Garstang Ukulele group welcomes beginners

Garstang Ukulele Group rehearsing at Garstang Arts Centre (photo: Bob Sapey)
Garstang Ukulele Group rehearsing at Garstang Arts Centre (photo: Bob Sapey)

George Formby they are not.

In fact some would claim not to be musical at all.

Members of Traffic Jam busking in the street - Bob Sapey is pictured second from left. (photo: David Parry)

Members of Traffic Jam busking in the street - Bob Sapey is pictured second from left. (photo: David Parry)

But when the Garstang Ukulele group get together it’s a time to make music, gain new friends and learn new skills.

The group’s success is evidence of the perennial popularity of music making.

It is testimony also to the saying “You’re never too old to learn” ... for many members have joined in retirement, rejoicing in their new found skills.

Some have even been in the audience and decided they liked what they heard so much they wish to join the ranks.

For Bob Sapey, a retired lecturer in mental health, it is an enthusiasm which has grown and grown. He is a co-founder of the group and explained how he developed his passion for playing the ukulele after beginning to learn more about the instrument while working at Lancaster University.

He said: “I started playing only in about 2013. I had been playing bass guitar for a while but I had always found it difficult to play. Then I was working at Lancaster University and somebody started a ukulele group on a Friday lunch time. It was very much about come and learn, have a bit of a break from the office.”

He continued: “There’s something about the simplicity of it and I just enjoy going out and playing to live audiences - that’s one of the main things.”

The group was founded four years ago by Bob and Trevor Phillips and always meets at Garstang Arts Centre. Bob said: “We meet for a couple of hours every Sunday afternoons. We have a tutor. We do a lot of gigs but mostly we’re just learning and practising on a Sunday and making mistakes at other times! It’s not a highly polished thing.

“One of the features of our group is that anyone can come and join it. You don’t have to have any ability and you can come out and play in a gig from the very start. We’re not looking to people to be expert. You might be able to join in with certain chords being played but you can sing along and make a rhythmic sound without spoiling the noise.”

He continued: “It’s quite an easy instrument for people to just come and join in on. There are a number of people who have played guitar before and done other things, but largely the group is made up of people who are either retired or perhaps close to retirement and who have not played anything before so they come and learn to play it and it goes from there. I keep saying it’s just fun. That’s all people have come for. It sounds a bit bland but it really isn’t a lot more than that.”

With just four strings and what Bob describes as a “quite heartening” sound the ukulele is definitely easier to master than a guitar and more affordable. Bob advised: “It’s affordable to buy quite a nice one to start with and it lends itself to a group joining in together. If you had 20 people playing the guitar it would be very noisy ... 20 playing ukuleles is OK because there isn’t as much resonance.”

Ukuleles can cost from £25 to £1,000 plus but Bob’s advice is that if a beginner spends £60/ £70 upwards they will secure “a nice one.”

He said: “I would normally advise people to go to a shop and find what they like the sound of.”

Most people start with the smaller soprano ukulele.

Although modest about his group‘s achievements he does concede: “We’ve got quite a good act together now and we get out and about and we seem to be a hit with the WIs around this area at the moment. We do quite a few nursing homes and community events. Last year we did about 50 gigs.”

They have he says no set charge, with hosts often giving a donation to the group.This helps towards costs including the services of their two tutors Mike Gradwell and Kizzy Selstead.

For each of the last two years the group has paid for a national artist to come and give a workshop and perform a concert welcoming Derbyshire based blues ukulele player Phil Doleman in 2019 and Chonkinfeckle from Wigan the year before. So keen are group members to perform that an offshoot of the group, entitled Traffic Jam, often goes out to do some busking in Garstang, usually on market day.

Bob said: “The significant difference between Traffic Jam and the rest is we are playing without music.”

Do they get compared to many other musical performers or get asked for favourite songs? He concedes George Formby is “quite popular.”

In addition Bob steps out as one of the professional trio Ukulele Jukebox with Mike and Kizzy performing at festivals and in pubs.

He is also enthusiastic about the growth of interest amongst younger players, noting that ukulele has become more popular in primary schools overtaking the recorder as an instrument of choice in some. He said: “Children can learn probably from the age of seven upwards - probably younger than that they aren’t physically big enough to play it in the right way.”

He notes with a community group there isn’t a barrier between audience and group. Instead he describes it as “friends playing for friends”. recalling: : “Playing at Cherestanc WI the person who gave the vote of thanks said we had become an asset to Garstang - it’s the nicest compliment we’ve had.”

• See www.garstangukulelegroup.co.uk for events the groups will be appearing at and details of strumalongs and open mic sessions in Preston, Garstang, Wigan and Kendal.

* Garstang Ukulele Group meets every Sunday from 2pm - 4pm at Garstang Arts Centre.