A couple months back I found myself thinking about the song again, so I went and listened to the studio version on YouTube. In it, she says it takes about an hour to teach someone to play the ukulele. This is manifestly poetic license. In an hour, you can probably teach someone to play a 3-chord song; but they won’t be able to play much of anything else, and they probably won’t even be able to tune the instrument.
[Speaking of which, I want to thank Patrick Nielsen Hayden for turning me on to Guitar Toolkit for the iPhone, which includes a very good tuner. ...But I’m getting ahead of myself.]
Although you obviously can’t learn to play an instrument of any complexity in an hour, the ukulele is widely regarded as about the easiest [stringed] instrument to learn, and it seemed like fun. In the song, Amanda claims that a ukulele costs $19.95. This turns out to be true if you get it at the right place, but at that point I didn’t know where to go. I took a look on eBay just in case, but with the shipping all or nearly all of them seemed to be more than twenty bucks. Then I went off to a thrift store. I like thrift stores. No ukulele. Went to another thrift store. None there, either. After about 7 thrift stores and zero ukuleles I concluded that ukuleles were not in season, so the next day I returned to a store where I had seen some things with strings, and found a pink plastic FirstAct “discovery” guitar that seemed more or less intact. It was priced at about ten bucks, but there was a discount, so it actually cost me $7.50 plus tax. The size seemed like it could be an advantage: I figured I would tune it an octave lower than a regular uke, and it would match my voice better. (I’m a bass-baritone.)
NB: We are about to enter into a dank morass of technoid scunge here, so if you don’t want to know about hacking upon small guitars to turn them into ukuleles (or at least into things that bear a generic resemblance to ukuleles), you can simply take it from me that there is some kind of weird magic involved in mixing engineering with learning to play, and you can let this one go. If, instead, you choose to continue reading, do not claim that I failed to caution you; doing so shall avail you not. See also, naught.
I needed strings, and when I went up on the Web to find them I was somewhat surprised to discover that I could get them at Toys “R” Us. I was even able to pay for them online and have the store hold them for pickup the next day. Very handy.
I have fairly large hands, so instead of just omitting the edges and putting the strings into existing positions 2, 3, 4, and 5, I decided to locate them at positions 1, 2&1/3, 3&2/3, and 5. This meant that I had to dig two new grooves in the nut, and make two new holes in the bridge. (I did not contrive to put the 4th string at position 6 because there is damage to several of the frets at that edge of the fingerboard.)
Both nut and bridge turned out to be hollow. This was annoying in that when I dug the new grooves in the nut, the bottoms were empty air. (The nut was not glued properly into place, so I was able to take it off and add some filler to the underside, for strength, before regluing it.) The bridge is hollow, just like the nut, only in this case that’s a convenience. Dig in from the front, dig in from the back, clean up the edges of the resulting holes, and you’re there.
That guitar became “fakelele” number 1. It looked like this:
[You may notice that I have replaced the original plastic saddle with a slice that I cut from a popsicle stick, in order to raise the action a little.]
Sometimes this instrument buzzed when I played it. When I looked inside I noticed that the internal bracing is molded into the plastic halves, and the front is merely touching the back here and there; they are not actually glued to each other. If the front and back are pushed together firmly enough the contact is improved, and it doesn’t buzz; but the tension on the strings does not provide enough pressure in the right place.
I played with the plastic fakelele for a day or two, starting to teach myself with help from ukeschool.com.
[It is, btw, a damn good thing that I have a fairly solid understanding of the importance of baby steps. Otherwise I would have given up on the spot when I found Jake Shimabukuro on YouTube.]
I also began to write a thankyou song for Amanda, which I have not sent to her yet. This is partly because it doesn’t fully match her meter [though that’s a rationalization; she takes liberties with her meter in any case, and it is almost certainly impossible to match precisely] and partly because I worry that too much of it is about the pink plastic device and not enough of it is about thanking her. I may eventually change my mind and send it, or I may tweak it and send it, or maybe not. We’ll see.
After two or three days I decided that I didn’t particularly need to put up with plastic frets and plastic buzzing (I could have dribbled glue into it, but that wouldn’t have done anything about the frets), so I went back to the thrift store where I had acquired it and found a wooden FirstAct discovery guitar with metal frets, for which I paid the princely sum of $6.46 plus tax. (There is no accounting for thrift store pricing; within the past few days I have seen two guitars of this sort, both of which were priced at about 20 bucks.)
