The Steel City Ukuleles jamming away in Pittsburgh

| Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, 9:08 p.m.

Herb Mooney has never been to “Hawai'i,” but he's sure he'd fit in if he ever got the chance to visit.

Rows of toes tapped almost in unison as Mooney and a dozen other members of the Steel City Ukuleles tickled their four-strings.

Yes, the group can play Hawaiian faves, but it won't take long before you hear a chorus of high-pitched covers of “All I Have To Do is Dream” by the Everly Brothers and “Hotel California” by the Eagles.

These were their last few strums, their last plucks before an open-mic jam session from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Hambone's restaurant in Lawrenceville.

Mooney, a self-described “tropical nut” who lives in Shaler, turned to the ukulele only five months ago, but says he's ready for Sunday.

He played bagpipes for years while living in Philadelphia and Harrisburg. There came a point when he was out of work and had to sell his bagpipes.

Mooney landed a new job in Pittsburgh and promised himself he'd return to music after he got back on his feet. Only this time, he chose the ukulele over the bagpipes.

He bought his first ukulele on eBay for $200, and brushes up on the instrument by watching video tutorials on YouTube.

“This is my first time back into music and it's been great,” Mooney says. “It feels natural.”

The Steel City Ukuleles group meets twice at month at the Wilkins School Community Center in Swissvale.

Don't mistake ukuleles, or “ukes” as they're known to fans, for small guitars.

They're not.

For one thing, they have four strings; guitars have six.

And then, there's that sound, that high-pitched lilt that has long been associated with music from Hawaiian and Polynesian culture.

According to the Ukulele Guild of Hawai'i, a Honolulu-based nonprofit that aims to preserve the instrument and its history, the first ukulele was probably made in the late 1800s by Portuguese cabinet-makers from the Madeira Islands. They had come to Hawaii to work in Hawaiian sugar-cane fields. After long, back-breaking days in the Tropical heat, men spent some nights strumming native Hawaiian tunes.

The uke's far-flung history is part of the allure for Linda Beck, of Corapolis.

She has been playing the tenor uke for more than a year and a half, drawing from her longer experience with the fiddle and banjo.

“When people hear this kind of music, they can't help but feel happy,” she says. “It's just fun, happy music.”

Sunday's jam session may be a fiery baptism for Lisa Bernard.

As a child, Bernard played piano, much of it classical. As she got older, she broke away from the keys, and was more drawn to the bouncy tunes of the likes of the Kingston Trio.

“I always loved folk music,” says Bernard, who worked for nearly two decades as a camp counselor.

Bernard has played the uke for only a month; her mini axe was a Christmas gift from her husband.

I'm a little nervous ... but the uke is stupidly easy to learn, so I think I'm ready,” says Bernard, who lives in Regent Square. “It'll (jam session) be like a campfire night for me.”

Chris Ramirez is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-380-5682.

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