Friday, July 28, 2006

FT ukuleles

FT ukuleles get their name from a pretty obvious source--Famous and T's Guitars. Their logo mark on the head looks a bit like a paper airplane in flight, but closer inspection will reveal it is indeed an "F" and a "T".

FT ukuleles are upper mid-range to low high-range priced axes--at least for Japanese ukuleles. Remember, prices here can be substantially more than what people would pay for elsewhere.

They are very light instruments. They are made with the kind of strengthening inside that a classical guitar might have, which they would need given how light the things are. They are made out of mahogany and Hawaiian koa. They have lacquer finishes. The finish is supposed to be only 0.1mm thick in order to bring out the qualities of the wood.

A fellow I know plays one. It does have (to me anyway) that good-old days ukulele kind of sound. It would probably go well as a jazz instrument even though he plays mostly Hawaiian music on it.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ohashi Hidehiko and publications

Last time I wrote about a chord solo book. Today I will touch on an author that has lots of books out. Probably almost anyone who has taken up ukulele in Japan has at some point seen, read, or used one of this guy's books.

Any trip to any shop that sells books about ukuleles and how to play them will put you in contact with Ohashi Hidehiko. His website has a page dedicated to the 15 books he's put out--14 on ukuleles or ukulele arrangements and one on lap steel guitar. He probably has more books out than anyone in Japan on things ukulele. I must confess to possessing four of them*.

In the order that he lists them on his site, the books are:
Solo Ukulele: from the Ghibli Studio
Solo Ukulele: Standard Songs that Forever Resonate in your Heart (sounds better in Japanese)
*Solo Ukulele: Famous Songs that can be played solo on one ukulele
Ukulele Solo Repatoire: Songs you want to play right now Volume 1
Ukulele Solo Repatoire: Songs you want to play right now Volume 2
How to Play Ukulele at a Glance
Ukulele Solo for Oldies Volume 1
Ukulele Solo for Oldies Volume 2
*Ukulele Solo: Bossa Nova Volume 1
*Ukulele Solo: Bossa Nova Volume 2
Ukulele Solo: Pop songs
*Jazz Standards Ukulele Solos
Solo Arrangements for an Ukulele Christmas
Lap Steel Guitar Method

(All the title translations are my own. There may be "official" titles, but I don't want to spend all afternoon in the music shop trying to find them.)

The Jazz Standard book is probably the most solid of the four that I have. It includes 35 songs such as "L-O-V-E", "12th Street Rag", "St. Thomas", and "Mona Lisa". That makes it a heaftier tome than most. It seems to have the entire notation for each of the songs (more on that below). It has regular musical notation with tabs below. Unlike many of his other books, it does not include a CD. It would not be a great surprise if that is because of copyrights and fees. Every third or forth song there will be a very brief comment about the songs, perhaps noting the level of difficulty or some particular point about the song.

It also includes 16 mini-tabs (four songs per page!) of old-time standards like "Old Black Joe", "Aura Lee", and "Danny Boy". The arrangements for the main 35 songs are not for absolute beginners. Perhaps after a couple of years of ukulele most of them become rather accessible.

The second book I have does come with a CD for the songs. There are 28 songs...sort of. These have been boiled down to one page--mostly one verse with no turnarounds. For example, "Every Breath You Take" has been distilled down to 35 measures.

There is a silver lining to the cloud, however. Most of the songs also feature a particular playing technique. "Happy Birthday" is done in a Blues style. This gives the user an opportunity to see how some Blues songs end. Other songs feature percussive strokes, arpeggios, or alternate pickings. Songs are also ranked according to level of difficulty. It is more a book to learn techniques than songs.

The two bossa nova books both come with CDs and (I think) pretty much the entire songs. Unfortunately, both of them are rather slim books with 10 songs each and about 30 pages. Probably the reason for dividing the books into two rather than put it all into one is the cost. At 2,300 yen ($21) each, the publishers probably realized fewer people would by a book at twice the cost.

