Notes on playing the banjo uke (and the regular ukulele), as well as some of my favorite songs and videos, but mostly, you'll find information here on my particular obsession - the many models of banjo ukulele offered by Stromberg-Voisinet in the 1920's to 1931.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas - The Holiday Creep

Happy holidays to you, if you're checking this before or during the big Christmas day-off. If you're like me, and God help you if you are, you celebrate a combination of Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule and Saturnalia, with heavy emphasis on the last one (ie. drinking, feasting, gift giving, the tree - all Saturnalia contributions, by the way), but instead of a slave, we traditionally sacrifice a couple of lasagnas.

Speaking of tradition, I was immensely happy to have been included in Meg Reichardt and Kurt Hoffman's tradition. Meg and Kurt are the nucleus of Les Chauds Lapins, the truly wonderful banjo-uke focused sting quintet that plays the pop and jazz of of 1920s-1940's France. Every year, they host a holiday recording party in which Meg records an entire album of original holiday songs composed especially for that year's get together. Just take a look at who's on the album and you'll see I'm playing above my weight.

I had a great time and was truly honored to have been invited to join in on several songs, in addition to playing my own tune, "The Holiday Creep".

Have a happy holiday, whichever one you celebrate, and do remember what they're really all about: hanging out with people you love, and eating and drinking just a little too much.

~ John

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Joy of Plastic

Wow. Wait a minute! Is that...? Yes, it really is!

A Flamingo!

OK, perhaps I wouldn't be as excited about this little plastic Flamingo ukulele if it weren't for the fact that Ms. Page is holding it en déshabillé, but there are plenty of people out there right now, after seeing this, who are excited by...plastic ukuleles, God help them.

This particular instrument is a molded styrene-plastic concoction, and these and millions like them were inspired by or built by guitar designer and maker Mario Maccaferri. They were produced in the fifties, and surprisingly, they aren't junk - not by a longshot. I've got many friends who collect plastics, play them and will go to lengths to keep them playable (plastic has a tendency to degrade over time, and the top is sometimes in need of shoring up after decades of being under tension from the strings). They aren't rare, and there are many kinds, but the best are those built by Maccaferri: the Islander and the TV Pal. They're real instruments, fun to play, and certainly unique in sound.

For years, I'd been told that the other popular plastic uke of the 50's, the Mastro TV Pal, was the main competitor to Maccaferri's Islander range. Nope. They are both Maccaferris, as evidenced by the identical bridge and saddle construction, headstock, neck, fretboard and just about everything else about them. Turns out that Mastro is the name of the company that did the injection molding of the Maccaferri TV Pal instrument (a company in which Maccaferri had a controlling interest). Earlier models don't say Mastro on them, but they were also molded by Mastro.
Whether they said Mastro on them or not, Maccaferri still got the lion's share of the between $2.70 and, later, $5.95 that they cost the American suburbanite. A pretty good value, regardless of the material of construction. Here's me playing a TV Pal at Rivington Guitars last year. It sounds...well, pretty good, even if I don't!

And it turns out that the name 'TV Pal' is a tribute to Mr. Maccaferri's TV pal - the fellow who endorsed his instruments on his coast-to-coast broadcast in the early 50's - Arthur Godfrey. Most of you will know that Godfrey was the popularizer of the baritone uke, a new instrument at that time. He also played tenor banjo in Chicago tuning, and rumor has it, he wasn't a very nice man. My grandmother - not very nice herself - loved him, for what that's worth.

Here's another uke Godfrey endorsed - The Flamingo, though slightly different from Betty's above. This one is fitted with a Maccaferri device - with Godfrey's name right on it - the patented 'uke player,' which allows you to play six chords with just the press of a button. Like the Maccaferri, the Flamingo was manufactured in durable 'Styron.' The Flamingo was the chief competitor to Maccaferri's plastics. I've never played one, so can't vouch for its qualities.

