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.
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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)
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