One of the features of these two books is that the CD has two versions of each song. One to learn by and the other is a play-along karaoke version that allows the learner to play with the band.

Those interested in the kinds of arrangements he does might want to check out his "song of the month" page. Clicking on the title of the songs will start a Real Audio download.

As can be expected from someone who writes books of this sort, he also has a school going in Tokyo. He, himself, was a student of Haida Yukihiko, one of the Great Grandaddies of the ukulele in Japan.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Jaka Solo & Kamatetsu

Ukulele brands and models will get a rest today.

Jaka Solo means chord solos, particularly in the lively Roy Smeck vein."Jaka-jaka" is the onomatopoeia for the sound of rapidly played chords with that sort of rythm. You get the point, I hope.

One book that is beginning to make an impression here is on chord solos and written by a gent who calls himself Kamatetsu. You pretty much now find the book wherever you find ukulele books and music in Japan. The translation of the title of the book would be something like "Extreme Ukulele Solo: Jaka Solo."

The songs included are:

1. Menuett-A Lover's Concerto
2. Humoreske
3. Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue
4. Lover
5. Diamond Head-Slaughter on 10th Avenue
6. The World is Waiting for Sunrise
7. Astro Boy-Sazaesan
8. Stars and Stripes Forever
9. Symphony No. 9-Choral 4th Movement (Beethoven)
10. El Humauaqueno
11. El Condor Pasa
12. When The Saints Go Marchin' In
13. Crazy G (Version 1)
14. Crazy G (Version 2)
15. Grandfather's Clock (Country-style)
16. Grandfather's Clock (Hawaiian-style)
17. Under the Double Eagle (Wagner)
(It's a warts and all list. The spelling comes from the book--they are after all using a language foreign to them.)

The book is divided into several sections. Pages 8-13 are on general ukulele playing and the basics of chord solos. The second section, pages 14-33 are on the key points of each particular song. These include damping techniques, tricky fingerings, and rythm hints, etc.The rest of the book is pretty much the musical notation and tabs for the songs above.

The songs are all marked with 1-5 stars, one being the easiest to play, five being more difficult. "Crazy G" (Version 1) ranks a one, while Version 2 gets three. "Lover" lands five stars. I will probably never be able to play that tune.

Kamatetsu also did the recording of the included CD on his Martin. The CD is worth listening to on its own. When he does performances, he often includes songs from the CD.

The book came to my attention before it was published. Kamatetsu is a friend of one of the members of my regular ukulele group and they practice together in Tokyo. They have also put out a CD.

Our group member arranged a mini-ukulele festival here in town where a centerpiece was a Kamatetsu workshop not long after the book was published. I asked Kamatetsu whether it would be possible to publish a translation of the book. He said it was up to the publisher because of copyright issues. I haven't heard anything about it since.
Note: I debated with myself long and hard about which link to add for the book. I settled on Amazon because it might be possible to order the book from abroad through them and some people might get a feel for the thing. At least part of their page is in English. The publisher, Chuo Art Publishing does have a write up about the book and it can be found reasonably easily on their site. The problem there is that it is all in Japanese, in which case most anyone reading that would not be reading this. That held true with all the other Japanese bookstores I looked at as well.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

T's Guitar

Ever want a mango mini tenor with a red cedar top?

The plan was to bring up T's Guitars a couple weeks later than this. Two discoveries changed the plan.

First, a semi-pro/advanced amateur acquaintance left his T’s Guitar ukulele on a bench where I was sitting a couple of weeks ago. He had just finished his performance and went off to gather some of his gear. Hmmm….while he is not looking, I’ll just give this a quick once-around to see how it is. Oh, this is nice.

I don’t know the model, but it was very nice. It looked like their SD-100 model. Feather-light, it had a comfortably rounded neck and wonderful action. It was easy to play and sounded quite pleasant. I can see why he chose that soprano to play for his gig. (His other is a custom-made Kamaka with low-G tuning.) It was such a fun instrument that it piqued my interest.