Apparently, sopranos aren't the only ukes that Macaferri made. Here's my friend Chris Tarman, who is a great player and has some amazing ukuleles, with an excellent view of his ultra-rare Macaferri Islander baritone ukulele. Note the amazingly helpful cut out that allows the player to fret the uke right up to the sound hole! Macaferri also offered a TV Pal baritone uke, in addition to the soprano.

So, it turns out that while the prop person over at Irving Klaw's photographic establishment on West 14th probably just went out and got the cheapest ukulele they could find for Betty, they picked one of a type that has become oddly collectible, very playable and certainly the object of much affection.

Still, as nice as it is, I find it very easy to look past the neat little plastic ukulele in these photos. I wonder why?

Hmmmm... I'll think about that one upon closer study...

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Waiting at the End of the Road

If you know Patsy Monteleone, you already know how great a player and singer he is.  If you don't, you're in for a treat.

Patsy recorded this as a tribute to Brian Newman, a friend of ours from the Ukulele Cosmos, who passed away earlier this year and whose birthday would have been today.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"Golden Gate" Gibson UB-5 Banjo Ukulele

Since last month, I've been playing a good deal, first Ben Mealer's and my little trio, "The Three-Quarter Quartet", both at Sonic Uke's Halloween Ukulele Cabaret and then at the Jalopy Theater, and with "Amity Rose & the Dead Cowboys" at Joe Silver and Suzy Savoy's "Ukulele Rumble" and again this Saturday, 10 PM at the Vagabond Cafe on Cornelia Street in NYC.  And, next Friday, again with the 3/4 Quartet at the Holiday Ukulele Cabaret at Jimmy's No. 43, 7pm on East 7th Street, with more holiday stuff coming up.

I haven't done a lot of videos lately, but here's one from just a couple of days ago - A 1928 number that was a hit for Al Jolson, written by him, Billy Rose, Dave Dreyer and Joseph Meyer.   A fun number to sing and play, and - as I just got my Gibson UB-5 back from being repaired at TR Crandall Guitars - I though this would be a good opportunity to hear this instrument.

Here are a few photos of what was the top-of-the line of Gibson's banjo ukulele range of instruments.  This 1926 UB-5 is my favorite uke for a couple of reasons.

In terms of sound, its not like the Abbott and Ludwig banjo ukes, which are more lightly built and which have a flange and pot that are integrated and made of cast alloy.  The Gibson is heavier, and the pot is a laminated ring, very much the same as the pot on the basic UB-2/UB-3 ukuleles.  Coupled with a metal - I think brass - flange and a full walnut resonator, the Gibson UB-4/UB-5 and UB2 Deluxe/UB-3 Deluxe are HEAVY.  However, with that brass tone-ring, the sound of the UB-4/UB-5 is anything but heavy.   If anything, its mellower than other Gibsons, and reminiscent in tone (and very similar in hardware) to their Mastertone line of banjos.

Anyway, I'm no Gibson scholar, but I can tell you that despite the weight, this is the best playing instrument I have and certainly the best uke I've played.

I'm the second owner of this particular uke, and at some point in the 40's, the uke met with an accident and lost a section of the resonator rim on the player side.   you can't really see the rim in this picture (you can see it better in the above shot), but the crack, which I just had glued closed, doesn't effect the sound at all.

In addition, over the years, the gold plate has worn away in places leaving the flange green in places and worn and grainy all over.  Either you hate this and have to have it re-plated, or you look upon this as original condition and would never touch it.  Me, I fall into a third camp: is it rusting and does it need repair?  If - as in this case the answer is, so far, "no," then I don't touch it.

Gibson really pulled out the stops on the UB-4 and UB-5's decoration, but it's always tasteful.  The UB-4 is identical except that it's overall nickel-plated, not gold.

On the UB-5, even the barrel tuners that Gibson seemed to use on everything are gold-plated.   So are the Presto tailpiece and the little screws that hold the resonator firmly in place.

Though the finish is gone in several places on the resonator back, I like the worn, non-flashy look of this UB-5.

You can see the fellow who originally owned it played the heck out of it and never left it sitting in it's case, which you have to like in an instrument that has retained its characteristic sound.

Played and cared for to a degree, but not babied.

See you next time...