Last year, our little town was threatened by fires and we also had a few colleagues lose their shops to fire. I had already planned this as a stock instrument when Nicole suggested we sell it to benefit the folks in California who are impacted by all the fires this season. By chance, I had already set aside pieces of wood that were orphaned and destined for the burn pile. There is nothing wrong with the mahogany for the back, sides and neck except that they were all missing a book matched piece. The Port Orford top looks and sounds great, despite the four small knots. The pistachio fretboard is truly unique, with a deep red spot in a cream field representing the hot spots on a fire map. I think the best way to deal with this is to sell it as an auction on ebay, so we can get the most out of it. We will be sending some money to the Red Cross and some money in gift cards to a musician/luthier in Chico to go directly to the affected communities. The eBay link is here: https://www.ebay.com/itm/223229776664?ul_noapp=true
When working with Gordon and Char at Mya-Moe, I got a solid foundation in how to treat customers, deal with suppliers and stick to your word, hopefully turning every short term loss into a long term win. In this case, I know I will deliver a beautiful instrument that is easy to play and sounds amazing. But, I have to admit that it will be delivered two weeks later than I promised, due to an issue with a change of ownership at a long trusted supplier. Either way, I have to scramble to make it all right with the customer and change how I do business with this supplier in the future, so that it never happens again. The details don’t really matter, I just have to do my best to make it up to the customer (with free accessories and shipping) and work harder to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
As I dealt with this, I often thought “What would Gordon do.” Therefore, it is fitting that I got this amazing set of curly myrtle from Char when she retired. It has that rich butter color that I love, beautiful curl and some spalted spots that make it truly unique. Wrapped up in rope binding, it looks a treat. A striped red pistachio fretboard from California orchards and a buggy fir neck from Vashon Island, WA complete the package. It’s ready for a few lifetimes of music and I’m ready to do better next time. Short term loss turns into long term win.
As a musician, I often think about and engage in improvisation. Most folks think improvising is just “making it up as you go,” but in reality, it takes years of practice and dedication to spontaneously compose, which is what improvisation really is. In the wood shop, I often make decisions about wood layout and selection quickly, with my instinct leading the way and with little thought to it (improvising). But, behind it is the sense memory of watching Char at Mya-Moe carefully layout 2500 ukuleles. I also have the benefit of working with many kinds of wood with hand and power tools and hearing how different woods sound as a pro musician on stage. Hopefully these meaningful experiences are subtly guiding my hand and eye as I make the important decisions of laying out the wood for an ukulele. In this case, I crawled up the ladder to show Marianne this spalted top on a whim. She said she loved it and I immediately thought of this mahogany board to pair it with. I didn’t over think it, I just embraced the instinct and went about the task of putting it all together.
The spalted Port Orford Cedar and the pistachio are from woodfromthewest.com. The gray streaks in the top are a fungus that kicks off after harvest as the wood dries out. As long as it is stopped in time, it adds to the visual character without damaging the strength of the wood structure. The amazing figured mahogany back and sides are from the Carpenter Ant stash in Portland and include old pin prick beetle holes. The mahogany neck wood is a cutoff salvaged from a local furniture maker.
There is a paradox that surrounds everything Nicole and I do. We make old timey things (instruments, books, embroidery, spoons, uke straps, illustrations, paintings, music) but depend on the internet to spread the word about what we do. If I waited for locals to buy the instruments, I would probably only make a handful per year. But, it really is pretty rare for us to send an instrument as far away as Japan! I am not sure how this customer found us, but I am happy to send this banjo out to Yokohama and speculate on the musical life it will lead.
The most interesting thing about this instrument is the baritone tuning the customer requested. It took a special string set, but it works out great. It is rich and vibrant and loud, despite it’s lower pitch. My right hand took a bit to get used to the touch required, but it paid great rewards. I don’t have the time or energy to take every custom request, but this was one that I’m glad I explored. It just sounds cool.
The walnut is from the Carpenter Ant Stash in Portland and the pistachio comes from California Orchards.
It is very difficult to source truly master grade wood. It is rare, costs a pretty penny and is always of variable quality and appearance. When Alyce told me she had a few boards of myrtle that she would like me to look at, I was skeptical, but then she showed up with this! One board yielded two master grade instruments and the other two boards yielded several sets of nice mixed quality, including some asymmetrical “wabi-sabi” sets for the future. I also got to practice re-sawing these precious boards, trying to yield as much as possible. It is such a pleasure to go all the way from rough milling to finished instrument, savoring the opportunity to build machine and hand skills as I go.
Setting aside the amazing look of this wood, I need to mention how easy it is to play and how much I love the tone. The all myrtle tenor is always a winner for all around tone and volume and I’m happy to put another one out in the world. The neck is fir floorboards from an apartment building in The Dalles, OR. All the pistachio is from California Orchards.
Voice. Your voice. Use your voice. What is your voice? I was cast as Oliver in the musical “Oliver” as a freshman in High School. Of course, my voice began to break halfway through the year and my starring role became a bit of a nightmare. I feel like it took me 20 years to re-claim my voice and it’s validity in the musical world. Even though I strive towards improvement, I know what I can and cannot sing, focus on my niche and sing for my pleasure instead of someone else’s.
