I was invited to contribute this article after criticizing the magazine's continued use of the word "humble" whenever the ukulele was mentioned. I take no responsibility for the headline - NOT my idea! If it'd been down to me, the title would've been "Uke Cannot Be Serious!" :-) I hope it's just an unfortunate coincidence but just one week after this article was published, the magazine announced its immediate closure!(why that particular date was chosen, I have no idea!)
Anyway, most news items focused on the percentage increase in ukulele sales on Amazon (up by 1200%), or on the increasing use of the instrument in school music lessons and how cheap it is to buy and how easy it is to play. Even reports in the MI media made numerous references to “the humble ukulele”. It was my irritation with this phrase that led to my being invited to write this article. I recently sold a ukulele to a good customer of mine, who had a buyer eager to part with £989 for it - the Lehua IIICX from ULURU (left) is anything but humble!. Since then the same customer has ordered a further two of these instruments. I only hope his customers are not put off by the constant reference to their new investments as being “humble”. The word would not be applied as a blanket term to other desirable products – cars, guitars, washing machines, televisions – so why pick on the ukulele? Is it because it’s small, incapable of defending itself?
Having been involved in the musical instrument business for over 35 years – luthier, repairer, roadie, retail sales, wholesale/distribution and manufacture – I’m still learning. I’d repaired a few vintage instruments many years ago but my current involvement with the ukulele world began with a chance encounter at the Frankfurt MusikMesse about 13 years ago. I was idly looking at possible lines that might be suitable for a freelance agent like myself to sell as a sideline, and strummed a couple of cheap coloured ukes. The sound was exactly what I expected, for want of a better word, “humble”! Further along, I picked up a hand-made, sopranino ukulele from a South American company and was blown away by the difference. This was a proper instrument, as far removed from a “humble” ukulele as a £1000 [insert appropriate guitar brand here] is from a £30 acoustic guitar from a well-known chain of charity shops.
That experience has stayed with me ever since (and that uke is now hanging up in my living room) so, when I got the opportunity to buy a brand of high-end ukuleles, Uluru by Ayers Guitars, I jumped at it. Music retailers are not stupid, I figured, they’ll recognize a good product when they see it! The overwhelming majority of MI retailers are certainly not stupid but the job of introducing more expensive ukes to a market - whose price ceiling for ukes was often little more than £30 – was more difficult than I had bargained for.
A long process of acceptance, culture, hard work, knockbacks and economics has been at play for a long time. I’m not describing my career, by the way, but how others, for example, the Ukulele Orchestra of GB, have found “overnight” stardom after over 30 years of being regarded as a quirky, novelty act; the massive wave of interest sparked following George Harrison’s death and the “Concert for George” where the house was brought down by a beautiful rendition of “I’ll See You in my Dreams” by Joe Brown; posthumous chart success for Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's reworking of "Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” or viral YouTube hits like Jake Shimabukuro’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Frank Skinner’s TV uke-umentary – these, and many others, have helped bring many tens of thousands of new players into the instrument market. Some forward –thinking distributors and retailers recognized this early on and have reaped the rewards of supplying instruments to a broad demographic who are keen to get kitted out to join a Ukulele Club or similar. Important though the education/children’s market is, I’m talking about older people, even retired people, picking up an instrument for the first time and learning to play. And when they can play a little, maybe they’ll treat themselves to another, and other. Let’s face it, one ukulele is never enough, and severe cases of Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome make the equivalent 6-string version – G.A.S. – look like a mild case of the common cold. This is serious stuff – I hear regularly about people owning upwards of six or seven instruments with no intention of getting rid of any. A cheap/rough one to sling in the boot for camping, a soprano, a concert, a tenor (plus one with a low G), an electro, a piccolo, a banjo uke, a resonator, and so on.
Any retailer who is ignoring this phenomenon is in danger of being totally left behind because, from where I’m standing, this is no flash-in-the-pan and shows no sign of slowing down. I’ve watched some of my biggest customers grow their ukulele business from a standing start to being top outlets for various brands in just a few years, because they have managed to share their passion for the instrument with their customers.
I visit many stores whose idea of catering for the ukulele world is to have a few token generic instruments on the wall, or to buy a load of own-brand product, because they have the finances to do that. After all, it’s only a ukulele, people won’t mind what is on the headstock. If it was that easy, there’d be no need for a company like mine to stock ukulele brands from Vietnam, Germany, Portugal, USA, Japan and China (no model selling for less than £45). Nor to bother attending Ukulele Festivals across the country. Nor to manufacture a range of dedicated ukulele accessories. Some big-name retailers have fallen into the short-sighted trap of supplying poor quality ukuleles for schools at ridiculously low prices to gain turnover and volume, at the same time creating thousands of potential "giver-uppers" who find that their uke won't stay in tune, won't play in tune and sounds dreadful.
