Today we are joined by the legendary ‘ukulele icon and “Wizard of Strings,” Roy Smeck. Roy has garnered his reputation through his proficiency with the guitar, steel guitar, banjo, and of course the ‘ukulele. He played the vaudeville circuit in his early days until being featured in one of the first sound films which rocketed him to stardom. Paving the path for other stringed soloist in the modern era (namely guitar and ‘ukulele), Smeck toured the world playing his stringed instruments including FDR’s presidential inaugural ball and George VI’s coronation review.
Today we listen to Roy Smeck perform Tiger Rag with all the stops. A little more common during the era, Smeck has his ‘ukulele tuned up to D-tuning (ADF#B). He starts with some descending chords to set up the tune (0:11) before launching into the first section of the song. Mixed in with the occasional rasgueado (fan strum), Smeck quickly vamps on an A chord with even faster muting on his left hand (0:17-0:25). He then plucks out the melody by pulling up on the strings with his fingers while strumming down with his thumb inbetween each note (0:26-0:30) to keep the rhythm moving. Smeck climbs up the neck again first with a more aggressive strum and then with the pad of his thumb to round out the attack thus creating a varied texture (0:30-0:35). More syncopated muting and another pass on the plucked section takes us to a round of infamous ‘ukulele parlor tricks such as when he flings his ‘ukulele almost out of his hands at the end of the phrase (0:47) or the spinning of his ‘ukulele that not only looks impressive but even creates a light tremelo effect (0:52). Now picking between his thumb and index, you can hear a 16th note “gallop” short lived (0:59) before he slides down the neck with combination of sliding, hammer-ons, and pull-offs (1:06). Some bending and more sliding make the next section “pop” (1:09) before launching into the last section. Smeck blows across the sound hole of the ‘ukulele (think of it like a flute or blowing across a coke bottle) creating a steamboat-like-chug to separate his phrases (1:17, 1:19, etc). For the finale Smeck gives us two last chugs and flips over his ‘ukulele in a flurry of percussive tapping and sliding (1:37).
Case and point: Roy Smeck’s version of Tiger Rag has been covered by various ‘ukulele players over the years and stylized in various forms.
UkePrints is a curated playlist of some essential ukulele tracks that all ukulele player should listen to. These songs have left a legacy for future players and in essence, sound impressions of the ‘ukulele or what I like to call them: UkePrints.