As those who heard me whining during last weekend’s World Horror Convention know, it didn’t take long before I began showing symptoms of ukulele withdrawal, which amazed me, since I’d only taken up the instrument a little more than four months earlier. But after having practiced at least a little bit every day since Black Friday, my fingers were twitchy, and I could feel my muscle memory developing Alzheimer’s.
I almost bought a cheap, bottom-of-the -line uke last Thursday so I could practice while in Salt Lake City, but I never could figure out the transit system enough to make it to the music store about four miles away from the con hotel. But while searching online, I found something even closer—Intermountain Guitar and Banjo, which specializes in vintage instruments. The shop is only open by appointment, so I reached out to the owners, explaining that though I was a newbie, all of my UK ukulele friends figured I needed to get a banjolele so I could better channel George Formby, and that though I wasn’t likely to buy that day, I did plan to make a purchase sometime over the next year.
Leo Coulson, the uke expert, said sure, drop on by. And so even though I didn’t get a uke during my trip, I did get in about an hour of practice, because he pulled out these beauties and let me strum away.
From left to right, we’ve got: a 1920s S. S. Stewart, ‘Majestic-Style’ Banjo-Uke, 8″ rim with full resonator ($1,200); a late 1920s Slingerland Maybell Banjo-Uke, natural curly maple neck & 8″ rim ($395 ); a 1920s Banner Blue Banjo-Uke, decorative 8″ rim, 14″ scale, walnut neck & back ($750 ); a 1929 Gibson UB-1 Banjo-Uke; 6″ rim, Hunleth Music Co. tag, ($600)
And what did I play in order to test the sound of these lovely instruments? Why, “When I’m Cleaning Windows,” of course!
Even though the uke I liked the looks of the most was the Banner Blue, with those hearts marking the frets (click on the pic above to see them more clearly), the one that had the best sound (well, to my ears, anyway) was the 1929 Gibson. But I resisted, for a number of reasons. One is, I don’t yet feel my playing is currently worthy of such an instrument. Also, I’m not yet capable of judging either the true value or the true quality of a vintage instrument. I feel that if I’m going to buy one, I’ll have to do it in the company of someone who knows more than me. I might have to wait until I attend the George Formby convention in Blackpool next March (yes, I’m seriously considering it!), when I can have one of my new UK friends advise me.
There’s also the fact that I haven’t entirely parsed the virtues of vintage instruments vs. modern ones, both in terms of upkeep and sound. Oh, I can understand the sense of history you feel when strumming a 75-year-old instrument. But does it truly give a richer tone? I don’t know enough right now to answer that question. Some say that when I’m ready, I should spring for a Gold Tone Deluxe Banjolele. Others think I should hold out for a vintage uke, and that if I strum enough of them, I’ll eventually find one that’ll call my name. (If you’ve got an opinion one way or another, let me know.)
Whatever I decide, one thing is certain—Intermountain Guitar and Banjo is an amazing music store, and was one of the highlights of my trip to Salt Lake City.
Meanwhile, in order to avoid ukulele withdrawal during future trips, I’ve ordered a Kala Pocket Ukulele, one of which should be in my twitchy fingers by tomorrow afternoon. Try not to cringe as you contemplate me plinking away at “When I’m Cleaning Windows” while wandering Machu Picchu next month …