Still Life with Guitars and Ukuleles

There are actually five musical instruments visible in this picture. Not immediately obvious are the left-handed ukulele on the bookshelf (it’s my wife’s) and the mandolin, the case of which can just be seen on the left hand side of the picture.

And yes, these instruments get a workout. I’m teaching my daughter “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and she uses the Blueridge tenor guitar (the one in the center) while I use the Washburn travel guitar (the one to the left) and occasionally switch up to use the ukulele. All of them are tuned like ukes, so I can swtich between them without having to learn new chords. The mandolin I originally had tuned like a uke but it went out of tune too easily, so I retuned it to the usual arrangement and am learning how to use it that way. It’s a bit of a challenge, in no small part because the frets are so tiny. I don’t exactly have monster hands, so I’m kind of amazed how anyone plays these things.

I am not a good guitar/uke player. I am sufficiently competent that if I play a song other people my recognize what it is I am trying to play, and I continue to get better, although I don’t suspect I will ever be all that good. The thing is, I don’t care. I play because I like to play and it brings me happiness to do so. It’s a good enough reason.

20 Comments on “Still Life with Guitars and Ukuleles”

  1. Your foray into playing the uke and the great Amanda Palmer “Ukulele Anthem” inspired my own hobby. I’ve tried a few times to pick up guitar but never stuck it out. The uke is so easy, you can be accompanying yourself in minutes. The internet resources for learning are nearly endless.
    Now I’m three ukes and two public performances in and still loving it.

  2. I just like the idea that all of the bookshelves at your house are filled with nothing but your books…

  3. As a mediocre guitar and ukulele player myself, your ideas are intriguing to me and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  4. Sylvia:

    Heh. In fact, most bookshelves in the house are filled with other people’s books. But my wife has set up that bookshelf in particular as a “brag shelf,” along with the place in the other bookshelf in the office where my Hugos go.

  5. You should consider a 4 string tenor banjo. Standard tuning is CGDA, but you can tune it the same as a mandolin (GDAE) and the frets aren’t so closely spaced. It’s very comfortable and has provided the side benefit of improving my mandolin playing.

  6. Yeah, started teaching myself harmonica back in ’88. A long haul and one mostly by myself due to the discord it caused amongst others. But, boy, did it make for a great companion during those years. Happy or sad or in between, it never mattered. It became a way of expression when the words got in the way. Or the thinking. And then, one day, someone came up to me and said, “Hey, you’re not too bad with that thing.”

    I still play it just not as often. But, it’s there. We have had a long understanding, me and my harps.

  7. I’m the owner of “too many guitars” (including ukes, banjos, and lap steels) and spend large portions of my day in some form of music production or another. The best way around being mediocre with other people’s songs is to write your own. That way, you’re always awesome. I have a $10,000 head, but only $100 hands, so this approach has worked wonders for me. :)

    I just got done refinishing a beat up old Takamine (bone nut and saddle, refinished neck and light fret work) and am currently building an ash bodied Strat with the intention of making it The Most Obnoxious Guitar Ever. Three active humbuckers! My daughter is taking the Tak to learn on, which is great. She’s an amazingly creative kid but at 14, is a really self conscious creature.

    I’m also gearing up for Wintergrass at the end of February. If you (or anyone reading, for that matter) ever make it out this way that time of year, you should go. Largest indoor bluegrass festival in the nation, tons of great acts, workshops, jams, and parties. Bluegrass people are the nicest folks. They never sleep, drink like fish, and nothing ever gets broken. I’m also producing a record of hallway jams and basement recording sessions from this festival and setting up my portable recording rig to add more tracks to it. Real stereo this time.

    So, in summary, guitars (and music making in general) are good.

  8. Being entirely hopeless on all instruments save kazoo, I most noticed the books all being yours, the delightful Gamma Rabbit handpuppet, and the collection of con badges.

  9. The mandolin is my first (and favorite) stringed instrument. The frets were a problem for me too, thanks to my monster(ish) hands and stumpy fingers. But after a lot of practice, everything feels very comfortable.

    Guitars, on the other hand, feel huge! How do you people reach across those gigantic frets without dislocating your fingers?

  10. Keep your thumb on the back of the neck and your wrist out in front of the neck Or if you play mostly blues, use your thumb to reach over the top of the neck to fret the 6th string.

    If anyone thinks the mandolin is out of reach because they have big hands, I encourage them to check out Mike Marshall. One of the best three mando players on Earth, and he has absolute muppet hands that absolutely swallow the instrument. His fingers look like a string of sausages hanging off of two hams.

  11. As the parent of a percussionist (who specializes in keyboard percussion), I would concur with Dylan Hearn that the Mallet is clearly a percussion instrument. Though four-mallet technique would be a challenge with it.

  12. For the mandolin I highly recommend anything by David Grisman. Also, cool things can be done on the mandolin by learning how to speed up your picking hand. Love the uke, play a flea everyday in my kindergarten classroom.

  13. The maul is the tuning hammer I suppose. Unfortunately my two guitars are in the closet. They often whisper to me in the dark hours of the night. Just not enough hours in the day.

  14. “The thing is, I don’t care. I play because I like to play and it brings me happiness to do so.”

    As a working musician (ok, weekends only. I have a day job), this kind of sentiment makes me happy. Informal music, though especially social informal music, used to be such a part of our society. Everyone played, at least a little, and often together.

    But because I read this on Whatever, what it really makes me think about is fan writing, and social writing (the sharing of fan fiction, say), and the ways it mimics music – and that there are lots of people who aren’t great writers, and they don’t care. They write because they like to write and it brings them happiness.

  15. When you are playing for your own enjoyment, whether you are good or not doesn’t matter. The only relevant criteria is, “Are you enjoying it?” If so, ‘nough said. On the other hand, if you are heard playing by others, so long as nobody throws anything at you, you’re ahead of the game, in my book. It’s not a matter of how good you are, apparently. It’s a matter of what you can get away with. Florence Foster Jenkins is a case in point.

  16. “I don’t care. I play because I like to play and it brings me happiness to do so.”
    The best reason to do anything that doesn’t hurt others.

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