Ukulele and Mandolin

John Baxter

When I was immersed in the mandolin world, I had little exposure to other musical communities, such as fiddle, banjo, or ukulele. After switching to ukulele, as a result of arthritis in my left hand, I began to discover the community of uke enthusiasts, which has parallels to the mandolin community. They are passionate about the ukulele, and generously support beginners and other players. They have Uke Festivals and workshops, and like their mandolin counter-parts, love to jam until all hours of the night.

Both the mandolin and ukulele have a special niche in the musical landscape, with dedicated players that have immersed themselves in the music, instruments, culture, and community. The ukulele and mandolin, and the artists and vast number of enthusiasts that resurrected the instruments during the past century, have revolutionized music with the acceptance and appreciation of these instruments.

There are some parallels between the ukulele and mandolin, such as their popularity in the early 1900s, the revival of the instruments in the 50s and 60s, and the popularity we see today. Both instruments have some similar aspects. They are both four stringed instruments. Although the mandolin has eight strings that are tuned in pairs, the mandolin is considered a four stringed instrument from a players perspective. The ukulele and mandolin are both part of a family of instruments. The ukulele family consists of the soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The mandolin family consists of the mandolin, mandola, mandocello, and the obscure mandobass. Both instruments are used for a variety of styles of music. Although the ukulele is most often used for Hawaiian music and popular tunes, it is a versatile instrument that has been adapted for jazz, folk, reggae, and rock. The mandolin, in the U.S., is dominate in bluegrass, but is used for classical, celtic, folk, swing, choro, and jazz. It has been featured in pop and rock music by such artists as Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, REM, and The Band.

The parallel of these two musical worlds that impresses me the most, is the one between Lyle Ritz and Jethro Burns. I consider Lyle Ritz to be the "Jethro Burns of the Ukulele". There may be some who would disagree, based on their style of playing, but the connection goes deeper than that.

JETHRO BURNS was part of the Homer and Jethro comedy duo with Homer Haynes. Homer and Jethro were the stage names of Henry D. Haynes (1920-1971) and Kenneth C. Burns (1920-1989), popular from the 1940s through the 1960s on radio and television for their satirical versions of popular songs. Known as the Thinking Man's Hillbillies, they received a Grammy in 1959 and are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

What the general public didn't know was that both were also outstanding jazz musicians who were deeply influenced by the European gypsy string jazz of Django Reinhardt. Their studio efforts were produced by Chet Atkins with the cream of Nashville sidemen. Atkins produced many of their later RCA albums including two blazing instrumental jazz efforts: "Playing It Straight" in 1962, and "It Ain't Necessarily Square" released in 1967. These recordings had a tremendous impact on future mandolin players. After Homer's passing, Jethro went into retirement for a few years before returning to performing. Over time, with the increasing interest in mandolin, Jethro began to be viewed as the superb jazz mandolinist he was, rather than tied to his past as part of Homer and Jethro.

LYLE RITZ also had two careers. As a highly regarded studio bassist in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, Ritz was part of the legendary "Wrecking Crew" of the Hollywood studio scene, the legendary group of session men and women who played on many of the 1960s greatest hits. He became one of the most sought-after studio bass players in Los Angeles, hired for over 5,000 individual recording sessions, including sessions with Frank Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt, Herb Alpert, The Righteous Brothers, Sonny and Cher, The Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, and Johnny Mathis. In later years, he played the ukulele sound behind Steve Martin's rendition of "Tonight You Belong to Me" in "The Jerk".

In a part-time job at Southern California Music Company in Los Angeles, Ritz first picked up a ukulele and became attracted to its sound. It was at this job that a Verve representative heard him playing his ukulele and approached him with a recording offer. Ritz could hardly have imagined the impact of these earlier recordings. His two ukulele jazz recordings on the Verve label in the late 1950s, "How About Uke?" and "50th State Jazz", were unlike anything previously recorded. For the uke enthusiast, these recordings match the mandolin players admiration for Homer and Jethro's 60s recordings.

Ritz returned to his jazz ukulele roots in the mid 1980s, releasing a number of more recent recordings as well as an instructional book of his arrangements. In 1998 he participated in the Ukulele Hall of Fame's Ukulele Masters concert series.

Undisputedly the world's most revered jazz ukulele player, his recordings shaped the musical conception of the instrument for an entire generation of highly influential performers and teachers in Hawaii. Lyle's induction into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2007 coincided with the 50th anniversary of his first ukulele album.

Ritz will always be known as the brilliant pioneer in the area of ukulele jazz. His recordings are legendary and have inspired countless players both in Hawaii and on the mainland. Jethro holds a place in the mandolin world that is revered by those influenced by his playing, and his admirers continue to find inspiration in his technique and style.

