Posts Tagged ‘banjolele’

For this week’s ukulele-related witter I thought about sharing with you my thoughts on the subject of practising, or finger-picking, or how one goes about learning a new piece. And yesterday, rather to my alarm, I learned that Dr Kermode also plays the ukulele and I may in fact be coming across as some sort of strumming, film-reviewing wannabe stalker. But anyway, I thought I would use the occasion of the festive season to talk a bit about a seminal figure in the history of the uke.

Now, possibly more than with most instruments, I expect that one’s exposure to the ukulele when growing up is shaped by where you live. So if you grew up in the USA your uke heroes of years gone by were probably people like Arthur Godfrey or Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (maybe even Tiny Tim if you’re particularly warped). If you are Canadian, your experience may well be influenced by the likes of James Hill. But for those of us who live in the UK, the ukulele is virtually synonymous with one man, and one man only: George Formby OBE.

(It is practically obligatory to point out, when writing about Formby in a uke-related context, that the great man’s weapon of choice when performing was not a uke at all, but a banjolele. That said, clips of Formby playing a standard uke are around on the internet, and even one rather jolly song where he doesn’t accompany himself at all. But I digress.)

When I was young, Formby’s movies were on the telly all the time – usually in the afternoons and at weekends, admittedly. These are not prestige productions and the plots do all tend to merge into one – rather in the manner of Jackie Chan, George invariably plays a thinly-disguised version of himself, who stumbles into all manner of odd shenanigans. The plots are not overly complex and regularly pause so George can perform a number on his banjolele.

Even when I was very young, these films were strictly only-if-there’s-nothing-at-all-else-on material, and later on they were often on in the background just to provide noise while I was doing something else. And yet, and yet…  I distinctly remember watching one of these films in my late teens (it may have been Much Too Shy or Bell-Bottom George), and the plot grinding to a halt so Formby could perform a fairly mild and bucolic number about the pleasures of being a country milkman. But my response to the song was ‘Wow, this guy can play the hell out of that ukulele.’ The only thing I can honestly compare it to is the first time I properly listened to someone like Hendrix or Brian May on the electric guitar: a revelatory moment.

I was doing an amateur production of My Mother Said I Never Should a couple of years after that (stage management, I wasn’t in it, obviously) and there’s a Formby song on the ‘soundtrack’. We borrowed a Greatest Hits CD and had it playing all the time while we were working on the show, and my admiration for Formby’s uke skills did not diminish; I even made myself a sneaky copy of that CD, something of which I don’t usually approve. And when I was living in Japan and hanging out down the internet café a lot, the music I was listening to on YouTube was obviously very varied, but I do recall a few Formby sessions going on then as well.

So I’m beginning to wonder if buying the uke was quite the bolt out of a clear sky that it felt like at the time. I’m still rather surprised to find myself playing the thing, but it’s not like I haven’t enjoyed listening to ukulele music for decades.

Of course, comparing Formby to other notable ukulelists , his style is very distinctive – quite simply because with George the real magic has nothing to do with finger-picking or chnking or anything at all connected to the fretting hand. It’s all about the strumming hand. I get the impression that one of the reason why Formby is a divisive figure amongst modern British uke players is because his playing style is so distinctive, and at the same time quite limited. Even I will admit Formby does not seem to have been the most versatile player – but I still really rate him.

First of all, Formby is – and I am by no means professionally qualified to talk about this – an extremely competent strummer, by which I mean fast and rhythmical. The next thing is the repertoire of strumming ‘tricks’ Formby employs: by which I mean things like the Triple Strum, the Split Stroke, the Fan Stroke, the Circle and the Shake.

Now, the modern world being what it is, there is a cottage industry on YouTube of people offering advice and tutorials on how to emulate ‘the Formby Style’. Most of these folk are also banjolele players – and, in passing, I note that they further emulate George by affecting the same kind of gormless stare-to-camera when playing – but so far as I can tell there’s no difference in technique between the regular uke and its circular-bodied cousin.

I should say that most of the tutorials I’ve looked at have been very useful, and I have the mechanics of the Split Stroke more-or-less down in terms of the actual movements of the strumming hand. But this only goes to increase my admiration for Formby’s technique as a) he does the Split Stroke while rattling back and forth between chords and b) he does it at a blisteringly fast tempo. I am working on the Split Stroke as part of my practice routine but I can’t really conceive of ever really approaching that kind of speed.

So the more I learn about Formby and his style, the more I admire him. At the back of my mind is the ambition to master the Formby Style and see about applying it to all sorts of songs – partly, I concede, for the comedy value intrinsic in doing a Formby-esque take on Delilah or Bad Moon Rising. Will I get there? I don’t know. But I think it’s important to have a long term aim, and probably also beneficial to admit that this man is probably a large part of the reason why I picked up a ukulele in the first place.

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