Judy Fjell contacted me some months back about commissioning a tenor ukulele. In the minds of many she's a national treasure so I was honored. We had worked together years ago when she had been a guest artist in an elementary school where I was teaching. We also have mutual friends who have attended her Summersing camps in Montana, so she knows of my work. She was looking for a special ukulele that would really melt her. It had to have beauty, power and presence. She wanted a cutaway and importantly, an inlayed meadowlark on the headstock.
Normally I don't shy away from a challenge. After all I have done some small limited inlays on a few guitars and ukuleles and I'm known for my rosettes which are generally geometric in design. But this was daunting. So I suggested that it be done by a commercial inlay artist. I had some difficulty contacting the artist I thought would do it justice so I proposed to Judy that it might look nice as a painting rather than an inlay. After all there is a rich tradition of painted ukuleles and it's possible to include a lot of detail that might be difficult with an inlay. A local artist in Ukiah, Lonnie Lopez, who is known for his incredible photo-realistic work agreed to take it on. Check out his facebook page and website. At first Judy was a little reluctant but as the design came together she seemed quite pleased.
Lonnie painted the exceptional proportion and detail with colors that compliment the overall design of the instrument. My job then was to preserve and protect it from contact with a clear finish.
In order to help create a sound profile that would be best for Judy's playing styles I suggested an 18" scale fretboard joined to the body at the 15th fret. That will give her more power in the bass of this low G tenor and put the bridge in the sweet spot of the red spruce top. We had some talk about a song that required 23 frets so I was able to accommodate that also with this scale length. I know that Judy has a robust attack so I voiced the bracing accordingly. A venetian cutaway helps give her plenty of access.
Judy wanted a simple rosette and I thought it should have some of the colors of a meadowlark so I used yellowheart, English walnut, maple and ebony. The frets are Evo Gold with rounded comfort ends. The markers are aluminum and the graceful string-through bridge is ebony with an unbleached bone saddle.
A side sound port adds useful monitoring especially while playing in groups.
Judy wanted woods that could hold up to the dry Montana climate so I choose some tough but resonant English walnut for the back and sides. The neck is Alaskan yellow cedar which also compliments the colors of the meadowlark. I decided to use black palm for the bindings with black and yellow purfling. The palm has some light and dark streaks that add subtle interest.
The Gotoh open back tuners are 14:1 with adjustable post height. The bolt in the heel strap button is part of the two-bolt neck attachment system. A K&K pickup is added for amplification.
It has been a great pleasure to work with Judy and Lonnie on this unique project. Here's to a future of inspiring play! -KF