STORY & PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Whether they’re made by artisan luthiers or manufactured in large factories, most ukuleles are born from a desire to build and sell the instrument itself. But that’s not exactly the case with Canada’s Northern brand ukuleles, which came about as the byproduct of one man’s ambition to teach musical skills to the masses.
In the late 1960s, Nova Scotia–born J. Chalmers Doane was director of music education for the city of Halifax. There, this experienced musician and teacher created a comprehensive music program designed to make students musically literate by the end of the sixth grade (there was a program for adults as well). Instead of relying on the conventional instruments of music education (violins, trumpets, etc.) to help his students learn basic musical skills—melody, harmony, and rhythm—Doane taught them to play the ukulele. From his own studies in string methods at Boston University, he recognized that ukes were affordable, portable, and easy to play.
To supply his students with inexpensive ukuleles, Doane initially bought them directly from the Harmony Musical Instrument Company of Chicago. These plain, white-wood ukes had plastic fingerboards and only cost around $6 each (their biggest shortcoming was that his enthusiastic students quickly wore out the plastic frets!). When Harmony went out of business in the mid-1970s, Doane had to come up with a new source of ukes. With help from his father and brother, he built his first prototype ukulele in his dad’s basement. Since Doane didn’t know how to bend the instrument’s sides, he created a triangular body with straight sides. And in order to save the trouble of having to laminate a slanted headstock onto the end of the neck, he came up with idea of threading the strings through angled holes drilled between the nut and tuners (see photo). This not only created the necessary string break-angle to keep the strings from slipping off the nut, it created a bit of friction that he said helped the strings stay in better tune. Doane was granted a U.S. patent (#4,041,830) for his unique “teaching ukulele” in 1977.
In a phone conversation I had with him last winter, Doane told me that five or six different instrument makers tried to produce his triangle-bodied ukes before he finally struck a deal with the Northern company in Ontario. In order to produce the large numbers of ukes needed at a reasonable cost, Northern’s operations manager Harry Dunnette had the instruments manufactured in Japan. Initially, they produced a “standard” soprano-sized uke: the JCD-1 (Doane’s initials). The JCD-2 soon followed: a concert-sized instrument Doane called a “tenor uke” (see photo) with a larger body and longer scale length that better suited older students and adults. Both standard and concert ukes had mahogany plywood bodies, a trio of small round soundholes, solid mahogany necks, and rosewood fretboards and bridges. The strings were secured behind the uke’s saddle-less bridge with guitar-style bridge pins. In later years, Northern also produced smaller numbers of fancier models, the JCD-3, -4, and -5, that sported solid rosewood bodies, spruce tops, and various decorative appointments. The company also made some ukes with regular Spanish-style bodies, such as the model UK-15.
By the time Northern stopped making Doane’s triangular-bodied ukuleles in the mid-1980s, countless music students had learned to play on them. Doane’s Guide to Classroom Ukulele, first published in 1971, has been used by music teachers all across Canada and the USA to instruct an estimated 50,000 students, including ukulele virtuoso James Hill. Chalmers Doane retired in 1993, but his musical legacy lives on: The internationally acclaimed Langley Ukulele Ensemble of British Columbia got started because of Doane’s music programs. You can see them performing—with some members strumming Doane-style triangular ukes—in the 2010 Canadian film Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog.