At this time of the year, many people consider starting new hobbies and leisure pursuits. If you’d love to learn an instrument, Shaftesbury resident Robin Walter makes a compelling offer.
Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred.com visited Robin’s Bimport home to hear why his ukulele classes have proven so popular. “I usually have beginners, from absolute scratch, playing their first song within 20 to 25 minutes,” said Robin.
The walls and floors of his second floor home office and music room instantly reveal two of Robin’s main interests – woodlands and music. Many of the books in this chartered forester’s workspace are on the topic of trees. And at the right-hand side of his desk, a selection of ukuleles in different colours and sized is stored.
Robin picked up one of these small instruments and started describing it in terms of its wood. “This is a spruce top,” he said, as he strummed the small light wood ukulele. “Certain woods are known as tone woods. They have better resonant qualities than others. Spruce is thought to be one of the best. I believe this is Sitka spruce, which is the predominant forestry tree in Britain. Another ukulele is made of koa. And this is acacia,” Robin stated, as he pulled down and strummed another instrument, which had a deeper and richer sound. “It has a low G,” he added. Robin laughed when I asked him whether he went about his forestry job, eyeing up trees for their ukulele-making potential.
So what is the difference between a ukulele and a guitar, I asked. “Ukuleles usually have four strings. Sometimes they have eight strings because the have pairs of strings. You can get a thing called a baritone, which is slightly bigger again. It’s halfway to a guitar, really,” Robin said, picking one up from his selection. Of all the instruments he had played for me this was the largest and it had the fullest sound. “You’ve basically got two thirds of a guitar once you have a baritone ukulele, but again it is a four stringed instrument.”
Robin’s musicianship was centred on the guitar until eight years ago. He’d played guitar since his teenage years and joined a popular local jazz band as a guitarist. “I’ve been playing jazz with Misbehavin’ since 2001,” explained Robin. “In 2011, I went to a summer camp and everybody was strumming ukuleles. So I started playing and when I got back to Shaftesbury I thought it would be fun to start a group. I set one up in 2012. It became quite popular. It jogged on for a few years and we built up quite a repertoire of songs and I had the hang of teaching people in groups of 20 to 30. Then I thought I’d start another group in Wimborne. That went well so I started another in Salisbury and I’m now running three groups.”
It seems that there has been a ukulele craze in recent years, perhaps encouraged by the chart success of the Hawaiian singer-songwriter Jack Johnson. “There has certainly been a new wave of interest in the last ten years,” said Robin. “Although, funnily enough, I found a ukulele at my parents’ house. They bought it on their honeymoon in Spain. It had old gut strings on it, so I refurbished that. Then, all of a sudden, everybody was playing ukulele music, including me!”
Thirty years ago, if you had said that you were a ukulele player, people might have laughed at you. As an instrument they weren’t considered credible, perhaps even corny. “There was interest in them around the beginning of the century and they were popular also in the 1930s and 1940s but when rock music came along, the ukulele was a ridiculous thing. Everybody wanted electric guitars,” said Robin, adding, “Although, having said that, George Harrison is a great ukulele player. In the last decade it’s really taken off.”
So is it a fad, I wondered? Robin says that he has asked himself that question. “Sometimes I wonder how long is it going to last? Are people getting fed up of it? But there’s no sign at the moment. As long as people are enjoying playing and it is interesting and challenging then there will always be a place for it. You could say the same of community choirs. Over the last five or ten years, they have been popping up but of course people have been doing that for years before it. People love getting together and singing. That’s what we do in our group. It’s almost all singing but with this extra technical challenge.”
So Robin is satisfied that we have not reached ‘peak ukulele’, yet. “Apparently not,” he laughed.
Robin believes that part of the appeal of ukulele groups is the instrument’s tonal quality. “If you had twenty guitars playing a song then it would probably be too much. Something like a ukulele is very conducive to playing in a large group. They are small and they don’t make a huge amount of noise,” he said.
