Al McWhorter has truly begun traveling the road not taken. At the age of 50, this former Texas advertising copywriter and rock ‘n’ roller has become a ukulele builder in Eugene.
That’s a big leap from his rock ‘n’ roll roots, which were developed in Austin, Texas [ It was really mostly in Dallas/Ft. Worth – Al ]. McWhorter played guitar [ but mostly the drums – Al ] as a professional in the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years, bothered by tendinitis, he was looking for an instrument that was easier on his hands than the guitar.
Enter the ukulele. Today’s uke, which looks like a tiny guitar, grew out of the braguinha, a four-stringed instrument that made its way from Portugal to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 19th century. Its light, quick sound – the name “ukulele” means jumping flea – became the stock in trade of many a Hawaiian band.
McWhorter picked one up in a music store and hasn’t looked back. He’s constructed 13 of them in the past year and sells them through Pacific Winds Music in Eugene. His regular models sell for $139 to $199 each; he’s building a custom uke for a Eugene client for $400, and has a baritone uke on order for $1,100.
It is, of course, a little difficult to take the ukulele completely seriously – remember Tiny Tim? – and for McWhorter, that is much of the instrument’s appeal.
” Translate that silliness into joy. it’s a very happy instrument,” he says. “It’s very hard to play the blues on a ukulele.”
McWhorter was changing his life in other ways. He moved here last year from Austin, looking for “someplace beautiful, friendly and progressive.” Austin, he says, has been spoiled by success. “It used to embrace the eccentric. Now it demands conformity.”
The first uke he made, which hangs in a closet-sized shop in his Eugene home, took him a year to construct. He can now turn out a custom instrument in 90 days and a simple production model in three weeks. He works with traditional methods, bending and shaping hardwoods into the back and sides of the instrument, using scalpel-sharp chisels and planes for shaping.
Though he’s a handy guy – he’s built a sailboat, a guest house and ultralight aircraft in his life – McWhorter learned the ins and outs of ukulele building by reading books.
That slowed him down in the beginning. “Every time I got to a critical juncture, fear would keep me from proceeding because I was afraid I would mess it up,” he says. “Now I know if you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world.”
With their open tuning and small size, ukes are easy for beginners to make music on, McWhorter says.
One place to start learning about them might be with the Ukulaneys, a local ukulele club. You can find out more about the Ukulaneys at www.brookadams.com; you can find out more about McWhorter’s ukes at www.sprucehouseukuleles.com.
McWhorter’s musical taste still runs to ’70s folk rock along the lines of Crosby, Still & Nash. He’s more likely to launch into a Neil Young song on one of his ukes than, say, the music of Kahauanu Lake.
“I am not really into Hawaiian music,” McWhorter says. “The whole Hawaiian thing is just sort of lost on me.”