After a little research, I have found that their ukulele was selected the BEST OF THE SHOW at the 2005 Ukulele Exhibition in Honolulu. Not just a clonker.

According to T’s website, the company was established in 1985 by a pair of brothers in Nagano, who were just into making guitars. They started out making handmade guitars using almost only hand tools. They have since expanded and now make guitars, basses, and ukuleles. They continued to make handmade and special-order instruments, but their business expanded past the two brothers and also include more precise tools for making their instruments.

They have a “web store” where photos are available for some models. If you click on this link, you will find different table just down the page offering their wares from sopranos to tenors. The columns of the tables/order form as of this writing read “model number”, “number in stock”, “price including case”, “body material”, options for “body top materials” and “number ordered”. There are links for some model numbers which will open up another window displaying photos of that model.

The woods they use can be anything from spruce or Hawaiian koa to redwood or cedar. Maple, walnut, rosewood, and mango are other examples. Their order form offers a kind of mix and match set-up.

Probably in line with the quality is the price. Sopranos start at over $400. Their most expensive soprano is a meager $2,500. Probably not something you want to start your neighbor's six-year-old off with or toss in your backpack as you hitchhike across the Sahara.

I did mention two discoveries, didn’t I? The second is that T’s seems to be the company responsible for bringing back the Luna brand. More on that soon.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Famous ukuleles

Probably the best known and most widely sold ukuleles in Japan are Famous.

The manufacturers of Famous ukuleles are based in Gunma, northwest of Tokyo, in an area known for furniture production. Mitsuba makes both ukuleles and furniture. The ukulele side of the operation produces the Famous brand and the Zephyr--a down-market "beginner" ukulele.

They started out manufacturing school instruments in the 1940s. When the ukulele and Hawaiian boom hit in the 1950s, Mitsuba began turning out ukuleles. I have read that at one point they manufactured enough to even export to the North America. However, when the craze bottomed out, Famous was the last brand standing. All other ukulele makers had called it quits.

Famous was apparently able to maintain its niche market. For a couple of decades, it survived as the only Japanese ukulele manufacturer. Famous is famous again. Almost any shop selling ukuleles in Japan other than toys is likely to carry Famous ukuleles. They seem to be almost a standard entry-level ax. A sizable portion of the beginners I have met here have them.

As far as I can remember, I have never played one personally, so I can't really comment on how they play. But, the company's motto runs something like "At a reasonable price with quality surpassing that".

The models they manufacture can be seen here.

Friday, July 07, 2006


The next several posts will introduce different Japanese ukulele brands. These postings will present a few challenges. Describing something that makes noise is difficult when the noise itself is absent. Let's give it a bash and see what happens.

While contemplating which Japanese brand of ukulele to introduce after Shimo Guitars, Kiwaya kept re-emerging.

Kiwaya itself is a small ukulele shop in a historic neighborhood of Tokyo. The ukulele shop occupies part of the ground floor of a building down a small side street several blocks from the nearest subway stations. The map on their website suggests getting off at the Inarimae Station on the Ginza Line. That was where I got off on the way there. It was a pretty straightforward walk. When heading home afterwards, I needed to get a different train, so a 15-minute maze journey followed.

If you go into the shop, you'll find the insides to be surprisingly small--but, let's be honest, how many ukulele shops of any scale are there in most cities? Tokyo does have several. There are a few cases containing new and use ukuleles and some counters and shelves with all sorts of ukulele CD, accessories, tools, and paraphanalia. For books and music scores, there are probably better places to go. Kiwaya, however, is more than what meets the eye. Inside their shop, there is very little clue to other goings-on. And I am not talking about their ukulele school that occupies the third and fourth floor of the same building, nor the small ukulele museum on the fourth floor either.