Like the stores who are successful in any particular area of MI, the key to their success is passion and engaging with their customers. I heard a story once of a shop, the owner of which was asked by a customer “Can you give me some advice about ukuleles?” The smart-arsed reply was “Yes, madam, my advice would be to burn it and buy a violin! Oh, and baritones are better because they burn for longer!"
There is plenty of advice out there, which has filled the vacuum left by a retail sector that has, to a frighteningly large extent, overlooked the potential of a rapidly growing market covering all age groups. GotAUkulele.com posts impartial, often opinionated reviews online because of the author’s previous experience of shops that just don’t take the ukulele seriously. His site recently clocked up almost 7 million views and the many Facebook and online discussion groups are every bit as active as those dedicated to the guitar.
My advice to any music store? “Wake up and smell the hibiscus!” There must be hundreds of skilled MI store sales staff in our industry who can take the instrument seriously enough to present it as having equal importance to any other revenue-generating line in the shop.
Mark Pugh has worked in the MI business for over thirty years, having studied Musical Instrument Technology (Modern Fretted Instruments) at the London College of Furniture from 1979-1983, for much of that time self-employed, trading under the business name Stones Music. Stones Music distributes the following ukulele brands - Uluru, Magic Fluke, RISA, iUke, Baton Rouge, Iberica and Alic - alongside the ukulele accessory line Jumping Cow. These form an important part of the Stones Music portfolio, alongside Stones Straps, The Pub Prop, LogJam stompers, Rhythm Ring, Timber Tones, Boing Stands and more.
Mark Pugh 2015
I was asked to contibute this piece for the inauguaral issue of UKE Magazine, the UK's only print-format specialist ukulele magazine from our friends at World Of Ukes -
"Howdy", "Dagnabbit", "Have a nice day, y'all" - these are just some of the phrases I practise when I head Stateside. Arriving in Anaheim, California in the middle of January when snow is on the ground at home is quite an experience. Guilt-laden calls home, trying not to sound as though you're enjoying yourself too much, are a common feature. But, however much those back home may despise the blue sky photos posted on social networks, this is work for those of us lucky enough to work in the musical instrument business. This was my second visit to the annual National Association of Music Merchants Show at the Anaheim Convention Center, though I'm by no means a NAMM veteran! This year's event did not disappoint. We've seen a massive resurgence in the popularity of the ukulele in the UK in recent years but this is not peculiar to us. It appears to be a worldwide phenomenon, the list of ukulele exhibitors mushrooming even since last year.
Although the NAMM Show is not as big as the Frankfurt MusikMesse, it offers an opportunity to see products from companies who don't tend to exhibit at the European trade shows. This can be said of some of the highest-end Hawaiian brands, who simply couldn't fulfil the demands of multi-national distribution due to their limited production capacity. Some of them have gone down the route of off-shore manufacturing, i.e. overseeing production of a cheaper, usually far-eastern, product bearing their brand, to take advantage of greater manufacturing capacity to meet wider demand.
Anaheim Convention Center comprises five main exhibition halls, A thru E (I've been here too long!) plus some meeting rooms where some large manufacturers choose to exhibit away from the main hustle and bustle. For years people have advised me to check out the basement, Hall E, where many small companies set up their booths showing off a plethora of gadgets - the Rhythm Ring was a "Best in Show" product from Hall E a few years ago. Hall E also happens to be home to most of the dedicated ukulele booths. Plus, you'll find the "Chinese Pavilion" here - more of that later - rubbing shoulders (almost) with some of the most iconic and high-end ukulele brands in the world.
Imagine a store where you could view a complete range of products from the following all in one room (in no particular order) : Kamaka, Ko'Aloha/Ko'alana/Opio, Ko'Olau/Pono, Kanile'a/Islander, Da Silva, Takumi, Kelii, Lo Prinzi, Uluru, APC/Iberica, Imua/Big Island, Moku, Leho, Lulu, Amahi/Snail, Makau, Asturias, Magic Fluke, Paulele, D'Angelico, Collings, Boulder Creek, Blackbird, Na Leo/Kumu, Mahalo, Ohana, Alic, Bugsgear, Ashbury, g-Great, then board the escalator to catch Kala/Makala, Lanikai, Pukana La, plus loads more from guitar companies who have joined the ukulele rush - Martin, Fender, Epiphone, Ibanez, Daisy Rock, Gretsch, Tanglewood, Stagg. And if you have the time to visit the Chinese Pavilion, you'll find a dozen more companies willing to make you an instrument with your own brand name. This is where you have to be really careful - invest your money in these and you are likely to be counting your losses in a few months. Nothing tuned, strings, bridges, nuts and hardware not fitted properly, I was even told about one booth where the ukulele fingerboards had been put on back to front, i.e. the fret spacings got wider towards the bridge - I'd have bought one just for the novelty value if I'd found it!Hawaiian “Shaka"!
