They’ve performed for Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday and packed the Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall. But this isn’t an orchestra in the usual sense. George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain fronts an ongoing revolution that has seen sales of the four-stringed instrument skyrocket in recent years. Pick up any guide to the ukulele, flip to the index, and this ensemble will be there.
On March 17, the Society for the Performing Arts brought the Ukulele Orchestra to Wortham Theater Center, where their virtuosity thrilled local players, wowed the uninitiated, and probably caused another surge in sales for the small but mighty instrument.
The Ukulele Orchestra was founded in 1985; its members have performed together ever since. Their repertoire ranges from rock to folk, classical to movie themes, all strummed and picked by master players who provide the rhythm, percussion, melody, and flourishes — sometimes singing along, other times letting their ukes take the lead. The result was both breathtaking and hilarious, often at the same time.
For example, a straightforward rendition of a Händel work morphed into a backing track when the soloist’s “bored” colleagues, one by one, offered up different songs to complement the notes, including “Love Story,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Will Survive,” “Hotel California,” and “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Were Hot Like Me.” All then sang their parts simultaneously in an amazing demonstration of harmony.
Other highlights of the Houston engagement included “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” theme (with spot-on whistling by Ukulele Orchestra member Jonty Bankes), “Anarchy” (which encouraged audience participation), and “Psycho Killer,” among many others, all performed by Peter Brooke-Turner, Will Grove-White, Leisa Rea, Ben Rouse, Dave Suich, and Richie Williams on ukulele and Jonty Bankes on the sonorous U-bass. No other instruments were featured in their show. And none are needed: Any effects are spun by strings, fingers, and lips.
The Cullen Theater staging was also streamlined, with a simple row of chairs, microphones, black music stands, and dusky lighting. The instruments represented a cross section of the popular sizes and styles of ukuleles available today. Playing styles ranged from not-so-basic strumming to intricate fingerpicking, rhythmic chunking, and even flamenco flourishes.
For about 50 local ukulele players, the fun started earlier in the day, when the Ukulele Orchestra held a workshop in the Wortham Center practice rooms. Members of the local Houkulele cub report that the afternoon was a mix of anecdotes, uke playing, and instruction about how to layer and modulate sounds to create a nuanced performance. “Happy Birthday” was reworked in a variety of styles, ranging from punk rock to the blues, jazz, even tango. Local players also learned how certain chord progressions are common to multiple songs — as demonstrated on stage that night with the Händel tour de force.
The Houston engagement was the start of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s longest U.S. tour ever, with other stops in Michigan, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, California, Wyoming, and Nebraska through mid-April. The only other Texas performance takes place in Boerne on Tuesday, March 26 — and it’s already sold out.
Locally, the Ukulele Orchestra was part of the Society for the Performing Arts’ 2018-2019 season. Upcoming SPA shows include An Evening with Margaret Atwood Friday, April 5; Pilobolus — Shadowland: The New Adventure Friday, April 12; and the Broadway musical Finding Neverland Saturday and Sunday, April 13 and 14. For SPA tickets, click here. To learn more about the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, follow them on Facebook or Twitter (@TheUkes).
The Ukulele Revolution
The ukulele has come a long way from the cliché of Tiny Tim on The Tonight Show or Elvis in Blue Hawaii. Talents such as the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and ukulele superstar Jake Shimabukuro have revealed the instrument’s versatility, while America’s Got Talent discoveries Grace VanderWaal and Mandy Harvey brought it back to the small screen in a big way.
Singer-songwriters find the instrument perfect for composing, and even guitarists are beguiled by its easy portability. For beginners, nylon strings are easier on the fingertips than steel, and dozens of songs can be strummed with only a handful of quickly mastered chords.
The ukulele’s potential, however, is limitless, with devoted players learning to read uke tablature and standard music notation, advancing to chord melody and fingerstyle solos, and mastering the bell-like campanella technique.
Bringing the Music Home
Want to join the revolution? Study up first. You’ll need to pick the size of your ukulele: Soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone are the main choices, although there are endless variations as you advance.
Pick your tuning — there’s more involved than the “My dog has fleas” ditty you might recall from childhood. Do you want a high or low G string? High G (re-entrant tuning) is the traditional sound, required for campanella playing and perhaps the best choice for beginners to follow along with videos and instruction books. It’s also the way ukuleles in stores are usually tuned. But many players opt to change the factory high G string to low G, which expands the range of notes below middle C — crucial when picking out melodies.
If you aspire to perform, you might want on-board electronics, too. Do you know what the action is, and how to tell if it’s good? Or the difference between laminate, solid-wood, and solid-topped instruments? And what about that wood? Do you prefer the sound of solid koa, mahogany, spruce, maple, or acacia (among others)? Some woods produce a bright tone; others are mellow.
And then there’s the choice of manufacturer…
Keeping to the affordable end of the spectrum, popular brands that can be purchased locally include Kala, Lanikai, Cordoba, Alvarez, Gretsch, Luna, Fender, and Flight. Prices range from around $70 for a decent starter uke (less for the Makala Dolphin, which is excellent if you don’t mind a novelty bridge) to thousands for a custom build. If you’re serious about playing, I recommend paying at least $200 for a concert or tenor.
Houston-area stores that sell ukuleles include Fuller’s Guitar, Arbor Music, Sam Ash, and Guitar Center. (Also, check out the glass case of premium collectible ukes at Rockin’ Robin Guitars & Music on South Shepherd.)
For online sales, consider Mim’s Ukes; every ukulele Mim sells gets a professional setup, no matter the price, so you’re guaranteed an instrument that’s buzz-free and easy to play. Want a rugged polycarbonate uke that can survive Houston’s extreme heat? Oregon-based Outdoor Ukulele might be the manufacturer for you.
Where to Begin
You’ll find a wealth of information online, as well as in bookstores. Ukulele for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Ukulele are two of the most common paperbacks on local shelves. (Both mention the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, of course.)
Facebook groups abound, including Ukulele Players (Uke Players) and Houkulele (the aforementioned Houston club, which holds local get-togethers around town for beginners and pros alike). Many players choose to learn from YouTube channels (The Ukulele Teacher, Cynthia Lin Music, the late Ukulele Mike) or pay for video courses, such as The Ukulele Way by James Hill or Brett McQueen’s Ukulele Tricks. You can also sign up for lessons at many of the stores listed above.
In general, buy the best ukulele that you can afford when starting out. This isn’t the time to skimp, or you could end up with UAS (Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome) and a room full of instruments — trust me; it happens more often than not. Try all sizes and fretboard widths to see what’s right for you.
Finally, buy for sound, not looks. The plainest ukulele on the wall might be the one that sounds and feels the best. But you’ll never know if you don’t give it a strum.