I was lucky. My first instrument was the ukulele. From a young age I began playing songs I found in old song books with ukulele chords printed over them. I played along with dance bands and Formby 78s and had a great time. I didn’t realise I had found myself in the era that suited the ukulele so well and the ukulele suited that era too. As I then branched out into other types of songs and music things became a little more complicated. Songs were in odd keys, didn’t have the chord windows printed on them, and I seemed to be missing something. But I carried on regardless as it all seemed to work out in the end.
Then one day I found myself in a jazz band. The ukulele worked ok but I was missing that banjo sound. I realised that I needed something different. A different instrument perhaps…
So I found myself with a banjo. A big one. I actually ended up with a 5-string before I got myself a four string tenor. And so I embarked on the trail of different instruments for different sounds and different music styles. Later followed the 5-string banjo, guitar, and mandolin – and bagpipes.
The ukulele is often promoted as some kind of magic instrument that can do anything. In some ways I agree – up to a point. In the same way you could say the guitar is good for everything – up to a point. The ukulele is a great tool to strum chords on and accompany a song, happy or sad, fast or slow. It can also be finger-picked to produce melodic lines and song accompaniment. Its portability and adaptability make it a great tool. But sometimes you just need something else.
When I first started using the guitar it seemed to be rather like a ukulele with two extra strings on. I was not at ease to start with. It seemed huge. I subconsciously avoided the big thick strings on the bass side. But sometimes I realised that that big guitar sound was something else. I began to use more bass notes. Different kinds of chords. I started to play it like a guitar. It was a whole new instrument, even if it did have some similarities to the ukulele. In fact those similarities hid the difference. Strumming a Beatles song just worked better. I had also been playing round with the 5-string banjo which eventually led me into the bluegrass, folk and country world. Later on I started on the mandolin. I wanted a way to play fiddle tunes without a fiddle.
Each instrument has its sound. Its place. Its uses. Some overlap. There are some things I do on the ukulele that I do on the banjo and visa versa. Some on the mandolin and guitar. And so on. But there are also many things that I only do on one instrument.
It all comes down to personal choice and judgement. The sound I want, what I want to sing to, what I feel sounds best for the song or tune.
People often ask me which is my favourite. Impossible to say. I don’t have one. They all have their place, their job to do. I recently did an evening where I played everything on the ukulele. Most was absolutely fine, if a little confusing sometimes. However there was the odd occasion when I thought “this really sounds better on the guitar”. Or banjo, or mandolin.
Sometimes the sound inspires a song to sing. Whether self written or not. Songwriters get their inspiration where they find it. Sometimes an instrument or a sound can unlock something. A big fat D chord on a guitar can sometimes open up the mind more than a C chord on the ukulele. Or a fingerpicking ukulele riff feels better than on the mandolin. They all appeal to different sensors in the brain. And on some occasions that can lead to something I wouldn’t have found with a different instrument.
This is not to put down the ukulele or any other of the instruments. Quite the opposite. It makes me realise the strength and value of each instrument, and encourages me to make choices based on what is best for the sound and the song, rather than insisting it has to be all on one instrument. The more instruments you can use comfortably and well then the more strings you will have to your bow as a performer and a writer.
The one down side is making a choice for a gig. If you play fifty songs on twenty different instruments it’s going to be a hard gig! So I try to keep it as simple as possible. It is great for an audience to have variety, especially if I am solo. But too much messing about taking instruments off and on, tuning, sound etc can be a bore for any listener. So I try to use each instrument for several songs in a row if possible. And limit it to two or three instruments. (Travelling is a great decider for how much you want to drag around!) The songs are more important than showing off how many instruments I can cram into one set!
Ultimately it comes down to this. I love my instruments. I like to have several out at a time. Sometimes I reach for one more than another. I get a feeling for one for a song or maybe another. Sometimes I might try the same song on different instruments. But I don’t feel I must impose one instrument on myself more than another. I love the ukulele. But sometimes I just have to use something else.
So – ukulele was my first instrument. But it is not my only instrument. And they all feel better for knowing each other.