This time, though, the strings were somewhat more expensive: lisajulie and I went to the Toys “R” Us store, where we located the musical-instrument section and I got a set of plum-colored strings and a set of green ones. Toys “R” Us turns out to be one place where you really can get a ukulele for $19.95: they had several. I was tempted, but it would have distracted me from the geekery already at hand. Besides, it was twenty bucks, and the strings were only six bucks a set.
lisajulie was quite taken aback, btw, at how strongly gendered the entire place and its contents are; I had begun to notice this (the strings are divided into Boy colors and Girl colors), but I was so intent on my primary mission that it hadn’t made quite as heavy an impact on me as it did on her. Once she pointed it out, though, it became entirely obvious and rather oppressive.
I decided to position the strings of #2 at 1, 2.5, 4, and 5.5, so I’d have a little more room for my fingers. In the course of making the new slots in the nut I discovered that it is solid, which is helpful. I then discovered that the bridge is likewise solid, and is made of extremely tough wood, which is strong but not helpful. How do you drill two little holes through at least half an inch of really hard wood, about 3/16" up off a broad wooden deck that you don’t want to damage? The trusty Dremel obviously wasn’t going to fit; even the flexible shaft extension for it didn’t fit. Not even close. This is not a trivial exercise.
I started the holes by wiggling the point of an X-Acto® knife in the correct locations, and then I tried various ways of extending them. I could probably have done it in a mere day or two by using my fingers to rotate a drillbit in each hole, but that was obviously not viable. Grasping the bit with a pair of pliers and pushing it into the hole while rotating it a small fraction of a turn at a time was likewise not going to work out well. I did make a bit of headway by running a screw a short distance into the hole and then cleaning up the debris with the drillbit, but I was afraid of splitting the wood, so I didn’t go very far with that. It would have taken hours and hours in any case. I already had nearly an hour into the effort by that point, and I wanted to do something better. I am not very patient when I can smell the results I want and it’s apparent that they are just a short distance outside the bars of the cage.
Pause for contemplation. What I want here is a 1/16" drillbit that’s about a foot long, neh? Too bad, because that assuredly isn’t going to happen. ...So I started digging around in my toolboxes, including two that I had recently acquired when chakaal emptied the basement of a house she was moving out of, and in one of those I found (mirabile dictu) a substantial handle with what amounts to a collet on the business end of it, in which was held a piece of ~1/16" thick piano wire about 10" long, with a pointed end. That seemed like it might be just the thing. It was even the right diameter. The point was dull, so I sharpened it, pushed it into one of the holes, and tried rotating it. This wasn’t going to accomplish much, even in combination with the screw and the drillbit, but then it was time for the day’s eureka moment as I realized that it was more than long enough. I removed it from the collet/handle, chucked it into the Dremel, and burned both holes in about 5 minutes, with accompanying outpourings of smoke and blackened wood dust. No actual flames, but it was close. [Let us have a moment of silence in memory of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford.]
One of the holes ended up attempting to go through the edge of a screw that holds the bridge down, so it is out of position, but only a wee bit. I was not about to complain.
I put plum and green strings on fakelele #2 and continued to teach myself to play. The steel strings hurt the crap out of my fingers, so I went to the House of Musical Traditions and got some nylon ones. These, despite being of quite decent quality (as I would expect from HMT, which is a fine place), sounded terrible. Perhaps I didn’t choose the right gauges, or maybe this particular axe just isn’t well suited to nylon strings; I dunno. What I do know is that I reverted to the steel ones, and gritted my teeth a bunch.
At that point, #2 looked about like this:
As I continued to go through lessons and try to learn songs I noticed that even when the tuner in my telephone indicated that the strings were tuned correctly, if I played certain chords the instrument sounded like it was out of tune. I tried changing it from ordinary tenor ukulele tuning (an octave lower than standard uke tuning but otherwise the same: G - C - E - A, with the G higher than the C) to linear tuning, in which the G is lower than the C; but although I liked the sound with the low G, it didn’t change the “off” character.
