Archive | Interviews

Interview with Phil Doleman by Nick Cody

I understand you are currently recording in the studio, what can people expect from this new recording?

Well, the ‘studio’ is a nest of blankets and foam sheets at the bottom of my stairs! I’m recording onto my laptop with a single large diaphragm condenser mic into a Focusrite interface. With the exception of the laptop, the whole setup can be had for around £250. I think that people that know me for playing uke might be a little surprised as not only are there several 5-string banjo tracks on there, I’m also playing the guitar, bass, percussion, harmonica, etc. and there are some great guest musicians too (including my daughters!)
It’ll be released in plenty of time for me to take a box full to the Ukulele Festival of Scotland in April 🙂


What advice would you give to anyone wanting to record their own material?

Do it! Don’t expect amazing results at first, but just get used to how things work and how you sound. Recording yourself is a great way to improve as it can be really difficult to concentrate on playing AND listening critically! We’re all so spoilt now, many of us have recording technology in our phones that Abbey Road would have been envious of, so why not use it! Also, keep it simple. We have access to such amazing technology now you can end up with 48 tracks of nonsense in no time! If your song doesn’t work with voice and a uke or guitar, then it won’t work whatever you do with it. As it happens I’m going through all of my recordings at the moment and asking, “does it really need that extra instrument?”!
All that said, a great song well played but recorded on an answerphone is worth more than any expensively produced but soulless hit.

I see you are teaching at Sore Fingers as well as another retreat in the UK as well as a workshop in the USA. What is unique from each of these learning experiences for any student?

Sore Fingers is a bluegrass and old-time music camp, not a uke camp, so students get to mix with lots of other singers and instrumentalists, all of whom have some common musical ground. Also, the students stay with the same teacher for the whole week, so there’s a lot of opportunities to get really deep into the material. At the West Coast Retreat, people pick different tutors for different workshop sessions, but there are still workshops that continue over 3 sessions (one each day) so again you can take it further than a single hour-long session. Plus of course, both situations have plenty of time for extra-curricular playing & jamming! As for the Uke Room retreat, it’s brand new! I’m really looking forward to doing it and finding out what we can achieve!

What in your experience are the biggest misconceptions people have about learning the ukulele and other instruments?

That it’s about notes, chords, etc. or even what the best instrument or set of strings is! Of course, those are important parts, but music is about feeling, it’s about getting a reaction from you, your friends, your audience. It’s about connecting with other musicians as well as the listener. It’s about making feet tap, making people dance, smile or cry. That sounds really naff, but I don’t understand why anyone would want to make music if they haven’t been profoundly affected by listening to it at some point. There are songs I cannot listen to without the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. That’s why we learn an instrument, and the technicalities of learning it are just so you can make that happen, even if it’s only to yourself.
Oh, and the ukulele is no easier than any other instrument if you play it well 🙂

What’s the best advice anyone gave to you as a musician and who gave it to you?

Wow! So many… The wonderful Seattle busker Howlin’ Hobbit once said (I paraphrase), “if your prime concern isn’t entertaining people, get off the stage” which I think is brilliant! Another one, which many musicians have said at some point but I got from Bob Brozman, is “Just because you can don’t mean you should”.

If you could play with any musician on planet Earth that you have not yet played with, who would it be and why?

I’ve been really lucky to play with lots of great musicians and some of my heroes, but sadly many of those I would love to play with are no longer around. I’d have to say Dom Flemons, he’s such a great performer who really knows his music and history. If I’m allowed to pick someone who’s deceased, I’d love to strum few songs with Pete Seeger.

How useful is it to play a variety of instruments in musical development?

It’s extremely useful to be able to realise ideas. If you play bass, for example, not only can you add a bassline to your song, you also understand how basslines work, how they can drive the song along, change the harmony, etc. All of the instruments you play cross-pollinate, so you’ll get inspiration for a guitar part from something you discovered on say, a banjo. Instruments are just tools, the more tools in your box the more jobs you can do!

If you could go back in time 20 years and give yourself one piece of useful advice, what would it be?

Play what you love, regardless of whether others think you should. The music I play now is music I have been seeking out and listening to for 30 years (and playing for myself, in private), but only in the last 6 or 7 years have I been playing it in public in any meaningful way. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Oh, and get used to beans on toast and charity shop clothes!


Interview with Matt Stead – original ukulele opportunities

1. How did you become interested in playing and teaching the ukulele?
It was kind of purely an ergonomic thing at first and for two reasons. Firstly I was in an indie-pop band called A Fine Day for Sailing and used to do solo shows. Lugging an acoustic guitar around on busy tubes to get to shows was no fun so I used to stick a little Mahalo uke in my rucksack and use that on stage. I found it went well with the melancholy nature of my songs anyway. Secondly, I was a librarian and use to run storytime sessions. You’ve not lived until you’ve heard 40 toddler singing ‘Bear Hunt’ accompanied by uke! It didn’t take long until I was hooked and got myself my first ‘proper’ uke; a Mainland concert (which I still have.) Then I found the Ukulele Underground and UAS kicked in big time.

2. What inspired you to create the Ukulele Retreat?
I wanted to run a truly immersive learning experience, where the emphasis was on learning, rather than simply performing or being entertained. Sure, there will be an element of that (the students get to play on stage with their mentors at a grand finale concert) but people will come away with more knowledge, inspiration and enthusiasm. I’ve purposefully chosen tutors that either has a wealth of experience or bring something completely new to the table.
I’d been thinking about doing this for a while and when Steven Sproat and I looked into opening a ukulele school, it was at the forefront of our minds. Matt Warnes is important here too as we were looking into the possibility of a castle weekend down this way but then I got distracted by other things. I still really want to do this with Matt in the near future; a stately castle study weekend! Then I got talking to Phil Doleman about Sore Fingers, the Bluegrass retreat and that got me even more enthused about doing something similar just for ukes.

3. How did you decide on choosing these specific teachers for the retreat?
It was really important to me that each tutor brought something new. For example, blues and roots from Phil Doleman, melody style from Peter Moss, Formby and strumming from Steven and campenella style and arranging from Samantha. It was also important to choose tutors with experience in teaching and/or academia. Teaching is a skill in itself and is often taken for granted. Thankfully for me, they’re not only great teachers, but they’re also amazing players.

4. What’s the teaching format for the event?
We’ve got three distinct approaches across the three days. Friday night is for relaxing and getting to know each other. We have welcome drinks and open mic; all very relaxed. On Saturday small groups of students will rotate around four teachers, so each student gets a lesson with all four tutors. The groups are small so the tutors can give them their full attention to best relay their skills. For a bit of relaxation in the middle, we have a ukulele picnic. Yum! In the evening students can see how it is done as the tutors all perform. Sunday is where things get really interesting. Each tutor will coach a group through two songs, teaching them all kinds of techniques and building up their confidence in playing. Students then get to perform it on stage in a group, with their tutor, at the student concert. We’re all in it together so there is no pressure and it’s going to be a supportive and warm atmosphere.

5. What’s different about this event to the standard workshops in festivals
The big thing for me is that this weekend is entirely about learning. Students will come away with so much more than they went in with. It’s going to be special and heaps of fun. There’s nothing wrong with standard workshops at festivals though; they’re an excellent way to dip your toes into different teaching styles and learn new things. There’s a place for every approach.

6. What qualities make for a really good teacher and/or teaching experience
Being a good music tutor takes a whole set of different skills to being a good musician. The obvious skills are patience, communication, attention to detail and musical knowledge. For me, the key skill is to be able to strike a balance between what a student enjoys and what it is they need to learn (even if they don’t realise it at that point.) To build those skills takes time and experience.

7. What other music related projects are you currently involved in?
I’m so busy with The Uke Room project that my performing side has hit the backburner for a little while. I’m investing all my time and energy into teaching and workshops. Hopefully, that will bear fruit in giving people an amazing learning experience.
I have been writing songs for a new album. It’s 75% finished I’d say, but it’s going to take a while this time. Last year we recorded two albums in just a few weeks!


8. How in your view is the ukulele seen by the wider public?
It has changed entirely. I started playing almost twenty years ago. There wasn’t a ‘uke scene’ like there is now. Though, being a technophobe until recently, I did apparently miss the emergence of ‘the scene.’ Whilst I was strumming away in my band I didn’t realise how popular the instrument was becoming until the last few years. When I started most people would refer to it as a mandolin or banjo. Now pretty much everyone knows what a uke is. I still think in the UK there is still a perception amongst the wider public that it is a bit of a novelty instrument but that’s slowly changing.

9. If you could change one misconception people have about the uke, what would it be
I would like people to see it as a serious instrument in its own right, rather than a novelty. Listen to James Hill, Kimo Hussey or Jake Shimabukuro play. There’s nothing novelty about it. One thing I would love to see would be ukulele artists to break out into mainstream festivals. When we see a Jake Shimabukuro or James Hill perform at Glastonbury, then we’ll know that the ukulele has finally gained acceptance amongst the wider music world.

10. Which musicians alive or dead inspire you the most?
For me, my main musical hero is Brian Wilson. When I was a teenager my friend played The Beach Boys song Wendy to me and then isolated the vocals in the speakers for me. The blend of harmonies really changed the way I thought about music. For me, it’s all about harmony and melody and nobody commanded the two quite like Brian. I once wrote and released an album called Sandbox, named after the sandbox in which his piano sat in his living room so Brian felt like he was on the beach when he wrote. I put every conceivable harmonic line I could possibly cram into one album on that one.

In terms of the ukulele world, it was the Hawaiian players (not just uke but guitar too) that inspired me most. Gabby Pahinui, Eddie Kamae and Sonny Chillingworth are amongst my favourite. Again, with them, it’s all about the melody. In terms or modern ukulele, I love Corey Fujimoto, Abe Lagrimas Jr, Jake Shimabukuro, Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel. James Hill is undeniably the modern master though. His approach to not just playing, but teaching has had more influence on me than any other.


How to build a ukulele festival from scratch by Hugh & Fi McCafferty

Location, location, location.

The small town of Geraldine, New Zealand, seems an unlikely venue for anything of importance. It is a pretty town of some 2,500 people, with a similar number living in the surrounding areas, and can be found nestled into the foothills of the Southern Alps, roughly in the middle where the highways to the South Island’s major cities intersect.

Known for its white-water rafting, picturesque views, and Barker’s internationally recognised fresh fruit products, Geraldine is also home to a increasing number of artists and craftspeople, all of whom add an eccentric and colourful flavour to the personality of the town.

Since 2013 it has also become the focus of a small ukulele festival, now attracting upwards of 350 visitors each year, a festival which is spoken of warmly in New Zealand ukulele circles, and is increasingly attracting international interest. In 2016 Ukulele Magazine named Geraldine Ukefest one of the ‘six go-to festivals’ for that year.

Organisers Hugh and Fi McCafferty first picked up the ukulele in 2009 because of their involvement in a kid’s church band. A small child turned up to practice one day clutching a slightly battered red instrument that was almost impossible to tune.

‘Can I play this in the band?’ she asked. The McCaffertys, who between them already played guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle, bongos and saxophone, rushed out and bought a Makala Dolphin each, and set about learning to play them.

All this because of one small child and her red ukulele

Two years later, encouraged by attending a sold out Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra concert, they decided to run a series of adult classes. These classes proved so popular that they ran some more, with that class eventually morphing into a weekly group of around 25-30 players. Although Fi and Hugh have now moved on to other ukulele projects, that Geraldine group is still going strong.

Another of their church activities, was to organise variety shows fundraisers which showcased local talent. In 2012, billed as the Mid-Winter Ukulele Extravaganza, the ukulele group made their debut in one of these shows. In July the following year they ran the very first Geraldine Ukefest.

In 2013, from an idea scribbled on a napkin after a bottle of wine (or two) at a local café, the McCaffertys thought if might be fun to run a mid-winter event for ukulele players, grandiosely entitled ‘The Big Strum’, in the Geraldine Community Hall. They would later be encouraged to add a crash course for beginners, a free community concert, ‘Ukes in Church’, whereby folk could strumalong to their favourite gospel songs, and and an open mic where you were invited to get up and ‘Get Leid’.

Using a series of bright -coloured posters they spread news of the event via shop windows, South Island music stores, and Facebook. Creative Communities New Zealand and a local supermarket chain agreed to offer some sponsorship. “It was a little nerve-wracking,” says Fi. “We’d presold some tickets but really had no idea how many people would show up.” They need not have worried – in the end around 120 folk made their way to Geraldine and a fun time was had by all.

Spurred on by this early success, the decision was taken to run a second festival – and having made a small profit, this time there would be a headline act. An invitation went out to the somewhat eccentric Kiwi ukulele group Big Muffin Serious Band (who had just celebrated their 30th anniversary).

The Muffins accepted and the bright-coloured publicity again made the rounds.

But things were about to step up a notch. A chance encounter on Facebook soon led to the forging of a ‘virtual’ friendship and resulted in the addition of Brit Rodriguez, an original ukulele artist from California, to the lineup.

 The Art of Asking

“We are the kind of people who don’t usually ask for help, especially from friends. We prefer to not push the envelope – we do what we can afford, and do it on our own,” says Hugh.

“At the time I was reading The Art of Asking by ukulele punk diva, Amanda Palmer,” Fi adds. “I’d just reached the chapter where Amanda describes her reticence in asking soon-to-be husband Neil Gaiman for a loan to fund the recording of her next album. She prefers to do things on her own, too.”

“Our Creative New Zealand funding was already spoken for – how could we help this young girl get here?” Fi continues, “Then it occurred to me that local company Meadow Mushrooms, owned by friends Ros and Philip Burdon, was a sponsor of the New Zealand String Quartet. ‘That’s it!’ I remember yelling out loud, ‘Ukuleles also have four strings! This is going to be such an easy pitch!'”

And so began the three year relationship with Meadows, who not only generously offered more than enough to bring Brit and her mom/manager Colleen from Hollywood to a small town in New Zealand, but also increased the level of sponsorship over the next two years, thereby establishing a solid financial foundation which has allowed Geraldine Ukefest to flourish. The organisers are pleased to now have the luxury of professional sound and lighting, photographers, videographers and street banners.

Fi has also learned that asking really isn’t that hard – just last year she had Bryan Tolentino, Halehaku Seabury, and (in November) the inimitable James Hill, perform on Geraldine stages. “I still haven’t finished reading Amanda’s book,” she laughs.

 No ordinary festival

A ukulele festival in the middle of winter? “Yes, some folk might have thought we were crazy, but what better way to brighten everyone’s spirits than to sing and dance and wear bright clothes?” says Hugh. “We took a look at Barry Maz’s ‘Got a Ukulele’ festival calendar. It was the same worldwide – nothing much was happening during the colder months.”

Because of the cooler temperatures, the entire festival is held at indoor venues. Hugh tells us a lot of effort is put into attendees comfort. “Although, there was that one time when it snowed, really heavy snow, four days before the event. It had us just a little worried!” he adds.

Occurring as it does in the off-season, the festival is also appreciated and well-supported by local businesses, community organisations, and a hard-working team of volunteers.

‘Oh, how we laughed,’ said Hugh when faced with a white ukulele event

GUF18 Summer Strum
9-11 March, Geraldine, New Zealand

As well the big winter festival, the McCaffertys are this year trialling a smaller ‘Summer Strum’. Aimed at ukulele players in the surrounding regions, the intention was to hold a low-key event – low budget, no headliners, with loads of performance opportunites.

“But now we hear that people from all over New Zealand are heading our way again, and from Australia, too” says Hugh. “After another lunch with wine, we also decided to invite Laurie Kallevig come meet us all. Geraldine Ukefest supports Laurie’s incredible work with her Survivor Girl Ukulele Band project, working with the victims of sexual trafficking in Kolkata. She lives with these rescued girls for six months every year, sharing love and the healing powers of music by teaching them ukulele. Long story short, the Summer Strum is looking like it might be a bit bigger than we planned!”

‘Why have just one ukulele festival, when you can have two?!‘ says Fi

Geraldine Ukefest 2018 (GUF18)
19-22 July, Geraldine, New Zealand

At GUF18’s main event ‘The Big Concert’, Hugh and Fi are thrilled to be presenting Aaron and Nicole Keim AKA The Quiet American. A home-grown modern folk revival, their music incorporates traditional ballads, banjo breakdowns, raggy choruses, gospel duets and other dusty Americana gems. Aaron and Nicole present a concert experience that pays tribute to old time folk music traditions yet strives to connect to a modern audience.

Opening the show for them will be Wellington’s renowned one-man-ukeband, Shane McAlister, with his unique style and quirky original songs, and all-girl Dunedin trio, The Flukes. First ‘discovered’ at GUF16, this will be The Flukes first headline appearance.

The GUF18 four-day programme includes an ‘Earlybird Strumalong’, a ‘Gospel Jam’ at a local pub, the opportunity to perform during the lunch break as part of ‘Ukes in Cafes’, ‘The Big Strum’, still a key event at every ukefest, and, of course, the inevitable lineup of Open Mic sessions. Friday’s ‘Opening Night Invitational’ will see eight awesome ukulele acts, hand-picked from all around New Zealand, some of whom will be making their debut on the big stage.

