Dennis Yamamoto’s shoulders bob up and down with each strum of his ukulele. There is a big grin on his face as he sings the words to “Tiny Bubbles.” His motions are paced and smooth, and now, playing those chords is an effortless, relaxing practice.
Yamamoto is the ukulele lover who started Lodi and Stockton’s Ukulele Strummers groups and teaches ongoing ukulele classes at Hutchins Street Square. The retired building engineer started with a few people who were interested, but now has at least 80 strummers who meet twice a month to practice and play together.
The instrument that resembles a mini-guitar has boomed in popularity as musicians like Jason Mraz and Taylor Swift feature the island-like sounds in their music. There is an uprising of happy, smiley, newfangled musicians known as ukulele players — or strummers, as they call themselves — who take advantage of the instrument’s ease and opportunity for a carefree jam.
What makes the ukulele so easy? The neck is smaller, so some can hold it more easily, and there are only four nylon strings, which makes it easier to learn chords compared to the guitar’s six steel strings.
“Because there are only four strings, the learning curve is a whole lot faster than guitar,” Yamamoto said.
And he knows. Though he has helped dozens of locals become song-playing uke players, Yamamoto didn’t actually start playing the ukulele until February of this year. He has a secret to mastering the instrument in about nine months: “I play every day,” he says — and he is passionate about it.
In June, Yamamoto began teaching a family of four to play the ukulele. Now, there are 80 people between his two groups who meet at the Lodi Public Library and Round Table Pizza on Eight Mile Road.
Let the kids play.
After joining Yamamoto’s ukulele group, Beth Largen picked up the ukulele herself, and then she shared the instrument with students at John Muir Elementary School, where she teaches. The fourth- through sixth-grade students have discovered a new love for music and formed a 41-member ukulele club that meets weekly to play during their lunchtime.
“I don’t know what’s going on with this craze, but the kids are loving it,” she said. “I think it’s because so many of the pop musicians are playing it.”
The students especially love to play Bruno Mars “Count on Me,” a song that she says has turned into a friendship song for the students and makes 600 kids sway together when played during an assembly.
Some of the ukulele-playing students have even started an offshoot group called The Smooth Seven, and more kids are waiting to join the club at the start of a new quarter. The club even has one kindergarten student who plays his own green uke.
“It’s a great segue for music, since the district did away with instrumental music programs,” says Largen, who has been playing guitar and piano for most of her life. “Music is in my heart and it kills me that kids didn’t have any (resources).”
She says none of this would have happened if Yamamoto hadn’t started the local ukulele club.
“They members are good people, and Dennis has a lot of heart,” she said. “He indirectly is responsible. I never dreamed I was going to end up with that many kids.”
Play for fun. Play because you love it.
Members like Al Heathman Jr. and Annette Galli Silver also heard about the group and decided to give the uke a good try.
When he learned about the Lodi meetings, Heathman rearranged his work schedule to meet the needs of the group. Now, he practices almost every day, learning new chords and playing from four three-ring notebooks filled with songs from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
For him, it’s relaxing.
“The ukulele is mellow and laid back,” he said. “It’s not a crazy kind of instrument.”
Having started playing only five weeks ago, he has already jumped into performances at community events like the Little Buckaroos Literacy Fair.
The uke is a chord-based instrument, so he learned chords first. He started playing simple 3-chord songs to get a feel for strumming.
Now, he takes his uke to the park and just has fun with it.
Galli Silver had started playing in 2002 after seeing female ukulele musician Janet Klein on stage.
She learned to play by picking up a book with pictures of the chords. She matched her fingers up to the strings, and was soon playing full songs.
Galli Silver’s brother, Geno Galli, who died of cancer in 2004, encouraged her to start a uke group in Stockton. So when she saw that a group had formed in her area, she took it as a little nudge from her brother to join.
Not only has she found a musical outlet, she’s found a community.
“You just really bond. I don’t know how or why that happens,” she said.
Yamamoto’s priority with the classes and groups is to have fun. That’s what he likes about strummers: No matter what they are playing, if you look at them, they are smiling. And they are not critical of themselves, he says.
“If you don’t laugh and have fun, then I have failed you,” he says.
But, once you start, he says you won’t stop.
“If I get you into playing and strumming, I’ve got it in your blood forever,” he said.