A week or two later I took #2 up to Montréal, where I mentioned the chord-weirdness issue to Patrick. He played a few riffs on the instrument and said that it was an intonation problem, the sort of thing a luthier could deal with, for a price. I thought about that for perhaps 3 milliseconds and concluded that if I showed up with a mangled 6-dollar guitar, any luthier worthy of the name would either A) spit on my shoe and throw me out, or B) be obliged to charge more than the instrument is worth because of the time it would take them to perform the repair. This seemed counterproductive, not to mention the fact that getting spat upon is deprecated, so instead I went up on the Web and looked for information about guitar intonation.
Most of what I found was about the nicely adjustable bridges on electric guitars, which made me envious, but I did find the key piece of information that lets you figure out the adjustment you need to make. Having tuned a string, you play the 12th fret harmonic (2X the tuned frequency, give or take a bit). Then you fret the string, also at 12, and compare the two frequencies. If they are not the same, you take appropriate action; the mnemonic here is Fretted Flat? Forward! That is, if the fretted note is at a lower frequency than the harmonic, the saddle for that string needs to move closer to the nut, which shortens the string. I had (and continue to have) some concern about how this might interact with the locations of the frets, but I guess that as long as you are near the head end of the fingerboard it shouldn’t usually be much of an issue.
I also found a nice video from Sullivan Guitars, in which the luthier fixes an intonation problem on one string of an acoustic guitar. Although he is working at the nut end rather than the saddle end, it seemed sufficiently straightforward to be encouraging.
[Well, hey. I bet I can do something like that. What the hell, if I wreck the thing I’m out a whole six and a half bucks, right? Granted, the strings count for something too; but I could probably reuse them.]
Armed with these invigorating thoughts, I took a bag-closure tag like this one
chopped a few bits off it, and glued them into position on the saddle with cyanoacrylate adhesive. (“Crazy Glue”, “CA”, etc.) After a couple iterations the intonation was noticeably improved, and the saddle looked about like this:
I suppose I should note right here that I am doing these things in order to be able to make a joyful noise, and not as a fashion statement. I’m a geek, a maker, a tweak; and this is partly an engineering project. In fact:
There Is Some Kind of Magic...
...inherent in simultaneously hacking/tweaking on a device to improve its functionality, and teaching oneself (or being taught) to use it. I’m not really sure precisely what that magic is, mind you, but it is clear that Something Special is going on, at least for me. It’s also something of a stretch, which I like. Helps maintain whatever agility I may have.
My fingers were still hurting, but #2 sounded better, and I continued to work through various lessons. I found Brett McQueen’s “Ukulele Tricks” site, which includes a nice chord library. (Choose one from Column A and one from Column B; then click the “Go” button to get a diagram of the chord. After that, you can select variations if you want them.)
It was about at that point, I think, that my friend David Casseres (who is a truly outstanding food fan and cook, and who has considerable experience playing guitars) started sending me email messages that contained little red guys with horns and pointy tails. The little red guys sat on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, suggesting that I get an actual commercial manufactured ukulele. At the risk of letting myself in for a case of what elisem refers to as UAS [Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome] I eventually did that; but the result is more or less orthogonal to this post, and I will leave it for another time. Suffice it to say that although the fingerboard is a bit narrow, the commercial tenor ukulele I bought is fun to play; it has nylon (actually Aquila Nylgut®) strings, which means that I can play barre chords on it; and it is smaller, lighter, and more portable than any of my fakeleles. These are very handy attributes.
I will also note that David has been providing mentorship about stringed instruments and how they work, and useful ways of thinking about how one plays them. I deeply appreciate this, the more so because he has been very kind about my pissing and moaning over various issues including the fact that I am having large amounts of trouble trying to figure out what chords to play for a song if I can’t find them listed on the Web.
That’s where things stood for a little while. I was learning a song or three, doing little fingerpicking exercises I found on the Web and making up a few of my own, and generally having a pleasant time of it. Soon, however, I found myself looking for small guitars at thrift stores, and occasionally even having them bring down a mid-size guitar from the shelf where they keep the expensive things. I didn’t ask to look at anything that was over 30 bucks, but it was still a worrisome sign.
About a week ago I saw a damaged mid-size guitar at a thrift. Someone had tightened the strings far too much, as a result of which the front of the instrument was warped and the bridge had started to pull up. Just not good. I loosened the strings to a reasonable level, even though it was far too late. By that time, though, I was on track, and later that day I managed to find a mid-sized guitar that had a fairly straight fretboard and a flat front face. It was also badly damaged, but the first major issue that I noticed was one that I don’t care about: the knob and shaft were broken off one of the tuners. I only need four tuners, and the broken one was at the top end, so it was ignorable except as an indication that the instrument had been mistreated, an issue to which we shall be obliged to return.
This guitar was marked $14.91, but everything is 25% off on Monday, so the price was actually $11 and change... I asked the attendant to bring it down for a bit. I looked it over and tuned the three strings that I could adjust, so they’d sound right with the string that was on the broken tuner. The tone was okay. No, the tone was more than okay: it was surprisingly resonant and full for what had obviously been a very inexpensive instrument even when it was new. At that point I gave in and bought it.
There is part of a label on the back of the headstock, which says "MADE IN K...", presumably Korea; it also says "STEEL REINFOR...", which is a pleasant sign about the quality of the neck. The rosette around the soundhole is certainly made of ink and not of wood, and is probably a decal. The label inside has "Model No." printed on it in script, below which is a line on which is stamped G100; even though the first character is nearly illegible, I know that it is G rather than something else because I have found another such guitar on an [expired] auction page from Goodwill Industries, in East Peoria, Illinois. That machine had a legible serial number on its label; mine has only traces, though I think the number may be 147375. There is no sign of a manufacturer’s name, and none is mentioned on the Goodwill page.
This instrument has a singular advantage: instead of having an integrated saddle and bridge like the others do, it has (as you can see in the photo) a metal tailstock that holds the bottom ends of the strings, and a separate saddle that was originally glued to the front plate. When I took the old strings off, I found that the saddle had come loose. That made adjusting the intonation considerably easier.
This time I positioned the strings at 1.5, 3, 4.5, and 6. There was no need to keep them at the low edge of the fingerboard, and this way I don’t have to push my pinky all the way across when I need it on the lowest string. The strings, btw, are Aquila “Nylgut”, intended for a baritone uke; I’ve mistuned them, but they don’t seem to mind. This instrument is effectively a 4-string guitar; it will never sound like a ukulele, and perhaps I shouldn’t be referring to it the way I do, but them’s life. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fakelele #3. Here it is, next to #2:
While I was tweaking the intonation I noticed some buzzing. It sounded like it was coming from the metal tailstock, but that was an illusion; I eventually tracked it down to a badly broken internal brace. Fortunately, that brace is on the underside of the faceplate very close to the soundhole, and I was able to glue and clamp it without removing the strings, though I did have to loosen the lowest one.
Then there was this:
As you can see, the edge of the front panel was badly mashed in this area, and the wood was starting to fall apart. I concluded that I had no choice but to commit luthiery in order to prevent the damage from getting worse, so I went to the hobby shop and got a piece of 3/32" model aircraft plywood. I originally intended to make an attempt to match the color, but the stain I got (which claimed to be something on the order of “Golden Oak”) was greenish brown and far too dark, so I let go of that notion. I enlarged the damaged area to take care of the buckled region that you can see to the left in the photo, chiseled down the level of the wood so the patch I made would fit correctly, added some splinters (I had plenty of those) to the area with the worst damage in order to increase its density a little, put some diluted glue into that area for additional stability, and glued the patch in place ...badly tilted. (Almost needless to say, about 12 hours later I figured out a better way to position the patch for gluing and a better way to hold it in position without so much tilt. Gargh.) I hope no real luthier ever has to see this repair, as I hate to see grown people weep and rend their garments; but the damage is now contained and the tone seems to be unaffected. Here’s the patch:
After I glued the fix into place I noticed a slight buzzing on the lowest two strings, and for a while I thought it was another broken internal brace. That, fortunately, turned out not to be the problem. The intonation fix on the upper two strings had moved them up away from the fingerboard a little, and I wanted to match that change in the action for the lower pair, so the first thing I did was to add a piece of ABS angle to the saddle. Then I figured out that there was some glue residue under the saddle, so I took it off, scraped it clean, repositioned it, added an intonation tweak to the lowest string, and tacked it down with tiny dots of CA. The sound is pretty decent now, and the buzz is gone. Here’s the saddle in its current state:
(Since I took this photo I have cleaned up the ends of the wound strings so they won’t unwind any further. Live and learn.)