There is a total of 16 workshops to choose from over five sessions: Fingerstyle, Clawhammer and Strumming Styles, all with the super-talented Aaron Keim; Singing and Old-Style Folk songs with Nicole; The Art of Busking, Songwriting, Arranging Ukulele for Groups, Slide Ukulele and more. You can even learn how to play the spoons!

Where to from here?

Now in it’s sixth year, Geraldine Ukefest has grown from a one-and-a-half day event which mostly attracted local interest, to a four-day, full-on festival, bursting with national and international acts, workshops, family matinees, strumalongs, and most importantly, lots of opportunity for amateur performance. The biggest festival of its kind in New Zealand, it is now attracting national, and even international patronage. There is a loyal following growing, too, with many attendees booking their accommodation for the following year as they check out. Hugh and Fi also report an increase in the number of original artists attending, and keen interest being shown in songwriting and performance workshops.

“We are seeing groups come through who, every year, grow and mature, taking their performances to the next level, even writing their own material,” says Fi. “This is really exciting to see. The Secret Lives of Ukulele, for instance, who first performed at Geraldine Ukefest in 2014. Then a newly formed four-piece ukulele group with a cigarbox guitarist, now they number nine players including a fiddle-player and full-kit drummer! Last year they were one of our headline acts, and are now writing songs and performing semi-professionally around the region.”

Christchurch band Secret Lives of Ukulele going from strength to strength

The McCafferty approach

Unlike other big festivals, Geraldine Ukefest maintains a linear programme. Having already grown to fill the town’s biggest venue, Hugh and Fi say they will have to start ‘thinking sideways’ as to how the festival can expand.

“We know most other festivals have different options, concerts and events running parallel. That’s one way to go,” says Hugh. “But we don’t want to get big just for the sake of it. Our philosophy is that people are here to have a great time, and so far that appears to be working. And we’re happy with that. Too much choice, too many people and we run the risk of losing our festival’s unique personality.”

“As for invited performers, we make it our goal not to repeat an act too often, and each year try to feature a headliner quite different in style from the year before'” says Fi. We tend to have an underlying ‘theme’, too. We’ve had the ‘Greenie’ festival featuring Formidable Vegetable Sound System, the ‘Showdown’, a mock-battle between the Big Muffins and kiwi ukulele trio The Nukes. Last year was ‘Aloha’, this year it’s folk. GUf19 will have an Italian flavour featuring Lorenzo Vignando AKA Ukulollo. Negotiations are about to get underway for 2020 – it’s going to be great!”

When asked the secret of their success, Hugh points at his wife. “Fi spends hours meticulously organising things. I’d say she thinks about it 427 days a year, a trick she learned from Hermione,” he jokes. “Sometimes being on the Asperger’s spectrum makes for difficulties, but when it comes to organising, planning, coordinating – it is a decided advantage. She also has a background in direct marketing and design, so our collateral looks good, and her skilled use of social media gets the message out there.”

Over the last two years Fi has also developed a Facebook group, The New Zealand Ukulele Network (NZUN). NZUN has become an online ukulele community serving players and groups in New Zealand and overseas.

Fi explains,“After the 2015 festival we had no idea how to grow it without somehow finding the ukulele players around New Zealand. We had begun collecting an email database from festival attendees, but because New Zealand is a long, thin country with long travelling distances, and a bit of water splitting us in two, there really was no cohesive ukulele community. So we formed one. We added every ukulele player we knew, they started adding their friends, too, and before we knew it, folk worldwide were joining up. So we made a group directory and found that we’d accidentally invented a whole new tourism genre for our country. It’s a very different kind of ‘ukulele group’ to most of the others out there. Rather than just being about ukuleles, its a network that’s all about real life connections – helping new members find a jam or a teacher, helping groups find a bass player or a workshop leader, helping make a ukulele group where one doesn’t exist. Of course we talk about our ukuleles, too, but that’s not the focus.”

At the time of writing NZUN has nearly 1,500 members. The directory lists more than 50 groups which means that travelers in the New Zealand can always find a group to jam with. There is also an events calendar and a membership badge, and a sticker.

“There’s still a few gaps on our map, but we’re getting there,” Fi laughs.

The key to a successful ukulele festival

“In the end it’s the experience that counts, “says Hugh. “Because Geraldine Ukefest has gained a reputation for being well-organised, people feel safe, and they feel looked after. Fi and myself do genuinely want both performers and attendees to have a good time. With a small band of helpers we work hard and smart to make sure a warm welcome is given to all. Because of the season, café owners and hoteliers are glad to see visitors coming in to town. The Geraldine community are some of the friendliest people around, are quick to offer help when needed, and give great applause. And, of course, ukulele people are so darn great that once you get them in a confined space, and Geraldine only has one main street, they are bound to have a good time.”

Hugh and Fi McCafferty, Directors of Geraldine Ukefest

Links that may be of interest:

Geraldine Ukefest
New Zealand Ukulele Network

GUF17 Festival Highlights
GUF17 Bryan Tolentino & Halehuku Seabury
GUF17 Mapua Motherpluckers make their debut
GUF17 Grand Opening by uke-playing leaders of the Maori Party
GUF15 Formidable Vegetable Sound System
GUF14 Goulash Archipelago AKA Big Muffin Serious Band
GUF13 The Big Strum

Website: – the Heart of South Canterbury

Five Years of Geraldine Ukefest



Nick Cody interviews Mary Agnes Krell about GNUF, now in its 5th year

  1. What inspired you to create the first GNUF?

Having moved up north from London, I was surprised at how few ukulele events were happening in the region. This was five years ago and at the time there was only one big annual ukulele festival in the country (in Cheltenham). There’d also been a few others (the London Uke Fest that took the world record for most people playing uke in 2009 and the Worthing Ukulele Festival in 2010). Having gone to all of those things, I’d been inspired by the things they did well and (crucially) I’d come to believe there was space to do something different and to do it in the north.


  1. How has the festival changed over the years?

What an excellent question! I want to say that it hasn’t changed at all but that would be a fib. It’s settled into its own identity. What started as a ukulele festival has evolved to become a kind of ukulele extravaganza. People describe GNUF using words like, “inclusive” and “engaging” and they use phrases such as, “there’s nothing quite like it”. They tell us, “there really is something for everyone” and that they, “look forward to it all year”.  They talk about GNUF as if it’s their own and that is what GNUF has become… a festival that belongs to the people who make it… the audience, artists and even passers-by.


  1. How do you account for the success of GNUF when others festivals have disappeared?

I am a firm believer in making plans and part of those plans include the evolution of the festival, its budgets and its very core. At the end of every festival, we ask artists, audience members and our collaborators to share their thoughts. We listen and make notes and we spend a bit of time reflecting on what we’ve learned. We try to build on our successes and we face our challenges head-on. That process is iterative so we spend a lot of time each year thinking and working through it. In a way we are constantly asking ourselves two key questions. (1) What are we doing well? (2) What can we do better? Along with those, I am personally always interested in asking, “Whose voices are not being heard and how can I help change that?”.


  1. In the first 4 GNUFs, what are your most memorable moments in terms of acts?

I see very little of the festival it has to be said. I am often either locked in the festival office helping make things run smoothly or I am actually running around to do that. It’s for that reason that some of my memories are a bit odd.  I’ll list them by year. It helps me think through it.

GNUF 1 – 2013 FEAR OF FALLING CEILINGS: I remember thinking the ceiling might actually fall on my head when, above the office where I sat, Mike Warren was so good on the mainstage that the whole crowd was stomping their feet and clapping their  hands.

A FLASHMOB BIRTHDAY PARTY: Martyn ‘EEK’ Cooper is a phenomenally lovely person. I just knew it the first time I met him and when I invited him to GNUF I asked him simply to, “try to do some nice & fun things”. He SO did! He’d somehow figured out that it was the birthday of one of the shopkeepers around the corner from the venue and so he organised a Happy Birthday Flashmob of punters and artists.

GNUF2 – 2014


In 2014, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain had not yet played a ukulele festival in the UK and I thought it was about time. Booking them was (to that point) the best and scariest decision I’d ever made as regards ukuleles. It was totally worth it! I managed to sneak into the auditorium for one part of one song and, mirroring my feelings, it was the song Happy. Just magic!

TAPDANCING PENGUINS: Josephine Shaker is a tapdancer who regularly performs with Tricity Vogue’s All Girl Swing Band.  I had seen the contracts so I knew we would get the tap dancer. What I did not know (until the moment it happened) was that she would dress in a penguin costume and run out into the audience (dancing with punters at one point).

GNUF3 – 2015


I had this idea that it would be good to occassionally insert things into the festival that people would in no way anticipate. The first time I did that was when I booked Kiki Lovechild to perform his butterfly routine at the theatre. When he came onto stage (a silent clown with no ukulele), you could sense unease in the audience. Who was this guy and where was his uke? A few minutes later, by the end of his routine, as a 10 foot fountain paper butterlies rained down upon him, people were smiling, cheering and crying with joy.


In 2015, Mim came to GNUF for the first time and (with her Sideshow Stage) created something that has come to embody the spirit of GNUF and the joy of music that I believe is incredibly important.


GNUF4 – 2016

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers not only got the audience to sing along to their song, “David Attenborough” but they got them to take part with synchronised hand gestures. I was walking through the auditorium when it started and it looked like such fun I spent the whole of the song standing at the back, throwing my arms into the air and shouting “DAVID!” “ATTENBOROUGH!” with a few hundred others.

unplugthewood: This year, for the final moment of the festival, I decided not to do that thing where you bring all of the performers on stage to lead the audience in song. I wanted to do something more participatory. I wanted to end the festival by giving it to the audience. And so we did. Krabbers & his wife Caroline led the audience in song (with artists all over the auditorium, in the seats, standing in the aisle, on stage and behind the curtains) taking part. Everyone played a part in the final moments of GNUF 2016

  1. How much time and planning is needed to create such an event?

I do this on top of my full-time job so I have to be careful of my time and my own energy. I work on the festival before work most days for about an hour and after tea most evenings for about an hour. I work on it throughout the year. I reckon that a conservative estimate of my time spent on the festival is about 500 hours per year. That’s before you consider all of the other members of team GNUF as well as our partners.


  1. What’s the biggest challenge in running a major festival?

Finance. It costs over £50k to run GNUF and we have to raise that money every year. As the director the ultimate responsibility for that falls to me. Ticket sales account for little more than 1/3 of that which means that my work is cut out for me raising the rest of what is needed. I know that we could offer much less than we do but I wouldn’t be happy. I want GNUF to be great and for me that means working with a large number of artists and partners from around the world and across the country. That takes time and money.


  1. How do you choose which artists to play at GNUF?

We choose 1-2 artists to invite each year. Those are usually artists that we expressly want to work with  because they’re doing something new or inspiring. After that, every single act comes from our Apply-to-Play process. We review those applications (everyone on the team sees every application) and we discuss the pros and cons of each act. Our key considerations are (in no particular order) cost, uniqueness, level of skill, what the act will bring to the festival.


  1. What is new in the 2017 GNUF?

DEBUTS: We have some debuts from UK and International artists.

NEW STAGES: We have multiple stages that (like Mim’s Sideshow and Tricity Vogue’s Ukulele Cabaret) are events in their own right. They are run by folks from the uke world and bring a bit of their own voices to the festival. These include the Original Ukulele Songs stage on Sunday and the unplugthewood Stage on Saturday.

SURPRISES: We’ve got some other things planned but (as with most years) we like to keep these surprises to ourselves. Let’s face it, just telling people that a clown was going to make it rain butterflies would have impressed few and it would have spoiled the surprise of Kiki Lovechild’s amazing act.


  1. What 3 words would best describe GNUF?

Inspiring, Inclusive, Fun


  1. As a seasoned promoter, what one piece of advice would you give to somebody thinking of running a music festival?

Make sure your budget is sound and pay your artists. It’s not really very nice to ask artists to play for free (or for very very little) when you are paying your sound person and your venue and the people behind the bar. Why should your talent be the one resource that is undervalued? And as for budgets… I think we’d all like to do far more than we can afford. The important thing is to balance that ambition with the reality of actually paying your bills. It’s not easy but it’s absolutely essential.

The early bird tickets for GNUF sold out in two and a half hours last year. At the time of posting this interview there are still some tickets available for the GNUF 2017 HERE

Stop press –

OUS ran a stage in 2017 but decided against further live stages at GNUF and instead are exploring differet live opportunities



Takahiro Shimo, Ukulele Master Builder from Japan

It was a privilege to meet up with Shimo for a delightful hour or so over coffee in Tokyo this July, (fortunately the day before a typhoon hit the city,) and he was kind enough to agree to this interview. This is the third time I have met him in Tokyo and he is always a fascinating person to talk to and as with all master instrument builders he has a very definite point of view on how best to build great musical instruments. Here he talks about what makes for a great instruments, his love of Ry Cooder and his unique philosophy when making a wide range of different instruments.
shimo ukulele
NC When did you first start to make ukuleles?
TS I graduated from luthier school
NC This was in in America?
TS Yes, at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix Arizona 1980. I opened Shimo guitars in 1982 and I bought 20 sets of guitar materials from the United States Do you know the luthier Macintyre?
NC Yes
TS Yes in Los Angeles, I bought woods from there. The most interesting thing I bought was 2 sets of Koa. At that time nobody was making Koa guitars. This is strange but interesting, because when I graduated from luthier school in 1980, and during when I was student, I had a chance to play an old Martin Koa guitar, which was maybe 100 years old, from the 1800s or something, so I had experience of Koa guitars. So when I was going to buy materials for guitars I decided to get Koa too.  So in 1992 I got an order for a ukulele, it was ordered by a ukulele player from a Hawaiian band in Japan. This band had been going from the 1970s.At that time I already had the Koa wood. So it was something strange and something interesting for me. So now I feel I have to make a ukulele, maybe this is my destiny. I feel so, because at that time nobody was buying Koa wood for guitars or even at that time for ukulele!
In Japan in 1980 it was very hard to get a ukulele at any stores because nobody played them. Maybe a few music stores had them in stock, Kamaka or something similar.
shimo comet 3NC I’ve played a number of your instruments and they all sound fantastic, so- What makes for a great sounding/playing instrument?
Of course the right materials are an important thing, this is in no doubt for everybody, including myself!
But I also have another answer, during the making of the ukulele, the luthier must love music, and must love the instrument, and make the instrument with joy. This is for me most important. And for me background music is also important, so sometimes when I am making a ukulele I have as background music the music of the future owner. If I am making your ukulele I will play your Small Change Diaries cd. This is important for me, because listening to your music and sometimes dancing, during the making of the ukulele, the ukulele is already listening to your music, so when she was born she already knows your music, like a baby, like mothers sing for their babies!
NC How long does it take from beginning to finish to create a custom ukulele?
TS Well a simple ukulele with no inlay, no binding, no decoration or anything maybe one month.
NC So for a custom build instrument that’s going to be longer?
TS 0h yes, 2 months or more, not so long-60-70 days like this.
NC Do you make one at a time or more than one-
TS Yes always, I make 4 or 5 ukuleles at once-
NC Is that just you or do you have help as well?
TS Just me, this is my “Way”- If I have my clone I don’t like him maybe!
NC I remember you saying last time we met it was like the Morgan cars philosophy you had in mind when you build instruments
TS Yes-I think so very much, now even more because I watched a video on the making of Morgan cars so I think more and more about the similarity in production philosophy.
NC That’s a great example of everything being about quality, just make the best! No Compromise!
TS Yes this is my life, my “Way”(Smiles)
NC Who have you made instruments for in terms of artists?
TS Many Japanese artists including Boo Takagi, IWAO(Yamaguchi Iwao), Yuki ‘Alani’ Yamauchi, Kazuyuki Sekiguchi, Koichi Fujii, Katsuhisa ‘Katz’ Nagao as well as Ry Cooder and Eric Clapton. Those two did not pay me but I gave them each an instrument as gifts!
NC Ry Cooder is great
TS I met him in 1988 in Tokyo He is my idol. Yes. I can sing all his songs! So when I heard he was coming to play I had to make a guitar for him. Eric Clapton was a fan of Japanese wrestling, so when he came here I met him and gave him an electric arch top guitar. A few years ago he sold some of his guitars for a donation to a hospital for alcoholics, and I saw that guitar was in this auction.
NC Why do you think the ukulele is so popular in Japan, and indeed round the world including the U.K. right now?
TS Yeah. This is very popular in Japan. Yes
NC There are some great stores just for ukuleles here
TS Ukulele is a very special instrument, lovely, cute, easy to play easy to carry. Everybody likes the sound of a ukulele.
NC Especially your ukuleles!
TS Thank you very much
NC Musicians I know Martin Simpson a friend of mine I showed him the comet 3 and the comet 7 and he said it was the best sounding ukulele he had heard.
TS I am very honored.
And I think the feeling of friendship from the ukulele is strong. I don’t know why, but everybody says the same thing.
NC I agree I never intended to play ukuleles but I really like this tiny little instrument and it went from there. The comet 7 and the comet 3, because they sound so good it inspires one to play more. I do think your instruments are in a league of their own. It was completely obvious to us when we were recording that they were the instruments to use.
TS I think I forgot something with question 2.I think the thickness of material and type of lacquer is also relevant for me , but the figures obtained from measurements and any kinds of number are for me garbage. The important thing for me is how much I love and how much I enjoy making the instrument. I think the creator of the piece and the piece are similar. If you make a teddy bear this bear is like you
So I think if I want to make a wonderful instrument I have to be a wonderful person So this is the most important thing for me So maybe I have a friend who is a funny guy and the guy makes everybody happy. With me I want to be, so maybe my creations will be the same
NC Some of the designs are definitely not traditional designs. When I saw your website there are some big variations in design, is that driven by you or by clients?
TS Always mine. Not only mine, some of them came in my dreams. From somewhere.
NC Another plane!
TS (Laugh)Yeah
I believe there are things we can’t explain, that is the simple answer. Something different from another luthier from another planet.
NC Do you insist on a certain type of string for your instruments or do you like different strings for different models? I have scoured the planet for Hilo strings since you mentioned them
TS I only think about the intonation, not sound, this is very important, because musical instruments have to make a connection, so strings are important for this. Ukulele strings are made from nylon or carbon. Not all strings are good, sometimes you know if you have 10 sets maybe one of them is not good. I have felt this many times that maybe the intonation is wrong and maybe if I change it, a new one  is correct. This is always with nylon strings, but some makes of strings are good. Now we can’t buy hilo any more, GHS is good, Worth strings are from carbon too so they are good. Carbon is more reliable than nylon, but the sound of nylon is warm, carbon is a little cooler .
NC How many of your ukuleles end up overseas?
TS I heard that some music store are selling them second hand world-wide They said they have sold them a few times to Europe Some for Germany some for Italy ,France ,Spain, maybe a few, so let’s say maybe about 5 percent internationally. So almost all for domestic
NC Well I am glad we came to Japan. We have a lot to thank Dean from Ukulele Mania for when he said “Try one of these!”
TS Yeah! He understands my style. Thank you very much
Online Resources
Shimo’s Homepage –
Ukulele Mania in Tokyo  –
Ukulele Comet photos by Karen Turner
All other photos by Susan Elton

