By Sandor Nagyszalanczy
Uke Tales is an exploration of ukuleles with an interesting story, connection, or just a lovely instrument.
No matter how good or how bad the experience, we always remember our first times: a first kiss; a first time driving a car; a first musical instrument. Some months ago, I wrote about the first instrument I ever played—A Carnival brand “Aloha” plastic uke, which was really more of a toy than a serious piece of lutherie. A recent visitor viewing my ukulele collection asked me: “Which one was your first uke?” After retelling the story about my childhood Aloha, I told him about my first “real” uke, which happened to be a Martin.
In the early 1970s, I was going to school at the University of California Santa Cruz, which was (and still is) one of the most beautiful campuses in the entire collegiate world. Although I didn’t study music there (I was a design major), I always enjoyed playing my guitar, the same one I’d had since I started playing at age 11—a 1927 koa wood Martin. I’d often sit outside under the redwood trees and strum between classes when I probably should have been studying. My girlfriend at the time was a good singer and we occasionally performed together at various coffeehouses around town. Life was good.
“You won’t believe this, but I found your uke at a thrift store in Modesto and it only cost $1!”
About the time I was to graduate, my girlfriend went home for the weekend to visit her parents somewhere in California’s Central Valley. When she returned a few days later, she gleefully announced that she had a surprise for me, and presented me with a lovely little Martin Style 0 mahogany soprano ukulele, circa 1950, which was in great condition. I was flabbergasted. Aside from my parents, no one had ever given me a gift this nice before. While thanking her profusely, I couldn’t help but think “OMG, what must this have cost her?” Having owned a Martin guitar, I knew that these were top-shelf instruments and yet we were both starving students at the time. Before I could ask about the price of my gift, she exclaimed: “You won’t believe this, but I found your uke at a thrift store in Modesto and it only cost $1!”
For those of you who know how pricey Martin ukes are these days (and may be skeptical of my girlfriend’s find), I must remind you of just how undesirable ukuleles were in the 1970s. It’s my belief that TV performer Tiny Tim single-handedly made the ukulele the un-coolest instrument on the planet. A regular on NBC television’s trend-setting program Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Tiny (AKA Herbert Khaury) sang Tin Pan Alley–era songs like “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (his signature song) in a high falsetto voice. Although, in reality, he was an accomplished musician and musical archivist, his Laugh-In persona was laughably comedic, at best.
Regardless of Tiny Tim’s actual influence on musical pop culture, there’s little doubt that ukuleles were highly un-cool in the 1970s. I know this because I had the distinct displeasure of experiencing it first hand: With my then-new-to-me Martin ukulele, I attended a party in Los Angeles thrown by a college friend. Not knowing many folks at the party, I secluded myself in a corner and proceeded to strum a few of the ’20s-era novelty songs I’d learned since acquiring the uke. At one point, an attractive young lady came up and asked me, in a voice reeking of judgment: “Is that a ukulele?” After I nodded yes, she added scornfully “My Grandmother played the ukulele.” I think if I’d passed out drunk at that party, I would have awoken with “Geek” written in permanent marker pen on my forehead.
I’m happy to say that that was the worst of what I experienced when playing my Martin soprano. By the early 1980s, I’d joined a mostly a capella music group called “The JeloTones.” In addition to bringing my tenor voice to the band, I taught them some of my favorite novelty songs, including “Nagasaki” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which soon became part of the group’s repertoire. Whenever we’d perform (we regularly busked in downtown Santa Cruz), I’d tuck the Martin’s neck down under my belt behind my back when we sang do-wop songs a capella, then pull it out to play novelty songs with ukulele accompaniment.
When we started playing stage gigs, I decided to install a pickup in the Martin so I could plug it into an amp or PA. After extracting the piezo element from a cheap guitar suction-cup surface pickup, I glued it inside the uke, under the bridge. Then, I hit a snag: I drilled a hole though the side of the soprano, only to have the thin wood cave in around the hole. My solution was to craft a diamond-shaped escutcheon plate from a small piece of ebony. Glued over the hole, it not only covered up the damage, but it provided a strong mount for the 1/8” jack I installed. (After all that, the pickup sounded pretty bad, so I ended up mic’ing the Martin most of the time.)
Now, more than 40 years after my thoughtful girlfriend gave me that $1 Martin uke, I’m still playing it. It’s traveled with me all around the world and bears the dings and scratches from decades of happy strumming. Although I’ve owned and played many ukes that were fancier and decidedly more expensive, it’ll always hold a special place in my heart with its sweet sound that never fails brings a smile to my face.
Sandor Nagyszalanczy is a regular contributor to Ukulele Magazine and a woodworking expert, an avid ukulele collector, and Creative Director and Emcee of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz.