Over the last week or so I’ve been waking up with pretty vicious lacerations across my forearms, thighs and back. At first, I had no idea where they were coming from, then I discovered the culprit – my ukulele.
I started playing guitar when I was fifteen, and I’ve been playing ukulele for about a year and a half now. After picking up my Dad’s ten quid uke and enjoying mucking around with it, I’d promised myself that, when I sold my first book, I’d treat myself to a proper ukulele. My Mum, however, wisely sensed that I might have some time to wait, and so came back from Southampton one evening with a ukulele she’d picked up in a music shop. She gave it to me with the wretched cowed anxiety of a peasant presenting a fattened calf to a feudal lord:
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I just saw it and I couldn’t resist.’
‘Why are you sorry?’
‘I thought you’d be angry.’
Just for the record, I have never flown into a rage on receiving a gift. I was really grateful.
‘I thought you could use it in your shows,’ she said, meaning my performance poetry gigs.
‘Hmm,’ I said, ‘not likely.’
A month and a half later, I did my first ever live uke performance to a tent of about 250 people. The whole ukulele thing took me by surprise – I hardly ever play my guitar now, to the extent that I’m frighteningly crap when I pick one up.
The uke’s just so easy to grab and strum – I’ve got two, and there’s always one within reach when I sit and write. Various nocturnal twiddling sessions produced a few tunes that I started working into my sets. I found they broke up the poetry well, and they became such a mainstay that soon I began to wonder how I ever got through 20 minutes of pure spoken word.
I even started putting up a couple of vids of my work on youtube, including an entry to the 2008 Bushman World Ukulele Video Contest:
In fact, I was starting to get a little cocky, thinking I was quite the ukester, until I watched this youtube tutorial video from Jimmy of the Bobby McGees:
‘What the Christing eff?’ I exclaimed. When someone of Jimmy’s stature tells you ‘don’t post a ukulele video until you’ve learned this technique,’ you don’t take that admonition lightly. I had trangressed. I still played with a heavy plastic plectrum, and I treated my uke like a little guitar, rather than respecting it as a distinct instrument.
Thus, I devoted the month of January to attempting to get to grips with concepts like triplets, the split stroke, and the fan stroke. One of the things I noticed on a lot of uke tutorial vids – a detail rarely commented on – was the uke players’ grotesquely oversized fingernails. Time and again, I watched them coax lilting melodies from their instruments using huge yellow, misshapen talons.
So I decided, for the first time in my life, to grow my nails.
To understand the true gravity of this decision, you have to appreciate that I have been a lifelong nailbiter. Not just my fingernails, but the skin around them, and the skin in the crease on the backs of my thumbs. When I was playing guitar every day, (warning: this is pretty unsavoury) I’d often bite off the calluses on the end of my fingers, leaving raw, exposed flesh. Afterwards, I’d be unable to play guitar, or even pick up a hot mug for days. I go into graphic detail like this to impress upon you that it was a compulsion – I was addicted to biting my nails and fingers.
And yet… here I am a month later, all talony, knocking out my first flamenco-style split strokes and triplets. When my Mum saw my unscarred fingers, complete with actual nails, she cried. That’s how awful the state of my hands usually is.
But every revolution has its price. Apparently, I scratch myself in my sleep. Until now, this hasn’t been a problem, since I’ve had nothing but bloody stubs for fingertips. But these days, when I wake up, it’s as if I’ve spent the night in a jumpsuit full of weasels. I’ve got track marks all down my arms, like one of those people who do drugs.
And my lovely new long fingernails are starting to look grim. Ladies, any tips on nail care? I’m horrified to realise that I may literally have to start giving myself a little manicure every week, especially if I’m relying on my nails for gigs.
Still, nobody said it was going to be a bowl of cherries. To finish, here’s the obligatory Jake Shimabukuro vid, showing all of those techniques (and then some) being put into practice. What a colossal, colossal champ.