Bill Collings master ukulele builder interviewed in Austin

“You’ve got to care, you’ve got to say I’m going to make a ukulele that makes the difference, and I’m not going to make one that’s going to be the 35 dollar uke!”

                                                                                                                                                                                Bill Collings

Bill Collings
The very first ukulele I bought was a Bill Collings UC1 prototype concert ukulele from New York, which has just sounded better and better over time. I knew that Bill has a terrific global reputation for building superb electric and acoustic instruments for many years, but many people were surprised at his foray into building ukuleles. I also have on very good authority from music industry insiders that many named artists have numerous Collings instruments which have become the gold standard when it comes to build quality. I was therefore really looking forward to finally meeting Bill in person in Austin this September.
Before I met Bill he spotted me walking across to his unit, carrying my treasured Collings UC1 , and the first words I hear from him are “Ukuleles suck!” This is the start of a wonderful hour’s conversation with a master instrument builder, with a mischievous sense of humour and a very sharp eye on both the quality and business aspect of instrument building.
I never intended to be even remotely interested in ukuleles, I was mostly interested in guitars, and it was Zeke in Mat Umanov in Bleecker street New York, who came back from the Namm  show with Mat Umanov with one of your pre-production UC1 concerts  ukes, and I thought -”What the hell is that?” I’ve never seen any Collings ukes so I bought this pre-production one and loved it and used it extensively on The Small Change Diaries album.
Really nice! Ukuleles are a lot of work-that’s the stupid part; you wouldn’t think that would you?
As I was saying to Alex, (Bill’s right hand man  who was kind enough to show us all around the facility at Collings)I’ve been all around the world, New York ,Japan and everywhere ,and I’ve never played any of your instruments which don’t sound great, and I can’t say that for any other builder.
Yeah well that’s what we try to do, so we’re supposed to care!
The other day I heard from a dealer about electric guitars, that nobody cares about fit and finish in an electric guitar ,and I thought “you know, well I guess the world is done” I mean to say that  if you don’t care about something like that ,you’ve given up, you know?
Well I don’t think that is the universal accepted view
I hope not
I was saying to Alex that I was talking to Doug Chandler (European distributor for Collings)who I’ve known from years back, and he was saying “Nick, every artist I know that is a name has at least one Collings guitar and Pete Townsend has six of them…”
Yes and probably 10 ukes- did you know that?
What made you first think about building ukes and when was this?
There are many times when I’ve thought about this. When I start to see some really nice ukes, like some Martin ukes, any time I would see a nice, a well-made uke ,and think “Wow that’s neat !”You know, you’d always want to go “I’d like to do that,” The last time we actually did start to make ukes,a lot of people had been asking us to make ukes ,and I think it was 2007. Back then the economy was slow, and we thought let’s just go ahead and do what ukes did for a lot of companies through the years-they would fill in in the bad times -so let’s just use this as an excuse and try it-well it didn’t fill in anything but it did make some ukes! I think we made about 600 ukes or something like that!
Ok, was that the first Namm show around 2007?
Somewhere around there
That must be when I bought my first one
Yes somewhere in there, might have been 2007 2008 yeah and I think the uke boom was going on at that time
it’s still pretty busy in the UK, it’s like some cult -you know people are really, same thing with guitars, you have different price points , some people just go” how much?” and  if we were sax or violin players we wouldn’t even be starting until it were a fair bit –
So I think there is still a lot of interest in the UK, there are a lot of big festivals, same in Japan
Oh here too, but I don’t know , it was almost frantic at one point ,we could not supply the need for the ukes, we’re just too slow at it ,and nothing we made ever made any money by any means , we put more in it than we should have ,but that’s what we wanted to do!
Well they all sound great
Good that’s the fun part
From your point of view what are the key ingredients for making a really good uke
The main one is care, you’ve got to care, you’ve got to say I’m going to make a uke that makes the difference, I’m not going to make one that’s going to be the 35 dollar uke! Then it would be craftsmanship of course and materials, the right materials, not too heavy, not too light, the right thicknesses, the right everything, the right finishes, playability, I mean everything making a uke great is what makes a guitar great. The problem is they’re smaller, so it’s hard to get all that work in. You can overbuild a uke really easy, you can under build a uke too
From what I see you use mahogany and koa as primary materials
Yeah, I think one tradition was koa, when they started making ukes in Hawaii they used a lot of koa, and then mahogany was the other. Mahogany is a great wood it’s a great guitar wood, it’s a great uke wood, mahogany sings, koa a little less, koa is a little drier, so mahogany is a great, great, uke wood
I saw you also had some walnut
We’ve done walnut, we’ve done rosewood, we’ve done maple, and we’ve done a lotNC
Do you have a favourite?
Mahogany is probably all around my favourite overall.
I keep coming back to my favourite of yours ,the concert straight mahogany UC1BC
There you go
So were your ukes inspired from the Martin tradition?
Basically from Martins, and from all the ukes ever made, whenever we saw a nice looking uke, we just kept looking at them, and then styled them, made our own shapes, smoothed out the edges, similar to other shapes and sizes ,and there’s a uke!
I was talking to Alex about Plek technology (Plek is cutting edge technology used in calibrating instruments). I remember being in San Francisco when the first pleks started to appear. Gary Brawer had one of the first ones in San Francisco. How much has that technology assisted in your overall build of ukes?
With ukes?
None at all, not a bit ,but good question! We have never been able to fit it on the plek! We do mandolins on the plek, but with the softer strings they need  a little more relief, but knowing what the proper shape is ,and we see it every day, we can do it
So far it’s been tenors and concerts, have you been tempted to go down the baritone or soprano route?
Yeah some people in Japan want the soprano, and like I say, and it’s always been one of those things, that it’s not like we could run the company on making ukuleles, we like making them.  It runs in the back ground, we have a couple of guys making them now and then, we are not interested in making millions of them, just fine ukuleles . If you add up all the numbers in a year we get from making them, it’s not like it pays much electric bill, but we like making them ,it’s fun!
We like having them! We appreciate it! I speak on behalf of the uke playing population and say all power to you, because everyone I’ve ever played sounds good
Great thank you!
What’s the time scale for a concert and a tenor?
In terms of hours you mean?
The problem was when we first started making them it would be a couple of weeks to make one, cos we didn’t have the fixtures, and it took making really good fixtures accurately to speed it up enough, but it never sped it up enough to make sense out of it!
When we started it would have been 50 hours, ok, when we finish if we had 20 hours we’d be really happy ok, but that was the problem, you’d never really quite get there, so it’s never been one of those things that financially works out. You could make them quicker, I mean obviously some people make them for 35 dollars, but I don’t get it
Bill Collings
Well it’s really a uke shaped object…
There’s a lot to it, just keeping the neck straight, everything right on, the right space, the right heights of everything, knowing the woods going to move so much, and you don’t have an overset, those things take more time, and you can’t really put an hour on it, so could you add it up and say it works? I could just say it doesn’t ok! and if the guys, say Donovan makes one, or I make one, it may work out, if the right guys on it ,ok ,but I can unfortunately  just say, he’s got other jobs to do!
Did Alex say how many orders we have?
Yeah you have a bunch waiting to be made!
Don’t tell anyone, but we put too much time in it-shhh! We’re kind of dumb that way.
That is our problem and well reputation is everything
I looked up ,and picked up from your website your  recommendation for the Macintyre  feather pick up, which I put in this concert ukulele, and then was so impressed I swapped out all the Baggs from everything  else and just put Macintyre’s in.
It’s all about how you pre amp it,  how I think all those could work if everything’s coupled correctly, that’s the hard part ,that’s a different deal, that’s more than we do you know,
I wish I could say I made ukuleles in 5 hours; hey we would be making the crap out of them!
“Bill says you can make a uke in 60 minutes!”
BC (laughs)
It’d be great , no you just can’t, by the time you mess with stuff it just doesn’t happen, you can make it properly and all of a sudden somebodies fitting properly and centring properly and it just takes longer than you want ,you have  a couple of good days followed by a couple of slower days…
You know we have a lot of help ,assistance we say ,so we do rough parts out on a c and c ,that would be profile a top, or a laser which has not been soft cut ,and it has been accurately cut ,those things help, but we still to make it!
How long does it take to cut a perimeter out, not that long, and a band saw it takes about the same time on a laser, but its more accurate, we don’t have to mess with it afterwards, those things we can make up some time over strictly a hand builder, but there’s nothing else that’s done on it that makes it ,you know our c and c are fancy band saws you know, and slow ,but they are accurate
One of the things I was so impressed about when I came out here a couple of years ago was the combination of the best technology and with an army of hand finishers.
Oh my god yes that’s the problem, that army is expensive
But the end result is that reputation wise everyone goes “Bills stuff’s way way beyond everyone else”
That’s the thing, we use the technology to make our parts, and then we put all our time that we originally would have into the end product, so it’s better, so the time is all there on the tail end of it ,rather than in the front end of it
So you’ve gone with acoustics, into electrics, and I know people at the time were thinking “what’s happening here?” then ukuleles, so what’s next for Collings?
Well anything we like, I like cheaper guitars that were made in the 30s, that’s my Waterloo style guitar, and there will be lots of those that will catch the eye of many, and we will try to eliminate some steps to make them cheaper, we won’t eliminate craftsmanship, we will just eliminate frills, so the basic guitar is there, playable, great sound, not a lot of fancy stuff
Well I totally applaud that
At the  end of the day it’s all about the sound, and wherever I’ve have been ,whether it be in Mandolin Brothers in Staten island , or in Tokyo, every one I’ve ever picked up ,whether guitar or ukulele , sounds great
That’s good, that’s what we want!
It’s great work, and long may it continue, and I really thank you for doing the interview
Thank you
 Bill Collings
Photos courtesy of Susan Elton

Jake Shimabukuro comes to the UK

Jake interviewed by Nick Cody

I was very fortunate to meet Jake Shimabukuro for the first time at Leeds Town Hall, on his first ever UK tour.  Prior to this meet, kindly organised by his manager Van Fletcher  I had read as many previous interviews as possible and listened to his latest album “Travels”. However none of this prepared me for such a fascinating discussion about the sheer joys of music. We were scheduled to talk for thirty minutes, but ended up chatting for almost a full hour! The interview revealed all kinds of information including how Jake set about transcribing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, his love for The Beatles and that his all-time favourite musician is actually a drummer!

jake 2

I started by showing him the latest Uke Magazine and for the next ten minutes he thumbed through every page carefully looking at each article. I pointed out the recent interview I did with Takahiro Shimo as I knew Jake would be in Tokyo in forthcoming weeks.

NC So, welcome to Leeds!

JS -Oh thank you, it’s my first time, how cool being here at the Town Hall, it’s really amazing

(I show Jake Uke Magazine)

NC -I’ve just got back from Tokyo and interviewed Takahiro Shimo about his instrument builds

JS-very nice, I’ve got to check out this guy

I’m actually going to Japan at the end of this month I am doing my tour there

NC Many I know have been banging the drum to get you here and I wanted to start by asking what made you decide to come to England and how have you found it so far?

JS Oh it’s been great .Yes I’ve always wanted to come here and do my own tour, and this has been my first opportunity. I didn’t know how it was going to go over, if anyone would know who I am here, so we just had our show in Liverpool and London and I just couldn’t believe the reception that we got, and just the enthusiasm and support from the audience, and so I was really blown away and touched, it’s been a fantastic tour so far!

NC I was talking to Phil Dolman and he was saying you came here once before and played with Bette Midler. How did that come about and how long ago was that?

JS -that was back in 2010 it was part of the Royal Variety Show

Bette and I did a duet of “In My Life.” That was a really special trip. It was in Blackpool, I was in England for basically less than 36 hours, we flew in we had the concert and I flew out the next morning-it was an extraordinary experience because I actually got to meet the Queen and have my picture taken with her, and got to shake her hand, that was just incredible.

Being here for my own tour, having my own shows has been very exciting, and I just hope we can come back here often, I hope that this is the start of an annual thing

NC-as a representative of Yorkshire we welcome you back, next time come for a little bit longer because there are lots of things to see around here

JS thank you

Yes just looking around at the architecture of the buildings, learning the history of some of the streets and roads and the areas has been truly inspiring. This tour started in Liverpool and I am a huge Beatles fan so I got to do The Beatles tour, walked around town, checked out places they played and where they hung out, and it’s been incredible

jake 3NC The new album “travels” is very diverse, when I was listening to it I thought “gosh this is a big range of stuff “, so what are you particularly pleased about on it?

J -one of the things I really like about this record is the tone of the ukulele I worked with Milan Bertosa on this record he was one of the producers. He’s the one that produced and engineered the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole  recording,who sang “Somewhere Over the rainbow”

NC That is classic

JS -Yes ,and I  have always loved the sound of that recording because the ukulele just sounds  so natural ,and the way he captured the sound of his voice, the warmth and the ambience, everything it’s just incredible, so I worked along with him and another friend of mine, Dean Taba, who is a wonderful bass player, he did all the bass playing on the recording. we wrote a couple of tunes together and we worked on some of the arrangements together, and it was just a great experience, because like you said ,it is a very diverse record, and I feel that “Travels” is a  good title for it because it’s really in the last 3 or 4 years all the travelling I have been doing ,going to so many different countries and different places, I’ve just been so inspired by hearing different  kinds of music and experiencing new things, I feel like I was able to express a lot of that in this record.

Then there is also the idea of not just the evolution but the growth for me as a musician ,from the time when I was a kid to now ,and I wanted the album to represent that ,which is why I had  a few very traditional Hawaiian songs, and then I had other things , where I expanded on not just the acoustic sound of the ukulele, but also the electric, so that is why you hear some distortion ukulele on there, and different kinds of techniques, different ways of playing, and it’s also  really a tribute to some of my heroes,  people like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Walter San, Peter Moon, Eddie Kamae , Gabby Panaueu, all of these amazing ukulele players I grew up listening to


NC knowing what you know now, if you could go back to the “Pure Heart” days, if you could go back in time for a day, what advice would you give to the younger Jake?

JC I don’t know for me that was- it’s funny you should bring that up as we just had  a reunion concert last year, and it was the first time we played together in 14 years. It was like we just played the week before. It’s so funny because you just really pick up where you left off – you know we grew up playing together and we influenced each other so much that when we picked up our instruments and got together we were like, we don’t know what’s going to happen -but we had a rehearsal at my house and they came over ,and we probably talked for about 2 hours just catching up, as now we are all married and we all have children, we are all dads, and it was just funny getting together, but we picked up our instruments and it was like- “let’s play something” and it was just like that! Everything came back, and it was great, it was just as much fun playing together as it was when we were first starting out- so I don’t know what my advice for me would be, I guess it’s all about having fun and learning from the experience. It was neat, because of course we have all grown as musicians, but it was fun to play those same arrangements, and I went back and listened to all my old solos and re learnt them for the concert.

NC Do you think you might record again together?

JS I don’t know, we still have the 3 recorded albums together

We have 2 full albums and the Christmas recording. When I listen to those records you can tell we were young, just having fun, and I think to try to capture that again, we are different people now and it just wouldn’t be the same. I don’t know if it would be better or worse who knows, for us it was really about having a good time and reminiscing and music does that so it was great

NC Two of the tracks which obviously got your awareness were the Queen track “Bohemian Rhapsody” and also “While my guitar gently weeps” How did you go about working those out on the ukulele, what was your thinking and why those particular songs?