These mini five strings are only about 18 months along in their journey to finding their voice and I am surprised and delighted with what they say to me as I play them before shipping. Unfortunately, I only get to hear them for a few days before they are shipped off to sing for someone else. I can only hope that they land in the right lap and sing how they see fit.
The maple neck for this banjo comes from Henry’s dance floor stash. The rim is made of varying pieces of maple from many different boards, making for a mosaic effect. The dramatically grafted pistachio comes from California orchards.
I am really excited about this one! This baritone ukulele is for my friend Lizann, who is the steward of the Carpenter Ant stash in Portland, carefully collected by her father and grandfather. She has been trading and gifting me wood and tools for two years now, and I am so grateful for her and her father Ken’s support! First, how does it sound? The problem with most baritone ukes is that they sound too muddy and dark. The goal with this one is to keep the lower range and warmth of the baritone, but bring out the sparkle and punch of a regular uke. I think the spruce top and maple back and sides deliver this and more. I am really proud of how it sounds. Second, the materials. The spruce top is salvaged, old growth, bearclaw spruce from Alaska. The maple back and sides were cut by Ken for ukuleles but never used. The pistachio comes from California orchards. The fir neck is architectural salvage from a pig barn in The Dalles, OR, complete with rusty nail hole in the headstock! Lastly, how does it feel? To me, amazing. I am so lucky to collect beautiful and sustainable materials like these and turn them into a musical tool that can be passed down through generations!
I still remember the first all myrtle uke I ever saw: it was a reso uke that Gordon and Char built for me before I worked for them at Mya-Moe. They had used myrtle for backs and sides before that, but never for the top. They were so pleased with it that they launched a model right away featuring this Oregon/California tonewood for top, back and sides. This design quickly became a specialty for us and I am honored to continue the tradition. All myrtle tenor ukes are just a winner. They always sound great, look interesting and it feels good to use our favorite local wood.
This one is for a local friend who has an early Mya-Moe that I built. The knotty salvaged fir neck reminds me of the limp that he and I share as we shuffle through this world. None of us are perfect but we are all capable of beauty and power and deserve to be heard, despite our flaws.
When I was a young man, I was very interested in the old National resophonic instruments. I thought there were cool because they were loud, good for busking and pounding out rhythms in a hot jazz band or jug band combo. It took a while, but I eventually found musicians who used reso instruments but didn’t always play loudly. Instead, they used the metal cones inside to create a wide and expressive dynamic range, wielding an instrument of nuance AND power.
Since then, I have enjoyed the process of getting my own instruments to do the same and am pleased with my small successes. These banjo ukes, especially the walnut ones, are a nice example. Full dynamic range, easy to play, a rich tone and handmade in US from sustainable woods. This banjo has walnut from the Carpenter Ant stash in Portland and PIstachio from California Orchards. Thanks to Anne for two orders this year, she is ready for any musical adventure comes her way!
It really feels like we are hitting our stride with these Alto ukuleles. I know it’s not that much different from a soprano or a concert, but a new idea always takes repetition to master, even if it is just a refinement of existing designs. This spruce top is zippy and resonant but not shrill. The stiff pistachio back and sides reflect the sound and add some depth to the tone. I feel like it is one step closer to a general purpose small ukulele that has more tone than a soprano and more character than a concert.
The bearclaw spruce top is salvaged old growth from Alaska Specialty Woods, the pistachio is from California Orchards and the Douglas fir neck is from salvaged floor boards from The Dalles, OR. The back has a dramatic graft line, so I went with more subtle pistachio for the rest of the uke. The fingerboard includes a small void carefully filled with epoxy as a natural beauty mark.
Recently one of my fellow instrument builders asked my opinion about Port Orford Cedar as a top wood. I almost lied and said “It’s terrible, send it all to me and I’ll burn it for you.” Instead, I took the high road and admitted that it is my favorite top wood. Bright and detailed but with earthy sustain and pleasing tone. This curly POC and the pistachio are from woodfromthewest.com and the curly walnut back and sides come from the cut off bin at Goby Walnut in Portland. Every time I visit I buy all I can. It’s always top quality and I can use the pieces that are scraps to furniture builders. The fir neck is “pig farm fir” salvaged by Salvage Works from The Dalles, OR.
Living in a rural smallish town, we bump into a fair bit of the barter economy. Banjo lessons for food truck lunches, graphic design for hard cider, woodworking for childcare, etc…In this case I get to make a banjo to help pay for the amazing wood I get from Kevin and Irwin at woodfromthewest.com. I used a unique pistachio fretboard paired with some amazing two color curly maple from Zena Forest Products in Salem, another favorite supplier. This is the last board from this tree, begged from Ben when I went to Zena this summer for the old woodworking machines meetup. I have it in the lower open G tuning, which seems to work best with maple. I am told Irwin likes to play with members of his family, who play guitar and banjo. I send this little banjo as my contribution from one family business to another. Here’s to many more years of woodworking and music!
