Dueling banjos and some ukulele music

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published October 23, 2019

 A young customer at Huber Breese Music in Fraser checks out some of the ukuleles for sale during a recent visit.

A young customer at Huber Breese Music in Fraser checks out some of the ukuleles for sale during a recent visit.

Photo by Maria Allard

 Scott Posada, the assistant music director at Rock & Roll Prep School in  Macomb Township, teaches ukulele lessons.

Scott Posada, the assistant music director at Rock & Roll Prep School in Macomb Township, teaches ukulele lessons.

Photo by Maria Allard

METRO DETROIT — In 2016, singer and ukulele player Grace VanderWaal, 12, was the winner in season 11 of NBC’s competition show “America’s Got Talent.”

That might be one of the reasons interest in the ukulele has grown in the last couple of years. The ukulele is generally made of wood, has four strings and is a member of the guitar family, albeit smaller in size.

Joe Leone, the owner and music director at Rock & Roll Prep School in Macomb Township, a school that offers piano, guitar, drums and voice lessons, also has expanded to provide ukulele classes.

“There’s been interest,” said Leone, who grew up in Grosse Pointe Woods. “We’ve been getting calls.”

Scott Posada, the assistant music director at the school, is the instructor who teaches ukulele. For starters, the ukulele is a great instrument to learn prior to taking on the guitar.

“You could say it’s much easier than the guitar,” said Posada, who also teaches bass, piano, guitar and drums. “It’s very nonthreatening. It looks very simple, easy and fun to play. You can’t strum and get a chord right away on a guitar. You can, but it doesn’t sound very appealing. You can get a chord on a ukulele right away. It’s very shape-based, which is very helpful. I think it’s a very calming, relaxing sound.”

A lot of singer-songwriters are known for their ukulele skills. Leone and Posada said it is mostly young kids who are taking lessons at Rock & Roll Prep School.

“Every kid is different,” Posada said. “Every kid has an iPhone or an iPad, so I like to use a lot of cool apps. They have videos of people teaching ukulele at home as well. The main chords are C. There’s an F chord and a G chord.”

According to Posada, a 2015 graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, many of the newer pop songs have been made available to play on the musical instrument. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” are classic songs that get plenty of ukulele play.

“For me it’s just taking pop songs that have been on the radio and learning the ukulele version. Right now we’re learning ‘Ocean Eyes,’ by Billie Eilish. We’re just kind of getting their fingers moving,” said Posada, who added that his students are “excited” to learn the music.

“You see their self-confidence, and they’re finding a place for themselves with kids like them,” Leone said.

According to the website www.get-tuned.com, the name ukulele is the traditional Hawaiian name given to a small instrument called the machete, originally developed in the Madeira Islands of Portugal.

“The machete was brought into Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, who moved to the islands to work in the sugar cane fields in the late 1800s,” the website states.

“I think the ukulele is probably the rediscovered instrument of the decade. We sell tons of them. There’s really a big craze right now,” said Robby Chism, who works in sales at Huber Breese Music in Fraser. “You can have a ukulele at a reasonable price. There’s a ukulele for everybody. They’re just a fun, lighthearted instrument. They’re easy to take with you.”

According to Chism, the instrument comes in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone.

“The larger the ukulele, the deeper the sound,” Chism said. “Every (music) genre is now transcribed into books for ukulele.”

That includes the music of the Beatles, Alice Cooper and AC/DC.     

Joe Pajakowski teaches guitar, ukulele, bass and banjo at Huber Breese Music.

“I have 10 to 15 students that are taking ukulele, from young kids to early teens,” said Pajakowski, who started on guitar at age 6, and played in the jazz band while attending L’Anse Creuse North High School in Macomb Township and also as a student at the University of Detroit-Mercy. “The ukulele has become a lot more colorful. The chords are pretty easy.”

One student, for instance, can play the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” on ukulele while singing. Pajakowski believes part of the resurgence for the instrument is because of the band Twenty One Pilots.

“I like my students enjoying it successfully so they like what they’re doing,” he said. “Everyone moves at their own pace. I love the fact people play music for different reasons.”

Another musical instrument with a style of its own is the banjo, most often used in country, bluegrass and folk music. The banjo can have four, five or six strings, but five-string is the most common.

“The five-string banjo is bluegrass. The four-string is more ragtime music. Tuning is different. The banjo is a picking instrument. With the banjo it’s sort of a happy sound. It’s kind of fun. You can’t play sad sounds on the banjo,” Pajakowski said. “It’s becoming more mainstream. Young people are studying it to incorporate more ukulele and banjo into their music.”

Chism said the banjo originated in Africa.

“That’s kind of cool,” he said. “They’re a unique American instrument all the same. It’s the sound of Appalachia.”

Jimmy DeHeno, who teaches banjo, guitar and dobro at Huber Breese Music, wanted to play the instrument as a kid after hearing the song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”

“The banjo is loud and obnoxious and fun,” he said. “It’s just fast. It’s energized. It’s the standard for bluegrass music. When you get out of that, it changes the dynamic of the instrument. It’s not as suited to other kinds of music.”

One of his favorite songs to play is “Remember Me,” by Alan Munde.

“He made it into a bluegrass song,” DeHeno said.

DeHeno enjoys teaching the instrument.

“I have a lot of adult students. A new student or seasoned player can just jump right in and play,” said DeHeno, who has some tips for anyone looking to buy a banjo. “The more questions you ask, the better your purchase will be.”

The Huber Breese Music website is huberbreese.com. The  Rock & Roll Prep School website is www.rockandrollprepschool.com.