering the ambiance and the music, I don’t mind the limited choice. If anything, that’s part of the character of the place.

Cheers! Hans

The Song Remains the Same

Are you unsatisfied with current trends in music? Although good music has always been produced, does it seem to you that there’s less and less good music coming out these days? Well, you’re not alone. Joan Serrà and his colleagues at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in Barcelona have studied music over the past few decades, and their conclusions show that music has become more homogenous over time. And louder too. You can read about their research at The Economist.

Granted, it’s hard to find good music these days. And perhaps my age is showing too. The defining style of music for me was the New Wave of the late 1970’s. The early 1970’s featured a lot of good music, but nothing that really spoke to me the way the music of Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Blondie, and B-52’s did. In the 1980’s, I explored other musical genres, like jazz and classical. But other pressures increasingly hampered my ability to keep up with current events in music. But most of what I did hear in the 1990’s and 2000’s wasn’t especially noteworthy, in my opinion.

Fast forward to Christmas 2007, when I got my first ukulele, an inexpensive Beaver Creek. I fell in love again with music. Sure, I tried my hand at guitar when I was young. But I lost interest after a while, especially once I tried practicing the barred chords. But the ukulele was something else. Four strings, four fingers – what could make more sense? The neat thing about the uke is that it’s easy to form the chords. And not just the basic chords. In many cases, more esoteric chords aren’t that difficult either. Practice helps immensely, of course. However, the success rate at learning chords, and the ease of playing barred chords, makes it possible for anyone to master songs that use more than just your basic chords.

What’s the point of today’s missive? I suppose it’s this: More musicians should learn ukulele. With it’s ease of learning and playing, I would suggest that it’s easier to explore different and original chord sequences on the uke. Have you ever wondered where the diminished chords have gone? They were very common in the early 20th Century. How come we don’t see them very often today?

Think of the songs of George Harrison, and note that he was a big fan of the ukulele. I wonder how many of his songs were inspired from just noodling on the uke? If you have a uke handy, try out this iconic chord sequence, one strum per chord:

Familiar? Should be. It’s from one of his most famous songs! And the rest of this song can be played just as easily. And not just the chords. The melody line of this song is easily played as well.

For some time now, I’ve been wondering what the next big trend in music will be. Will we ever again see some new movement as sweeping and refreshing as the late 1970’s New Wave? Is there enough cohesiveness among music fans to give a New New Wave a chance in today’s fragmented entertainment environment? Or will commercial interests continue to foist blandness upon us?

I call on all songwriters and musicians to turn back the tide. Let’s bring back variety and interest to our songs. Have all the songs already been written? No, of course not. There’s a whole slew of new chord sequences to explore. And the ukulele can help you to explore them.

Cheers! Hans

Busking in Support of Joe’s M.I.L.L.

Ever willing to push the limits of my comfort zone musically, I eagerly plunged into volunteering for a couple of busking sessions a few weeks ago. The idea was for area musicians to busk for a half hour on Kingston’s market square and donate the proceeds to the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library.

Now then, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the greatest musical performer. But I also admit to an ulterior motive, to try to raise awareness of the ukulele in this city. So I picked out about 20 of my best songs, and went downtown.

My first session was at 11AM at the corner of Brock and King, at the north end of the market. On market day, this is the busiest, and noisiest, corner. Most people just walked by, few willing to admit to the presence of a street performer. I was relieved about 40 minutes later by a guy playing blues on a resonator guitar.

I then signed up for another session, but at a quieter corner of the market. Fewer people walked by, but there were a few sitting close by listening to the performances, sometimes commenting on the songs. This time, Roger, the librarian at Joe’s M.I.L.L. joined me on acoustic bass for a few songs, which was much appreciated.

What did I learn from this? First, I’ll never make a living by busking on the ukulele! But more importantly, I now know first hand what it feels like on the other side. I’ve always enjoyed listening to street musicians, and generally, I always try to be supportive, even if I don’t have time to stay and listen. But most people just pass by quickly, not even wanting to risk the shortest eye contact. While I was performing, frankly, I didn’t care that much about the loose change thrown into my ukulele case. I just wanted at least some small acknowledgment from the passersby.

So my point is this: Be kind to street musicians. They’ve all practised for years to get to the point of being able to perform in public. Even if you can’t spare some change, at least say hi, or offer some sign of support. It doesn’t take much effort on your part, but can mean a lot to the performer.

Omnifariously yours, Hans