When you have a set of myrtle like this, it seems best to just get out of the way and let it shine. I paired it with simple two-color pistachio binding and an understated pistachio fretboard and headplate. I didn’t want to distract from the mastergrade myrtle which was given to me from Char from Mya-Moe before she retired. It has an interesting rising match of the four top and back plates highlighting a couple of small knots as they emerge from the quilted figure. It’s voice is rich and meaningful but not too loud/harsh. It’s got something important to say but will not yell to be heard. If you miss out on it’s voice then you are talking too loud. Be quiet and notice this elegant/functional object, you won’t regret stopping to listen.
I often think about the difference between art and craft and artist vs craftsman(person). I feel that there is cultural assumption that an artist makes one of a kind works, fueled by flights of fancy and the whims of a tortured soul. Anyone who has been in the trenches of making a living in the arts will tell you that it is the opposite. The Rolling Stones play “Satisfaction” every night, Gordon Ramsay makes risotto all the time and there are 57 known works in Picasso’s blue period. This repetition is what leads to the gradual refinements and developments that define the evolution of art/craft. The walnut, concert banjo uke seems to be my current repetitive task, forcing me to reach to perfection and innovation at the same time. For this one, I laid out the neck differently due to the dimensions of the original boards from the Carpenter Ant stash in Portland. It required two pieces of pistachio down the middle of the walnut to build up enough width. I also had fun playing with the swirling fretboard and headplate from Pistachio. This instrument is both a repeat performance and one of a kind, just how I like it.
I was having a grumpy day in the shop when an un-expected detail saved the day for me: I noticed that the upper left corner of this fir neck had a streak of darker red in it. As the ukulele progressed, I couldn’t stop seeing red in the upper left: head plate, back, fretboard. Although I often layout woods improvisationally, maybe some details are a happy accident or maybe some decisions are made subconsciously. Either way, I am happy with with this one and that I drew me out of a grumpy spell. Port Orford Cedar from the Oregon Coast, Pistachio from California orchards and a wide grain fir neck from my friend’s land on Vashon Island. It is solid and sturdy but the cedar top gives it a punch and zip. Ready for years of music making!
You know that I have been sticking to more local woods since launching Beansprout, but Koa and Mahogany are so foundational to ukulele history that I can’t ignore them. However, I am always looking for the best ecological and economical way to use these “tropical” woods, sticking to salvaged sources and trusted suppliers. This particular Koa set comes from Bruce at Notable Woods and was sold as a “second” or flawed set. I find it’s flaws/freckles/dimples completely charming and can’t believe it ever made it onto the “B” grade pile. Add to it a one of a kind wavy pistachio fingerboard from California Orchards and a knotty old growth Douglas Fir neck and I am smitten. I hope you are too.
Out on the Oregon coast there is a special place called Camp Westwind. On a peninsula between the Salmon river and the ocean, it is a place of rugged beauty and old growth forests, but I know it best as a place of peaceful minds, grateful hearts and musical joy. We have been lucky enough to teach music there for Tunes In The Dunes several times and it always has been a highlight of our year. Three years ago, their site manager, Scotty, started saving wood for me that he cut and milled from downed trees on the Westwind property. Last year I made a couple of banjo ukes from Westwind wood, this time I put together this all spruce and walnut tenor ukulele. It is slated to be auctioned at Tunes In the Dunes to benefit Westwind. If you want one like it in the future, I will happily build you one and donate part of the profits.
Yes, I made up the name "Alto" ukulele. Just a whimsical design I dreamed up in an attempt to create the ideal small uke. I wanted an instrument that had the cuteness and plink of a classic soprano but a little more depth of tone and a slightly larger size. The traditional concert ukulele always seems to be just a lack luster tenor, so I thought the alto might be the solution. I admit it, I did it just cause I wanted to. But that is the prerogative of the artist. We do things that we dream about and hope someone else cares enough to buy it! I have to admit that at the end of the demo video I actually got a little choked up hearing and feeling this idea come to fruition.
This Alto uses a beautiful figured Engelmann spruce top and Oregon walnut from Goby for the back and sides. The dark pistachio comes from California orchards. The fir neck comes from my friend Cath's property on Vashon Island, WA. May it sing like I dreamed it would.
The baritone ukulele is a bit of a strange beast. Ukulele folks want it in order to lower their available range and depth and guitar folks are puzzled why they only have four strings. Most baritone ukuleles loose the sparkle and clarity of a uke tuned gcea and you end up with a dark, quiet, muddy sound. The goal then, should be to create an instrument that gives the uke player more range, keeps the crisp tone that an ukulele needs and makes the guitar players jealous. Deep and rich but bright and punchy. This combo of spruce and pistachio nails it, in my opinion. The spruce is salvaged old growth from Alaska Specialty Woods and the pistachio is grafted orchard wood from woodfromthewest.com.
After I sold my last banjo uke while on tour in New Zealand, I threw this one together to finish the tour season. Plain walnut from the Carpenter Ant stash and pistachio from California Orchards. Neat and serviceable, ready to make music.