If you have coworkers and an email account, no doubt by now you’ve seen the YouTube video of the serene savant Jake Shimabukuro playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park. The video went viral not simply because of the impressive intricacies of his fretwork, but because he was playing the song beautifully on a tiny soprano ukulele. Once relegated to comedy acts (like Tiny Tim) and Hawaiian folk music, ukulele is making a big comeback thanks to Shimabukuro and the scores of young musicians rediscovering the instrument’s versatility and portability. There are the artists who have been plugging away for years at making the uke a serious instrument, like Hawaii’s Grammy-sweeper Daniel Ho, and maybe Shimabukuro knew that George Harrison himself was a ukulele champ (Paul McCartney still often plays “Something” in concert on a uke and dedicates it to George), and in that category fall Jim Beloff and his wife, Liz. Over the past 20 years the couple have authored numerous books of ukulele chords, songs and lessons, enough information for a college degree in ukulele. Jim spoke to Playback about the couple’s newest effort The Daily Ukulele, which includes 365 popular songs tabbed out for ukulele play, from Bob Dylan to Irving Berlin.
Let's start with how you got your hands on your first ukulele.
My wife, Liz, and I moved to Los Angeles from New York City in 1991. At the time I was working for Billboard Magazine in sales and Liz was a graphic designer specializing in movie titles and coming attractions design. As dedicated flea market fans (we loved the 26 th Street Flea Market in NYC,) we were eager to check out the famous, second-Sunday-of-every-month Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena. At our very first Rose Bowl Flea Market I found a Martin tenor ukulele on a blanket and, on a whim, bought it.
What did you learn to play first?
In 1991 there was very little in the way of songbooks for the ukulele. Most ukulele bins in music stores were either completely empty or might have an old copy of a Mel Bay how-to-play book. We found an old music store in east LA that had a box of uke songbooks from the previous wave of popularity in the 1950s. We bought them all and it was like a time machine. Soon I was playing all these pretty standards like “Deep Purple,” “Once In A While,” “More Than You Know” and, of course, “Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue.” I was truly astonished at the beauty of the nuanced jazz chords that were featured in these songbooks, played on an instrument that l had always associated with Hawaii and novelty songs. At the time I had been a decent guitarist very influenced by James Taylor and Kenny Rankin but I was amazed by the chordal beauty one could coax out of a four-string instrument.
As a songwriter who had majored in writing for the musical theater in college, long inspired by the craft of the great tin pan alley tunesmiths, I began to think the ukulele was more my instrument than the guitar. I immediately began writing songs around the “my dog has fleas” tuning–the kind of songs I had always aspired to write, more in the great American songbook tradition. Although today my name is known for the songbooks we publish (under the Jumpin’ Jim’s brand name), I still think of the ukulele as a songwriting tool and have enjoyed recording these songs on a number of CDs for our Flea Market Music label.
What about your wife, how did she learn uke?
Liz learned to play a few chords very quickly but she didn’t really take to the instrument until we introduced the Flea ukulele. My brother-in-law, Dale Webb, designed the very popular Fluke and Flea ukuleles, which he manufactures in Massachusetts. The smaller Flea shape was especially comfortable for Liz and she’s been playing one for nearly 10 years.
What song should a person start with when they are learning to play ukulele?
In workshops I like to teach “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.” It requires two chords, C and G7. Like many chords on the ukulele, the C can be made with one finger and the G7 is the same shape as a first position D7 on a guitar. Once you learn those two chords plus the F chord, which requires two fingers, you can play thousands of songs.
Why do you think the uke is making such a huge comeback right now?
I get asked this question a lot. There are many reasons. One is that as the world becomes more and more unsettled and complicated there seems to be a corresponding desire to play a simple, quiet, analog musical instrument. The ukulele is often thought of as a happy instrument that can bring a smile to anyone and its association with Hawaii, one of the most beautiful places in the world, can’t be overlooked. The Internet has also played a huge role in bringing players together. Our website www.fleamarketmusic.com was one of the first uke sites on the internet and its Bulletin Board forum is one of the most popular spots for uke players to discuss their common passion.
George Harrison’s outspoken love for the ukulele went a long way towards buffing the image of the uke as well. One of our most memorable days occurred in early 1999 when George Harrison spent an afternoon at our home in Los Angeles. We talked about and played ukuleles for three hours. Just before he left he wrote a wonderful appreciation of why he liked the ukulele, which we included in our Jumpin’ Jim’s ‘60s Uke-In songbook. No doubt the ubiquity of the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole ukulele rendition of the “Over The Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” medley played a big part in spreading the sound of the instrument. Current virtuoso, Jake Shimabukuro, whose technical skills are remarkable, has also helped raise the visibility of the ukulele, especially thanks to his Youtube version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” In 2010 the hit song by Train “Hey, Soul Sister” featured a ukulele that caught the attention of a younger generation. Of course, there are those who believe our various uke songbooks, uke history book, DVDs, Fluke and Flea ukes, etc. played an important role in jump-starting what we refer to as this third wave of uke popularity.
