Ukuleles have always puzzled me for some reason. It wasn't that little four-stringed things were too Hawaiian or not rock 'n' roll enough; it was that they looked so small, simple, and inviting, but they were tuned weird and they required a delicate touch. They seemed like an antiquated novelty. It wasn't until recently that I've grown to like the warm sound of the nylon strings on some of them.
Hearing Pete Townshend's melancholy "Blue Red and Grey," an oddball track on the Who's The Who By Numbers, was the first time I appreciated a proper rock artist using a ukulele in a cool way. Townshend's uke had a modest but muscular tone. A prickly mandolin or banjo would have been too treble-y for the tune, and an acoustic guitar would have overpowered it.
Recently, ukuleles seem to be popping up more frequently in the pop/rock world — from Eddie Vedder's solo projects to Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt's holiday YouTube posts.
The little guitars are becoming prevalent in the local music scene, too. Check out a Flat Foot Floozies or Local Honeys show sometime; ukes are the central force behind much of the music.
One Charleston musician who knows about the joys of the ukulele is Noodle McDoodle (a.k.a. Donald Whitley), a uke-playing member of acoustic combo the V-Tones and a spin-off project called the Amazing Mittens.
"There is a certain union of tight chording with the buoyant strumming that really makes the uke work for me," Noodle says. "The ukulele holds the possibility of playing the most ridiculous or the most sophisticated music while at the same time never becoming too fussy. You can play a sad song on the ukulele, too. It's also portable, and it's great to play in groups. You can have a dozen ukesters playing together and it sounds beautiful. Not every instrument works in all these different situations."
Noodle grew up in Texas and Indiana and attended college in Portland, Ore., before relocating to Charleston in 1998 with his wife and bandmate Eden Fonvielle. About seven years ago, the couple began collaborating with Sandy Hines, an accomplished local ukulele player. Hines turned them on some of the old-school uke masters, like Roy Smeck, Sol Hoopii, Bill Tapia, Cliff Edwards, and Eddy Kamae. The V-Tones quickly worked up a fun mix of vintage swing, blues, folk, vaudevillian, and gypsy styles. Currently, the lineup includes guitarist Jeff Arnold, bassist Jeff Narkiewicz, and fiddler Darbie Keck. Other local colleagues frequently join in as special guests.
Noodle teaches private ukulele lessons, too. A few years ago, he also started conducting uke workshops at the cozy Hungry Monk Music school in West Ashley. I caught him last month with a few new students during an hour-long workshop he titled, "I Got a New Ukulele for Christmas, Now What?" All of the students were eager beginners. Noodle encouraged them to take it slow and keep things simple. He communicated patiently, explaining the basics, from tuning and strumming to singing along with chords in songs.
"In a half hour, most folks can play a little song or two," he said afterward. "Getting the rhythm steady is a little difficult sometimes."
I also like how Noodle presented philosophical ideas to his students — like the idea of playing ukulele from the heart and body instead of from the charts and sheet music.
"The Hawaiians always talk about the heart in their music and culture, but my point was a more general one. Too many people get lost in the technical aspects of the music and can lose the juice," Noodle says. "Think about Lightnin' Hopkins. Yes, he was technically very good, but his music is live and wild and from the heart."
I should have talked him into teaching me the warm chords to that old Who tune during the visit. He probably would have had the patience and know-how to deal with a uke rookie like me.
The V-Tones perform at the Pour House in El Bohio from 5-9 p.m. on Tues. Jan. 31. They also perform at the Local Market and Coffee Bar in West Ashley at 8 p.m. on Fri. Feb. 10. Visit ukulelenoodle.blogspot.com for more.