When the World Wide Web began to gain traction, two men can be singled out as the forerunners of Web sites dedicated to the instruments. Jim Beloff created Flea Market Music in 1997. His site has tremendous popularity for a forum that provides players an opportunity to share information among each other, and support the ukulele community. Jim is the publisher of the popular Jumpin' Jim's series of ukulele songbooks, and is the author of "The Ukulele - A Visual History". He has also recorded two CDs of original songs performed on the ukulele ("Jim's Dog Has Fleas" and "For the Love of Uke") and produced "Legends of Ukulele," a CD compilation for Rhino Records.

In 1999, Jim introduced a new, colorful and low-cost ukulele called the FLUKE that has won admirers all over the world. The Magic Fluke Company, the manufacturer of the Fluke and follow up model FLEA have sold almost 40,000 instuments. These instuments are played by Bette Midler on her Vegas stage, and have been featured on the Ellen Degeneres and Today Shows, and by William F. Macy on Oprah. In November, 1999 Jim Beloff premiered his "Uke Can't Be Serious" concerto for ukulele and symphony orchestra, commissioned and performed with the Wallingford (Connecticut) Symphony. Flea Market Music, is dedicated to the ukulele and the belief that "Uke Can Change the World."

Scott Tichnor launched Mandolin Cafe in 1995. It is, and has been from the beginning, the premiere place for mandolin news, community, and information. The forum on Mandolin Cafe provides players a platform to share their experiences, recommendations, music, and teaching tips to other players at all levels. The depth of mandolin related content on Mandolin Cafe continues to grow and expand, with features added to provide even more support for the mandolin community, such as Mandolin Cafe's Instant Access Software for lessons.

Scott has been very active in supporting other mandolin endevours, such as scholarships for new players to attend music camps and support for important mandolin organizations such as the Classical Mandolin Society of America.

Since the creation of the Web, other sites have come along that provide rich information, such as Uke Hunt, Ukulele Underground, and UkeFarm for the ukulele. These sites expand on the efforts of Flea Market Music, providing tablature, instrument reviews, instruction, buying advice, and in the case of UkeFarm, a 24/7 Internet radio station that plays uke-centric music.

In the world of mandolin, Ted Eschliman has created JazzMando, a site rich in theory, techniques, and exercises, focusing on the jazz genre. His innovative approach using his FFcP method drills a physical familiarity into the player's fingers, softening the fear of upper frets and prepares for the harmonic alterations necessary for effective and intuitive playing of more complex contemporary music.

Mandozine provides an archive of over 2,900 tunes in TabLEdit format, a Techniques section covering a range of topics, and the archive for interviews conducted by the CoMando discussion list of some of the greatest artists of the last 50 years. Mandozine also broadcasts a 24/7 Internet radio station that plays mandolin-centric music.

The mandolin world covers a broad range of styles that have been applied to the instrument. For many mandolin players, Bill Monroe is the center-point, having redefined the role of the mandolin and invented a style emulated today. The giants of mandolin that are recording and performing today, such as David Grisman, Mike Marshall, Don Stiernberg, and Mike Compton, have influenced and inspired the younger generation.

The legacy of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (IZ) continues to influence uke players. The ukulele masters performing today include Lyle Ritz, Herb Ohta, and Bill Tapia, and have paved the way for such players as Jake Shimabukuro, James Hill, Abe Lagrimas Jr., and Gerald Ross.

It has been a joy to participate in these two musical worlds. The freindships, support and exposure to incredible players has entertained, inspired and challenged me. Both the ukulele and mandolin will stand the test of time. I know of no other instruments that have as close a community, and attract the passion and commitment of their enthusiasts.

The Ukulele and Mandolin
Arrival in Americalate 1800slate 1800s
Number of Strings48 (4 sets of pairs)
Instrument Familysoprano, concert,
tenor, baritone
mandolin, mandola,
mandocello, mandobass
Primary BuilderMartinGibson

Early 20th Century
1920s Jazz AgeEarly 1900s Mando Orch
First Renaissance1950s1960s
Lyle Ritz/Jethro Burns
 Lyle Ritz:Jethro Burns:
First CareerStudio musician Comedy team
Second Career Jazz UkuleleJazz Mandolin
Jazz Recordings in 50s/60sHow About Uke?
50th State Jazz
Playing It Straight
It Ain't Necessarily Square
RecognitionUkulele Hall of FameCountry Music Hall of Fame
Suggested ListeningHow About Uke?Playing It Straight
  Live at McCabe's
(with Herb Ohta)
Back to Back
(with Tiny Moore)
 Ukulele Duo (with Herb Ohta)Swing Low Sweet Mandolin
 No FrillsBye Bye Blues
Web SitesFlea Market MusicMandolin Cafe
  Uke HuntMandozine
 Ukulele UndergroundMandotunes
Internet RadioUkeFarm RadioMandozine Radio