Archive for the ‘Ukulele’ Category

Restringing a Ukulele with Fishing Line

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Having put good strings on my good ukulele, and great strings on my great ukulele, I thought I’d put comically cheap strings on my cheap ukulele. And what better way to get a plinky-dinky cheap sound than fishing line?

One problem is, fishing line isn’t actually all that cheap. Because it’s hard to find it in short lengths. Sure, you could pay a few bucks for a 500-yard spool … but you’ll never use that much line (unless you actually go fishing), and more importantly, you’d have to get four reels, because the strings are all different sizes. So two options seemed feasible: grotesquely cheap fishing line, or better quality fishing line bought by the yard.

My first stop was the Bass Pro Shop, because they’re practically right next door. Unfortunately, despite being huge and intimidating, they didn’t sell any line by the yard, and their cheapest stuff ($5 for a spool) didn’t come in the right sizes. I moved on to Sports Authority, where I found the cheapest of the cheap stuff ($2.50 for that 500-yard spool) in the right sizes. Still, that meant putting down ten bucks for line that didn’t end up sounding all that great. On the plus side, I have fishing line for years now. Anyone want to string some beads?

I used the super-cheap stuff to string my uke (as seen in the previous photodump post, and wasn’t thrilled with the sound, but it was tolerable.

THEN, I happened upon a Dick’s Sporting Goods. Which I’d forgotten about completely, and only noticed because it’s next to the giant new liquor store near our house. So after buying my booze (and sampling a really nice Irish whiskey), I sauntered over to Dick’s.

The fishing stuff is in the same section as the guns. I was especially taken by the little pink one on the top shelf. It’s the kind of weapon Hello Kitty would use.

Not only did they have spools of better-quality fishing line, they also sold it by the yard. For cheap! I totally perplexed the guy behind the counter when I asked for a mere 5 yards in each size, but he was game to go to the back room where they keep the gigantic spools and cut me some.

The four sizes I got are: 30-pound, 40-pound, 50-pound, and 60-pound test. All those mean is that they’re tested to support that heavy of a load without breaking. I did some research and checked the pound-test to the standard measurement of uke strings, which is inches in diameter. And really, having put these strings on and tweaked the tuning a bit, you could probably get away with only two or three weights of line.

Anyhoo, the nice guy at the Dick’s gave me five yards each of 30, 40, 50, and 60, and told me to not even bother stopping by the registers, since it was such a small amount. And truly, going by their price charts, my twenty yards of line would have cost roughly 50¢.

Let’s also take a moment and discuss the material. There appear to be three basic kinds of fishing line. One is more of a braided string, so that’s useless for our purposes. The others are monofilament and fluorocarbon. Monofilament is cheaper, and that’s what I got (although it appears to be a decent quality monofilament). Fluorocarbon is the really good stuff, and will run you $20 or more for a small spool of the really high-quality stuff. So if you can find a place that will sell you fluorocarbon by the yard, jump on it.

Onward! I took off the old strings from my little uke and laid out the various sizes of line.

And yes, that is a cat’s tail in the upper corner.

We had to leave that shelf empty for the cats, so they could saunter between my desk and Scott’s. They love hanging out there, because they can get petted by both of us at the same time.

SO. I used the smallest line for the highest note, and so on down the line. But I started stringing with the second-smallest line (the 40-pound test) because that’s the string at the top of the ukulele. The bottom-most string is the highest note (A), while this topmost string is the G just below that A.

Here you can tell that it’s a cheap ukulele — you put knots in the strings and slot them into holes.

For the sake of comparison, a higher-quality ukulele doesn’t have those knot-holes; you have to feed the strings all the way through and wrap them back over themselves. Here’s my nicest uke, strung with my nicest strings, so you can see the difference.

So, you put the knot in the hole, pull the string over the bridge, lay it in the little groove up on the nut, and then you have to wind the string around the tuning peg. Again, there’s a difference between cheap and not-cheap ukes. On this cheap one, the hole in the tuning peg where you secure your string is in the middle.

While on my nicer ukulele, the hole is nearer to the top.

At any rate, with either one, you want to wrap the string around the peg a few times, then feed it through the hole. With the thinner strings, I then fed it through the hole a second time, for security. But as you can see two photos up, I didn’t wind the string starting at the very base of the peg; I left about a string’s width at the bottom. That’s so when you tighten the string, there’s still a place for that string to go. I did the same thing with the nicer uke, and as you can see, when it’s fully tuned up the string fills the peg all the way down to the bottom.

