Battle Creek group learns ukulele through jam sessions

Oct 18, 2012

Members of the Battle Creek Ukulele Group jam together at Your Local Yarn Shop in Battle Creek.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Your Local Yarn Shop in Battle Creek isn’t usually open on Sundays. But every third Sunday of the month, the shop opens its doors for the Battle Creek Ukulele Group also known as B.U.G.S. 

“I like it. I’m having fun. I like to sing," says Mahlon Roe. "I don’t read music, but hopefully this will help.”

When I talked to Roe, he had just joined the group. Roe says he used to play banjo, but he never really got into it. With only four strings, he says the ukulele is a more laid-back instrument. B.U.G.S. organizer James Powers says there are many reasons why people pick up the ukulele. 

Some of the group's ukuleles. James Powers says there is quite a variety of ukuleles today.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

“It’s small. It’s compact. It doesn’t cost a lot to buy one, it’s very inexpensive. And with four strings, you only have to finegal four strings when you go to play any chords or any individual notes, whereas a guitar is larger and with six strings some people are intimidated by that,” Powers says. “The other thing is the sound of the ukulele, it just has a sweet sound. Not to say that an acoustic guitar does not because they certainly do, but it’s two different pieces of instrument and you get two different sounds from either one of them. So it’s so much easier for people who have small families or small budgets. They want to entertain, they want to get involved and here’s the perfect thing. You can stick it under your arm and go wherever you want—on the beach—you don’t have to worry about anything.”

The ukulele is often thought of as a Hawaiian instrument, but historians say it likely came from another island. When immigrants from the island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal came to work in the sugarcane fields, they brought ukulele-like instrument with them. By the late 1800s, the ukulele was widely popular in Hawaii and that popularity soon spread to the mainland.

Powers says the group plays Hawaiian tunes, but also American Folk and Americana. He says, with a little work, almost any guitar song can be played on a ukulele.

“Oftentimes you’ll see music that we’ll transpose from a guitar song. And we can’t play it in the mode of a ukulele. So, we’ll transpose it over to the C chord, which is perfect for the ukulele, and in so doing everybody can join in and play it,” Powers says. “Any kind of music that you have a real interest in is available. And it’s amazing to me that with a small instrument four strings—that so much fabulous music can still be played.”

Powers says the ukulele has become more popular in the past few years. You can hear ukulele music on TV commercials and find tons of ukulele covers on Youtube. He says this popularity has made playing the instrument easier than ever.

“There are tutorials that will teach you how to tune a ukulele, how to string the ukulele, how to chord, how to strum. All that stuff is available and I think that again goes back to the popularity of the ukulele,” says Powers. “We didn’t have that kind of stuff here probably 20 years ago. So you had to kind of get out there and venture and do it on your own. You had to go to the store and get a book, maybe find somebody that would teach. And there weren’t that many teachers back then. There are more teachers now, but I think the basis of teaching comes from groups like ours. They use the knowledge and skills of other people to come in and ‘Well, show me how you do this.’ ‘Teach me how to play this.’ ‘Can you help me with this?’”

Powers says this popularity has led to new ukuleles on the market, like the guitarlele which has six strings. He says it's amazing how much variety you can find at music stores today. When all of the different ukuleles are playing together, Powers describes the sound like this:

James Powers (right) leads the group in a song.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

“You get a group that’s playing and they’re all tuned together, the sound that emanates is just wonderful. It’s not overpowering, it’s not super loud. You can still carry on a conversation, but it really lends itself to the music. It adds volumes to what the music is trying to portray.”

You can jam with the Battle Creek Ukulele Group at Your Local Yarn Shop every other Sunday at 2 p.m.