Sara Howard plays a ukulele named Flipper. A little wooden dolphin serves as the bridge, and the plastic instrument looks almost toylike. But its sweet sound transports player and listeners alike across oceans.
“It’s a simple instrument to play,” she says. “You can play some chords with one finger on a string. It’s described by a lot of people as a very happy sound, but it can also be melodic or punchy, depending on how you play it.”
Howard is vice president of Triad Ukulele, a group of enthusiasts that gathers twice monthly to play, and regularly hosts events to promote the stringed instrument.
Ukulele player David Hill founded the group last year with some students who took a beginners’ class through The Music Center of City Arts and Events.
“We wanted to get a jam group together of people who were interested in continuing the relationships we had built and who wanted to keep practicing together,” Howard says.
About 60 people have registered with the group, and about a dozen attend its regular gatherings in a rehearsal room at Triad Stage in downtown Greensboro.
According to Jim Tranquada, author of “The Ukulele: A History,” laborers from the Portuguese island of Madeira brought with them a stringed instrument known as a machete (yes, like the knife) when they came to work on Hawaiian sugar plantations. Woodworkers began making the instrument out of koa, a tree native to Hawaii, and it became a favorite of Hawaiian King Kalakaua in the late 1800s. The word “ukulele” means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian.
“The earliest explanations of the name claim that it’s based on the actions of the fingers on the fingerboard,” Tranquada says in a phone interview. “With a good player, the fingers look like the jumping of fleas.”
Ukuleles traditionally have four strings and a reputation for being easy to learn.
“You can pick up some basic skills with relative ease, but like with any other instrument, it’s challenging to learn to play well,” Tranquada says. “But everybody plays ukuleles, from children to senior citizens. And in an era of digital music, the kind of authentic music making that’s possible with a ukulele is attractive.”
Tranquada describes the instrument’s sound as “pleasantly plangent,” or expressive. Some say it has a melancholy quality. Howard describes it as “bright.”
“It really depends on what it’s made of,” she says. “With koa wood, you get these beautiful warm tones. But with plastic, it’s much brighter. And neither one is right or wrong. It’s just a matter of what you like.”
Although she talks about the instrument like an expert now, bringing herself to learn to play was a challenge. She received her first ukulele as a gift, “and it sat in my car for two years,” she says.
“I was really intimidated about learning how to play it. I used to be a dancer, and I injured my foot and needed something to fill that creative space. I’ve never learned a stringed instrument before, so this is new to me. And I discovered it’s a friendly instrument.”
On a recent Thursday at Triad Stage, the group gathered in a semi-circle and played along to a YouTube video of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” that was projected onto a screen alongside a chord chart of the song.
Among those in attendance was Dave Burr, who started playing in August and had a Gold Tone “banjolele” with a clear blue body.
“This was something my wife got, because we’re stained glass artists, and this looked like glass,” he says. “It’s twangy, sort of a riverboat sound. But it’s a unique sound.”
Darlene Younger, who has been playing for several years, says ukulele lessons are a good place to start for those who want to pick up a stringed instrument.
“The neck is smaller than a guitar, so it’s less difficult to hold,” she says. “For people with smaller hands, it’s much easier to do the chords. And you can make some incredible music with it.”