Crawls Backward (When Alarmed)

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No Guitar Is An Island

I mentioned earlier that one of my missions whilst in Hawai'i was to procure an ukelele. Now, gentle reader, you may be wondering: why would he want an ukelele?

I got the bug when I first heard the astounding Jake Shimabukuro. Jake's playing is amazing and he has single-handedly brought the uke back into the mainstream. If you haven't heard him, I'd suggest a good start with his now-legendary You Tube video of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

So after about a year of my brain stewing away on how cool the ukulele is, I'm saying to myself: "Dude, you already are pathetic on guitar. How much more pathetic could you be on an instrument with even fewer strings?" Or something like that. Plus the ukulele represents a golden opportunity to acquire more Finely Made And Totally Cool Instruments.

And, for the record, the lovely and talented Ms. Yr Fthfl Blggr pushed me over the edge when she said to me, "You should get an ukulele in Hawai'i!" So, ukulele hunt, or "here's my do-as-the-locals-do" mission began.

A couple of things to note about the ukulele. First off, the correct Hawaiian pronunciation is "oo-koo-LAY-lay." It is not "YOU-koo-lal-lee." If you pronounce it correctly, Hawaiians will think you are one of them. They will shower you with wonderful local fish and beer. Well, maybe not, but you be taking a stab at being respectful to them.

Second, there are four (count 'em) sizes. From smallest to largest, they are soprano (probably the most recognizable; aka 'standard'), concert, tenor, and baritone. The first three are generally tuned to the uke "C" tuning: G, C, E, A. These are the same notes as the top four strings on a guitar at the 5th fret, except that the G is tuned to the G at the third fret on guitar (this is also the G above middle C on a piano). The baritone is the longest scale, at 19 inches. The others are 13, 16, and 17 inches, respectively.

I surely hope you understand that last paragraph, because I do not, and I am now An Ukulele Player!

The baritone is tuned exactly the same as the top four strings on a guitar, i.e. D, G, B, E. For that reason, many guitarists start out with a baritone. But not me! I wanted to start with the traditional tuning.

To make sure I wasn't totally nuts before I spent real money on a quality Hawaiian uke, I bought an inexpensive tenor 'Makala' at a local store near my home the week before I travelled to Hawai'i. It was fun to play! So off to Hawai'i I went, checkbook in hand.

I had done some research and had a list of stores to visit. The first one up was Island Guitars, in Honolulu. I hopped on The Bus (no taxi for me...nossir...) and made my way the 10 blocks or so up Ala Moana Boulevard from the hotel, to get there.

This is a great place...if you're looking for guitars primary and not ukes. Pretty low-key and friendly folks there, with a great selection of fine acoustic (Gibson, Taylor, Martin) and electric (Gibson, Fender, Epiphone) guitars.

As much as I enjoyed oogling the wonderful yummy guitars, I had come for an ukulele. I had to keep telling myself "stay on target." So easy to get pulled off a mission by other neat stuff. And there was some real neat stuff there.

At Island on that day, they had a decent but smallish selection of ukes - maybe a dozen or so. There were a bunch of the little Flukes, and some others ukuleles of mid-range quality. There was also a very nice vintage Kamaka baritone on consignment. I considered it, but this was my first stop and I wanted to check out more options. Kamaka, fwiw, is the oldest and perhaps the finest name in Hawaiian ukes.

In doing some research, I had discovered not only Kamaka, but other fine makers including Ko'olau, Kanile'a, G String, and Ko'Aloha. And it turns out there are many very fine independent luthiers as well. I was out for a semi-big fish. The prices on these ukes start out about 5 bills and go up from there. As I always say, "you get what you pay for."

Even thought it didn't look like I was going to buy an uke at Island Guitars, I did take the time to browse around the store. It's a tough job writing this blog sometimes, I tell you!

One thing that caught my eye was a nice selection of neat Gibson acoustics. Gibsons are fine guitars, to be sure, but they aren't known so much for their acoustics as they are for archtops and solid body electrics. But they have a couple of neato models I've lusted after, including the Hummingbird and the J-160E. They're the first two guitars in the top row on my picture. The J-160E is a actually a rather mediocre guitar - it's a small Jumbo (hence the "J" in Gibson nomenclature) style with a single-coil pickup and volume and tone knobs mounted on the top. Rather unusual, and it probably would have faded into obscurity had two young men by the names of Lennon and Harrison not procured one each in Liverpool, England, in 1962. Those two guitars can be heard on dozens and dozens of Beatles recordings.

Island Guitars had a bunch of cool collector-type instruments too. One that caught my eye was this late-50s Rickenbacker 8-string steel. Rickenbacker, Fender, and others made quite a few lap steels or multi-string steel guitars in the 1950s which were very popular with 'country and western' musicians. Both Fender and Rickenbacker were based in Orange County, California, and there were huge numbers of musicians based there.

And of course, by the late 50s into the early 60s, there was the 'Bakersfield Sound,' spearheaded by Buck Owens, with the amazing Don Rich on guitar.

Jerry Byrd was a very popular steel player, and played a Ric. I had no idea the company made a Jerry Byrd model, but here it is! This is a pretty rare bird, I would think, and this is a very fine one. The price is very reasonable too. I woulda sprung for it, but I woulda had a LOT of splainin' to do to Ms. Yr Fthfl Blggr! least I have the pictures.

It's a bit hard to see, but in the glass cabinet behind the Ric steel, there are two lap steels - an early 50s Fender Champ model and a bakelite Rickenbacker model. Yes, you read it right - the body was molded out of bakelite.

One absolutely insane guitar is this Martin D-50. Now, Martin is legendary and their dreadnought models are extraordinarily popular. But this one is a bit over the top imho. This is a "D-50," given the name because of its list price - a cool $50,000. Yup. You read that right.

That is, after all, the list price, and most experience geetar shoppers will tell you that a good, 'real' street price is 65 to 70 percent of that. So that brings the D-50 down to maybe $35,000. If you could get that street discount.

To put all this in a little perspective, Martin's D-45V, a regular production model and in and of itself one fancy honkin' guitar, more or less the top of the line for decades, lists today for $10,899. And a couple of special 'artist' models go for the mid-to-high teens. But FIDDY grand? Puh-leeze! All because of all that inlay. I'm not even sure I like it.

And, get this. I was talking to a salesman about it and he was like "it's not like it plays or sounds any better than any other guitar. In fact, all that inlay makes it a bit dull sounding." I can imagine that.

But the kicker is...Martin also makes a "D-100" model...yup...$100K list price.

Ok, I need to get moving. I have an ukulele hunt to continue....


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