I finished with the rest of the strings, which went pretty quick. For the record, G=40-lb, C=60-lb, E=50-lb, and A=30-lb. You could probably do the G and A both with either the 40-lb or the 30-lb; one would just feel a little tighter or looser than the other. But I like the feel of the strings using all four sizes.

Now comes the tedious part — the constant stretching and re-tuning as the strings settle in. I’m tuning everything a little sharp, and pulling gently sideways on the strings to stretch them out.

Also, if I had to do this with a pitch pipe, I’d probably go nuts. Thank goodness for my little tuner. As you can see, I tuned a little bit sharp — by the end of a song, the string ended up on the flat side anyway. But since I have a penchant for playing dour and depressing songs on the uke, it’s kind of hilarious as it slowly gets flatter and more sour during a song. “Famous Blue Raincoat” has probably never sounded quite as chipper, yet quite as bleak.

Photodump: Concert, Ukes, Lemon Trees, and Special Robotic Guests

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Busy times lately. I’m pleased to say that my cool temp job, which was supposed to end at the beginning of February but got extended, is turning into my cool for-realsies job. A full-time position opened up in the department, and they offered it to me. So as of this week, I’m now an officially official member of the Disney Creative Entertainment office & technical staff. Yay!

What else has been going on, you may ask? Well, we attended a concert:

Our chums Paul and Storm came to town. Wonderful guys, both. I don’t know what it is about internet celebrity people of Roughly Our Age, but so far every one of them I’ve met has been lovely.

I re-strung my best and my cheapest ukuleles. The best got a new set of Aquilas, including the low-G string. The cheapest got fishing line. For realsies. As an experiment, I strung it with pieces of 25-pound, 40-pound, 50-pound, and 60-pound test. Being me, I got the cheapest fishing line I could find: $2.50 for each spool. It doesn’t sound too awful!

It’s my understanding that some of the really good quality strings are, actually, high-quality fishing line. But we’re talking fishing line that’s $20 per package. I’d have to re-string really frequently to make it cost-effective over the $10 I spend on a pack of high-quality strings.

And when changing, it was totally obvious that I needed to swap out these strings. These are both low-G metal-wound strings. The bottom is the old one, the top is the shiny new one.

Unfortunately, now I have to deal with stretching out the new strings. Which means re-tuning over and over and over. Right now, they don’t even stay in tune through an entire song. But they’ll stretch and settle in soon enough.

I put a new battery in my electronic tuner, since I’ll be using it a lot. Did you know that IKEA now carries size 2032 batteries? Those flat round ones, about the size of a quarter, that seem to be in EVERY little gadget? $1.99 for an eight-pack, which was the highlight find of my most recent IKEA trip.

I don’t know if the Swedish yellow pea would have been a highlight. Just the name gave us the giggles.

I also transplanted my two little lemon trees into bigger pots. They’re both flowering like crazy right now, and the Meyer lemon is still working on a few fruit that it started back in the fall. They stopped growing for a month or so, during the colder times, but they’re totally getting bigger again. Hopefully the Eureka will also bear fruit, now that it’s in its first flowering.

The cats remain grand, as usual. They’re both on my desk right now as I type, trying to duke it out for the coveted spot in front of the keyboard. Which means I may soon have to wrangle my arms up over the top of one of them to type. They’ve been very civil to each other today, including a cheek-to-cheek nap.

To close, things are good. Especially my job, in which things like this happen:

Photodump: Fruits, Legumes, and Abbreviated Musical Acts

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

My little lemon trees appear to have made it through the winter. They both dropped a LOT of leaves when the weather got colder, and I worried that they would both kick the bucket.

You can see the general leaflessness of the Eureka lemon, but a couple of weeks ago I noticed that it was starting to bud like crazy. And those buds are now getting ginormous. Within the next week or so, that sucker will be flowering.

The lemons that were growing on the Meyer lemon tree stopped getting any larger for a while, but they seem to be on the grow again. The Meyer is also budding up, but not as violently as the Eureka. It still has probably a dozen lemons in the works, with the largest ones about the size of a small lime. We’ll see if they continue their journey now that they’ve had a little winter nap.

The other night we attended an awesome concert — They Might Be Giants, with Jonathan Coulton as the opening act. Coulton played the electric guitar (as opposed to the acoustic performance two years ago [and I'm amazed that it's been two years since JoCo visited]), and he was accompanied by a bass player and drummer. A small band, but a band nonetheless. His performance was awesome, as always, and he played many a good song, but it was too darned short.

We hadn’t seen TMBG for years; certainly not since we moved to Florida. They gave a great show, and did some fascinating bits with knit puppets. And we got to see what was probably one of the last public performances of “Marty Beller Mask” ever.

Paul and Storm are also visiting our town this coming Friday. I may have to venture downtown to see them.

I changed the strings on my second-best ukulele, and it sounds much brighter. I think I’ve had this thing for three or four years now, so it was about time for a string change. I’ve special ordered strings for my first-best uke, so I can get the low-g string instead of the high-g. Those should come in later this week. Then I’ll put the used first-best strings on my third-best, littlest uke. Yes, I have three ukuleles. And like cats, I’d have more if I was allowed.

Finally, in the category of tasty things, I made some roasted garbanzo beans (or chickpeas, if you prefer to call them that). I started with the Alton Brown base, then fiddled with the recipe. I ended up soaking the dry beans for at least 16 hours (overnight), then roasting at 375° for about 45 minutes (stirring them around every 15). Instead of his oil-vinegar-spice mix, I just used coconut oil and salt.

With the coconut oil, they smell like movie theater popcorn while they’re cooking. When they’re done, they have the texture of corn nuts, but a flavor similar to roasted pumpkin seeds. Me likey!

Transcribing Guitar Tabs to Ukulele Tabs

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

I love the internet. For over 10 years, I’ve been getting basic music cheat-sheets from various places online, mostly stuff that was painstakingly transcribed by hand from fans of the songs. But a problem I’ve always had is that most of the music is written out for the guitar, and there are some differences if you want to play it on the ukulele.

I did a Google search for “transcribing guitar tabs to ukulele tabs”, and came up bust for the most part. Sadly, a lot of the results were along the lines of: “Chords are chords, no matter what the instrument, it stays the same, DUH.”

Thing is, there’s tabs, and then there’s chords. Different things.

Tab (or tablature) is written out so you don’t need to know the notes or how to read sheet music. It’s meant primarily for the single-note plucking stuff. Chords, on the other hand, are for the strumming. So for this example, I’m going to use REM’s “Everybody Hurts”. Because I have a thing for playing sad, morose songs on the sprightly ukulele. Anyhoo, here’s what both parts look like:



Totally different. So while the chords charts are universal, and can be used for any instrument, the tabs are much more instrument-specific because the strings of a guitar and a ukulele are tuned to different notes. I could play the top 4 strings as written on the ukulele, but the chords wouldn’t match.

Here’s a little recap for how each instrument is strung:

On the guitar, the six strings are tuned to the notes E-A-D-G-B-E, from the lowest-pitched string to the highest. For the sake of comparison to a ukulele, here I’m making the D chord. In this chord, you don’t play the two lowest-pitched strings, so you’re just strumming the D-G-B-E strings. Now check out the uke:

The same fingers are on the same strings in the same places. But because the ukulele’s strings are tuned to G-C-E-A, this chord is now a G.

The interesting part is that every string on the ukulele is 5 half-steps higher than the corresponding string on the guitar (that’s assuming that your uke has a low-G, and not a re-entrant high-G. Having that G string be higher adds another monkey wrench into the transcription).

So how the heck do I translate the one to the other? Well, there are several options.

1. Convert the chords: You could play the tabs as-is, and play different chords. That means that in “Everybody Hurts”, every G chord becomes a C chord, and every D chord becomes a G chord. It works for this song because the chords are still easy to strum. But you’ll most likely come across a song where the original chord is something easy like an F, and you’d have to play a Bb instead. Also, it means you can’t play along with the original recording, and it might end up in a wonky key that’s unsingable for you.

2. Bump everything up 5 spots: Keep the chords the same, and just bump everything in the tab up 5 spots. After all, the guitar is 5 half-steps off from the uke, so adding 5 to every number on the tab will put everything in the right key.

The problem is that you’re getting into some pretty high notes here. Things might sound a little shrill. Plus, the orignal was much easier with all of those zeroes — playing the open strings without having to put your fingers on the frets. For a beginner, it’ll be harder to play those 5s, 7s, and 8s. Also, we’ve totally lost the lowest notes, because they were on that very lowest string. A string the uke doesn’t have.

3. Capo up 5: So there’s a gadget called a capo that they make for guitars, but you can use it on your ukulele too. It’s a rubber-bottomed bar that locks across all the strings, so you’ve basically created a new ground zero for your instrument. If you put the capo right before the 5th fret on the ukulele, you’ve changed the base notes on the uke to D-G-B-E — the same notes as a guitar (only higher-pitched). So you could play everything as written! Two problems: One, again, the notes are higher and shriller. Two, on a uke, things get a little cramped higher up the fretboard:

Even for my little girly fingers, there’s not a lot of room to make that chord.

