How to Make a Happy Ukulele

Making Ukulele's talk by Dave Iriguchi post at
Dave Iriguchi talks about making ukuleles.

Last week I attended a presentation by Dave Iriguchi of the Happy Ukulele held at the Davis Maker Space.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dave when our Uke group attended the Reno Uke fest for the first time in March 2012.  As a brand new ukulele player, I was in awe of his handmade instruments,which I consider musical works of art.  Or works of musical art.  I was really excited to hear about the process of creation.

Dave talked about his ukulele making process, his designs, innovations, tools and philosophy. He gave details that went right over my non-builder head, but I could see other makers in the room taking notes.  Even if I couldn’t follow all the details, I was entranced.  It was fascinating to hear his story and see  and try the beautiful instruments.

Uke line up. David Iriguchi talk. post

Ack -I should have written this post as soon as I got home, because now, a week  later, I am having a bit of trouble deciphering the notes on my iphone. Of course I could try to blame autocorrect but I suspect I am the culprit of misunderstanding.  I ask  you to forgive, in advance, any mistakes I make. There is no way I can do the building and technical details justice, so you will just have to go to Dave’s site, and look at the peek in the shop posts.

My big take away from the talk was that when you are designing and trying to solve problems,  when you have a new idea, the folks who build the traditional way are most likely to say “You can’t do that, that won’t work, that’s not how it has always been done.” But, the only way to see if something that hasn’t been done before will work, is to try it. Innovation, learning  by doing and experimentation go hand in hand.  And persistence. The old saw rings true: if at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again.

“We didn’t know enough when we started about how things were done, so we just tried our ideas.”

Dave has experimented with design changes, building techniques, and creating tools to allow him to make primarily hand built ukuleles.  His ukuleles are art. The hand carved bodies with interesting  organic shapes  are designed to make it easier  and more comfortable to play. Or they may help a small uke have a bigger sound. They were stunning and felt great in the hand.  They seem amazingly light for their lovely sound. Again, my notes don’t make enough sense to translate for you on these details. Check his site.

I loved Dave’s suggestion that you should choose a ukulele while blindfolded and let the feel and sound determine the right uke for you. And if you like the looks, well, that’s gravy.

When you get a new ukulele, play, play , play. The voice of the instrument will change as the instrument relaxes and plays as one unified piece. You have to strum and play ALOT to get past the green sound.

He joked about designing a strumming machine to help the ukes find their voices while they are still in the shop. I love that each of his ukuleles have a name. He keeps detailed build notes so that if you call with any questions, you can tell him your uke’s name and he can instantly find the specifications, notes and photos for that uke.

Another tip:skip the humidifier in the case.  Has has seen ukes damaged this way. He thinks the best way to take care of your uke is to keep it out and play all the time, rubbing it down with a scrap of leather or microfiber cloth.

He addressed issues about the future of hand built ukuleles as 3-d printing becomes more available and the rise in competition from inexpensive instruments from overseas.  He has a new electric base ukulele that was amazing and had sparked a lot of attention. He hinted at the tension between  the excitement of lot of orders and how to keep the hand built quality as you move into bigger production. He hoped  that there would always be a place for a wooden instruments made hand.

He noted that ukulele builder as a whole were very generous with helping each other and sharing their process. He told a story about touring the Kamaka plant in Hawaii and being shown every detail.  There was no worry about giving away the “trade secrets”. The artistry of the builder makes a difference.

After his talk there was time for questions and answers and time to play with the instruments.

Dave Iriguchi, Suzie Lee and Lisa Nalbone

And  time to visit and take photos.

The Mutant Ukulele by Dave Iriguchi post at
This photo is from the Iriguchi site.
And to remember, there are different ways to do everything, in ukulele, in learning, and in life.
Time to start my piggy bank. I love that Mutant! AND the tagline “Smile when you play that.”

One thought on “How to Make a Happy Ukulele

  1. Thanks so much for having me at the Maker Space to speak Lisa and Suzie. There’s a wonderful vibe in the space. The people were very interested and that helped me get through my public speaking nerves. I had a grand time and I’m so happy people enjoyed it. And thanks for this terrific blog post Lisa. Hope to see you guys in Reno in the Spring!

    Smile when you play that!

    Dave Iriguchi

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