The ukulele might be a time machine. More than any other instrument I can think of, the ukulele seems to pull players back to the early 1900's when the instrument had it's first heyday. Howlin' Hobbit is one man that has jumped through this portal and broadcasts his love of the period's music back to our time.
When you see Mr. Hobbit holding a tiny uke in his arms, you can't help but smile. This is a man with thick paws that make you think butcher more than surgeon, and you would expect him to sound more like the former than the later. But when he starts to play, picking and strumming out rags and hot jazz with speed and grace, he defies your expectations and delights your ears.
To find out more about Howlin' Hobbit and his music, we asked him the following questions:
Howlin' Hobbit: I'd always liked the music, and I played some on my guitar, especially rags and blues with the more ragtime accompaniment. When I started to get more into the ukulele (the whole story is here) was when I found that the more interesting chord progressions were lots easier than their counterparts on the guitar. Plus, I just like the sound (and portability) of the uke better. It's a win-win!
DB: As a performer, you range from solo busking to more formal shows with your band, Snake Suspenderz. In between those two, where do you derive the most satisfaction from performing?
HH: With the band, definitely. We swing way better together than I do solo. And I just like working and/or hanging out with them.
DB: Music Theory is the best, and the most frightening thing, that anyone who plays an instrument should learn. Your Cheater Theory lays out the most important concepts better than any of the many books and articles I have read on the subject. How did this project come about, and do you plan to produce more work of this type?
HH: Glad you got use out of my little screed. It mainly came about from seeing the same kind of questions reappearing regularly on the bulletin boards on the subject. And, as even your question reflects, the attitude that theory was way scary.
Yes, you can go deep into it and get pretty esoteric. Some of the real theory wonks on the boards (i.e. the guys and gals who really know what they're talking about) would do that and all around you could hear the digital world version of the subtle sound of eyeballs glazing over. I felt there was a need for something that taught the bare essentials so that you could play and talk with other musicians and all be on the same wavelength.
But it wasn't as much my work as it was just writing down various bits I'd learned from other folk and asking several more knowledgeable folk to look it over and make sure I hadn't made too many egregious errors.
As far as upcoming projects of that nature, yep. I'll be producing a somewhat smaller document listing out all the hints, cheats, and mnemonics that I use in order to understand the Circle of 5ths. It's not that scary either and once you get a reasonable grip on it all sorts of things become clearer and easier.
I'm also going to be posting a blog entry on the songwriting process I use. Maybe I'll make it into a downloadable afterwards (though it's not a lot to remember).
DB: When you were just starting out with the ukulele, was there one thing you learned, or a hurdle you crossed, where you felt like you made a huge leap in playing ability?
HH: I tend to make progress on these sort of things in a long series of small increments. I can't think of any one "Aha!" point. Maybe triplets. They can really add to an arrangement and getting them relatively smooth was a good thing.
I think the biggest hurdle is mental. The ukulele is relatively easy to learn and is unfortunately often pitched with that as its main feature. Then when someone new runs up against a chord they can't quickly get under their fingers they tend to ask on the forums for ways around it instead of just practicing until they get it.
The (insert chord name here) isn't an impossible dream. Pretty much anybody who doesn't have a health issue (bad arthritis or something like that) can master pretty much any chord. It just takes getting over the mental hurdle and resolving to practice until you get it right.
DB: I see you are appearing at the National Kazoo Day Fest in Portland at the end of the month. Are there other performances or projects you are working on for the near future?
HH: We should be releasing our new CD later this month. It's titled Serpentine (and I hope everybody who reads this buys one. Or heck, two. What a great gift!) ;-) It is currently planned for 15 or 16 songs, all but two of them originals. Some are by Thad, some are by me, and some are co-written by the both of us. You can currently hear some rough mixes on the new Snake Suspenderz MySpace page.
We've decided, heck with what the Chinese zodiac says, this is the Year of the Snake (Suspenderz). We're putting in lots of applications to festivals and starting a regular regimen of contacting other venues. Once the new CD is done we're going to continue writing songs
We're also working on getting our "tour chops" together. We'll definitely be doing something as far south as Eugene, OR, probably by late winter/early spring. We've got a partially developed plan for a regular ukulele-centric night that can also be taken on tour and more Snake Suspenderz merchandise is in the works.