You won't find any ukuleles labelled with the Kiwaya brand, but there are lots of ukulele's that have Kiwaya to thank for their existance.

Like in the West, ukuleles have had ups and downs in their fortunes in Japan as well. In the late 1950s, there was a huge Hawaiian boom in Japan. Ukulele music was extremely popular then. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, grocery stores would pipe in Hawaiian background music. Several brand made their appearance and fortunes in the boom years. Famous and Luna are two Japanese brands that were particularly well known. Grandfathers of Hawaiian and ukulele music in Japan like Haita Yukihiko and Yamaguchi Ginji help boost Famous sales.

Then came Elvis Prestly...and the Beatles and other kinds of Western popular music. Luna bit the dust. Famous no longer was famous, though kept alive by Kiwaya. Dispair ruled the land. A dark evil descended....that's a bit over-dramatic. Suffice it to say that the Hawaiian boom was no more and the ukulele in Japan was headed for a nadir. (If memory serves, it was about this time also that Kamaka became the only remaining ukulele maker surviving in the US also.)

In the early 1990s, the light began to shine again. Interest in the ukulele was renewed. Kiwaya can probably be given credit for being behind Famous during the dark days and keeping it alive until the present hey-day. They brought Luna back to life and they have since been involved in tying up other makers to create new products.

I will start to look at some of these specific brands in the next several posts. However, if you would like to a feel for some of the Kiwaya-related brands before the journey begins, you can look at their online catalogue. Even if you can't read the Japanese, you can see what each instrument looks like. Prices are in yen, indicated by the y with the double crossbar. US$1=115yen more or less.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Iwao is the stage name of Yamaguchi Iwao, one of the best known of the younger generation of uke players.

One of his themes seems to be getting a new Shimo ukulele and using that to create a new album. Most of the recent ukuleles he uses frequently appear to be baritones.

He is putting out his eighth ukulele album 21July.

Judging by song titles and the guests appearing on the CD, this upcoming album will have more of a Hawaiian sound than most of his previous work."Hawaiian Morning" will include such standards as "Blue Hawaii" and "Lei Pikake". But, it will also contain non-Hawaiian efforts such as "And I Love Her" and "Stella by Starlight".

The ablum will also differ from his previous works that I have heard as it will contain more vocals. Iwao is principally an instrumentalist and his offerings do normally include much in the way of singing. Judging from the write-up on this album, his guests will be handling the vocals.

Although he does sometimes play as a soloist, much of his music is featured with backup musicians. Two of his CDs that grace my collection "Post Card Summer" and "Natureza" flirt with some Hawaiian musical ideas--the former more than the latter. Both have heavy jazz infusions and "Natureza" has definite undercurrents of Brazilian influence.

In addition to his own works, he has also collaborated with quite a few compliations.

In Japan, original compliations of ukulele music are popular among fans. Several famous players may come together and add one or two songs each to create a theme driven CD. "Ukulele Beatles", "Ukulele Elvis", and "Ukulele Ghibli" are some examples in which Iwao has appeared. "Ukulele Force-Star Wars Best Covers" are another example, but as far as I can make out, Iwao didn't have anything to do with that one.

Iwao is probably known both for his playing and the learning material he puts out. He has a couple of DVDs out on how to play. Translations of a couple titles would probably be "If you are a little serious about the ukulele" and "If you are really serious about the ukulele". The first includes hints on how to play different styles. "Kona Sunset" (which is also on the CD coming out in July), "12th Street Rag", "Zinga" (which is included in "Natureza"), and Ka'au Crater Boys' "Tropical Hawaiian Day". The second DVD includes "Some day my prince will come" and "Silent Lagoon", but there is a heavy emphasis on Hawaiian vamps of various styles and in various keys. He also has a DVD out on how to play the baritone ukulele.

He also offers classes in Tokyo. A year or so ago he began offering baritone classes that filled up more than he imagined according to an interview with him I read.