JS Well they are classic tunes, they have been some of my favourites since I was a kid and I have always felt a connection with George Harrison because of his love for the ukulele, and I love all of his music, I love the Beatles and I love George Harrison, and of course Bohemian Rhapsody has in my mind always been one of the greatest classic rock tunes of all time. When that album came out no one had ever heard anything like that before ,it was so mind blowing, and I realised they had never performed that song before live in its entirety ,whenever they performed it they would do the first part of the song, but by the time it got to the rock opera part, it was a light show ,the tracks would go on and it was a light show, so I remember hearing other covers of it, different symphonies playing it, some piano arrangements of it, and some classical guitar arrangements of it ,and I always wondered what it would sound like on the ukulele. I remember working on it, I was actually on tour in Japan, and I was in my hotel room one night, and you know how they have those little note pads by the desk. So that was all that I had, just those note pads and a pen, and I took them out and I remember staying up all night, and listening to it over and over, and jotting down chords, trying to figure out what the best key for it would be on the ukulele, and yeah, it was just I had a stack of notes like this, and there was no way anyone else could have made sense of it, they were all over the place, I mean it was just a big mess- but I wish I had kept those pieces of paper, because it was a real visual of how my mind works when I am working out pieces like these. I wish I had kept it. It would be really funny to show people this is how I constructed “Bohemian Rhapsody”

NC How long did it take you to actually do that?

JS I worked on it section by section

The first part that I worked on was “thunderbolts and lightening very very frightening”, because to me that is the most complicated part of the song, there is just so much going on, I remembered when I listened to it, to other arrangements of it, even the symphonic arrangements of it, guitar arrangements piano arrangements, I just felt like there was something still missing in that part, so I remember telling myself if I can’t figure out a way to play that line “thunderbolts and lightening very very frightening”   right, if I couldn’t figure out that line, if I couldn’t find a good voicing of that line which felt complete to me, felt like the tune to me, I wasn’t going to move forward, so I remember I spent a lot of time just on that part, but once I got the voicing that I was happy with then I thought “OK great,” and I moved on.

Then I went back to the very beginning and then I worked out “is this the real life” from there, and then I just worked it out from beginning to end, it took me about just under a week before I had arranged the entire song, but I still couldn’t play it, I just had the arrangement ,I had the vision of what I wanted, and I knew what it wanted to sound like, I had my notation and all that ,and then it took me about a good month before I could really start to get it under my fingers, and the first time I performed it was at that Ted conference in California

NC Really!

JS Yeah, and every time I see that video I remember how nervous I was, because that is the worst place to try out a new song(laughs)

NC Exactly it’s not like with a few friends in the local café!

JS I knew I had to do something different for the Ted talk, and it was good to prove to myself it could be done, but the arrangement has evolved tremendously since that Ted talk, and even from the time when I recorded it, maybe a few months after the Ted talk, yeah it has just evolved a lot since then. I found there were some harmonies in there which were wrong on the recording after going back and double checking and tripling checking things, so yeah, so one day I would like to go back into the recording studio and re-record it the way I have it now, as I am a lot happier with the new arrangement now

NC well I don’t think anyone is going to be asking for a refund!

JS (laughs) Yes, but you know it’s funny, it’s just the most subtle thing-even on the “easy come easy go” section I was treating the melody as the root of the harmony, but it’s really not ,it’s actually the 5th in the harmony, so yeah, little things like that, reconstructing it-ill play it tonight though for sure


NC So with “While my guitar gently weeps” – was it the George Harrison influence that got you thinking about recording that particular track?

JS Yes I love a lot of George Harrison tunes. I used to cover “Something” I used to cover “Here comes the sun” , and “Something” and “While my guitar gently weeps”- really work well on the ukulele ,and I always wondered because he had such a fascination with the instrument. I don’t know exactly when it started, at what age, and I don’t know when he actually wrote those songs, or got the ideas for those 3 tunes, but the natural progression of those songs, the way that the chords move, it seems just seems such an obvious and natural movement on the ukulele.

With “Something” if you play that in the key of C it just works SO well, it’s just such a natural way to play, and the voicings, especially with the high 4th string, it’s just perfect, you know, it’s very complete. It’s the same thing with “Here comes the sun”. If you play that in the key of G, the melody sits very nicely there, or even if you are just strumming it and singing it, the chord sounds, the voicings sound very complete, in its very basic shape.  With “While my guitar gently weeps”, if you play it in C minor because you are moving from the minor to the parallel major ,you have that 3rd string ,that open drone, you know that low C that can carry over from the A section to the B section, so that again works out so nicely, because the melody works so perfectly on the first string, while you drone on the 3rd, and then even when you go to the major, the melody again just works perfectly, and it’s just in the right range for the ukulele.

NC Who would you like to play with and haven’t yet worked with?

JS Oh gosh there are so many

NC who would be in your top 3?

JS They have to be alive right?

NC it would be easier!

JS George Harrison of course and I would have really loved to have met Andreas Segovia and play with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan.  Bob Dylan would be someone, I would just die to meet him!

Pat Metheny is amazing in fact that’s one of the other reasons I titled this album “Travels” because that’s one of my favourite Pat Metheny records.

Eddie Kamae, he was one of the first ukulele virtuosos in Hawaii, and I actually got to jam with him a few times. You mentioned Jeff Beck earlier, he is incredible

There are also a lot of musicians who aren’t really labelled artists but they are incredible musicians. For me, hands down, if I could just play with any musicians my ultimate first choice would be Buddy Rich. He would be my ultimate, I would just love to have a session with him. I think it would have been so inspiring and so fulfilling just to sit down and play a few bars with him.

Yeah he is always one of my favourites. I never get tired of listening to him play, watching his videos on You Tube, his feel, he was a natural, and he was just born to play that instrument, just a virtuoso

NC We were in the Vanguard in New York and heard just before he died Paul Motian play with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano and he was just magical

JS Oh he was a very unique drummer, and Bill Frisell, I just love his playing, he is so quirky sometimes, and he is just so creative and so inventive, the way he phrases his melodies, its just so awkward sometimes, but it just WORKS- he is so good ,yeah I love musicians like that.

NC In one interview he said sometimes he would just jump to somewhere on the guitar fretboard just to see what happens- I am just thinking “what!”

JS Well when you have got gears like Bill Frisell, well there is just nothing you can’t do. He plays with such conviction and he is so free when he plays, it’s just beautiful.

Also I love musicians like Carlos Santana, I love the presence that the notes that he plays have, they carry this magical presence that everything just really hits you deep, and that’s something that I really appreciate in players, and it’s hard to find musicians that have all of that, that can play, that can put so much into one note, but at the same time they are real technicians, and they can also have the feel. Certain musicians excel in this area or that, and have this and not that, you know the grass is always greener, which is why it is hard for me to name just one musician that has everything, but Buddy Rich was one of those guys, Buddy Rich was this incredible virtuoso, I don’t think there was anything he could not do, and I don’t think there is anyone else on the planet who could really do what he could -man -I don’t know ,he just moves me when I listen to him play.

NC So what’s next after the UK tour-where are you headed?

JS Japan – we are going to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and I think 3 more cities I can’t think of the other 3 right now!

NC It’s been great chatting to you, it’s a real pleasure to talk to someone who has so many skills and real interest in musical expression

JS Well I love it, I am just grateful that I can do this all the time, it is really something I am just happy to finally be out here in the UK ,doing some shows, it’s been great

NC Thank you so much we are really looking forward to hear you playing

JS you’re coming to the concert right

NC Definitely!

