Ukulele masterclass: Four strings and a jolly good time

George Hinchliffe, head of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, tells Tom Hodgkinson why the uke's fanbase is soaring again

When you tell people that you play the ukulele, they invariably say: "Oh, have you heard of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain? They're marvellous!" Along with remarks about George Formby, it gets a little wearing. While smiling and saying "Yes, aren't they great?", inwardly I'll be smarting: Bloody Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. What about me! But of course I have nothing personal against the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I am a fan of their humour and musicianship. In fact, I venerate them.

How could I not? They are the masters of the instrument. They have been playing together for nearly 30 years and have built up a huge, global following. Their nationwide tour includes, this week, a gig at the Royal Albert Hall.

So when the opportunity arose to meet musical director George Hinchliffe, and get a ukulele lesson from this outstanding figure, I grabbed it. And I secretly nursed a fantasy that at the end of the interview, having heard my uke skills, George would ask me to join his group, and I would be able to give up journalism and tour the world.

Sadly, this didn't happen, but I did meet an inspiring man, one of those rare characters who creates his own life and follows his own desires. And I got some great uke tips, too.

The orchestra was formed in 1985, soon after George bought co-founder and friend Kitty Lux a ukulele for her birthday. They played as a duo until other musician friends joined in, and soon they had a group. It was a success from the outset; their first gig at a London pub was packed. "We'd put an advert in City Limits. People came, people liked it, we did another gig. We got a Radio 1 session and then a BBC live TV thing, and [the poet musician] John Hegley invited us to play at his club night. We made an album, then we got a call from CBS."

The idea, says George, was not to form a comedy act, but to create a liberating musical forum where any music could be played, from funk to rock'*'roll to classical. And the ukulele was the right instrument to do that, chosen for its musical versatility more than its novelty value.

"The humour only came in during the first gig, when we played in two keys by accident and were messing around, with the sheet music falling everywhere. I thought we should go with it." They put on dinner jackets and played their gigs seated, in an affectionate parody of a classical orchestra. Highlights have included playing to 170,000 people in Hyde Park on the 50th anniversary of VE Day. The eight-strong band, whose line-up has barely changed over the years, have also played to huge crowds at Glastonbury, Womad and The Big Chill.

The Ukes, as they are known, play a huge variety of cover versions, from Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" and the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" to the Bowie classic "Life on Mars" and Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights". What is lovely is that their versions somehow shine a new light on the original: you hear the lyrics more clearly and get a better understanding of the mechanics of the song. George is fascinated by what is called ethno-musicology – which incorporates the history of instruments, and their tuning. The ukulele is particularly interesting as it uses what is called "re-entrant tuning", with a high G top-string Ωa tuning that was used on early Renaissance versions of the guitar. This is why "Greensleeves" sounds surprisingly good on the uke.

It's a particularly joyful instrument; it puts a smile on the face, and this has been the case since it was invented in 1879. That was the year a small, four-stringed Portuguese guitar called the machete arrived in Honolulu harbour, courtesy of a boatload of immigrants from Madeira. The cheerful Hawaiians immediately took to the ukulele, as they named it, and within 10 years it had become Hawaii's national instrument, thanks in part to its enthusiastic promotion by Hawaii's King Kalakaua.

Since then, its fortunes have risen and fallen. It was hugely popular worldwide in the first 30 years or so of the 20th century, thanks to radio, then again in the Fifties thanks to TV, and now we are riding the third wave of its success, which has been in part aided by the internet. At all times, people have been attracted by its portability and by its ease of playing: anyone can pick it up and be strumming a couple of chords in minutes.

The Ukes have been at the forefront of this third wave, and have had a wonderful time touring the world, making albums and pursuing side projects. "Some Ibiza DJs have done a remix of our stuff in various mixes," says George, with some amusement. "It's quite nice, actually."

His group has spawned dozens of imitators. Among them is the Ukulele Orchestra of Brno, based in the Czech Republic's second city. On a book tour out there recently, I joined them on stage and played "Anarchy in the UK". George has a Google alert for the phrase "ukulele orchestra" and says that, somewhere in the world, a new one is formed almost every day.

It is time to get some tips. I play George a stumbling version of George Harrison's "Something", which he listens to politely. "On that one, I'd suggest playing it in strict rhythm, really slow, maybe with a metronome. Rather than playing the bits that are easy for you fast, and then slowing down for others, play the whole thing at that slow speed, then gradually speed up," is his advice.

What about strumming? In the uke world, I feel constantly oppressed by players who can pull off complicated strumming patterns which make it sound as if there are five ukuleles playing. George Formby is a particular master at complex strumming.

"I try to keep my strumming really simple," says George. "When you're singing, you want to play something very simple because the attention should be on the melody. In the orchestra, everybody does something very simple, but stays on it."

I point out that it's different for an orchestra, but I am going it alone. "Yes," he says, "but a lot of people play ukes in groups now. Somebody could play the chords in an offbeat, someone else could play them on the beat, and someone else could play the tune."

And of course this is one of the great attractions of the ukulele: its communal nature. More than any other instrument I can think of, it suits playing in a group, and this makes it enormous fun.

George says that instead of poring over YouTube clips for hours, as I do, and trying and failing to achieve strumming mastery, he would instead concentrate on "accents", in other words, making the occasional note a bit louder. I play him my version of "Watching the Wheels" by John Lennon, and again his advice is: simplify. He demonstrates that you can achieve great effects by cutting out notes, and even by playing fewer strings, just one or two at a time.

"When people say, how can I improve as a solo player? I say, learn three songs. Learn them all the way through. And then make them interesting. Make them different. I'd also say: try different keys and different tempos.

"Then try and find a way of making them as groovy as you can ...."

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain: Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday, and touring until 8 Oct (ukuleleorchestra.com)

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker