Ukulele players string together a community at Union Music

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This article was originally published in the Oct. 23, 2016 edition of the Sun.

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About 10 years ago, Rich Leufstedt discovered a passion: the ukulele.

Originally a bass guitarist who, in his younger days and before family commitments, played with bands in this area, Leufstedt decided to put down the bass and pick up the ukulele.

“There are already all kinds of great guitarists out there,” he said. “So, instead of dedicating myself to be a better guitarist, I discovered no one played the ukulele. That was 10 years and 30 ukuleles ago.”

He may have been onto something in 2006.

Ukulele Club at Union Music

Courtesy Rich Leufstedt / Union Music

Ukulele Club at Union Music

“Ukuleles are much more popular today than 10 years ago. Back then one could go on eBay and find some bargains. And I found several vintage 1950s ukuleles … for one-third of the price of what they go for now,” he said.

Local Business Spotlight: Union Music, a century of sweet sounds

But the four-stringed instrument, known mostly for its Hawaiian-tinged sound, has entered yet another renaissance of interest and performance – and this time it may be here for a while.

The learning phase for traditional guitarists is made easier because “It’s the same finger shapes as a guitar only they’re in a different key and the ukulele has that octave string,” Leufstedt said, which creates that Hawaiian sound. “And it’s a different tuning than a guitar. So it has its own tonal qualities.

“One who has played guitar can easily transition to playing a ukulele and vice versa. That’s why a lot of schools now have ukulele clubs and programs.”

Another reason is cost.

Leufstedt said the ukulele has gone through a couple of phases of popularity. He said this current period of enlightenment marks the third wave since the Great Depression in the late 1920s and 1930s, led by Cliff Edwards, or “Ukulele Ike,” who eventually would become the voice of the Walt Disney cartoon character Jiminy Cricket. He performed with his ukulele in vaudeville acts, silent films with Buster Keaton, and more than 100 other films; played sidekick to Jack Benny in the early days of television; was a songwriter with credits such as “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Toot Toot Tootsie!” and sold 74 million records, according to “The Cliff Edwards Story” on YouTube.

The second phase was in the 1950s, with Arthur Godfrey as the main champion of the instrument on his own television show.

The one thing about the ukulele is that it is an affordable instrument no matter the decade.

“In the 1920s and 1930s, you’d probably pay about $5 for a top-of-the-line ukulele. Today, a very nice ukulele costs about $100.

“On the other hand, if you wanted to buy a Fender Stratocaster, a very good guitar, you’d spend about $1,000 today,” Leufstedt said.

Plus, the 2016 “America’s Got Talent” winner, Grace VanderWaal, 12, played the ukulele throughout the competition. That national exposure will certainly help propel its popularity.

Six to seven years ago, Leufstedt attended ukulele clubs in Somerville and Harvard. His goal was to start a similar club here in Central Mass.

Having a group setting for all ages was paramount.

“I couldn’t have the club meet in a bar or a hotel. But I knew that Union Music has a performance space that can hold 50 performers. So I approached Carl (owner and president Carl Kamp of Union Music) and he thought it was a great idea.”

Leufstedt, who considers himself more of a facilitator than leader of the club, said he started with five or six people per month six years ago. That figure has now grown to 20 to 30 per month at Union Music.

Union Music, 142 Southbridge St.

Art Simas / For Worcester Sun

Union Music, 142 Southbridge St.

Leufstedt explained that during meetings, “We follow a common songbook that has 365 songs in it. And we’ll determine what we’ll play the following month, so that people can practice for the next monthly club meeting.

“Based on who is there (maybe there are more beginners), we’ll play some of the easier songs in the book that have only one or two chords. That way they can feel that they are participating. But even if it has a challenging chord, I’ll take the time and instruct the group as to how to play that chord or we’ll go through the song structure. So there is a learning aspect but we all play together as an orchestra.

“If someone is struggling, I’ll see that a more seasoned player sits next to that individual and have him or her point things out and offer suggestions.”

Leufstedt said, “As a musician, everyone brings something different to their craft. It’s like art. Everyone has their own style whether it be painting or writing music … everyone contributes.”

He added, “Carl has been more than generous in acquiring the space and helping with special orders. Promoting music in his store also promotes people to come into the store … and we’ve been fortunate that he’s has been able to accommodate us.”

The club meets the last Thursday each month (except November) from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Union Music. Find them on Facebook – theunionukuleleclub – to get up-to-date information.

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