4. Retranscribe using actual notes: If you can get hold of sheet music, and if you can read sheet music, that’ll help immensely. You’d basically take the whole thing down to the notes, and then recraft tabs from scratch. Here’s the sheet music (And how intriguing, the sheet music includes guitar tabs!) for this opening riff:

This is where some knowledge of sheet music comes in handy. You can look at the sheet and figure out that the notes are:
D-A-D-F#-D-A / D-A-D-F#-D-A / G-D-G-G-D-G / G-D-G-G-D-G

So during that second part, I need 3 G notes: one low, one medium, one high. So that’s where I’ll start. The lowest note on my ukulele is the base note on my low-G string. Next up is the 3rd fret on my E string, and then … the 10th fret on the A string. So the second section alone is:

My friends, that’s ugly. And hard to play, to boot. So transcribing as actually written is maybe not the best move.

5. Creative re-arrangement: As Tim Gunn would say, it’s make-it-work time. Let’s take another look at the chord structures from the original guitar tablature — not the tabs, but the chords, which are D and G:

If you place your fingers where they’re supposed to go when you pluck the first half, you’ll see that your fingers are naturally in the spots for the D chord on the guitar. So what if we do the same with the uke? Place our fingers in the D chord, then just pluck one note at a time. Same with the second part, in the G chord. You end up with something like this:

Much easier to play, and it sounds really good! It’s not perfect, but as the saying goes, perfect is the enemy of good. If you’re just learning, or even if you’re any level of player less expert than Jake Shimabukuro, I think it’s better to alter things to be good but achievable, instead of striving for crazy-fingered perfection and giving up in frustration.

For another exercise in plucking chords, I highly recommend Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. Not only is it a morose ballad (something I love to play on the uke), but it has really easy chords. Especially the chorus, which is the chords D-A-D-A, then C-G-C-G. All easy on the uke. Just make the chord shapes, then pluck the strings from highest to lowest four times through in each chord.

Quick, Cheap, No-Drill Ukulele Strap

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

What with the growing interest in ukuleles in recent years, you’d think that there would be some good strap technology. It gets tiring to clutch your uke to your bosom all the time, after all. But there only appear to be three types of strap tech out there:

1. The kind that hooks onto the sound hole, and puts the weight in a sort of noose around your neck;

2. The kind that’s just like a smaller version of a guitar strap, and requires you to drill a hole and install a strap button on the bottom of the uke;

3. And the kind that only holds the uke in one spot, leashing it to your body but still requiring you to clutch it all the time.

I didn’t want to drill holes in any of my ukes, so I asked at my local music store (the delightful Orlando location of George’s Music, where they have more ukes than all of our area Guitar Centers combined) if there was such a thing as a stick-on button for a ukulele strap. The guy told me he’d never heard of anything like that, but if I could invent it, it’d be an awesome thing.

So off I went to the store!

I got a set of the Command mini-hooks I’d seen advertised on TV. They have a sticky pad with a tab that’s supposed to make them quick and easy to remove, and they won’t damage your walls. Sounds good! There were several sizes to choose from — I went with the size that holds up to a half-pound; they seemed to be the right cross between big enough to hold the weight of the uke, but small enough to be relatively unobtrusive. For reference, the hooks I got are model #17006, and they cost around three bucks.

Then I went to my local craft megastore (Michael’s is my nearest. Wish there were a Jo-Ann closer, though.) and bought some cheap ribbon. This was 3/8″ polyester ribbon from the 50¢ bin. I’d advise that you get yourself the softest ribbon you can find; this is going to be resting against your neck, after all. I’m sure you can tell that I got the high-quality stuff from the classy packaging.

I broke one hook off the sprue, and got one of the sticky pads. You stick the red side to the hook, and the black side to the wall/surface/ukulele. I don’t know what horrible things would happen if you stuck the black side to the hook and the red side to the uke. I didn’t want to chance anything, so I obeyed the directions on the package.

Then, the challenging question: which way to face the hook? I was worried that the bottom of the uke would be just curved enough that the pad wouldn’t stick. But I also figured that a hook facing downward would be the best angle for holding the uke, so I went ahead and tried it. On this particular concert-sized uke, there was no problem getting the pad to stick. The bottom of the ukulele was just flat enough. In checking out my soprano-sized uke, the bottom center is also just flat enough to take one of these hooks.

I cut a way-too-long strip of ribbon, then looped it around the headstock, just above the nut and under the strings. Then I tossed it around my body, figured out the right length for my personal tastes, and tied a single loop knot at that length.

Now I have a strap of just the right length, and can easily put that loop on the hook. I wiggled and jiggled everything around, and it holds really well. Nice and secure. So now I can stand and make jazz hands with my uke at the ready!