Unlike ukulele festivals, which many people will have experienced, this is a strictly trade-only event and there's no mistaking the fact that the companies who've invested money to exhibit there are out to make a return. That's not to say its not fun, though. Away from the halls, there's plenty of music to enjoy, with gigs in the surrounding hotels and in the open spaces around the Convention Center. Ukulele fans have to look a little harder but, in addition to gigs away from the Center, there is an annual Uke Jam on the "grassy knoll" at the front (opposite Disneyland!), and it's great to have the opportunity to jam along with the likes of Aldrine Guerrero, Sarah Maisel, Mike Hind and others without feeling totally out of your depth (generously, they mainly chose songs with 3 or 4 chord repeating patterns that even I could keep up with!).
New gear? Well, there are always new instruments, new models from familiar suppliers, and a whole load of accessories. Takumi ukuleles from Japan caught my eye for all the right reasons - beautifully made with quality hardware and a stunning tone (I brought one home with me!). Daisy Rock caught my eye for different reasons. Having sold their "girl guitars" when they first launched some twelve years ago, I noticed Tish Ciravolo and her new pink sparkly ukulele kits, designed "just for girls". I struggled to see what difference there was between this and any other generic sub-£25 uke, apart from the fact that it's pink and sparkly and comes in a pretty box! Still, who am I to judge? My bass stack was covered in pink flourescent fake fur in my bass guitar-playing days!Four days is barely enough to take in everything this show has to offer. My original intention, when asked to write this article, was to write a paragraph about each ukulele-related booth, with accompanying photo, but I soon realised that that would take up the whole of UKE Magazine and would look more like a trade directory. Instead, I hope my photos have captured some of the faces and the atmosphere of this event. Years ago, the Frankfurt MusikMesse was where the MI business would see new products for the first time, at the moment the NAMM Show is probably the place to be but I already speak to people who are regularly making the trip to the Shanghai Music Fair, later in the year. If anyone is in this business just to make money, that's probably the one to go to, with financial backing and a big warehouse! For many of the rest of us, a week in California in January is about as good as it gets!
Mark Pugh 2015
We were happy to be a part of this year's Learn to Play Day at Forsyth Music Shop, Manchester on Saturday.
Throughout the day, a steady stream of young, and not-so-young, enthusiastic beginners came to pick our brains about starting to play the ukulele. The group workshop with Simon from Chorlton Ukulele Group had about 40 people learning the chords from "Get Lucky" - let's hope that gave everyone's uke playing career a good kick-start!
There's no doubt that the iUke has been the most talked-about development in the ukulele market this year.
We expect demand to be high in the run up to Christmas so do check your local store to see when their Christmas stock will be arriving.
In the meantime, here's a festive scene to get you in the mood!
If you bought the brilliant ukulele special edition of Guitars Technique recently, you may have tried to link to our Facebook page by scanning the QR-code.
For some reason, the printed version won't scan.
If you've made the effort to look up this website, "Thank You" and here is the link to our Facebook page, where you'll find the most up to date news from Stones Music!
Along the front edge you'll see the Timber Tones lettering etched into the panel. If your local store doesn't have one of these, ask them why not! (Go easy on them, though, these are only just available and getting one is probably on their to-do list!)
Great news for 2012 - we are now distributing RISA instruments. Check out the recent piece in MI Pro here
stockist to find out when they'll be receiving their stock.
Great news for uke strummers! In addition to the popular leather Jumping Cow picks, we're happy to introduce felt picks. Check 'em out at your nearest Jumping Cow dealer but remember, if it doesn't say "Jumping Cow", it isn't a Jumping Cow!
Soft natural wool felt and harder synthetic felt offer a variety of tones. Not sure sure which one to buy? Get one of each and try 'em!
The Wolfelele is a self-build ukulele kit, which is available to buy off the shelf or by taking part in uke-building workshops.
Ask your local music store if they have plans to host a workshop and get building!
Check out our Wolfelele gallery for inspiration and then post a photo of your finished Wolfelele!