The question I get asked most when I tell people I play the ukulele is, “Why?”. I can only say that it never seemed like a strange choice to me. It is interesting to wonder why piano players and violinists don’t get asked the same question.
This page is about some of my favourite instruments. It is sad that they don’t get as much of a public airing as they should these days, because they have their own distinctive and unusual sounds, but they can all be found in my house, and in the dusty corners of the internet. If they are weighted towards the old and archaic, I hold my hands up, it has been said I was born an old man. I’ll be adding more of my instruments to this section as time allows…
When I was 15, I went a Ukulele Society meeting, and saw an old gentleman called Jim Thorogood playing Autumn Leaves on one of these and the sound was as eerie as it was bizarre. The next time I heard one was on a Temperance Seven record, and then on a Tom Waits track. I finally tracked one down from a wonderful musical instrument shop, Pamelas Music.
The phonofiddle is a one-string version of a Strohviol, which is a type of violin named after it's German designer, Johannes Stroh. They work in the same way that old gramophones work - using an amplifying horn - but instead of being attached to the needle on the record, the horn is attached to the bridge of the instrument. They became popular in gramophone recording studios in the early part of the 20th century because they were much louder than ordinary violins (things recorded best when they were LOUD). Unfortunately the tone wasn't thought to be as mellow as a violin with a wooden body, and with advances in recording techniques, they fell out of use.
There have been all sorts of Stroh instruments - guitars, cellos, and even double basses - and in Romania, they have their own horn-violins which are still popularly used in folk music. The one-string Stroh phonofiddle is more of a parlour instrument, and obviously has some limitations, but one-stringed instruments are really fun to play. Their limitations are their strength.
No-one really knows what this instrument is called - Jew's Harp, Jaw Harp, Juice Harp, Mouth Harp - but it is said to be the oldest musical instrument in the world. Confusingly, it almost certainly has nothing to do with Jewish people. Lots of countries have their own instruments similar to the Jew's Harp, made of materials from metal to bamboo.
As a kid I'd always see them hanging up in music shops on dusty cardboard signs, looking like something you might use to open a bottle of beer. Actually you rest it on your teeth and twang the wire while changing the shape of your mouth to alter the sound. As you twang, you can hear harmonic overtones, created by the shape inside your mouth. Once you get good, you can change these tones to create simple melodies, over the drone of the twang. To really get going on it, you need to use your breath with it, breathing in or out as you twang to increase the volume and change the texture of the note.
In Rajastan, India, they have a Jew's Harp-type instrument called a Morchang, which this guy plays like a demon:
Probably the least attractive instrument in my selection - the player is made to look like a cheery Hannibal Lector - it is also one of the weirdest. The sound is very like a recorder, but with a much more song-like edge, because you can slide the notes all over the place, more like a Swannee Whistle. I hardly ever see these in the UK, but for some reason they are very popular in Germany and Holland, where they sell cheap plastic ones in nearly every music shop. Here's me playing the James Bond Theme as it was (probably) originally conceived:
You play it by blowing into the flute through your nose, and changing the shape of your mouth to alter the notes. It's a bit like blowing into the mouth of a bottle, with your mouth acting as the body. My wooden one was given to me, you can watch a clip of the guy who made it HERE. It's very easy to sound like one of the Clangers. For more info about the noseflute, you can visit www.noseflute.org.
KAZOO / COMB AND PAPER
Kazoo legend has it that the modern kazoo was invented in about 1850 by the fantastically named Alabama Vest, an African American from Georgia, and manufactured by a German clockmaker. It is a part of the Membranophone family - of which drums make up the bulk - because it produces sound by way of a vibrating membrane. They are basically an adaptation of a comb and paper, a lovely DIY instrument, which is just that, a comb with paper wrapped around it so that as you sing onto it, the paper vibrates, giving it that distinctive buzz.
