The Ukelele, Fine Tuned
A conversation with Seth Perry, ukelele player.
There are plenty of things to like about the ukelele. “First of all,” says Seth Perry, “it’s easy to tote around.” And that’s obvious as Mr. Perry slips the four-stringed instrument from its case and tucks it into the crook of his elbow. Reaching with his free hand, he pulls a chamois cloth from his gig bag and eases into our interview by putting a polish to his “uke.”
After polishing, Mr. Perry tunes his instrument. Using a fully modern clip-on tuner with LCD display he plucks one string at a time, checks the gauge and adjusts the tuning peg until it rests in the desired range. Then, relying on his own ear Mr. Perry again plucks one string at a time to the halting rhythm of “My Dog Has Fleas,” the go-to song for tuning.
Ukelele’s have four strings and come in varying shapes: a figure eight, the pineapple, the Fluke, and boat paddle. And because the ukelele looks a lot like a guitar, only smaller, people often mistake them as toys. It’s an image perpetuated in the 1960s when Tiny Tim, an eccentric singer and ukelele player, found success when his high-pitched rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” became a hit.
But the ukelele is bona fide instrument. Modeled after the small guitar-like instruments brought to Hawaii by Portuguese and Spanish sailors in the 19th century, the ukelele comes in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.
Tiny Tim aside, Mr. Perry talks of contemporary and other well-known artists who play the ukelele. Artists like Eddie Vedder with the band Pearl Jam, Greg Hawkes with The Cars, and “Elvis of course was famous for ‘Blue Hawaii,’” he says.
There’s Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection”— the ukelele version. When I raised an eyebrow, unable to bring the tune to mind, Mr. Perry tilted his head, repositioned his fingers, strummed the ukelele, and sang: “Why are there — so many — songs — about rainbows?”
“I know that!” I said.
“Of course you do,” he said.
But perhaps the rainbow song most often associated with the ukelele is Hawaiian singer and ukelele player Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole's melodic version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The song became a platinum hit in 1993.
For Mr. Perry, it was nearly three years ago when a family friend introduced him to the ukelele. Months later, on his birthday he received one as a gift. And although he has some experience playing guitar, he doesn’t read music. “I’ve never had one lesson,” he says with a hint of self-satisfaction. Instead, he relies on a book of chords: easy-to-follow charts that diagram finger placement.
A graphic designer by trade and professional comedian, Mr. Perry likes to keep his instrument close by. He takes it to work with him, enjoying a bit of practice during breaks. Evenings at home he sits on the couch, spontaneously composing songs, sometimes muting the sound with his elbow.
“It’s not like I’m learning the saxophone,” he says, “the uke is quiet.” Though sometimes not quiet enough. He admits (with a chuckle) that on occasion it’s been suggested, “maybe you can put that away now.”
But practice is key Mr. Perry says. Whether it’s a song from his book of chords or a spontaneous tune he strums in response to something happening in the moment, he’s practicing. Once in a while his fingers cramp, and he’s been spending a lot of time recently “trying to get the E chord,” right.
“With chords that are difficult,” he says, “like a bar chord, that’s where the practice comes in. You can feel when it’s right.”
He also writes his own songs. Paying close attention to the sound he’s after, Mr. Perry examines his finger placement, makes notes, and diagrams the chords. He also records a lot of his music and shares his recordings with other ukelele players on Facebook.
Though he’s tried playing with other musicians, Mr. Perry claims he’s been told he “throws them off,” and says, “I don’t have any rhythm.” But, he adds, “I’ve got a lot of very talented friends,” and he’s content sitting off to the side where he can pluck along.
He may not be comfortable joining a jam session, but Mr. Perry clearly enjoys an audience. His rat terrier, Daisy, perhaps his most ardent fan, provides howling accompaniment to his rendition of a “Bicycle Built for Two.” And throughout our time together he weaves his answers to my questions with music and humor. Which is how I discovered him—ukelele in hand at the print shop.
Whether he has rhythm or not, Mr. Perry clearly finds pleasure in the process.
And that, well it’s music to the ear.
There's also the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain and a performance.
Listen to Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole's performance of "Over the Rainbow"