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 & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal