Playing ukulele changed the way I hear music

Miles Schon
Miles Schon explores the uke’s possibilities © Deidre Neville

 

Singer-songwriter Miles Schon started playing guitar at age 13, but it took him nearly another decade to pick up a ukulele—and even then it was by chance. Three years later, Schon is gaining a following for his fast-fingered ukulele style that draws influences from flamenco, classic rock, and pop. Whether he’s fronting the Miles Schon Band, collaborating with vocalist/keyboardist Will Champlin to form the group Miles of Will, or performing solo, Schon brings a soulful edge to his playing (just as his father, guitarist Neal Schon, brought to Journey, Santana, and other popular rock bands). I spoke to Schon by phone about how he’s integrated ukulele into his performances, songwriting, and teaching.

—Whitney Phaneuf

When did you start playing ukulele?

I picked up a uke a few years ago. At the time, I had a Hawaiian girlfriend, and she had this urge to learn music with me.

I bought her a ukulele for her birthday, and she ended up not playing it a lot, and it just sort of ended up at my place. I started picking it up randomly and noodling with it. I got it at an old guitar shop and it sounded good—I don’t even know what it was called—it was just an old beat-up uke. I think I picked it up right around the time when it became a thing again, which is cool, because now you see ukuleles in every music shop.

Is that what you’re still playing?

I’ve been playing an IMUA ukulele since they gave me one. Last year, they came out with this solid-body uke that I’m really loving playing right now. I actually have three IMUA ukuleles. But I’m notorious for breaking things, so I have two that work acoustically, but no longer electrically. I have only been playing the solid-body one ’cause I ruined the other two at the beach. A wave came up and took out the ukes, and I was chasing after them. It’s so much easier to bring to the beach than lugging around a big acoustic guitar.

When did you start playing guitar and writing songs?


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I was 13 when I started on bass and then about halfway through high school, I got more serious about playing guitar. Since I picked it up, all I ever wanted to do was write songs. It was hard for me to learn other people’s songs because I was so involved with whatever was in my head. I felt I was a writer right away. I’ve written a few pieces for ukulele, and it’s become a part of my show.

I wrote an instrumental piece that has some flamenco influences, and play modern tunes that people wouldn’t expect, like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” or some throwback stuff like Fleetwood Mac. I kind of use it for the shock factor. And people seem to love the uke.

So should we expect a uke tune on your next album?

I hope so. I’m doing an instrumental album right now and haven’t worked out the details yet. Uke is still such a new thing to me. I haven’t been in the studio in quite some time, but I’m working up a bunch of material to do with it. I love playing Beatles songs, a lot of pop rock, classic rock, modern pop tunes, and original instrumental works.

Is composing for ukulele different than guitar?

Whatever instrument it is, it’s just a mental block. For a while I couldn’t figure out ukulele, then I realized it’s like a smaller guitar and it just clicked for me. I could do my thing on it all of a sudden, instead of feeling like I’m learning a new instrument. That said, it’s way different and has honestly helped my guitar playing because of the tuning of it. It’s very similar to a guitar, but because of its tuning, it rings and resonates in a different way, so it kind of stretches the ear to hearing different harmonies that you wouldn’t necessarily hear that way on guitar because of the string gauges—just having four instead of six.

As a guitar teacher, have you seen more students gravitate toward ukulele?

Uke is such a big thing now. I teach a lot of people who wrote a song on their acoustic guitar and want to know how to play that on ukulele or vice versa. It’s very easy to transfer.

Do you listen to a lot of ukulele music?

I listen to Brother Iz and Jake Shimabukuro. Shimabukuro was the first person I watched online and thought, “This guy is really ripping like a guitar player on ukulele.” That’s more the direction I want to go.

 


 This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine.
Click here for more on that issue.

Ukulele Spring 2015

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