It was the perfect gift.
“I love it. It’s fun, and it’s a low-commitment kind of thing,” said Stetser, who plays the smallest uke — a soprano model — in the Maculeles.
He decided to learn to play so he can strum for his child, due to be born in February. He took piano lessons and band as a youngster, but had never tried a stringed instrument.
So he joined the Maculeles, a community group made up of people who enjoy playing ukuleles. The band plays and sings at local events. Practices are held at 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month, and sometimes more frequently, in the McMinnville Community Center.
Stetser, who now plays with confidence, credits his fellow members for his skills. They’ve taught him about using fingers on his left hand to make chords and those on his right hand to strum rhythms or pick out notes.
Now he’s getting ready to join the other Maculeles for a performance Sunday, Jan. 26, at the McMinnville Public Library. The free program will start at 2 p.m. in the Carnegie Room.
The Maculeles’ rehearsals are as easy-going as the sound that comes from their instruments.
Members sit in a loose circle, sheet music or music books propped up on chairs, instrument cases or portable music stands. They catch up on the past week as they take out their ukuleles and get ready to play.
Throughout the rehearsal, they offer tips and suggestions to one another. They work out strumming patterns and chord changes, how many times to repeat a verse, where to add frills or counter rhythms.
When they play, laughter accompanies their gentle music.
“You can’t play without smiling,” said Chris Poppen, who joined the Maculeles about a year ago.
Deb Brooks, whose concert uke looks robust beside Stetser’s soprano, fell for the ukulele’s charms three years ago during a workshop at the Slab Creek Music Festival in Neskowin.
“I already play guitar, badly, and read music; I like playing,” she said. “The ukulele has only four strings, not six like guitar, and it looked easy to carry and easy to play. It looked fun.”
Brooks ran into Susan Marrant, another McMinnville ukulele enthusiast, at Slab Creek. They started playing together on a regular basis in Marrant’s living room.
As more people joined, they moved to the community center and named the larger group the Maculeles. A dozen or more play with the informal band from time to time. More ukulele enthusiasts are welcome, members said.
A subgroup of more experienced players, still called “the living room group,” sometimes adds a few more complex numbers at Maculeles performances.
Marrant, who hosted those first ukulele practices in her living room, is one of the most experienced players in the group. “It’s very relaxing to play ukulele,” she said. “It transports me.”
She recruited many of the other members, including Brooks and Susan Chambers.
Chambers didn’t have to be asked twice. She knew how to play guitar and was smitten by the ukulele, as well.
“My husband and I were on vacation in Hawaii and it was raining, so we went to a music store. I bought a ukulele,” she recalled. “The next year, we went back and I upgraded to a better one. The next year, I bought a banjo ukulele.
“Then my husband said, ‘No more trips to Hawaii,’” she joked.
Chambers, Brooks, Marrant and the other Maculeles love their instruments, but feel the ukulele often gets a bad rap.
“No one really takes the ukulele seriously,” Brooks said.
She suggests going to YouTube and typing in “London Ukulele Orchestra.” “You’ll see. It’s amazing what people can do,” she said.
The ukulele was developed in Hawaii in the late 1800s. According to the website ukes.com, Manuel Nunes, a Portuguese craftsman, came to the islands in 1879 and, along with fellow immigrants Joao Fernandes and Augustine Dias, developed the ukulele based on the instruments of their native countries.
Hawaiians named the instrument “ukulele,” which roughly translates to “jumping fleas,” the legend goes. The ukulele quickly became the most popular instrument in the islands. Its popularity spread to the mainland in the early 1900s, then worldwide.
TV star Arthur Godfrey, Hawaiian musician Don Ho and novelty act Tiny Tim all helped keep ukuleles in the public eye over the years — although Tiny Tim also made some people think of the instrument as a joke.
More recently, a ukulele song, “Tonight You Belong to Me,” was featured in the Steve Martin movie, “The Jerk.” And Weird Al Yankovic songs lend themselves well to the ukulele sound, contributing to the instrument’s growing status as “cool.”
These days, rock and pop musicians often include the ukulele’s unique sound to their songs. Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” which features a tenor uke, went to No. 1 on the adult contemporary chart; and Bruno Mars plays a tenor ukulele in his music, as well.
For the Maculeles, the four-stringed instrument is as versatile as it is fun.
“Every song fits the ukulele,” Chambers said.
They started a recent rehearsal with “This Little Light of Mine,” which they plan to play at the library event. Then they moved on to “Side by Side,” “When You’re Smiling” and Beatles’ song such as “Let It Be,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Norwegian Wood.”
At performances, the group often receives requests. They joke that they’ll grant a request — if they were planning to play the song anyway.
And if it’s something they can find in their songbook, “The Daily Ukulele: 365 Songs for Better Living,” they’ll play that, too. The book’s contents are wide ranging, from “I’ll Fly Away” to “Simple Gifts” to “Sidewalks of New York” to “My Favorite Things.”
But some songs are off limits.
“We don’t do ‘Tiny Bubbles’,” Marrant said. “Or ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips.’”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.
EASY TO PLAY, UKULELE GOES MAINSTREAM
The ukulele is no longer a novelty.
The small stringed instrument is easy to carry and easy to play, said Chuck Weigant, who stocks ukuleles in his McMinnville music store, CHW Guitars.
“And they’re just fun,” he said, His family takes ukes with them when they go camping.
It’s simple to learn to play a ukulele well enough to accompany yourself or just perform a tune, he said. Players need to master a few chords, which they play by holding various strings down with the left hand. They use their right hand to strum the four strings. They also can pluck the strings individually to pick out a melody.
Ukulele strings are usually made from nylon, which makes them easier on the fingers than guitar strings. While guitar players build up callouses with constant practice, Weigant said, ukulele players can play comfortably even if they don’t strum on a daily basis.
“There’s a plethora of free information on the Internet now,” Weigant said. New players can watch and listen to YouTube videos, learn chords or download free PDFs of music. There’s even a “Ukulele for Dummies” book available.
New players will find a variety of instruments available, from the 21-inch long soprano ukuleles to 30-inch baritone ukes that look like small guitars.
In the middle of the ukulele family are tenor and concert ukes, which are about two feet long, or about one-fourth the size of an average acoustic guitar. Though close to the same size, tenors and concert models produce different tones.
Weigant compared them to the trumpet and cornet, two brass instruments that are almost alike. The tenor uke, like the trumpet, produces a brighter sound; the concert uke, like the cornet, is more mellow.
At the McMinnville music store, soprano ukuleles in fun colors run $59 dollars. Tenor and concert ukes start about $100. Higher quality woods cost more, such as one made from flamed mahogany for $139.
Baritone ukuleles, curvy pineapple ukuleles, ukulele banjos or mandolins, and other ukulele-type instruments are slightly higher.
Cases start about $29 for a soft-style case or $59 for a hard case.