Stephen Sandlilands shares his ukulele journey.


I was bitten by the ukulele bug just after my fiftieth birthday. I’d been a poor guitar player in my youth and took it up again in 2008 and practiced alone with a few lessons. As an avid woodworker, I thought I would make an electric guitar. And, then maybe a jazz acoustic. Eventually I went down the path of making a pineapple uke. As they say – it was all downhill from there.

The fruits of my labour – a Telecaster guitar and a Pineapple concert uke

Playing with others

I soon discovered that the ukulele community is like no other in the music world. The path to fun and learning is through playing with others.

When I was mentioned writing this article to some friends, I joked ‘who haven’t I played Uke with?’ The list would include Redland City Ukes, Baysamba (Brazilian Drumming), The Cage, Kine Kool, Bulimba Tuesday night group, The Ukey Beats, GRUBS and Spin the Cat.

Starting up

Once the pineapple uke was finished, I learnt a few chords and picked a few tunes. And then I noticed an ad in the Redlands Times for ukulele players to join a new group at the Capalaba Sports Club. I joined them and the group became Redland City Ukes (RCUS). I played with them until 2019 and performed at gigs at the Sunshine Coast Ukulele Festival at Kenilworth, Binary Swing time Redfest, SPRUKE and at Newkulele in 2018.

CAGE at SPRUKE

Finding BUMS

I was at a festival in Cairns in 2011 and met my first BUMS member, Cath ‘Jazzhand’ McCourt. I joined BUMS after that and my ukulele community grew and grew. Seems funny now that after meeting Cath 10 years ago that we have just started a duo together called Spin the Cat. We led a set at the Coorparoo jam in February with Mick Angeles on bass.

Networking

Once you are in a community, opportunities come up. I was asked play at a little festival at Victoria Point in 2014 and was looking for a bass player to join me. I asked Jim Bills and then ended up playing with his group Kine Kool for a couple of years.

George Mzor was leading a Tuesday night ukulele group at Bulimba and when he got too busy, he asked me to lead the group in his absence. It was all a chance to improve my skills and learn some more.

Jamming it up at Imbil

The Ukey Beats

My good buddy Darrell Reeves and I played with RCUS at the Newkulele festival in 2018. On the drive back we decided to start a band doing Easy Beats covers – and that became The Ukey Beats. As a duo, we entered the SPRUKE Star competition in 2019 and were really pleased by how well our songs were received.

Steve and Darrell rocking out

We cajoled Carol Dudley (who we knew from The Cage) to be our awesome bass player. She keeps us on track. We also had Marc Ambrosoli as our drummer for a while and were a real four on the floor. We’ve played at jams, open mics and SPRUKE 2019.

The Ukey Beats at Northside jam

It takes a lot of practice and then more practice before you start to get the groove working and playing as a band. But it’s so much fun playing and working with other musos. And then there’s more practise, then some practise and you get much more proficient at your art. Can you see a theme developing there?

It’s good to surprise an audience. The Ukey Beats played at the Northside jam in February and we got good feedback about our musicality. Some of our songs really challenged the audience. For example, if you know David Bowie’s Space Oddity, you’ll recall there is no chord structure to the end. We depicted the end in the song sheet as [?] [?] [?] [?] and it worked.

Take and give back.

The best thing about playing with others is the little bits of advice and wisdom that you get along the way. I’ve learnt so much from all the bands I’ve played with – and I thank all those people.

Without this feedback, my musicality would not be where it is today. I’ll keep on learning – but I am putting back into the ukulele community and BUMS as my way of saying thanks. I am always willing to share my accumulated skills with others who ask. I fell really blessed that I have had this opportunity to share this with you all.

Here’s a tip. I try to keep everything calm and composed when I play. BUMS provides a supportive and encouraging environment to help everyone improve. For instance, when I’m performing the audience will provide feedback. They might point up if my singing is too quiet or point at other things to help improve the finished product.

As a vocalist

The uke is a perfect instrument to accompany singing. In 2015, I got some feedback that I should develop my singing. I took music lessons with Elizabeth Ross and with lots of practice and encouragement my range, power and control has really improved.

In the non-ukulele world (yes, that does exist), I’ve sung with the Queensland Services Heritage Band based at Wynnum as their male vocalist. I would not have got this opportunity were it not for the humble ukulele.

With the Wynnum Big Band (right corner)

Final tip

What I’ve learnt as a performer and entertainer is that the person up front must keep smiling. If you’re happy the audience will be happy too.

If you ever need a bit of encouragement or advice, tap me on the shoulder and say hi.