For anyone who is interested, and with the caution that these are assuredly baby-steps, here is a little chord progression on the commercial tenor ukulele, first fingernail-strummed twice and then finger-strummed twice; and here is the same thing on fakelele 3. You will notice a pronounced difference in tone, and you may notice that there is a one-note difference, something I could only hear when I did it on f3, so I didn’t bother to do it when I recorded the commercial axe. You will also notice that I don’t have very good control of the instrument[s] yet, but I presume that will come with practice. (I don’t know how to make a streaming connection, so these are plain downloads of the files. I’ve ripped them to MP3, so they aren’t very large. I should probably mention the fact that I made the original recordings with a Tascam iM2 on my iPhone, and that there was traffic outside at the time, so you are likely to hear a certain amount of background noise.)
The saddle makes me uneasy, and I cannot easily lower the action, which I may want to do, so I went up on eBay and looked at bridges for electric guitars. (Figured it would come to this, didn’t you?) Bass guitar bridges accommodate 4 strings, but the standard separation on a bass is 19 or 20 millimeters, while the separation at the bridge of fakelele #3 is only about 14 mm, so that doesn’t seem particularly viable. I could, however, take a standard 6-string bridge, remove the two sliders I’m not going to use, drill two holes in it to reposition two of the remaining sliders (or three holes, if the existing spacing really doesn’t match), and add notches at the new string positions. The bridges I saw that seem most likely to fit into the available space are Fender Jaguar/Jazzmasters, which look about like this:
They are usually too expensive, but somebody had an older one up for grabs, it didn’t attract much attention, and I got it for 14 bucks plus shipping. It should be here in a day or two, and once it gets here and I get it tweaked and installed and adjusted I will probably be the only research potter in the world with a Fender Fakelele. Ahem.
(06 and early 07 September)
[[Earlier this evening, in the basement of the Indonesian Embassy, I played music that has two scales, no keys, no chords, no downbeat... it is something of a headmelt to go from that to this.]]
This afternoon (yesterday afternoon, as I write this), I received the Fender saddle. I have tweaked [fairly heavily], tested, and installed it. I ended up drilling four new holes, on the opposite side from the 6 that it already had. That let me position them (the holes) more easily where I wanted them. I tried putting the saddle on top of a piece of wood 1/8" thick, but that seemed to be excessive, so I switched to a piece of 1/16"-thick wood. I also went to the hobby shop and got four socket-head cap screws to replace the original phillips-head adjustment screws, which were not going to be viable in the available space.
I have decreased the height of the action considerably and also evened it out from string to string. Being able to do that is very pleasing. I think the intonation is now nearly as good as it can get with this instrument.
The installed saddle looks about like this:
There is one buzz problem, related to the extreme intonation setting that is required for the E string; it’s quite minor, but I’m peevish about it anyway, and I’m thinking about ways to deal. OTOH, at this point I’m not even hearing it, so perhaps it’s ignorable.
There are also some rather peculiar issues that I do not entirely understand. For example, the frets look straight enough, but one of the strings is consistently flat on several of them even though it is correctly tuned and has reasonable intonation. If all of the strings were flat on those frets, I might understand it... but they aren’t, and I don’t.
I can now play the little chord progression a whole lot faster than I could when I recorded it last night.
The one thing I worry about is what will happen when I run out of engineering to perform on this instrument; if I start looking around for another axe to hack upon, I’m in trouble. I am not a professional uke player, and I don’t need to have an entire rank of the things for different circumstances. I’m also not a luthier. I am already beginning to suspect that I have at least a mild case of FCS: Fakelele Constructor Syndrome.
I have to thank brooksmoses, who was visiting the area recently, and brought me some special acrylic stain. The patch on F3 now matches the color of the original wood much more closely:
Meanwhile, things have gotten slightly out of hand. Just for yucks I converted F2 back into a guitar (by the simple expedient of swapping the strings that were on it for a set of 6 nylon ones), and found that my fingers didn’t fit on the fretboard. No surprise there, so I went to the thrift store where I had acquired F3, looked at and listened to a few things, and bought a ~¾-size guitar. I should have been more attentive; when I put strings on it, I was shocked to discover that the spacing between them was essentially identical to the spacing on F2. (This was not entirely wasted effort, as I was able to give that instrument to someone who wants to learn to play and is not particularly in a position to afford things. I also let go of the former F2, which went to the children of a friend.)
