Notes on playing the banjo uke (and the regular ukulele), as well as some of my favorite songs and videos, but mostly, you'll find information here on my particular obsession - the many models of banjo ukulele offered by Stromberg-Voisinet in the 1920's to 1931.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Albert Houdlett and Sons

It's the first day to crack 90 degrees here in NYC - it feels like about 97 out there, so everyone is hunkered down, staying in the air conditioning. As long as I'm stuck indoors, I thought I'd put a spotlight on a New York City banjo ukulele manufacturer whose products have suddenly been coming up for sale with some frequency.

I'm not talking about the more well-known makers of William Lange, Fred Gretsch or Bruno NY, but the Albert Houdlett & Sons Drum and Banjo Company of Brooklyn. Founded in 1865, Houdlett was actually one of the busiest and most profitable banjo and drum manufacturers in New York, and they stayed in business until forced to close their doors in 1930, presumeably as a result of the depression.

Houdlett made several lines of banjo, Nu-Way, Nu-Art and Lynbrook (which, of course you noticed, is a transliteration of Brooklyn). At the height of the banjo uke craze, Houdlett was producing banjo ukes under all three lines, and but their differences aren't always obvious or consistent. It seems that Nu-Way was the cheapest line, with Lynbrook topping the lines in quality and price.

Above and here are a few shots of two Nu-Way open back ukuleles. There
s one with 12-brackets and it's painted white and a second has 16 brackets and appears to be stained maple. Several Nu-Ways, including closed-back and resonator-backed models, have come up for sale in the last year, with three moving on eBay this June, going for between $42 (in bad shape) to $129 in fair condition. It's rare to find Houdlett banjo ukes in good to excellent condition. I don't think they were babied - they seem to have been played and used to the point of disrepair. Still, they are well-made instruments, sturdy and tough.

They share a few features that make it easy to spot them, and yet, these features are remarkably inconsistent, nor do Houdletts always carry a label or maker's plate - making it frustrating to identify them on occasion.

They share a few features that make it easy to spot them, and yet, these features aren't always consistent, no do they always carry a label or maker's plate - making it frustrating to identify them on occasion.

The distinctive Nu-Way headstock is shown here, with both a name plate on this white-painted openback, and a decal on this larger, 16-bracket Nu-Way model.

Houdletts also often have MOP fret position markers, but not always. When they do appear, they're found - uniquely - on the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 10th or, as is more typical, at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th frets. You'll also note another of the common features of Houdlett ukes - the long heel. Like everything about Houdlett, it varies, from 2.5 to nearly 4 inches long, but always very rounded, another distinguishing mark, along with the headstock.

But, sadly, that headstock isn't consistent either from model to model. Here's a Nu-Art with a three-pointed headstock similar to that of a Gretsch or a Martin. And, on occasion, you'll see Houdlett banjo ukes with a nearly square headstock.

Interestingly, though you can only see a glimpse of it - the closed-back Nu-Art pictured here has portholes or grommets that you usually associate with the Gretsch Clarophone banjo and banjo uke, and often, these Nu-Arts are mistaken for Gretsches. That's not surprising when you consider that Friedrich Gretsch was employed by Houdlett beginning some time after he arrived from Germany in 1873, and he served under Houdlett for several years, rising to the position of foreman before striking out on his own to found the company that bore his name in the 1883. Even the headstock is similar to the Gretsch headstock, - though the Gretsch banjo uke headstocks all have a pronounced semicircular keel on the back, unlike the Houdlett headstock.

Finally, here's a Houdlett Nu-Way with a resonator. As you can see, the headstock is similar to the Nu-Art above and unlike the other Nu-Ways pictured. These all come from the mid to late 20's, so the inconsistency within the same model line is odd, but there it is...

The resonator has no flange, and attaches in the center with a bolt that goes through the dowel. This particular one requires a lot of work, like most of Houdlett's surviving ukes seem to.

One note: clearly, you can see in the photos of the white Nu-Way that the action is unplayably high and there's what looks to be a 5/8" banjo bridge holding up the strings. If anyone out there is thinking of restoring a banjo uke, let that photo serve as a potent "What not to do." Please folks, that action should be low. I like the strings at the first fret to be able to keep a business card inserted between strings and fret wire in place. And those three-foot bridges don't work nearly as well, nor sand down as well, as two-foot bridges or the two-footers with central ebony supports. I have a whole box of three-foot bridges useless for banjo ukes that will go on eBay one of these days.

In summary, Houdletts are cheap and seem to be coming up for sale with more frequency. They're very affordable, but require a lot of work to get them into good nick, meaning new brackets, vellums, bridges, nut, and other essentials. But, they represent what was one of Brooklyn's most important music companies for many years.

Next time, more on one of the New-York-based manufacturers and still more to come of the remaining models of Stromberg-Voisinet ukes. Until then, happy strumming, and keep cool...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Dumber They Come...

Well - turns out that Google has seen fit to revise their Blogger platform without any warning - which has resulted in a couple of draft posts disappearing and at least one follower, the extremely knowledgeable Terry Dennis, disappearing and having his subscription cancelled. Please, if any of you have experienced a similar loss of subscription, please let me know. I don't know that I can get it fixed, but I want to try.

In recent news, I left my job. It wasn't working out and to maintain some sanity, I had to leave. I feel about a million times better, and I've had about 12 interviews in the last three weeks, so that's been actually very good.

I've also had time to post a few pieces on You Tube. You might enjoy this one, "The Dumber They Come", a tune that Eddie Cantor introduced in 1920 at the Ziegfeld Follies.
I use a number of Formby-style strums here - notably, the triple, the split stroke and the fan.

I also use a thumb strum under the vocals. I use a double-time strum a lot, not a Formby strum per se.

I'm playing my Gibson UB2, which is a joy to play. The action is low, perfect for Formby style playing, and despite being built in the mid-20's, this uke is in great shape aside of a few minor dings and a repaired crack in the heel. At $480, this uke was a bargain, and probably the best value in Gibson UBs. It's got the sound of the much more expensive UB3, but it's routinely selling at auction for between $450 and $600, about half to 1/3 the cost of its more ornate big brother.

This is the first video I've done that got picked up by UkeToob, so I'm pretty excited about that. :) If you want to see it there, you can at:

Anyway, until next time...