Thoughts on commissioning a new soprano ukulele from luthier Beau Hannam.
Oh the photos! The lovely photos! Shiny, pretty, freckly grain, blonde tops, elegant bouts, swirls and curves, mother of pearl. The moral of the story is “never be friends on Facebook with a ukulele maker.” But, of course, photos are just photos. You don’t have to buy one…Until you do! UAS. Kid in a sweet shop. Resistance is futile. It’s a fever! Ukulele fever!
In that sweet delirium you message him… Beau Hannam…
Me: love your ukes
Him: love to make you something
Me: I’m always interested in new ukes (am I? Gulp.)
…tempt me… (what? who said that?)
Him: would you consider a concert
Me: no, soprano
Him: I usually don’t make em anymore
Me: you don’t like sopranos? (stop it…sshh…! don’t engage….)
Him: they are just very small
Him: I prefer to make tenors. In your pictures, what you are playing look way larger than a soprano.
Me: maybe I am tiny
Him: what kind of tuners would you like?
Me: Gotoh Planetary
Him: pick a set…
That was how it started in May 2019:
#93 Beau Hannam Stauffer Style Soprano Ukulele
I asked for something that sounded beautiful. Something sweet and resonant. Something for playing classical and campanella style. The conversation continued about shape, woods, dots, strap pins, frets, price… The usual negotiations. I was committed. How did that happen?
Photos started popping up in Messenger. Beau had lots of ideas. His passion for building instruments shone through. I was mostly happy to be guided on woods and design. My main requirement was 14 frets to the body and an instrument that sounded beautiful. For woods we settled on Tasmanian Blackwood for the back and sides and Adirondack Spruce for the top.
An Aussie uke by an Aussie luthier played by a part Aussie. It was all coming together!
Early June: Beau suggested the tapered fingerboard end. I loved it!
Some players are very specific about what they want from a maker but I feel the luthier knows best. They know the woods, the grains, the potential. Luthiers need creative space. I think of them as wand makers.
Photos of #93 started to appear in Messenger.
It was exciting to see the different parts coming together. Conversations were monosyllabic:
Him: I glued your neck up today
Him: your body is boxed up
Him: needs binding
Me: can’t wait to play it
Him: it’s all coming up quick
Me: it’s only small
Him: do you have a string preference?
Him: high G or LOW g
Silly gifs…laughter emojis…
Aussie humour. We could quip without offending. Beneath the light hearted banter was a serious undertone. I wanted to love this ukulele. He wanted me to love this ukulele. But would I? Would she?
6th June 4:30pm
Him: I was thinking of doing a Stauffer type headstock
Me: (looking at picture) oh it’s beautiful!
The distinctive Stauffer “scroll” headstock is a bold and beautiful touch. An elegant feature which draws the eye and no doubt raises the odd eyebrow. It’s an option. Beau has other headstock designs. Ask him.
To me the Stauffer “scroll” is a dance of wood frozen in time.
Classical guitarists will be familiar with the historical significance of Johann Stauffer (1778 – 1853). Stauffer was the most important Viennese guitar maker of the day. His innovations included machine heads, or geared tuners, the use of embedded metal frets and his famous “scroll” headstock. Beau Hannam #93 is a daringly unique ukulele which draws inspiration from one of the most important luthiers in the history of guitar making.
Now before the ukulele purists go stomping off into the sunset it’s worth remembering that one of Stauffer’s apprentices was 15 year old Christian Frederick Martin. Martin later migrated to America and founded CF Martin & Co in 1833. Yes, that’s the company that made the legendary Martin ukuleles of the early 20th century. Beneath the surface everything is interconnected.
The scroll headstock makes a statement. I could gaze admiringly at it all day. When Beau first posted pictures of it on his Facebook feed my friend and colleague Jelma van Amersfoort, an early music specialist, exclaimed, “Little Stauffer-lele!” The name has stuck. The Stauffer-lele symbolises the kinship spirit of ukulele and guitar and the unity of tradition and innovation.
September 26th: I’ve only had #93 a few days but I already know this ukulele is a precocious child.
It will play campanella arrangements of traditional tunes, fiddle tunes, mandolin tunes and banjo tunes. It will play music written for the renaissance guitar and the baroque guitar. It will play music written for the classical guitar. It will be a time traveller and boundary crosser. A thief, a pick pocket and a trickster. It will be a prophet, a sere and a voice of the woodland spirits. Deep within its grains and textures it will remember the songs of birds that once used it as a perch.
It will know the whispers of leaves that lifting their green faces to sky, wind, rain and stars, once laughed. It will recall the deep thrum of the earth, mulch smell, worm wriggle, root tickle. It will remember the long, earth clutching finger roots of its hands forever searching, weaving through darkness, interlocking, gripping hard rock, touching silk water, kneading darkness and decay, conversing with its tree brothers, nurturing its tree sisters. It will know how to burrow, how to crush, how to reach, how to give and how to cradle the nest of a small bird.
Late September I walk across a muddy, stubble field beneath a scudding autumn sky. This is Dorset, this is Durotriges land. This is high land. Land of ancient celts, land of conquering Romans. My eyes trace the horizon traversing a full 360 degrees. A good place to build a hill fort. I half expect to see the glittering shields of a Roman legion beetling across the valley. Forests fall. Wind forgets.
Earth remembers, clutching tiny details. Rusty nail, belt buckle, shucked oyster, silver penny, bullet end, stater, groat, broken horse shoe. Everything is interconnected. Above ground on the windy hilltop time races. Life is impatient, disposable, a kaleidoscope of sound and colour. Beneath my boots is what CS Lewis called the Underland, the land beneath the surface, and Robert Macfarlane calls deep time. Slow time. Forever darkness. Still and patient. Keeper of lost memories. Holder of lost forests. Earth guards secrets darkly.
I trudge on thinking of #93 waiting for me at home. Sleeping safely within its green felt lined coffin case. It will need to see the light today. It will need to sing. It will need to be picked up and held. In real time it will know my blood rush and heart thrum and feel the warmth of my skin. I am deeply aware of my responsibility to this little instrument. This melange of woods. Orphan of the forest. Music box and memory holder.
Am I worthy?
I think of the maker – part God, part Frankenstein. Not the Hollywood horror movie monster but Mary Shelley’s astounding modern Prometheus.
I think of the creature crafted by Victor Frankenstein. The creature who becomes, through loneliness and inhumane treatment, “the fallen angel.”
I trudge on. Weight of mud. Responsibility.
Later, when I open the case there is a tiny white feather resting on the top.
For more information about Beau Hannam guitars and ukuleles please visit Beau’s website: click here to be redirected.
Here’s a recording: