Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Baritone Uke: The Baa Baa Black Sheep of the Ukulele Family

With uke fests and ukulele clubs popping up all across the nation, there's no doubt that the "jumping flea" is seeing a resurgence.  Or, at least the three smallest size ukuleles - soprano, concert and tenor - are making another comeback.  But what about the the biggest of all ukes - the baritone?

About the size of a small body tenor guitar, the baritone is sort of the black sheep of the ukulele family.  Unlike the three smaller sizes, which are tuned gCEA, the baritone uke is DGBE.  This means a C chord on a regular uke is a G chord on a baritone.  For beginners just starting to go to group ukulele jams, the extra thinking and transposing required to play along with the others can make one's brain hurt.  It's easier to just use what everyone else is using.

On the flipside, the baritone is often the ukulele of choice for guitar players, because the DGBE tuning (sometimes called Chicago tuning) is the same as the 4 highest strings of a guitar.  I've seen guitar players light up when they discover this about the baritone uke.  Its large size probably feels more guitar like to them too.  But then again, guitar lovers can have a habit of seeing the ukulele as an inferior, novelty instrument, thinking why would I play uke when I can already play guitar?

About 5 weeks ago a guy brought a baritone uke to our Ashland jam session.  My wife Laura, a novice/intermediate bodhrán player with very little experience on stringed instruments, picked it up.  After someone showed her the chords G, C and D she was strumming right along to a G tune.  Surprised by its tone - deeper and more mournful than the sound she associated with ukulele - she instantly fell in love with the baritone.

When we got home from the jam we got in touch with a contact we had made at Augusta Irish Week who works at an instrument repair store in Pennsylvania.  As luck would have it, he had just gotten in a no name but otherwise playable baritone uke and sold it to us for super cheap. I happened to already have an extra set of Grover geared ukulele tuners, so when it arrived I took the bari to a local guy who has done some work on my banjo and he replaced the old friction tuners.  With these new geared tuners and a new set of Aquila strings, this generic instrument is sounding pretty good!

Meanwhile, some folks on the Ukulele Underground discussion forum had directed me to a new Pono MB Mahogany Baritone uke on eBay for the (low for it) price of $259.  They said the Pono - with its all solid mahogany body and truss rod - was one of the best ukes available short of a LoPrinzi, which can cost more than twice as much.  So, I made an impulse buy and snatched up the Pono at the last minute.  Long story short, Laura now has two baritone ukes within 5 weeks of playing the one for the first time at the Ashland jam!  Too much too fast?  See picture below.
"No Name" bari uke on left, Pono MB Baritone on right
The baritone uke gives Laura a nice, unobtrusive rhythm option for the types of Irish and old-time tunes we like to play.  These tunes reside primarily in the keys of D, G and A - all three of which are very accessible to the baritone uke player in the DGBE tuning because of the chord shapes required.  The key of G is especially comfortable, since it's like playing in the key of C on a regular uke (the easiest key).  Because of its longer scale, the baritone uke is capo-friendly, so if you were feeling lazy you could capo at the 2nd fret to play in A while making the same chord shapes for G.

The baritone uke is also good for strumming and singing those good old John Prine, Grateful Dead and other campfire folk songs we've been ignoring due to my obsession with instrumental tunes.  I suppose it's good to have a balanced musical diet!  I'm a lefty, and one of the bad things about being a left-handed musician is you don't have the luxury of playing and trying out other people's right handed instruments.  But, since Laura now has two baritone ukes, maybe she'll let me string up one of them as a lefty?!

1 comment:

  1. Found your 'Grog Blog' as a reult of searching for good images of the Pono MB. As you'll now have had plenty of time to play it (you and/or Laura) - what's your conclusion about it? I've been looking for a good quality baritone to upgrade my 1st uke (Brunswick BU4B) and have now ordered an MB which will have a passive under-saddle Fishman pickup installed before delivery. So --- what conclusions about the MB? Thanks.

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