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Writing Original Songs for The Small Change Diaries

small change diaries I have the greatest respect for all artists that write original material. Yes I love cover versions, BUT what kind of the world would it be without new and original songs? When I created “The Small Change Diaries” back in 2014, I knew that the first two years would be spent focusing on writing original material. I would meet up with my writing partner and band member Jessica Bowie on a weekly basis to sketch out and develop musical ideas.  Jessica is a brilliant writing partner, especially when it comes to editing material. Over the last two years we have wrestled with all manner of material to get it into the best possible shape.

It continues to be a fascinating experience, especially when you see a track emerge from a sketch idea, to being worked on, to be recorded in the studio to being played on BBC Radio! As the band has developed, the material has become more sophisticated and we are more adventurous in both our writing and in our recording.

The debut album “Adam Blames Eve” was released in 2015, the new EP is released in 2016 and the follow up album “Lullabies for Cynics” will be released in 2017.  We have currently recorded 20 songs which are now fully mastered and mixed, with another 18 songs ready to record. S

The first track I wrote for SCD was “Not one of us” and I am delighted that this now has been recorded and released on our new “Protest Songs” EP.

Here are the lyrics


Not One of Us (Nick Cody)


Nothing I could say to you will make you change your mind,

This is not the first time but you still don’t see the signs,

When heads are in the clouds not a foot upon the ground,

You’re the one now long gone, the damage left behind…

They say this land is your land, but that’s not strictly true,

Fifty foot down in the ground still don’t belong to you,

Time to create some street art, paint the neighborhood,

A kaleidoscope of colours that will only do you good


Not one of us is smarter, than all of us round here,

Every thought you think right now, will someday disappear…

Not one of us is smarter, than all of us round here,

Every song, you hear right now will someday disappear…


You’re fucking with the future, fracking with the past,

It’s a waste of time and energy, but at least you’ve had your blast,

We are all just passing through; none are here to stay,

Don’t think about the future that just gets in the way, cause

Half the country’s drowning, now is the rising tide,

You say perhaps you’ll drop by and at least you tried,

This defense won’t hold water, no longer holds ideas,

A perfect storm is coming, for this to end in tears


Not one of us is smarter, than all of us round here,

Every thought you think right now, will someday disappear…

Not one of us is smarter, than all of us round here,

Every song, you hear right now will someday disappear


©Nick Cody 2014

small change diaries


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