Jan. 30, 2013 - Issue #902: Come cry with Daniel Romano
What images does a ukulele bring to mind? Well, it's time to throw all those preconceived notions out the window and open your mind to the possibilities the small but versatile instrument is capable of.
Unlocking the underlying heart and soul of the ukulele is James Hill, who began taking lessons in elementary school at age eight. He admits that with its short scale, few strings and a small range of notes, the ukulele does have its limitations—but these limitations are also its strengths. Say what? Just hear him out.
"For me, that was fertile ground for doing something interesting," he says over the phone from a music convention in Anaheim, California, where earlier that day he played for 1500 people with his ukulele hooked up to a PA system he describes as looking like something AC/DC would use. "Because of the tuning, it ends up sounding a little bit like a barbershop quartet a lot of time—very close voicing and very sweet chords. I think there's psychological things about it, too, where people expect very little and they're met with this incredible range of sound that they didn't anticipate. It crosses boundaries very easily, whether those are generational boundaries ... but it also moves very easily between genres."
And no, he's never thought about switching to the guitar. The ukulele is often viewed as its smaller sibling or distant cousin, but Hill doesn't see it that way, adding the notion of him switching would be like switching to the tuba. That and he doesn't even own a guitar and has had nothing to do with one throughout his music career.
Instead, Hill has spent the last 20-odd years honing his skills as a ukulele instrumentalist, developing his own mono-strum technique that's been a defining element of his sound. He sees the ukulele as a "strumming machine," surpassing the guitar in its rhythmic abilities. However, this makes it difficult to play melodies at the same time, so Hill devised the mono-strum and various other techniques that would utilize its strumming to craft melodies.
These melodies have now been introduced to another element—lyrics. Hill worked instrumentally until the release of his album Man With a Love Song in 2011, and is currently working on new material, although, he says it'll be another year or so before an album is released. As expressive as the ukulele can be, Hill recognized the need to reach his audience in a new way, which led to him combining his passion for music with his interest in writing and poetry.
"There's only so far you can go. If you want to say something to your audience, before long, you actually just have to say it. I started to run up against the very far limits of what the ukulele could express, so I felt that was the only way," he says, adding that he now carries a notebook with him everywhere he goes in case inspiration strikes through his day-to-day interactions. "You're always looking for those pearls that people don't know are pearls. People love to hear those things that are hidden in plain view."
Fri, Feb 1 (7:30 pm)
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