A quick word with George Hinchliffe of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, a big group with small instruments travelling vast distances with just their hand luggage.

Why ukulele? did you start off on guitar and move smaller?

No, I started on ukulele. When we started 25 years ago, I think we were a bit jaded with the music business which seemed a bit overblown, and we wanted to get back to basics and have some fun. So ukuleles seemed like a good way of doing it. It's hard to be pretentious with a ukulele and lots of stuff in the music business is pretentious. But I think some people might think they are pretentious now - [though] if you get a bit well-known, people always think that about you anyway.

It strikes me that ukulele is a solitary instrument. So why play in a group?


Well, music is about social activity. At the time it wasn't that common for ukuleles to play together so an orchestra of them seemed like a rather crazy idea that was a bit of fun. Now it seems much more commonplace. Everybody does it.

Do you get cramp playing such a small instrument?

We have some very, very small ukuleles which are hard to play because the frets are closer together than your fingers are, but it's nice to get a tune out of them.


eing the orchestra of Great Britain, do you be play any stirring patriotic songs? Like the Coronation Street theme?

We have some good oldies, but we try to pick the tunes that everybody thinks are wrong anyway. Like the Theme from Shaft, or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Beethoven. We are encouraging everyone to bring their ukuleles and join in with us.

Do you use catgut strings?

No, and actually they were made of sheep. But nowadays everyone just uses nylon. We are not particularly traditional. But there are quite a lot of ukulele enthusiasts around these days, and I think some of those people find us a bit horrific. We use machine heads rather than friction pegs to keep us in tune throughout the performance. It's all about the sound, really.

These sound like quite high-tech ukuleles you have. Do you, like top violinists, book an extra seat for your instrument on the plane?

No, cello players used to do it when they didn't want to put it in the hold, but ukuleles are so small we can just put them through as hand luggage. We do a world tour with only hand luggage.

What fits perfectly in a ukulele case? Other than a ukulele.

Hmm, let's see. It depends, sometimes you get a ukulele that's just too small for the case, so you pack some socks or a plastic washing-up bottle in there to stop it rattling.

You mean a dishwashing bottle?

Yeah, I've seen quite a few people with those. I suppose you could use foam, but those things work quite well. It's surprising when you see them in there but people keep all sorts of stuff. We do quite a lot of signing CDs after concerts so my ukulele case is usually filled with lots of different felt tip pens.

Real rock stars then. Speaking of which, what would music be like today if the Beatles had used ukuleles?

Well, in fact it would be exactly the same because they did use them. George Harrison was a mad keen ukulele player and sat in with us a few years before he died. Paul McCartney played it on quite a few recordings. There's also some stuff on YouTube in George's garden. They're there playing the uke and Ringo's singing along.

So, if George's guitar gently weeps, what do ukuleles do?

There's probably a really good answer to that. I think in a way the guitar is a more dignified instrument than the ukulele. The ukulele always seems to me like a little terrier dog running around - very friendly but can be a little bit annoying. Maybe the ukulele would stick its tongue out and pant like a dog, rather than weep.



The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

When and where:

Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, Fri Nov 19; Auckland Town Hall Sat Nov 20, Sun Nov 21; Founders Theatre, Hamilton Tues Nov 23; Opera House, Hastings, Wed Nov 24; TSB Theatre, New Plymouth, Thurs Nov 25; Michael Fowler Centre, Wgtn, Fri Nov 26, Sat Nov 27