Uke it up

Recovery step No. 1: Admitting addiction.

Audrey Kelly recalls a Kansas City Ukesters meeting when, circled by eager faces and baggy aloha shirts, a new member addressed the club: “Hi. I’m Bob, and I’m a uke-aholic.”

“Hi Bob,” the members responded in unison. They understood. They’ve been there before.

This is an addiction with side effects. The main one: fun.

Think sing-alongs, buzzing kazoos and impromptu hula dances.

Christopher Callender of Overland Park knows a member who is a University of Kansas professor and has season tickets to the defending national championship Jayhawks basketball team. “He says, ‘I’d rather come here than (watch basketball),’ ” Callender says. “I guess sports fans are pretty big around here, especially college.

“It’s a pretty good testament that he’ll come here (to a Ukesters meeting) over going to a basketball game in Lawrence.”

Strumming along

At the July 14 meeting, 30 attendees sit elbow to elbow in the Parlor Room of Mountain Music Shoppe on Shawnee Mission Parkway. The room is warm. Beads of perspiration tumble onto the carpet as players warm up to the classic country tune “Jambalaya.” Only two chords, says the Rev. Ken Kelly, Ukesters co-founder. Piece of cake.

“What’s fun is a ukulele is an instrument that anybody can play, and the learning curve is really fast,” says founding member Chuck Wilson of Kansas City.

Salli Katz, also of Kansas City, didn’t have a note of musical experience when she joined the Ukesters three months ago. Though she still gets lost, she gets encouragement from fellow members — many of whom are in the same situation — and is undeterred.

“These guys have a ball,” Katz says. “These are people from … every occupation, and they’re having a great time. Everybody comes together, so I am going to learn, because I want to be one of them.”

Even when musicians such as Kansas Citian David Firman, a founding member who occasionally plays bass for the group, have decades of musical experience, they still don’t take playing the uke too seriously.

“It’s basically an amateurish club,” Firman says. “There’s no one great in the club, but we have some people that are above average.”

And the “above average” members understand that it’s their role to help the less informed create their own tunes.

“It’s so fulfilling to make your own music, and it’s so simple to do it with the ukulele,” Kelly says.

Internet beginnings

The addiction started early for Kelly, all the way back in fourth grade, when he received three free lessons after purchasing a guitar from a shop in the Western Auto building in Kansas City. The ukulele came later, but it became part of his passion for small, mobile instruments.

Most recently he was part of Priest Band, a local group of musical priests. When that took up too much time from his ministry at St. Pius X in Mission, he opted for something simpler. Like ukulele-simple.

In January 2007 he posted a note on Yahoo Groups for locals interested in starting a ukulele club. Within a month they had a group of five — Kelly, Firman, Wilson, Nancy Howell (Firman’s wife) and Larry Fencyk — and met in Wilson’s home.

After five turned into 10, and 10 to 15, the Ukesters required a bigger location, which they found through Jim Curley, owner of Mountain Music Shoppe, a local uke seller.

Now Ukester meetings are every second Monday of the month, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. And for the beginners, a few of the “pros” come in at 5:30 p.m. to provide informal lessons.

Thanks to what Wilson calls phenomenal growth, the room is typically maxed out with 30 attendees, and nearly 60 people are on the membership list — some from as far away as Ohio and Texas.

The leadership “really has kind of a democratic flavor to it,” Kelly says.

When voices crescendo too loudly, someone yells, “Shut up!” When someone needs the floor, another pipes up and lets the rest know. The Ukester model works for their purposes and reduces the hassle on “official” leadership.

“We have no dues, no president, no vice president,” Wilson says. “Everybody knows when they come that they’re going to have fun.”

“Everyone who’s involved in the group is involved with its destiny,” Firman says.

Members bring new songs to share with the group and expand the group’s repertoire. They’re open to anything: Hawaiian, World War I era, oldies, country and western, jazz, blues and more.

The last meeting was primarily practice for the group’s upcoming gig at Liberty Memorial playing World War I classics, but there was time to introduce ukulele versions of “Chapel of Love” and “Sheila,” by Buddy Holly.

Young hearts

The Ukester members’ median age is 50, but they play with the glee of 15-year-olds.

Members form quick bonds from the experience of learning a new instrument in middle age. Experienced players enjoy the sense of community among musicians

“It’s amazing the friendships that have followed from this, and it’s just been phenomenal in the way that it has developed,” Wilson says.

There have been younger members, too. One 14-year-old tried out the club recently.

“We’ve actually had some children,” Howell says. “We’ve even had one mother who brought her preschooler in, saying she wanted him to have an inspiration because he already had a little ukulele. I’ll bet he wasn’t more than 3 years old.”

Beyond fun and inspiration, the instrument is a creative outlet for the members.

“What’s so nice is the ukulele is simple to learn,” Kelly says. “But it really is fun to make your own music. And you can do that with the uke.”


Ever wonder how the ukulele is related to the guitar?

•On a four-string tenor ukulele, the tuning is actually the same as putting a capo across the fifth fret of a guitar, while playing only the top four strings of the guitar. The open notes on the ukulele strings are the same: G, C, E and A. This is the most common tuning of a ukulele.

•The main differences between a ukulele and a guitar are in how you hold and strum them. The ukulele won’t sound like a ukulele if it’s played with a guitar strap and won’t have the same tone if it’s picked or strummed like a guitar. But, according to experts, the transition isn’t hard to make.


Here’s a sampling of what the Ukesters played at their July 14 meeting.


“You’re a Grand Old Flag”

“Yankee Doodle Dandy”

“Kansas City”

“Mademoiselle From Armentieres”

“Over There”

“This Land Is Your Land”

“Silvery Moon”


“Why Don’t You Practice What You Preach”

“Blue Hawaii”


“Chapel of Love”

“Happy Trials”


•Ukuleles were invented by a Portuguese instrument maker, NOT a Hawaiian. But it seems that the idea was developed in Hawaii, where the inventor immigrated to in 1879. Hawaiians took the instrument to heart and popularized it.

•A banjo uke plays the same as a ukulele but has a banjo skin, which allows for a louder sound. The banjo uke was often used by vaudeville performers.

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