Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Singing high, high, high

There are drawbacks to having a low G string, I discover. (New readers, please behave yourselves.) Having resigned myself to the fact that some of the chords required for the Ode to Joy are a physical impossibility, I set about learning the tune instead. Fiendishly difficult, of course, but I stick with it. Trouble is, there comes a point where everything is inexorably heading towards a low G, just before the note that comes in a bit early to catch you out. That low G sounds deeply Beethovenian. With the uke tuned to a high G, however, you get something that sounds more like a pre-school ditty. It's a disappointment, but I'll have to grimace and bear it until someone comes on here to clear up the Great G String Mystery for me.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

A major breakthrough

Well, a D major breakthrough, actually. Everyone tells you D major is dead easy, since it involves holding down three strings in a row. Even I could do that. But how come the result sounded ghastly? By discussing the wonders of ukulele tuning with some of the clever pluckers in the office I discovered that the first fret should give me a semitone higher than the open string. Imagine my surprise when I found that my G string (sorry) was sounding not a G sharp but an A on the first fret. I got a semitone for the second fret, giving me a B flat, which was clearly an unwelcome guest in a D major chord.

Now here's the mysterious bit. If I tune the G string to a high G, the first fret gives me a semitone higher. If I tune it to a low G, it gives me a tone higher. Weird or what? Some have seen unkind enough to suggest that I have bought a crap instrument. Surely not, I say, it cost me 20 quid. They give me an unpleasant look, somewhere between pity and smirking.

Ignoring their derision I set about my journey of discovery in the world of the high G. Suddenly chords stop sounding like Stockhausen with a hangover. C, C7, F, G - even D if I reach over the top: there's no stopping me. Ode to Moderated Joy here I come.

Friday, 26 June 2009

News from the front

The BBC Symphony played Westfield shopping mall in Shepherd’s Bush last night, an ideal opportunity to doorstep Proms director Roger Wright at the party afterwards. His PR people have clearly warned him that he is under surveillance and he ducks and dives on the subject of his likely whereabouts on the night of the ukulele prom, delivering a lengthy lecture about unpleasant hacks who go around stalking people.

However, I can exclusively reveal that the director has ditched his soprano uke and moved on to a tenor, on account of having fingers at least as banana-like as mine. Maybe that’s the answer to my chord crisis. But no, I want to get my 20 quid’s worth out of the little red beauty.

So how will we know whether the director is strumming away on 18 August? As the party turns bibulous, I slip a state-of-the-art tracker into his pocket. The truth will be told.

The plot thickens

OK, time to come clean. This learning the uke lark is not just a chance to look like a prize idiot in public but a cunning piece of investigative journalism. When the BBC launched the ukulele prom, director Roger Wright said: ‘We hope that beginners and experts alike will enjoy this rare chance to play along with extraordinary Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I've already started learning and hope to join in on the night!’

Was this a piece of shameless hype, or was the director really sitting up at night trying to get his fingers round a G major chord?

That was the question that people were stopping me in the street to ask. As the editor of a highly respected music magazine, I was charged with getting to the truth.

Since the director kindly invites music hacks and other hangers-on to share his box for a Prom of their choice during the season, I thought I would choose the ukulele prom. Cue dramatic music: the box is full that night, came the reply - the first time this has ever happened - followed by a press office assurance that in fact the director will not be entertaining at all that evening. Curious, or what?

Worry not, our crack team of uke-playing sleuths will get to the bottom of this.

Screwing it up

Oh what fun. Having screwed up the tuning pegs I screwed up the tuning, but got there in the end. Manage to avoid saying anything inappropriate when I’m told I can have a high G string or a low G string.

What no one told me as I embarked on this venture is that it’s jolly difficult. Getting banana fingers round chords is tricky enough, but mercy, it hurts the fingers. I begin to see why sturdy uke-playing Northerners reckon we’re a namby pamby lot down in the south.

I might have to seek out a pint or two of Tetley’s to help toughen up the finger pads.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

And so it begins

OK, I know I’m going to regret this, but urged on by those nice PR people at the BBC I’ve decided to learn the ukulele. There, I’ve said it now, so there’s no getting out of it. All this in preparation for joining in with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain for a massed Ode to Joy at the Proms on 18 August.

First things first: get a ukulele. Off to the good souls of Purple Turtle Music in Stockport to order a bright red one, and a purple one for my accomplice. (You need moral support if you’re going to make a prat of yourself. Trouble is, the accomplice is already a guitar player, so not what I would call a beginner.)

They turn up, tiny in their little cases, and I get the feeling that When I’m Cleaning Windows will be within my grasp in no time. Not sure about the Ode to Joy.

On to the BBC’s online tutorials, where good old George Hinchcliffe takes us through the rudiments. The first thing you need, he says, is a screwdriver. Maybe I’m going to like this after all.