A White Rock ukulele-maker is catching a ‘wave’ of pandemic-era interest in the diminutive – but far from humble – instrument.
Even before he started building them in earnest, Steve Goodall, whose ‘Wave Ukes’ are being sold and distributed exclusively by White Rock-based Tapestry Music, was aware of the latter-day popularity of the versatile four-stringed instrument.
Indeed, what had once been considered either a Hawaiian novelty or a comedic hold-over from the 1920s and ’30s– thanks to performers of the ilk of Britain’s George Formby and America’s Tiny Tim – is now a permanent part of the soundtrack of our lives, he noted.
Virtuoso exponents, dynamic ensembles, viral videos and high-profile artists unashamed to use them for self-accompaniment – plus a plethora of commercials featuring the plunky strumming to lend a quirky, homespun feel to products and experiences – have ensured the return of the ‘uke’ to respectability and desirability.
That’s only increased since COVID-19 entered the picture, Goodall told Peace Arch News.
“There’s been a bit of a surge in ukuleles since COVID has been here,” he said.
“In the last few months, with people holed-up in their homes, I suppose, there’s been this feeling of ‘maybe I should learn an instrument while I have this time on my hands.’ There’s definitely been an uptick in sales – I suppose it’s a slight silver lining in the cloud.”
Far from creating assembly-line, mass-produced products, Wave Ukes is a handmade, labour-of-love business for Goodall, whose skill qualifies him as what is technically known as a “luthier”.
He reckons he spends between 40 and 50 hours on each individual instrument before it meets his exacting standards.
Keeping the price point for his ukes on the higher side is his insistence on using only top-quality woods such as Sitka spruce, maple, walnut and cedar. Fortunately, B.C. has an excellent supply of fine raw materials, he said – “probably the best in the world.”
Even so, Goodall said, he has been determined to keep his beautifully-finished instruments relatively affordable. Eschewing costly decorative details like fretboard inlays, he has focused on tone and playability, plus such not-too-common, player-friendly features as a round ‘sound-port’ on the top of the body – in addition to the opening in front – that reflects sound upward more accurately and directly.
Goodall’s craftsmanship was developed over years of “dabbling” in building instruments – including a bass guitar he scratch-built when he was 18 – before progressing to a point where he felt comfortable selling his work to the public, he said.
To this perfectionism he brings the ear of one who spent many years as a professional musician – he plays guitar, and also bass and drums – and also extensive experience in the field of selling and repairing musical instruments.
That’s how, he said, he first came to know Tapestry owner David Sabourin, and, latterly, David’s son Michael – who has specialized in building the burgeoning Everything Uke division of the store chain.
As soon as they knew he was building his own ukuleles, they started encouraging him to sell them through Tapestry, he said.
“I kept saying, ‘I’m not ready yet,’” he recalled, noting that it wasn’t until he had around five or six under his belt that he felt confident enough to start marketing them about two years ago.
“I suppose my timing was good, but I didn’t really think about that,” he said. “I didn’t wake up one day thinking ‘I want to be a ukulele-builder.’”
Born in York in England, he grew up in “a completely musical family,” he said.
“My dad was a bass player and my granddad was a guitar player. There were always instruments around and I had a ukulele thrust into my hands when I was two or three – my brother and I were given ukuleles because they were small enough to hold. That would be my initial experience with the instrument – I guess it’s come full circle, now.”
The family emigrated to Vancouver in the late 1960s, he said, and he graduated to the guitar as his principal instrument. When he was in his early 20s he and his brother moved to Toronto where they opened a small recording studio. Heavily involved in the music scene as a member of different bands, he drifted quite naturally, he said, into music instrument sales.
That career continued when he moved back to Vancouver in his late 20s, Goodall said – and although he has since worked in other fields, music and tinkering with musical instruments has always been close to his heart.
“My dad has always played ukulele – he’s an avid ukulele player in the style of George Formby,” he said.
“He only had a cheap ukulele and about 10 years ago I thought, ‘maybe I can build one and give it to him for Christmas.’ And, lo and behold, I did come up with a playable instrument and put it under the tree. He still plays it – almost every day. It was a bit rough around the edges when I look at it now – but it did start me building more.”
When it came to marketing his ukes, the Wave brand name seemed like a natural, he said, given both the instrument’s long association with the surf culture of Hawaii and White Rock’s seaside location.
“And besides, there’s already a company named Goodall Guitars,” he added.
His own retail background, and close connection to his customer base through Tapestry Music gives him a distinct advantage over mass-market ukulele builders, Goodall believes.
“I take input from the store and hear directly what people want and what they don’t want; what they like and don’t like,” he said.
“I think (the ukuleles) are getting better and better.”