In the 1920s a band called the Mound City Blue Blowers used the kazoo to perhaps its greatest effect, Dick Slevin playing the metal kazoo, and Red McKenzie on comb and paper. They had a number of hits where they buzzed away alongside the more traditional sounds of the trumpet and clarinet. Here's a clip of Red McKenzie doing his thing (with the help of a megaphone):
These days the kazoo is a divisive instrument, and it seems to live it's life mostly as a novelty toy handed out at children's parties. But it is revered by some, and rightly so. Alabama Vest would surely approve of Jimi Hendrix (another musician who started out on the ukulele) using the comb and paper to great effect on his recording of Crosstown Traffic, to achieve that 'blown-out' amplifier sound. You can hear it played at the same time as the guitar riff. Listen HERE.
A few years ago I did my bit for the kazoo with a gig at the National Portrait Gallery where we got the audience to participate in a mass kazoo blow-out:
I've recently begun experimenting with new kazoo methods like planting a kazoo inside an old tin can. By cupping ones hands over the open end, and opening and closing it as you play the kazoo, you can achieve a pretty authentic muted trumpet sound, with a wah wah effect.
The ukulele was named in Hawaii (it means 'jumping flea' in Hawaiian) but was originally brought there by Portuguese sailors as a Machete, or Braguinha. Hawaiians insist on calling it an 'oo-koo-lay-lee', as do the Japanese, which is great, but 'You-ka-lay-lee' is how I pronounce it. You can also say it 'Yow-ker-loo-lie' or 'that-pint-size-guitar' if you fancy. Here's a great picture of a 19th century Madeiran Machete group:
When I started playing the ukulele in London in the 1980s, my only company was very old men and frightening 12-year-olds, and they mostly exclusively played George Formby, using the Banjolele (the banjo version of a ukulele). How lucky I was to meet the other members of the Ukulele Orchestra in a pub in Angel, North London. Thanks to bands like the Ukulele Orchestra and the internet, the ukulele has recently had a big resurgence in popularity, to the point where, these days, every other $&@! you meet has got one.
They make a cheerful sound, partly because of their strange tuning (with the top sting tuned and octave higher than you'd expect), and their small size, but also because it's hard not to smile when you see a grown man playing his heart out on a bonsai guitar.
These little fellas are really wonderful instruments. After a Ukulele Orchestra gig in Berlin, a man called Hans Thuring came and showed me one that he'd made (in fact he whipped it out of his jacket pocket) and I asked if he'd make me one. It's tuned an octave higher than a baritone ukulele - dGBA. Then, as it goes with ukuleles, I asked if he'd make another.
THE TINIEST UKULELE
This one is really silly. I tune it a whole octave above a standard soprano ukulele - gCEA. It's basically impossible to play complicated chords on, because the strings are so close together, but tunes are do-able, and it can sound great if you try faster strumming on it with simple bar chords. I think it was really designed as an ornament, or perhaps a fridge magnet, but it does have a great, unique, and tiny, sound.
I have since been informed that THIS is the tiniest playable ukulele, which really takes the biscuit.
TEA CHEST / WASHTUB BASS
The Tea Chest Bass is the English version of an American folk instrument, the Washtub Bass, or 'Gutbucket', and another marvel of DIY music. Basically it's an upturned box (or washtub) with a length of string attached to it's centre which is tightened or slackened by means of a broomstick handle.
Again, this is an instrument that can be found in one form or another across the globe - attach a string to a hollow object, twang the string, and the sound will become amplified. There are a million different ways to make a Tea Chest Bass - I've seen one with four strings and tuning pegs - and your imagination is the only limit to the level of sophistication with which you wish to endow it.
This picture shows me playing a wonderful Washtub bass, built by Helmut Collas of the Stolberger Altstadt-Musikanten from Germany. It had a great sound, used a simple plastic washtub as a resonator, a broomstick, and electrical wire (covered in plastic) as the string. The gloves made it a lot easier to play it, which added a nice Michael Jackson touch, I thought. (Photo: Oliver Grendel)
I had a great band when I was at Manchester University called The Kenyan Tea Corporation, which was named after the writing printed on the side of our Tea Chest Bass. We won the Battle of the Bands in 1996, to the intense irritation of a host of carpet-gazing Stone Roses wannabes.
