Whitehall Public Library facilitates ukulele jam sessions

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Mark Muretisch and Jim Thurner have played the ukulele together for more than seven years, sometimes even performing at retirement homes in and around Whitehall Borough in their two-man band, Kooks With Ukes.

Still, they wanted to bring more ukulele players together. The Whitehall Public Library began to facilitate their idea last spring after they made a pitch to library director Debby Rampolla.

The six to seven ukulele players who regularly meet at the library largely began to play the instrument within the last five years, around the same time that they became popular again.

With musical artists like Paul McCartney and Eddie Vedder featuring ukuleles on tour, Thurner predicted ukuleles would be big sellers almost a decade ago.

“In about 2004, I told all the local music shops that they were coming,” Thurner, of Whitehall, said.

He might have been a few years off, but he was right.

“For each of the last four or five years, we've sold hundreds of ukuleles, but we didn't stock them 10 years ago,” said Joe Ravita, owner of Empire Music in Mt. Lebanon. “It's been strong for at least four years, so it doesn't seem like it's going to stop.”

YouTube sensations such as Jake Shimabukuro also contributed to the resurgence of ukuleles, according to Thurner. Shimabukuro's cover of George Harrison's “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” went viral in the spring of 2006 and has garnered more than 12.5 million views.

While popular musical artists brought the ukulele back to the public eye, members of the library group said that its inexpensiveness, portability and characteristics were what drew people to learn it.

Most ukuleles range from 21 to 30 inches, small enough to fit in the overhead of airplanes or under one's seat. They also typically weigh from eight to 28 ounces, light enough to carry with ease. Muretisch, Thurner and Ravita also said that good ukuleles can be bought for less than $100.

“The one that I recommended to our beginners was $30 to $35, nothing fancy, but something like that plays good and could last a lifetime if you take care of it,” Muretisch, of Whitehall, said.

Ukuleles also have four nylon strings, which makes it more appealing to learn compared to the six steel strings of guitars.

“People might have trouble pressing on steel strings because they are hard on your fingers,” Muretisch said. “Ukulele strings are nylon, so forming the chords is easier and less painful.”

While Muretisch and Thurner initially had hoped for more of a mix between experienced players and beginners, they realized that having mostly beginners was best for the group.

“It worked out because we could pace it well for everyone, and everybody there can play songs together now,” Muretisch said.

Even one of the group's more-experienced ukulele players, Linda Mann of Whitehall, is learning new things from Thurner and Mureticsh.

“Just two sessions ago, Jim (Thurner) showed me how to change the strings, and I put a new set of Martin strings on it, and it sounds better than ever,” said Mann, who been playing for more than two years.

The group meets at Whitehall Public Library from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month, though it won't meet again until Jan. 14. It has a growing playlist of more than 40 songs that expands as everyone improves. Together, the musicians play and sing a select few songs at each meeting.

“I really didn't have experience playing the ukulele with other people, and that was the thing that motivated me to come because it's so much more fun to learn with other people,” Mann said.

Shawn Annarelli is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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