So how do you learn how to play a ukulele so you can join in with others? First of all, Robin says that beginners don’t need to read music. “If you come along as a beginner, you start with a chord box,“ he said, as he showed me a sheet of A4 paper with the lyrics to the Johnny Cash song ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ printed on it. The letter ‘G’ was contained in brackets at the start of the first line of words. Then, a line later, ‘G7’ indicated where players should change their finger positions.
“You change your chord at that point. You don’t need to know what F-sharp or C-major is. You just need to look at this chord box and it shows you where to put your fingers on which strings.” The chord box codes are universal, rather that a method that Robin has devised. “You can find that pretty much any song that’s ever been has an arrangement of it online somewhere. They are not all very good though,” said Robin.
There can be some surprises. Robin has arranged a ukulele version of Pachelbel’s Canon. “It’s a famous Baroque piece,” said Robin. “I’ve arranged it in several parts. We recently did Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ too.” So is it possible to make a ukulele sound miserable, I asked? Robin started strumming his arrangement of ‘Abide With Me’. It still sounded fairly cheerful to my ears.
Robin assured me that the learning-to-play process wasn’t daunting and he carries some spare ukuleles for new recruits to try. And when the beginners become hooked, they won’t have to fork out a fortune on their own instruments. “Spend £25 to £50 and you’ll be fine. If you compare that to an oboe or a piano, they’d cost you hundreds, certainly,” he said.
Of course you can find the arrangements online and there seems to be a YouTube tutorial for everything now but Robin says you can’t beat a real-life lesson. “There are ukulele tutorials online but I can tell you what you are doing wrong. You could strum along and think, ‘why doesn’t this sound right?’ This is one of the advantages of coming to a class.”
And there’s the social side of playing with others, too. “Anybody who has been in a choir will know that it’s much more fun doing these things with friends, rather than sitting there at home and doing it in your bedroom,” Robin said.
Time-poor people expect instant results. I can understand the appeal of Robin’s promise that his beginners will be strumming a well-known song by the end of their first ukulele session. “Basically, I show you how to tune it, how to hold it, how to strum it. We start with very simple chords. People go home from the first session and they can play something. They think, ‘That’s amazing. When I walked in the room I couldn’t play anything and now I can’,” he said.
It’s quite a powerful proposition. “We start with chords that only require one finger. I usually start with El Condor Pasa, which was made famous by Simon and Garfunkel.”
Robin hosts his sessions at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Tuesdays, outside holiday periods. The groups are held back-to-back, starting with the £5 beginner lessons from 4.30pm until 5.15pm. The longer intermediate group costs £6 and follows on between 5.15pm and 6.30pm. Then the £5 advanced class takes over for 45 minutes from 6.30pm.
“You can just turn up but it’s good to let me know by phone or email to so I get an idea of numbers and whether you need a ukulele for the session,” said Robin. “Generally, after that, if you think it is something you’d like to do then you should get your own ukulele. There is Underground Music at the top of Gold Hill. Dave has sold quite a few ukuleles to some of my pupils.” Robin laughed at my suggestion that he should be on commission. He told me that it felt good to be supporting our town’s own music store, ‘a local asset’, he said.
And once you’re confident, you can take part in public performances with Robin’s ukulele band. It seems that a Shaftesbury event is not complete without their attendance. “We play at Gold Hill Fair, the Food Festival and the Cobbles Markets, sometimes.” You may have stopped to enjoy the group performing Dire Straits’ ‘Walk Of Life’ during the Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce Christmas Market. That’s their most popular performance piece at the moment, Robin says.
“There’s no audition for the band. We have dates in the diary and the set list that we practice. Some people come along and play the ones they can and they just sing along to the ones they can’t, standing at the back. Many people have never stood up in public and performed anything so that’s another opportunity.”
You can contact Robin on 07824 552414 or visit his website, theukeshack.co.uk, to book yourself on a session. The new season of lessons starts on Tuesday 8th January.