Our world tour of classical ukulele players is now bringing us to Germany , the country of residence of Wilfried Welti, a Swiss citizen with the ability to make even the cheapest uke sound great.
I contacted Wilfried a couple of weeks ago and what first started like a standard interview became a very rich exchange on how to play classical ukulele. Wilfried has been extremely helpful and I am very grateful for the time he spent answering my numerous questions, with great enthusiasm and patience, providing me with a wealth of useful details.
Wilfried : I’ve always been interested in helping people taking on the ukulele. When I started playing the uke 4 years ago, it was not easy to get into solo playing. I had just started playing the guitar 2 years earlier. Only few good and nicely playable ukulele arrangements were available. The arrangements of John King, Lyle Ritz and Rigk Sauer were shockingly difficult to master, and nobody was there to explain the numerous particular features of ukulele solo playing. There’s a lot to it, really…
It turned out that I had to learn arranging music for the ukulele the hard way. So I arranged a lot of music for the uke. Some of those arrangements can be found in my free E-Books Solo Ukulele für Einsteiger (Tunes arranged for the uke and sorted by difficulty) and Weihnachten mit der Ukulele (Christmas songs arranged for the ukulele).
Some of those arrangements are very easy for the left hand, and I really hoped to help other beginners with those books. However it turned out that I developed a somewhat unusual right hand technique of partial up- and downstrums, which makes solo playing a lot easier for me. I’m still not sure if I should recommend other uke players playing this way, but it works very well for me, and makes very good use of the high 4th string of the uke.
Let’s find out about Wilfried‘s technique with this video of him playing a piece by Bach that he has arranged himself : An air on a G string.
When I listen to Wilfried‘s delicate and sensitive arrangement, I evade deep into my inner world, a very effective way to escape reality. This Air on a G String piece was played on a cheap Schaepe soprano uke, tuned in A# D# G C to optimise its sound.
U&L : do you have several ukes ? Which one is your favourite ?
Wilfried : Indeed I have a little collection. This just happens over time. Perhaps you’ve already heard about UAS ? Yes I’m one of the victims. My collection counts about 20 ukes. Most of them have a very strong “personality”, and I really couldn’t give them away easily ;) I could tell lots of stories about all of them, but a few of them are really special:
A) — The Schaepe Soprano.
Extremely cheap low-cost model… I bought it for only 14 Euros more than 2 years ago from Hans (a popular guy from the German ukulele club who also runs a shop). He is always looking for cheap and good instruments, and he really succeeded big time with the Schaepe.
While material and workmanship of this uke looked very cheap at first glance, it turned out to be a sensational instrument. I still can’t believe HOW good it is. It looks cheap, but the fretboard is extremely comfortable to play, and the sound is nothing short of amazing. Unfortunately they’re no longer in production. It’s really a pity. However, I have to admit, that I bought a few more of them as soon I realized HOW good they were. Now I’m hoarding them in my locker…
For some occasions I take them out, like for a string comparison test (strings are tested in the following order : Galli strings, Aquila genuine gut, Worth (brown, medium), Uke 24 Excellence and Aquila nylgut)
B) — The Brüko No.6
One of the basic models of Brüko. Very simple construction, but very high quality solid wood, and flawless workmanship. Some people don’t like the Brüko sound, but I don’t have a problem with it at all. Ok, to be honest, I had to grow to value it… after optimizing the action and putting brown Worth strings on it I really began to like it.
However the best thing about this uke is that it seems to be almost unbreakable. My jaws dropped several times when I witnessed which amount of abuse it could take without breaking. So it’s now my “outdoor and action uke”. I’m taking it with me in a light gigbag all the time — hiking, biking, partying and everything else. I know that I don’t have to worry about it — It won’t break before I do ;)
You can hear its well developed sound here (the air is called Kean O’Hara by the Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan) :
C) — The Glyph
When you visit the Glyph website you will easily spot a notice and pictures of my uke. Yes, I had to wait for it for about 3 years. It wasn’t so bad: I had enough time to save for it ;) . Of course it’s legendary, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner.
It’s a diva. In contrast to a Brüko, I have to care for it: Monitor the humidity, take care of the shellac finish, and always put it into the case after playing… I’m quite happy that I still have my other ukes.
I still didn’t succeed making a video doing it justice. But it really sounds spectacular.
U&L : What advice could you give to a beginner in fingerstyle uke ? Any useful exercise to suggest ?
Wilfried : The most important thing is: Make music. When I attended a birthday party yesterday, I just handed my Brüko over to a girl, and showed her how to finger the C chord. Then I told her to gently strum the uke. We sang “Row, row, row your boat” and it was really SO nice!
Many people try to learn difficult tunes or playing techniques. There are lots of workshops, tutorials and the likes on the internet… There’s nothing wrong with it, but never forget it’s all about making music! Don’t waste your time just tumbling through too difficult songs or exercises. Make sure it’s music. Practice slowly, strive for a good tone, and try to bring the music you are playing alive. And most important: Enjoy playing :)
Besides, it’s always good to meet as many other ukulele players as possible. Try to learn from everybody as much as possible — especially technique, like posture and everything about the right hand.
U&L : What steps do you go through to arrange a tune for the ukulele ?
Wilfried : I play it until it sounds right. Sometimes it’s that simple, sometimes it’s much more complicated. Of course it’s the old problem with the limited range of the uke. But I don’t accept it as an excuse — I believe everything can be played with the uke. The lesson we have to learn is that it’s not about reproducing all the notes — it’s all about understanding the music, and how to render it on the uke. There are some pieces where I really put a lot of work into achieving this — carefully listening to original recordings to reconstruct the melodies and harmonies, studying original scores, and trying to figure out how the uke can “tell the same story”.
However, I really like the re-entrant tuning of the uke, because it makes playing simple pieces as a solo (that is usually: melody and chords at the same time) very easy for me. If you know my e-Books you might have already seen those “curly arrows” — I am using a lot of partial up- and downstrums, and I always enhance the last note of such a strum, so it can be recognized as being part of the melody.
As a good start to the weekend, it seems appropriate to end this post with a lively tune played by Wilfried, a traditional Breton drinking song called Son ar chistr. As the Irish would say : Sláinte !