Then I went up on eBay and looked for wide-neck guitars. The only obvious candidate was something that had a price in excess of $1600, and I wasn’t about to go there, so I grepped around the Web and found a forum on which a middle-aged guy with moderately large fingers was inquiring what he could do. The forum expert pointed out that a 12-string has a wider fretboard, and that probably the easiest way to deal would be to get one and put 6 strings on it. I thought that was a rather interesting idea, so I went over to The House of Musical Traditions again, to see what they had. I was somewhat surprised to discover, in one of the rooms, four guitars with wider fretboards. When I inquired, they told me that those were classical guitars, and that the wider fretboard is standard. They were lovely, but still a bit too expensive. I then went up on eBay and put a bid on a classical guitar, and later on a 12-string, figuring that I would be outbid on both. (I was.)
A few days later lisajulie and I were in Rockville on an errand; we took the opportunity to stop in at Guitar Center, and I asked one of the sales people for some information about 12-string guitars: what makes for a good one, what can make them bad, and so on. I cautioned him that this was extremely unlikely to result in a sale, but he wasn’t busy at the time, and he gave us a brilliant set of demos on four instruments, with commentary about songs that work well and songs that don’t; the wearing-in and aging process; wood types & construction details; and so on. One way I could tell that he is a ripping good guitarist is that he tuned the instruments by ear, and it didn’t take him very long. [It is not easy to tune a 12-string at all, and I have a decent enough ear that I could tell he was getting it right.] I desperately wanted the Taylor that he used for part of the demo, but it was a thousand bucks. Besides, it had 12 steel strings on it, which would have shredded my fingers in a matter of seconds, and I would never have been able to play barre chords on it. (Sigh.) It was, as I say, a superb set of demo-and-explication, and we continued to fizz for some time afterward.
Some hours later, when I was on my way home, I realized that I was going to stop at the thrift store where I had bought F3 and the guitar with the neck that was too narrow, to get a 12-string guitar. I didn’t remember the last time I’d seen a 12-string there, and I almost talked myself out of going on what was essentially guaranteed to be a wild-goose chase, but I went anyway ...and bought the 12-string. [[This is a classic example of what I am reduced to calling “Thrift Magic”, as I have no other reasonable way to describe it. It’s not an isolated instance, either I have had at least 4 such.]] Here’s an overview:
As you can see, this instrument has a saddle-and-tailstock structure that is similar to that of F3, though on a slightly larger scale, and the saddle is screwed in place, not glued on. The saddle height is adjustable, but one of the screws is broken. (To make a long story short: I eventually loosened the strings, reached in through the soundhole and unscrewed the broken screw, cleaned up the threads a bit where it had been sheared off, and screwed it back in upside-down. It would be mildly annoying to adjust, but I seem to have gotten it about right for the strings that are currently on the instrument. If I had access to a machine shop I could fabricate another one, and when TechShop opens near here I will do that; it’s just an 8-32 with a shoulder cut in it below the head.)
Adjustable saddles have a bad reputation for dulling the sound; but even with 6 nylon strings on it instead of 12 steel ones this instrument has more than enough volume for my needs. It also seems to have its frets in about the right locations, so it sounds less funky than any of the others I’ve messed with during this escapade, and the tone is decidedly better than I could expect for the fifty bucks it cost me. It’s a no-name, with no indication of where it was built, and it is clearly a beater, but it has suffered far less damage than F3. Aside from the business with the saddle adjustment, and replacing the missing strap button at the bottom end, about all I really had to do was put lithium grease on the tuners, several of which were horribly stiff, and piddle with the intonation. The neck, fortunately, is rather straight. We won’t talk about what has been done to a lot of the frets; there are some things you just get to live with. It’s a more-than-adequate student instrument, and I’m very pleased to have it.
I was worried that the ukulele experience (which, btw, continues, though at a slightly reduced pace) would interfere with learning guitar, but instead I went through a “quick-start” set of beginner lessons at guitarlessons.com in about an hour and a half.
...And so it goes. We live and learn.