Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Which, With The Assistance Of Good Luck, The Oaf Gives Himself A Present

Behold -- the hollow-body tenor basselele!

So over the last couple of weeks I got into Viable Paradise, finished the current batch of Swillistrations, and sold my soul. It seemed to me that somebody around here deserved a treat.

This is my treat.

As a broke-ass compulsive reader with a strong taste for the obscure and eclectic, I've long been a devotee of the yard sale. The missus is constantly on the hunt for planters and pots. As a result, one of our shared hobbies is looking up yard sales on Craigslist and driving around the Bay Area.

Weekend before last we wound up at a warehouse sale in Oakland. At first I thought this was a typical antiques warehouse; then I noticed the display case full of pop-culture images of the devil.

And then I stepped into the central hallway and saw the huge warehouse wall covered in guitars. These weren't ordinary guitars; the owner had given them to artists who had modified them. Most were obviously unplayable; a few were so tempting they brought a sweat of cupidity to my brow even though I'm terrified of six-stringed instruments.

But down in one corner, hidden behind a cabinet, I spotted what looked like a baritone ukulele. A very nice baritone ukulele. It was naked; no strings or tuning machines. Still, it called to me.

Now I've got a baritone ukulele. It's pretty sweet; it was made in the forties. I can play a few chords; my version of Let's Talk Dirty In Hawaiian is coming along quite nicely. But for years I've been longing for an instrument that would be tuned in the same pattern as a bass only an octave up. I've talked about doing that with a banjo or a tenor guitar.

Or a baritone ukulele...

So I get ahold of the owner and mention that I'm interested in cheap but playable ukuleles. He takes me to his office and shows me a couple of beat-up old specimens. One of 'em looks kind of cute. He asks me how much I'd pay for it...

My brow furrows as I consider my (truly pathetic) economic state. And I say, "Well, if you could let it go for five bucks I'll take it."

He looks at me very seriously and considers. "Yeah, sure," he says, and hands it to me. "So where's this instrument you wanted to look at?"

I show him and he just grins. "No one's spotted that one before," he says. The thing's been there for years. He fetches it down, points at the detailing -- the pearl inlays on the rosewood fretboard, the black and white stripes on the inside lip of the sound hole. I tap the mahogany body; the sound is sweet.

"How much do you want for it?" I ask.

He looks at me seriously again. "Fifty bucks."

"That sounds --"

At this point the missus grabs me and hisses me into silence. She takes the instrument out of my hands and points it at the guy who's selling it. "How about twenty?"

"Listen, lady," he says with a fair bit of volume in his voice. "I'm giving your husband a bargain because I can tell he has money issues and I know he's going to fix this and play it. Anyone else who came in here? I'd say three hundred and they'd pay it and they'd know they got a bargain!"

"I'll take it," I said, and the missus and I drift off to look around some more.

Then the guy comes back. "Listen, I'm sorry, I'm a little manic today with the sale and all. I'll tell you, though, later on you're going to hear him playing that and you'll say, 'well, that guy was an asshole but he sold my husband a good instrument for a good price.' Tell you what, I'll throw in the other uke for free."

When we're in the car, just as I'm about to roast her for the way she thrust herself into the situation and pissing off someone who was really nice to me, she cut me off at the pass. "See? I got you a free ukulele!"

(Tragic note; in transit the ukulele's top separated from the rest of the body. It's unplayable.)

So yesterday I took it in to the Fifth String and bought some tuning machines and was reassured that I had a nice little instrument at a bargain price. Took it home and started to string it. Since I wanted it to be strung E-A-D-G, like a bass, I used acoustic guitar strings.

Alas, the E string and the nylon G string were too thick to fit in the slots in the nut. I needed a file. Something narrow, preferably with the file only on one side and not on the bottom so I could widen the slots without deepening them. I asked the missus if she had any files left over from her jewelry-making days. No such luck. I'd have to make a trip to the hardware store...

... waitaminnit. Let's try the file on the toenail clippers I keep in the studio!


So I start to play, cursing the way new strings refuse to keep in tune. And I quickly noticed something unfortunate.

This type of tuning is a real pain in the ass so far as making chords is concerned. I knew that going in; I wanted the instrument for picking more than for strumming. But the nylon G string sounded dull and muddy next to the three wire-wound strings.


Hold on. My baritone uke has nylon strings for the B and E, but the D and G strings are wound. And I have a set of baritone ukulele strings...

And sure enough, the baritone uke G string does the job just fine.

It is a wonderful little instrument, at least by my plebian standards. A bit of a twist to the neck but that don't bother me none. And my, it sounds nice, loud and sweet and clear. Good wood, my friends, good wood. Even the missus noticed the quality of the tone.

It'll take me a while to get my fingers used to the spacing. I'm still a bit clumsy. But this will, hopefully, enable me to start playing some lead in addition to the bass and drum programming. I want to be able to use all those cool effects that guitarists get.

And so I am now the proud owner of what I believe to be the world's only hollow-body tenor basselele. And I am having fun with it.



Allison Landa said...

We should all give gifts to ourselves. I know you're going to enjoy yours.

Sean Craven said...

Warren likes it!

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Sean Craven said...

Glad to have you aboard, Betty. Thanks very much for the kind words. Hope the ups and downs aren't to rough for you...