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Hi Music Lovers !
Some of us might be aware that a blossoming interest in ukulele led your humble servant to forming the UTS Ukulele Band – later renamed Mike and the Uketeers – tipping a hat to Mickey Mouse and the Mouseketeers – after my lovely boss at UTS declined the opportunity to renew my contract.
Well the more we played and the more we gigged and by definition had to practice, the more the passion grew. Then came a Riptide Tenor Semi-acoustic uke made in Boulder Colorado, and a concert sized Tribute semi, and a Mr Mai concert uke made from koa – the preferred uke wood and an Aiersi (Chinese premium brand) bass uke.
Bass ukes are a comparatively new thing with really fat strings made out of a polymer called “thunder gut” – sounds like me after drinking milk. Bass ukes, like normal basses involve a lot of learning of note playing rather than chords. So this last effort is still in its infancy.
And then I discovered resonator ukes. Resonator guitars were the 1930s predecessors to the 1950s electric guitars – and attempted the same thing – a sound loud enough to compete with the other instruments in swing bands. They achieved this with an all-metal body and a clever conical mechanical ‘amplifier’ – called a resonator. The archetype had three resonator cones – called not surprisingly a Tricone and gave good amplification of bass as well as treble notes. As the Depression deepened, the makers sought a cheaper version – using just one cone – called a ‘biscuit’ – referring to the hardwood biscuit shape that held the bridge up over the resonator,
The instrument was invented by one of the Dopera brothers who formed the National Guitar Company and later a new company – Dobro – making essentially the same technology. Both companies folded after the war as the new electric guitars made by Gibson, Gretsch and Martin became the weapons of choice for rock and rollers, country and western crooners and my favourites – rockabillies.
When I was a pup going to folk gigs in the 1960s, every now and then some “in-the-know” dude would show up with a massively dilapidated Dobro or National steel guitar – mostly played with a slide or the neck cut off a bottle (yep – bottleneck slide) – often played sitting down with the guitar laying flat across the knees – referred to as lap-steel. Those original Nationals are selling for upwards of $20,000 now. The company was resurrected a few years ago – and one can buy a brand new National for somewhere around $6,000 – one of those price points for special guitars.
The sound back then, was incredible. Big, bold, slick and fluid – echoing the early Mississippi Delta blues played mostly by black musicians.
And the sound is still great today – notwithstanding the development of superb electric guitars. Here’s some:
And so we come full circle – today I ordered a ‘steel’ ukulele – a Chinese made knock-off. These are beautiful things made from bell brass and chrome or silver plated metal bodies, a mahogany or rosewood neck (a bit dodgy perhaps – rosewood is now an internationally protected species) and a single aluminium resonator. Etched on the back is the obligatory Hawaiian palm tree and beach scene.