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Friday Slide Show: A 1950s Ukulele Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

8 November 2019

Looking for something else one day, we rummaged through our childhood closet only to find our old ukulele laying on an upper shelf, its bridge attached only by the three remaining nylon strings. How do you keep the music playing when your uke is like that?

It must have been a Christmas present in the 1950s. We were very fond of it as a child and learned to play some simple tunes on it without ever really mastering it. Our little brothers got their hands on it, too, of course.

And it was at least once before given up for dead. The neck shows a repair. Someone had weaponized it, apparently.

But now it was merely abandoned. We left it there and continued with whatever task we were in the middle of doing.

WE'D LIKE TO SAY we didn't forget it but we did forget all about it. Until, that is, we ran across four old string packages in the folder we keep of printed manuals.

If we have a set of strings, we thought, maybe we should try to repair the thing. We looked for a YouTube video showing how to reattach a bridge and it was really rather simple. Glue it.

It had been glued originally so we thought we would be able glue it again. Wood glue, the videographer recommended. OK, got that.

So we retrieved the old Jeni-Frank ukulele and put it on our workbench for a night when there was nothing on TV. Which is every night in this era.

THE FIRST THING we did was remove the old, calcified nylon strings. Then we did a little clean up, dusting the case. We dry fitted the bridge and felt how it sat down in its place.

As the video had suggested, we taped it off. That not only protects the face of the instrument but it also builds up a little jig to position the bridge after you sand its base smooth of old glue and chisel the old glue off the face of the ukulele.

Next we applied some Brasso to the brass frets with a Q-tip. We had to sand them a bit, too, before they started to shine again. We polished the pegs on the pearlized tuning keys, too.

Bridge, frets, keys are all rather unpretentious on this toy-like Jeni-Frank from Burbank. Even the mahogany is a plywood, although the neck is solid mahogany and the fret board itself is built into the neck, an unusual design that does not continue the fret board onto the face of the instrument and thus loses the 12th fret of the soprano ukulele, which would have made the strings lie uselessly flat on the face anyway.

You might think it's just a toy. But the wood glowed when we rubbed some lemon oil into it. It felt more like furniture. And to our childish eyes it must have seemed like a Strad.

Then we glued the bridge back on and clamped it with a couple of clamps that miraculously reached across the case to the bridge.

In the morning we removed the clamps and the masking tape but we left it to cure a full 24 hours.

THAT'S WHEN WE DISCOVERED our extra set of strings was just a set of empty denvelopes. But did that stop us?

We researched ukulele strings and discovered monofilament fishing line can do the job, but you have to buy four different strengths, which exceeded our budget. It turns out that many string manufacturers buy their monofilaments from fishing line companies. One doesn't though. An Italian company called Aquila, which is also highly rated. We made a note.

We could have ordered online and waited a few days for delivery but it's been decades since we've been in a music store, so we tracked one down.

Sunset Music Company on Irving St. is run by Evelyn Masuda, who grew up with the store. It was founded in 1948 by Jerry Thomas, a piano teacher who started stocking guitar strings when someone walked in off the street and asked about them. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 95.

We drove over there to save time, forgetting to bring change for the meters. So we parked a few blocks away and got some exercise.

Finished. The last step was to trim the string ends, which we did a few days later

It was a quick and pleasant transaction. Evelyn greet us, we asked if she had any ukulele strings, she said she had sets not individual strings (we do look like the sort of person who would come in for a single string) and opened a cabinet to take out a box of strings wound into small envelopes.

The second one she pulled out was Aquila's new Nylgut, a plastic compound the company says produces a sound more like traditional gut and stays in tune longer than nylon.

We paid no more than what we pay for a few bus rides, got our change and thanked her. "Happy playing!" she said as we left the little store.

THAT NIGHT we strung the old ukulele with the Italian strings after lubricating the string slots in the brass bar at the top of the fret board with graphite from a mechanical pencil. The strings are color coded so you can tell them apart. We put them on in the wrong sequence having misread where the A string goes. After failing to tune it that way, we restrung it. Correctly.

To tune it, we at first relied on the immortal melody of My Dog Has Fleas. But that only gets you so far.

There's an app for tuning a ukulele. Actually several. Free ones. So we downloaded a few of them (to reach a consensus) and gave them a whirl. They play the note and then listen to your plucked string, reporting how far off you are until you get it in tune. Piece of rum cake.

Then we learned how to play two chords: F and C. We can play anything with F and C so far. Dm is coming soon to our repertoire. And, no doubt, a few other chords. For special occasions.

IT'S REFRESHING to be a beginner at something again. We couldn't have salvaged this old Jeni-Frank without the Internet but we learned a few things and the old ukulele never looked better. And it certainly never sounded better than it does with the new strings.

Stan Gee acquired one a while ago and played it in a video while describing its virtues and vices.

As we get older, we find that rather than create loose ends, we prefer to tie up as many as we can. And once they're tied up, get them in tune.

That's how you keep the music playing.

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