Where did the idea to publish instructional uke books come from? What goes into the creation of one?
After we published our first songbook, Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Favorites in 1992, our distributor Hal Leonard Corp, asked me to write a how-to-play songbook, which became Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Tips ‘N’ Tunes. It was a good decision because that book has been our biggest seller, re-printed dozens of times.
There are certain things that need to be covered in any musical instrument instructional book. Like a guitar, the ukulele is a fretted instrument and so making chords and strumming are concepts that need to be illustrated and described. However, the ukulele is best known as an accompaniment instrument and once a player can master a few chords they are off and running. The emphasis is always on having fun and not taking it too seriously.
Have you been surprised by the success of your books?
Absolutely. We published five or so of our songbooks, I wrote a book on the history of the ukulele, The Ukulele: A Visual History, and produced a compilation CD for Rhino (Legends Of Ukulele) in my spare time while I was Associate Publisher of Billboard. At some point interest in the instrument was significant enough that Liz and I thought we could go into the uke business full time. We left our “real” jobs in 1998 and have never looked back.
What are the criteria for songs that are included in The Daily Ukulele? What are the most contemporary/oldest songs included?
We set a serious challenge for ourselves with The Daily Ukulele, the biggest ukulele songbook ever published. With a title like that we knew we had to have 365 songs in this book. The main criterion for a song to be included in one of our books is whether it sounds good on a ukulele. One could argue that anything can be played on a ukulele and we’ve made that case ourselves with songbook/CD packages of classical, jazz, blues and even bluegrass standards arranged for uke. That said, there are some songs that seem especially at home strummed on a uke. An obvious example is “When I’m Sixty-Four” or John Sebastian’s “Daydream” which have an easy, strum-y feel. For The Daily Ukulele we wanted to select songs that were especially comfortable to play on a uke and also good for groups of players to perform. One of the more fascinating developments of the current uke wave is the rise of ukulele clubs of amateur players in the USA and around the world. We designed The Daily Ukulele to be fun for any player but to be especially ideal for clubs who need a book full of great songs to play from. Of course, we also had to make sure we could license the songs. Fortunately, we had a large pool of material to choose from thanks to our relationship with Hal Leonard Corp.
The book features tons of Beatles tunes, songs by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Monkees hits and other pop songs, country songs, songs from Broadway and Hollywood, kids tunes, Christmas carols and other holiday favorites. A more recent song in the book is “Upside Down” by Jack Johnson. An older song that is more relevant than ever is “Hard Times Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster.
Who are your favorite contemporary ukulele players?
There is a whole new generation of players and uke-based bands from Hawaii, the US mainland and around the world who are taking the instrument into uncharted territory. Some of the best known are Jake Shimabukuro from Hawaii, James Hill from Canada, Azo Bell from Australia, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain from England, Iwao from Japan, Daniel Ho, Victoria Vox, Greg Hawkes, Lil’ Rev from the US mainland and many, many others who can be found by searching for ukulele on Youtube.
My two favorite players are from an earlier generation. Hawaiian virtuoso Herb Ohta (Ohta-san) has recorded at least 75 albums of instrumental ukulele music–everything from pop standards to jazz and even a CD of Bach for ukulele. He is a legend in Japan and still tours there one or two times a year. Lyle Ritz is credited with recording the first serious jazz uke record for Verve in 1957 entitled How About Uke. He later played acoustic bass on thousands of pop records in the 60s and 70s as part of the Los Angeles-based studio super-group, the Wrecking Crew. I’ve had the great honor of writing songs with both of them.
The last time I saw Paul McCartney play, he did "Something" on Ukulele and claimed that George Harrison was a uke prodigy and wrote songs on the instrument. Did that fact inspire your inclusion of Beatles songs in The Daily Ukulele?
Certainly our time with George Harrison (see above) made for an unforgettable afternoon. However, the inclusion of so many Beatles songs in The Daily Ukulele comes down to the simple fact that they sound particularly good on a ukulele. In general, the ukulele can bring a unique sweetness to songs that feature strong melodies, inventive chord changes and a solid rhythm and those are qualities that can be found in so many of the Beatles tunes. In fact, it’s often been said that if a song sounds good played alone on a ukulele, it must be a good song.
How far do you see the uke trend going?
By definition trends have beginnings and ends. There is a bit of a uke mania going on at the moment with many new and old instrument makers jumping on the bandwagon. Lately everyone seems to be a player, know a player or want to be a player. However this latest wave of popularity has been building for almost 15 years, well before the current explosion. As a result there are a lot of dedicated strummers that are part of this wave. Naturally we are thrilled to be part of this explosion. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that a gut feeling 18 years ago has been more than justified. Our company motto is “Uke Can Change The World” and that is certainly true for us.