Everyone has a few strange relations. You know the kind I’m talking about: You’re not sure how you are related to them, they look nothing like you, but they show up at every family reunion, brimming with shared childhood memories and expecting a warm embrace, while you find yourself struggling to even recall their name.
Ukuleles are no different. Since hitting the mainland in the 1910s and 20s, they’ve spawned a number of odd cousins—some very similar in sight and sound, others more like Frankenstein versions of the real thing, bearing no common thread other than, possibly the name. Some ukulele cousins, like the banjo uke, or banjolele, have been acceptable, highly coveted and favored members of the uke family pretty much from the dawn of the uke’s popularity. Others, over time, could be compared to those distant cousins of yours who have been known to park an old Winnebago in your driveway, a la the Griswold’s kinfolk, for a week and call it vacation. Whatever the case, blood runs thicker than water, and I can’t help but say a thing or two about some of the uke’s wacky relatives.
A fine example of an odd uke cousin is the ukalin, or its strange stepsister, the Violin-uke. My co-workers presented me with one of these curiosities for my birthday last week—and we couldn’t help but want to learn a little bit about this so-called Uke thing. While the name would lead you to believe it’s really a ukulele, it strangely resembles an old fashioned dulcimer or even the old European Nyckelharpa more than it does a ukulele or a violin. What we learned is that ukalins were created in what might be considered a perfect music marketing storm: During the Great Depression, door to door salesmen were promoting everything from Fuller brushes to Bibles. Novelty instruments delivered to the door seemed like a natural fit for a music-crazed society. Phonographs and radios were becoming household items, and with music at their fingertips, it seemed that every American wanted to be a musician. Supposedly, the ukalin was created in such a way that, with the aid of a pick and a bow, anyone could play a tune instantly. Looking at the complexity of the thing and the multitude of strings that I have no idea how to tune, I’m not sure that ease of playing was an actual reality. Right now, when strummed, I think it sounds sort of like I imagine an old upright piano would sound if it was dropped or slid, Laurel and Hardy style, down a flight of stairs.
Here’s an old guy playing an Ukalin, if you can bear it. I don’t think I’ve managed to make it through this video yet.
Another curious uke cousin is the Singing Treholipee. It was manufactured by Swaggerty in California during the mid 1960s in answer to what seemed like a common surfer problem. It seems that surfers were constantly losing their ukes in the sand when they ran off to chase an awesome wave. Swaggerty figured they’d design a long-necked ukulele that could be planted in the sand, and still be there waiting for the surfers when they returned. According to Barefootbloggin.com, Swaggerty also manufactured some other ukulele cousins: The Surf-a-Lay-lee and the Kook-A-Lele.
You might have guessed that my favorite Uker, Gus Raucous, has a Singing Treholipee in his collection. Here he is, giving a nod to the Monkees. By the way, I am pretty sure that my Alice Chalmers pal, washtub bassist Ms. Tammy Lieber will be pretty happy to note that Gus’s buddy Fin is playing a nice Scottish tea chest bass. Oh, we need to say thank you to EMI publishing, and request that you click on the link below to watch this video on YouTube. It's a copyright thng.
I don’t know enough about these curious instruments to make much of a statement. I can tell you that they are very much like their big relatives, harp guitars, which are hybrid instruments. They have two necks, one strung with ukulele strings, and the other with harp strings. The idea is that you pick the strings, and, since the harp chamber is hollow, you end up with a different kind of resonance, even a haunting kind of sound. There are also harp ukes that do not have the second set of strings, but take advantage of the added chamber in the hollow neck to produce a louder, unique sound. If you are lucky, you might get a chance to hear Nashville, Tenn. harp guitarist Tom Shinness play the next time he’s in Indiana.
Now you get to compare a little: Here’s a nice old harp ukulele getting a work out:
I don’t have to tell you that certain ukes, like the Banjo ukulele, are perfectly acceptable mainstream ukuleles. Strung and tuned like a uke, but gifted with a small banjo body, banjoleles pack a punch that was necessary to give the uke a louder voice in the early days of jazz recordings and concerts. These days, banjo ukes are enjoying a new surge in popularity not only among die-hard ukulelists, but also among old-time musicians, who appreciate the sound and sensibility of the little banjo uke. As a matter of fact, I have it on good authority that at least two members of the Kansas old-time band The Prairie Acre recently picked up banjo ukes while attending a summer music festival, and they’ve been playing around with them plenty. I wonder if we’ll get to enjoy a little uking during their set the next time they come to town.
George Formby Jr. made the banjo ukulele famous in the UK. Growing up, George Harrison loved listening Formby, and gives him credit for inspiring him to take up the ukulele. The man certainly could play, but I can’t get past that voice of his. But, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and he certainly experienced a bit of popularity among Brits during the 1930s-1950s.
One type of uke that is frequently confused with a banjolele is the camp uke. Like the banjo uke, the camp uke has a round body. But, that body is made of solid wood with a resonator, giving the instrument a “bright, snappy” sound, or so says Jake at Antebelluminstruments.com.
You can see what a camp uke looks like right here: