While experiencing that birthday feeling again recently, and being one of those people that's maddeningly difficult to buy for, my thoughts turned to my fellow uke players around the world. There's a rising tide of ukulele-themed presents that are out there, vying for the penny, dime, rand or Euro of your partner, parents and desperate brother-in-law alike, and it's a hugely mixed bag. You might be given the useful little time-saving gadget you didn't know you needed, a strange little design that perfectly sums up your obsession, or you could be saddled with a ukestache tank top. It really can go either way. Let's dive in at the deep end and take a look at some of the best and worst ukulele gifts that could be landing in your lap on one of those two special days this year.
(I should note here that I've appreciated, and used, every ukulele-based gift I've ever received... But I've been one of the lucky ones!)
This covers anything that could conceivably become part of your everyday playing, whether practising at home or performing to others. Straps, capos and electronic tuners are perhaps the most common (and all totally acceptable, by the way - making the uke easier to play is the whole point!). The ukulele strap world is still catching up to the guitar, but you can get your hands on something more interesting than the standard black or khaki - see right (available at the Southern Ukulele Store). There are also plenty of options for ukulele stands and wall hangers (for ease of access in ukemergencies), as well as increasing numbers of manufacturers making their own leather or felt picks. I usually go to British-based Ukulele Plectrums to get feltrum sets for my younger pupils, who love the variety of colours you can get. Please, please can we stop selling plastic picks to use with ukuleles though? I know you're reading this, Amazon!
Anything you can play without using your hands can be played at the same time as a ukulele. If you've got shoelaces, you can use the nifty little low-tech gadget you see to your left - the Toe Tapper. If you've got shoelaces and anything resembling musical timing, you're 100% of the way to learning its use.
Here's a nice idea for the most vocally challenged member of your group: occupy those lungs elsewhere with a harmonica and holder! (Although I'd be more concerned with whatever bizarre chord that suave chap appears to be playing...) And, although we all know it's far too silly to be spoken of in the same breath as an instrument as serious and austere as the ukulele, the humble kazoo can also be an efficient and cost-effective way to ramp up those crucial silliness levels in your performance. We all remember this guy, surely? Just me? Well there he is anyway. That could be you, you know, with a bit of investment and a bit (a lot) too much time on your hands.
Ukulele Artwork: The Good, the Weird and the Ugly. And the Weird again.
Despite my natural aversion to wall art consisting of grammar-free text, I can't help liking this poster (see right), available from Zazzle and containing nods to some of the most important people, places and manufacturers in uke history. There's also a handy reminder of the spelling of 'Kamakawiwo'ole', and the word 'mahogany'... In case you really like the word 'mahogany'.
There are plenty of cheap and occasionally cheerful options in the world of badges, to be worn on clothing, strap or anything else you can put a pin through. Here's a tiny political message that could appeal to both the pacifist and heavy metal crowds in different ways (although the two aren't mutually exclusive, of course). Then there's the aforementioned 'Ukestache', and the occasional oddity that makes me wonder if I've missed the joke and then promptly make a mental list of my nine most understanding friends.
Another one I'm enjoying - a simple but effective chord chart t-shirt. Perhaps better bought for your non-uke-playing friend or partner, the equivalent to that bowling ball Homer Simpson bought for Marge. You can even buy uke chord temporary tattoos now, if you're really really cool.
Slogans: Approach with Caution
Without even mentioning the 'Keep Calm...' nonsense that still pervades all corners of the gift market (including this niche), there's something about most ukulele slogans that just doesn't hit the right note with me.
It could be the fact that you can seemingly just slap them on anything now without nuance, thanks to the (otherwise very helpful) internet. Exhibit A: the Comic Sans disaster to your left (£44 + P&P).
Don't get me wrong - if kept simple, slogans can be an accurate and concise way of summarising your passion for the world (take "Peace, Love, Ukulele" for example). It's just that they can so easily stray into overly-cutesy territory ("Happiness Is Playing My Ukulele"; "Uke Are My Sunshine" (?!)) or try to shoehorn generic humour - "Trust Me, I Can Play The Ukulele"; "Got Uke?".
For the most passive-aggressive among us, there's this friendly badge to ward off anything unwanted like sharing or friendships. Or this one, to wear to your wedding or work Christmas party. I mean, some of these are just gibberish, right?
Then there's this kamikaze car sign. Disclaimer: use at your own risk.
OK, I'll stop the slogan-bashing there, partly because the name of this very website can almost definitely be defined as a slogan, but there's a lot of cut-and-paste rubbish out there, seemingly written by some marketing company, that tries to apply to everyone and only makes us all yawn. Why not come up with a slogan yourself that defines your own unique relationship with the ukulele and all the joy and satisfaction it brings? Then you don't even have to put it on a t-shirt - use your mouth (or keyboard) to say it in a real, two-way human conversation! Or just enjoy playing your instrument and don't overthink it: up to you.
Disagree/agree with me? What's the best/worst ukulele-themed present you've been given? Please do comment below.
Good luck out there! - Jon
Jon Allen: uke teacher and occasional songwriter