Its unmistakable tones seduced George Harrison in his post-Beatles career, and its pleasant lilting twang produces the siren song that keeps at least 55 mostly retirees coming back to an RV camp in Tuscon each year.
Almost a child’s guitar, it’s something both relentlessly cheerful and, if picked by a pro, capable of offering a little pluck to a kind of music synonymous with easy living.
Says Tom Lahn of Bloomington, “It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’ve got a ukulele in your hands.”
Want to try it? Please do: Margaret Holste, whom Lahn introduced to the uke about four years ago, is leading a ukulele group at the Gillespie Center in Mound this fall.
The ukulele seems almost as if designed for the initiate to musical instruments. Limited by its four strings, which on the baritone uke match the bottom four of the guitar (top four, pitch-wise), it’s an instrument whose music is largely composed of basic chords and played in a laid-back 4/4 tempo.
“You learn half a dozen chords and you’ve got a lot of it,” said Lahn, who also described the usual ukulele cadence as “repetitive and rhythmic.”
“Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down.” Lahn played a few bars on his baritone uke for a demo.
Holste, who played piano and saxophone during high school and who still occasions herself with the harmonica, said the appeal of the ukulele for her is its simplicity and easy, relaxing tones that are conducive to a little humming.
“Singing with it is what makes it all turn into music,” said Holste.
Of the group she plans for Gillespie: “It’s for fun!” Which is the common refrain among members of Lahn’s group and among the 10-20 in the group Holste revisits in Southern California each year.
“It’s really a light-hearted, ‘let’s have fun’ group,” said Lahn of his southwest friends. He said, too, that the ukulele is especially good for folk songs like those from the Kingston Trio.
Holste said she wanted to find more people playing the ukulele – or wanting to learn to play it – locally, and she is making the Gillespie group as accessible as she can. She’s already enlisted the help of Greg Sletten.
Sletten, owner of Westonka Music on Commerce Boulevard in Mound, will be the go-to guy for sourcing ukuleles and, for those wanting to take the uke to the next level, for obtaining practical lessons on the instrument.
The ukulele, said Holste, is an easy instrument to learn, and Sletten agreed, saying that it’s an instrument ideal for newcomers, whether those newcomers are young (the ukulele’s small size lends itself well to small statures) or old – which is something that Lahn will also attest.
“I have been an engineer all my life, very left brain,” said Lahn. “I decided when I turned 70 to pick up an instrument.”
Lahn, now 78, went straight for the ukulele and never looked back, unless it was to confirm that the tenor guitar he bought when he was 17 (at the behest of an old Air Force buddy who promised lessons) was indeed a guitar of a sort and not a uke.
Lahn, Holste and Sletten all say the ukulele is easy to learn but that it also has an added appeal for the more musically inclined. “You can take it as far as you want,” said Lahn. “You can play it in a very sophisticated way if you wish.”
Beyond the basic chords, there’s strumming and picking, said Lahn, who said that it has to be natural, that you can’t really think about it while you’re at it or you’ll trip yourself up. “Strumming technique has to become totally automatic,” said Lahn.
Still curious? The first ukulele meeting at Gillespie is Sept. 12 at 10 a.m.