Photographs by Susan Elton

The H – Z of Ukulele Magic at the foot of the mountain – Interviewing Pete Howlett

It’s often said that fact is stranger than fiction. With this in mind what exactly are the chances of a bagpipe playing German ukulele builder, and a ukulele artisan of 23 year’s standing, working together at the foot of the glorious Welsh mountains?
Earlier this year I discovered the answer to this question for myself when I visited Pete Howlett and his assistant Tommy Ziegenspeck. I arrived at the workshop early one Saturday morning, which is at the foot of a quite breath taking mountain with (that day) a dusting of snow on the top. I had planned to interview both Pete and Tommy for a couple of hours, as I was mindful that it was the weekend and I didn’t want to intrude on their private time. I actually stayed for hours and quite frankly I could have kept going, if it wasn’t for having to get back to Leeds for other commitments. Pete’s generosity is also reflected massively in many other ways, including this year he is working with Uke magazine to offer a gift Howlett to a nonprofessional deserving player.
I started the interview by asking Pete about his philosophy for building instruments
“The reason I build ukes is I have a short attention span. I am 61 , I have Parkinson’s, I have an undefined future. What I want to do is to produce a product which people say “gosh that is so good “-which has that magic to it! I also get asked a lot of technical questions about what I do and I haven’t got an answer!
I failed physics as a kid and I can’t maintain my machinery because I don’t understand what they do I don’t understand science! I am not technical in the least which astonishes people!
In blues parlance it is mojo, in artistic parlance it is being that artist that enables you to put something together intuitively because you love what you do
I often quote Hokusai who is the Japanese print maker who printed “The Wave “. He made that when he was 73 and thought he was just about learning how to do it, and said by 86 he may have understood, and said at 90 if I am granted that-he may know what to do, and the idea is that effectively he is saying that it takes a long time to get to the point where you get to know what you are doing.  After about 22 years I am sure footed enough that I know what I am doing when I am doing it, but ask me how it works and I have no idea!
Holtzafel was an ornamental turner and he wrote a book called “An Ornamental Turning” and he said a really important thing- he said that the finish on the work is never as good as the finish on the tool- and if you link that with what Coleridge said -which is that poetry is the best words in the best order- you have the 2 principles about making.
Making is about taking the best materials that you have and putting them together in the best way possible, to respect those materials, to do the very best that you can, to take what God has created in my system, and make it as beautiful as it naturally is, and to make sure you have respect, not only for the materials, but all the tools that you use.
The idea is to always have in my mind the following when I come to work “hands to work hearts to God” This way you build for a perfect supreme being who is going to judge your work, so your peer is a perfectionist who is going to judge your work, so what would you do?
You would have to get it as good as you can. That is a quotation from the Quakers in Pennsylvania and when you look at their work you see perfection in simplicity and that is what am aiming for. I wouldn’t have a ukulele that looked like a piece of art.”
Pete also made the point that he specialises only in making ukuleles and how the internet has become a game changer in communicating to a wider audience. This is no surprise to me as he has a very active FB group and a well-designed and informative website
 “I’ve started the business 4 times because the internet and the ukulele consciousness wasn’t there at the time but I kept going. I am the first ukulele maker in the UK who concentrates solely on ukuleles I don’t make any other instruments”
One of the many things that struck me about talking to Pete and Tommy is that they have a total love for creating great instruments.  This means an almost obsessive attention to detail to ensure that all work is of the finest quality.
“When you are building there is a tightrope walk between it falling apart and holding together. You often think as a luthier as you work in isolation you know where you are in building and what works and what doesn’t.  It is kind of interesting that boutique builders have a different take on what they do than production builders…”
We also talked about the resurgence in interest for the ukulele and Pete made a very interesting observation
“Everyone quotes the 1984 George Harrison memorial concert with Paul McCartney and Jo brown on uke but it wasn’t that which lit the spark it was the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain playing Smells like Teen Spirit on Jools Holland”
Pete describes Tommy as “a luthier” and himself as “an artisan” and with some degree of humour today reconfirms this on his Facebook page –
“Just so you know – there is only one luthier working at Pete Howlett Ukulele; his name is Tom Ziegenspeck. Pete is an artisan builder, autodidact who by doing has become multi skilled across a range of disciplines. I think he could say with absolute assurance he is leading Tommy gradually astray down the artisan pathway… smile emoticon Let’s hope they both don’t get lost and one of them has the sense to keep their phone fully charged and the other brings a torch!”
Tommy is in his own right a skilled builder and brought some of his instruments for us to see. It was interesting to note the differences and similarities between these and Pete’s designs. Tommy’s ukuleles are also extremely well made, and noticeably heavier than the Howletts. It’s clear to me that there’s a great deal of mutual affection and respect between Pete and Tommy and Pete was keen when we set up the interview that we should also interview his bagpipe playing colleague from Germany! The standout instrument was Tommy’s harp ukulele, that plays as great as it looks and clearly caught Pete’s attention!
“The thing which really did it for me was his degree masterpiece! I looked it and thought “This is a perfect piece”, it warrants its degree award and qualification. Very rarely do you get a perfect piece…When you are building there are anomalies which you are trying to resolve but rarely do you get a perfect piece!”
what interested you in ukes how did you first get into building them?
“I started playing classical guitars at 6 years old, and I had a really good classical training, and my plan was to study classical guitar, and then I came into a guitar workshop because my instrument needed a repair and I thought “wow “and I asked him for an internship. A few days became a few weeks and he told me about the instrument making university in Germany, so I applied for a place, and they took me. Then I started studying, I specialised in plucked instruments. The first 2 years I made classical guitars, then a friend gave me a really nice small set and I couldn’t make a guitar out of it ,so I made a ukulele just for fun and I really enjoyed it.
In the 3rd year of study you have to do a longer internship for half a year and I asked for one at a guitar making workshop, but I really WANTED a ukulele making workshop, so I searched on the internet and an American Uke maker recommended Pete. “
“This was 2014 for 4 and a half months, after which I went back to Germany and finished my study. We had chats over the internet, his work is great and he was abroad which was important for me, and at this moment I was not really well informed about the ukulele scene so Pete was really the only one good instrument maker I knew. At the moment I would still say the same so it was a rally good decision to get into this workshop”
so what makes for a really good instrument for you?
“I’m a guy who really likes a bit of character in an instrument, visual character, not too much, just a character. The feeling is important when you take the instrument out of the case, this decides whether you like it or not, and of course the most importation thing the tone”
in building do you have a favourite wood or construction?
“For my ukuleles because I was classically trained I still use some guitar making techniques inside the instrument.You need a good design, a shape can be nice or just awful, the way you work on the instrument the quality of hand work -the first thing I do when I take an instrument is to check whether it is well made or not ,this is important as a luthier to do a really good quality build. Pete totally changed my head. When I first came here it was to do what the customer wants-so it takes 1 and a half months to build a ukulele ,but this is not practical ,so Pete taught me how to make good quality in a reasonable time. He showed me how to get a really good routine, this was really great and I see how a running business works now, so it is a really good experience for me”
What is your routine on a weekly basis?
“We don’t have a big plan about what I do and what Pete does, but we are in a good relationship, in the workshop it just works. Pete has his favourite parts, so do I.I like to do all the finishes stuff, and set up. Pete really likes making the necks, so everyone has his favourite parts to do”
“Tommy carves a Tommy neck shape; I build a Pete neck shape. When it comes to the neck we do a completely different process, the rest we do much the same. With my health I am restricted with my movements, so Tommy does finishes and detailing, and I do the necks. Tommy is better at finishing than me. it’s one of the things which Tommy really excels at!”
As an outside observer I can confirm Pete’s comments. The finishes on the three ukuleles Tommy brought for me to look at are excellent. Similarly, all his finishes on Howlett’s are similarly excellent and this is one of many reasons why this partnership works so well.
Tommy is also a very accomplished player and during our interaction when Tommy had one of Pete’s ukuleles in his hands there was a slightly surreal moment when Pete shouts out
“JAKE IT TOMMY!” who then proceeds to play “While my guitar gently weeps” with some relish.
Pete commented “Yes all instruments are “Jaked…”
“Team Howlett” is clearly in full demand and I for one am not at all surprised that there is so much interest in these instruments. Tommy brings additional energy to the creative process and it was quite fascinating to see these guys in action.
“Tommy brings the energy of youth he would work 12 hours every day if I let him but I tell him to go home. He has a great vision of where he wants to be and is very fixed in his mind as to where he wants to be. At some point in the future he really does need his own business, and he needs to take everything from this that he needs to take back to Germany with him. If he can build on what he has learnt from here, then he can take that back to his own market.”
“If I was in Germany now I would never have the chance to make so many instruments, and that is important at this time in my life to make so many instruments.”
“It really helped me to make those instruments for Hawaii really early on in 1994
carving that number of necks every month teaches you how to carve necks, hand bending difficult woods repeatedly, having loads of repeatable constant exercises to do, it is priceless to be able to do that, to learn how to do tasks ,and I can give that to Tommy. I’m about sharing my work and it is so worthwhile sharing that with Tommy, as I know he will do something with it. He has a passion for this and we have so much fun!”
Regardless of Tommy’s input it’s clear that Pete is pretty driven and has a genuine love for creating the very best instruments possible. Like all smart creative individuals, he has a genuine curiosity and love for what he does which is reflected in the final builds.
“I am hoping to get to Hawaii this year. I am in the second round interview for a Winston Churchill travelling fellowship, so next week I am in London being interviewed for that.
If I am successful, my project is to meet luthiers in America and Hawaii and to discuss with them building techniques, then write the definitive book.  I am a religious person and I believe I am living in a world which has been created for me, and there is a spiritual aspect to everything that I make, which I think is where instruments find themselves.”
I highly recommend checking out Pete’s site as well as his FB group page and YouTube channel.
Tommy’s site is
Harp Ukulele photos courtesy of Tommy Ziegenspeck
All other photos courtesy of Susan Elton