Uke for Guitarists

by Scott Nygaard

You’re known as a guitar player, but lately you’ve been playing a lot of ukulele. How did you get started playing uke?

MARCY MARXER I found my first ukulele in a garbage can on my way to school. I was in high school in Swartz Creek, Michigan, and I was just walking along and I saw the little head of an instrument poking up out of a garbage can. I pulled it up and it was a really cheap, meant-to-be-awall-hanger ukulele. But it held together for a couple of years. I started buying Hawaiian records at yard sales and thrift stores. I still have that whole collection—all kinds of esoteric Hawaiian records.

I really loved the ukulele from the start. For me, it was really a little guitar. Now, I appreciate the fact that they’re different instruments, but at the time it seemed to me like a little guitar that I could take anywhere and practice any time. It’s also kind of an unassuming instrument. People see you with a ukulele and they automatically smile.

Uke for Guitarists Ex. 1-3
Click to enlarge.

So were you playing it at gigs, or did you just see it as kind of a little travel guitar?

MARXER No, it was more like for playtime. I took it to camp—church camp and scout camp and to school. That was before I was really doing gigs. I just played it. When I got a little bit older I found Elderly Instruments, and there were people there who were playing the ukulele in string band music and early blues and ragtime. So I got to meet other people who played the uke and were playing really interesting and cool things.

Do you remember the first nice uke you got?

MARXER Yeah, the first nice uke I had possession of wasn’t mine. It was owned by Stan Werbin, of Elderly, and I was going to Washington, DC, to play the uke on Cathy Fink’s record Doggone My Time. I had a little uke that was kinda nice. It was in tune, which was great. Back then it was hard to find inexpensive ukes that were in tune. So Stan said, “You’re going to go play on a record, here, take my ukulele.” And I was sold. I couldn’t believe the difference it made. It was an old Martin, and it had fiddle peg tuners. But it sounded glorious.

You know, people are always asking what made the ukulele boom take off. The ukulele boom started before it was obvious to many people. One thing that really helped was having ukuleles that were inexpensive and in tune. I made a Homespun Tapes DVD for kids long ago on how to play the ukulele, and what I found was kids used it, parents used it, and people who had never played a musical instrument before and weren’t sure that they could also used it. At that time it was very difficult to find the right ukulele to recommend because the frets were often in the wrong place. But once companies started making ukes that people could get their hands on with the frets in the right place, everything fell into place for the ukulele to take off.

You were playing uke and guitar at the same time. Was there much difference between the way you played the uke and the way you played the guitar?

MARXER There wasn’t much difference, other than everything’s in a different key. I’m a guitar player at heart, so I think on a guitar and transfer to the ukulele. A ukulele is a guitar capoed at the fifth fret with no bottom strings. And that’s the thing that throws guitar players, because we’re used to having bass notes that we use as our anchors and guides. But on the uke, those bass notes aren’t there. Plus the fourth string is re-entrant tuning, which means it’s an octave above where we would expect it to be on the guitar. 

So my G chord is now a C chord, because everything just bumps up a fourth. An F chord would be a C chord on the guitar. G7 would be a D7 on the guitar [Example 1]. What it also means is that the jazzy things, or the things that would be a little bit of a stretch on a guitar are really close on a ukulele.

Were you learning Hawaiian tunes from the records you’d found?

MARXER Some of the Hawaiian records I had were more like ’50s crossover Hapa Haole records, which were great, but I didn’t find the real traditional music until later. And I just couldn’t believe how much beauty and soul there was in that music. I totally love and respect the real Hawaiian music, although my sensibilities come more from vaudeville. I love Hawaiian music and will go back as old as I can find, from the Queen writing tunes on the ukulele for her people, it’s just unbelievable.

But, other than hanging out with friends and just playing it, I learned more on the ukulele from Roy Smeck. I went to hang out with him in New York in the early 1980s. He was hilarious. He was quite a practical joker. But he just played things for me. He didn’t tell me the names of any chords or slow things down.

What were some of the things he was playing?

MARXER The very first tune he showed me was “12th Street Rag,” which is actually a pretty easy tune to play. The intro was [Example 2], which is a common intro. If you listen to Roy Smeck’s records he used that all the time. And then he played [Example 3].

Excerpted from Ukulele, Issue 1

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