To the French it's a Lame Sonore, the Germans call it a Sagende Sage, and the English, a Musical Saw. One of the strangest of instruments, it's just a saw, played with a violin or cello bow. The player grips the saw handle between the knees or thighs, bending the blade into a gentle 's' shape with the left hand, and bows the flat side of the blade with the right. The trick is to find the 'sweet spot' on the curve, and coax the saw into singing for you. It emits the most haunting sad sound you've heard, not unlike a Theremin, but more characterful.
While it's worth noting that any saw can be used, you'll get a better range out of a properly made Musical Saw, which are made from more flexible metal, and a bit longer than your average handsaw. There are a few firms still producing Musical Saws. Charlie Blacklock and Mussel and Westphal are two American companies that I would recommend. Alexis Faucomprez, in France, makes a toothless saw with a very big range - over three octaves - and a Sheffield-based Saw Manufacturer in Britain has just started making them - Thomas Flinn & Co..
I once had a Musical Saw trio with the lovely Mara Carlyle and the just as lovely Rowan Oliver, called The Weeping Saws. When we rehearsed, the windows would shake in their frames. We did a couple of great gigs, and made babies cry. These days, as well as playing it myself, I have been recording with Guy Bellingham (aka Dennis Teeth (pictured) of the Hot Potato Syncopators) who is able to get a much more beautiful tone out of a saw than me.
There are more Musical Saw players around than you might think. Once you've got the bug bad enough, you can trot off to the Musical Saw Festival in New York City. If you'd like to read a piece I wrote for the Sunday Times about Musical Saws, click HERE.
HOT FOUNTAIN PEN
I love the clarinet. I think it's probably my favourite instrument. What all the fuss is about the saxophone I'll never know - give me Sidney Bechet over Charlie Parker any day of the week. Couple this with my enthusiasm for small instruments and you'll see why I like the Hot Fountain Pen. In the 1920s and 30s an American jazz musician called Adrian Rollini arrived in the UK with a couple of eccentric instruments in his bag. One was the Goofus, the other was a Hot Fountain Pen. These pictures are about the only ones I can find of a Hot Fountain Pen, taken by (and featuring) ace clarinetist Brian Hills:
It had a thin body, not unlike a penny whistle, but with the addition of a small clarinet mouthpiece. Measuring only 10" long, it has that distinctive mellow reedy tone of a clarinet. There is more information about them HERE. Hot Fountain Pens are almost impossible to find these days, although you could get a Chalumeau which is like a clarinet / recorder with a one octave range. I myself have plumped for a Xaphoon, which also comes in a great black material, making it look almost exactly like a Hot Fountain Pen. It has a range of about two octaves.
KID'S DRUM KIT
Who needs a massive drum kit when you can get a fantastic sound out of a kids kit? I bought this set in Edinburgh for about £70, and have spent a little bit of time with Pat Levett adapting it into what is now a very nice little kit. We put new heads on the drums, a new snare unit on the snare, and a cut-down hi-hat stand (using a splash for the top hi-hat). The only downside is the back-ache from bending over.
This is something I really can't do, but what a bizarre skill. There's a man in America called Gerry Phillips who can play songs by squeezing his hands together to make a kind of hand-fart.
Click HERE to see more handfarting action.
It's hard not to be impressed by this, even if he probably should get out more:
For anyone who wants to learn how to Beatbox, my best tip is to repeat the words "Boots, Cats" over and over again. Imagine the 'Boo' of boots as a bass drum, and the 'Ca' of cats as the snare drum. The 'ts' of each word will be the hi-hat. "Boo-ts-ca-ts-boo-ts-ca-ts-boo-ts-ca-ts". Easy eh? Now visit (the surprisingly thin) Fat Tony's YouTube channel and he'll tell you how to do the rest for free.