Upcycled music: Neil McHardy ukulele review

Guitars & Gear

Last year, I commissioned another custom-built instrument. I was in the market for a ukulele I could take out to gigs, as my existing concert sized one did not have a pickup or preamp attached. Knowing Neil McHardy in Cumbria has built a few ukes recently, I asked if he would consider making a tenor sized electro-acoustic model for me. McHardy guitars operate from a village in Cumbria, making acoustic instruments out of recycled wood. Some of you may remember built his first ever classical guitar at my request, mainly out of an old table (you can read the full review by clicking here).

This time around, I was happy to let Neil design it pretty much however he wished. I am a fan of his signature offset sound holes, and my only stipulation was to include a preamp so the ukulele could be used for concerts and recording. As always, Neil sent regular updates on how the build was progressing (see pictures) and was always happy to impart gems of guitar and uke building knowledge.

Size matters

So what is the difference between a concert and tenor sized ukulele? A tenor is larger than a concert, sometimes up to four inches longer, but they are tuned the same. In fact, soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles can all be tuned the same (G4, C4, E4, A4). The main difference is volume and depth of bass response which the larger bodied instruments benefit from.

An example of the size and scale differences between different types of ukulele

With tenor ukuleles, some players also use a G string which sounds an octave lower (G3), effectively making he open strings sound exactly the same as the highest four strings of a guitar at the fifth fret. I can see how some players might find this easier, especially if they are migrating to the ukulele from the guitar. Personally, if I needed that sound, I’d put a capo on one of my guitars, so I have opted for the more traditional uke tuning.

Specifications

The finished instrument is made from recycled Douglas Fir and Spanish Cedar. The face plate and scratchplate (or golpe) are made from fallen trees Neil found on a walk, and feature the most stunning grain, on which Neil has placed the tuning pegs in a line (rather than two per side, as is traditional).

With the addition of a good value preamp (powered by an easily removable 9 volt battery), this new uke was fitted with strings and Neil contacted me to collect it.

I love the look of the grain on the golpe and faceplate, and was impressed with the instrument’s volume when strumming it unplugged for the first time. Plugged in, it sounded the same as it did acoustically, just with the potential to go a lot louder – which is exactly what I would expect.

Family photo with my previous McHardy build, my gorgeous classical guitar

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to try it out onstage yet, but I plan to use it in an upcoming recording project (more details on that to follow). But when that material comes to the stage, this uke will be out on the road with me. I can’t wait.

New projects, despite lockdown

Music

As well as using Twitter to announce new projects, or update people on ongoing ones, I sometimes reminisce about ones from years ago, such as this one…

For some reason, I kept thinking of this, and on top of everything else I have planned (post-COVID), I’d quite like to explore what a power trio can do in terms of extended instrumentals (which aren’t based largely around improvisation); something more progressive in nature…

Having played in a rock trio format before, it can be a new challenge to fill the space adequately without the music sounding thin. Conversely, one has to avoid the temptation to stick to the more blues based method of sharing riffs, in union (or octaves) with the bass player.

Bear in mind that I currently have…

  • 3 music therapy jobs
  • A solo classical(ish) EP to finish
  • Another Nick Gladdish Band album to finish & tour to plan
  • My next band project (world/blues/Latin) to start rehearsing
  • A music therapy case study series to complete by the autumn
  • A small portfolio of compositions to develop

…and we’re still in a time of lockdown here in the UK, with no concrete sign of progress regarding indoor gigs (although the news today implies that this might change very soon).

Still, if you want something doing, ask a busy person, right?

R.I.P. Julian Bream (1933-2020), a giant in the world of classical guitar

Great Guitarists

Not many classical guitar players are household names, either worldwide or here in the UK. Andres Segovia might be one, as a pioneer for performance of the instrument in it’s modern form. However, I’d suggest more people have heard of two of his more famous successors on the international performance stage. One is the very well-known Australian guitarist John Williams; the other, Julian Alexander Bream, who we learn has passed away at his Wiltshire home in the early hours of this morning, at the age of 87.

Julian Bream at home, 2014 (Credit: Eamonn McCabe for classicalguitarmagazine.com)

Born in London in 1933, Bream initially learned jazz , influenced by his father’s playing and Django Reinhardt. He was also offered a place at the Royal College of Music, aged just 12 years old, based on his piano playing. He later switched to the lute, and became a great champion for the instrument throughout his life, even as his focus shifted more and more towards classical guitar.

As well as his numerous transcriptions of lute pieces (such as those by Bach or Dowland) for guitar, Bream also performed many of the transcriptions left behind by Segovia, as well as the seminal guitar pieces composed by Francisco Tarrega. Known for his eye for detail, Bream’s virtuosity included an element of flexibility; a key example of this was that he did not maintain a consistent rigid right hand when playing (i.e., held at right angles to the stings), but made use of a more relaxed position, in order to achieve a greater variety in tone. This is something I do as well, because I, like Bream, am multi-genre guitarist. However, having been regularly admonished by my guitar tutor in my youth for holding an ‘improper’ right hand position, it was a relief to learn the one of the instrument’s masters did the same!

As Bream’s reputation increased, he was gifted pieces by composers as varied as “Britten, Walton, Tippett and Hans Werner Henze” (classical-music.com) and performed around the world. He also recorded TV specials, such as a series of four master classes on BBC television in the nineteen seventies, as well as segments for Channel 4 in the nineteen eighties. This no doubt helped him to become a household name for many, but he certainly never rested on his laurels. Even as an ‘elder stateman’ of the guitar, he apparently strove to improve himself. According to an interview given to The Guardian newspaper, Bream believed he was a better guitarist at the age of 70 than ever before!

Essential listening: A great place to start would be his two albums with John Williams, Together (1971) and Together Again (1974). Also, seek out his version of Joaquin Rodrigo‚Äôs Concierto de Aranjuez (with it’s famously emotive second movement).

Bream with lute (Credit: Avie Records)

Guitar students would do well to look at his crossovers into other styles, as well as his early lute work too, to get a more rounded picture of a hugely talented player, whose passing leaves a large hole in the classical guitar community.

Rest in peace, Julian.