Today’s Ukulele Builders: An Interview with Steve Evans An interview by Dave Wasser of “Uke Said It”, the journal of the Ukulele Hall Of Fame Museum. Spring 2000. The UHoFM is pleased to present the following interview as part of our continuing series focusing on contemporary uke builders.
Q: What led you to start building instruments? And why ukes, specifically? Is this a full time occupation?
A: Beltona is a partnership that started in 1990. Myself and Bill Johnson met through a common friend and shared a common interest in resonator instruments. Bill is an engineer and was intrigued by the idea of making musical instruments out of metal. I had been a maker and repairer of stringed instruments for some years and had developed a speciality in resonator instrument repair and restoration, so had access to originals. Bill showed me the first tricone that he had made from a photograph alone and I thought it was good enough to make a deal that he would make two bodies and I would make the necks and fit them together. It grew from that into a business that has sustained us both for the last 10 years.
After tricones (constructionally the most difficult instrument) we moved on to my pet instrument , the uke. Original National ukes were rather rare to see and even rare to get your hands on at that time. I wanted to make a bigger bodied instrument than the soprano that National made in the 30’s, but not as big as their biggest model which didn’t seem to fit into any category. We aimed somewhere in the middle with our first ukes; a scale length of 14.3/4″, the same as the Martin Concert model. Somewhile after, we did build sopranos, but lengthened that scale to 14″.
Q: Do you have a guiding philosophy that motivates you?
A: Our guiding principle is “tone first, volume second. It’s no use having loads of volume if the tone is horrible. “Our sound” is a mellow sound. When people ask me about the volume of resonator ukes, I say that they fall between wooden ukes and banjo ukes.
Q: So aside from finding the right balance between volume and tone, what has been the most challenging aspect of ukulele building?
A: Knowing from previous instruments how crucial the cone was to the sound, we spent a lot of time designing a robust, but light cone especially for the uke. So our uke cones – although the same size as one tricone cone – are completely different in shape and design, and work in a different way. Resonator cones need greater tension of strings than wooden ukes to get the best out of them, so the longer the scale you can comfortably manage, the better the load on the cone and the better the volume and tone produced. There are compromises to be made though, too much load stifles the cone. Cone weight and thickness are crucial; too thick is a dull sound and too thin the sound is shrill and won’t take the load.
Q: You mentioned strings: do you find a certain type of string more suited for resonator ukes?
A: As for strings, I find Bob Gleason’s Hilo strings very well suited to our instruments. They have good tension and density and a nice plunky sound.
Q: What has been your greatest success/satisfaction with uke building?
A: I would have to say that the biggest thrill for me in terms of uke building was getting a phone call from Tiny Tim wanting to buy one of our ukes. He had played one belonging to Peter Brooke-Turner in a concert in London, and loved it. So we made him one of our standard ones strung left-handed of course. Later he asked us to make the smallest resonator uke we could for him. It looked a bit like a zither banjo, just a round body big enough for a resonator and the shortest possible scale. Unfortunately he died before we completed it, But it was sold to a good home. Building and repairing instruments in general, and ukes in particular, has put me in the company of some wonderfully and eccentric people and I thank them all wherever they are, for their continued support and encouragement.
Q: How were you first introduced to the uke?
A: When I was at school here in New Zealand, the first instrument a child learned was uke. Imagine a class of 25 or so 7 year olds all strumming out of tune ukes! If you showed promise on the uke, you graduated to the guitar. So guitar it was until the 80’s in England, and my interest (in the uke) was rekindled partially by homesickness, but also by seeing people performing in the George Formby style. Apart from Tiny Tim who was a big hit here in the 70’s my exposure to uke had been mainly Polynesian and Maori music both here and on trips to the islands of Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia.
Q: What does the future hold for Beltona and for the uke in general?
A: Now I’m back in my native New Zealand after 17 years in England and carrying on the Beltona business. Uke is a popular instrument here; the indigenous Maori culture took to the uke and guitar as accompaniment to their harmony singing as readily as all other Polynesian cultures. Apart from one notable exception in Sione Aleki, a Tongan instrumental player who lives here, it is very rare for the uke to be played as a solo instrument, but perhaps with the growing popularity of the uke world wide, we can build on our solid base and produce some virtuosi.
We have as long a history of ukes as guitars in Beltona, and second to tricone guitars ukes are our most popular instrument. We are working on a tenor instrument at present to make up a full trio of models in our line.