Ukulele Player • December 2009 Interview
Reprint from Ukulele Player issue December 2009.
For over thirty years Curt Sheller has been playing music. He is best known for jazz guitar and began his musical career playing jazz standards on archtop guitar. Well, Curt is a devotee of ukulele as well and he has written a bunch of books on ukulele chords and playing techniques.
If you have some time to spend, take a look at Curt's website. There is a wealth of free information for registered readers and premium content for would-be jazz ukulele and guitar players.
I spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania and knew of Curt years ago, before I returned to Columbus, Ohio. At that time, however, I knew about Curt the guitarist, and didn't know about Curt, the ukulele player. So, it was a really pleasant surprise to learn that Curt not only devoted a lot of time and energy to ukulele, he has taught workshops and seminars far and wide.
I have been an advocate of treating music like the business that it is since I was in my youth. Curt, I have found, understands that music is a business and if a musician wants to remain in business, he or she has to treat it as such. But, he also a generous guy, which explains the free content on his website and the enthusiasm he exhibits at shows and seminars.
The folk music and jazz scene in Southeast Pennsylvania is pretty big, actually. There are countless faires and festivals from Central College, home of Penn State, to the Delaware Water Gap. The Poconos are filled with musical events and there are great venues all over the place. There are lots of talented players in the region. Having played a lot of music in the region myself, it is no wonder that I did not realize that Curt played ukulele. There are other uke players in the region that I did know. We profiled uke player Tom Dennehy a couple issues past and Tom has played all through that area.
Curt and I have been bouncing e-mails back and forth planning this interview for a while. We are also going to be reviewing some of Curt's books to give players at every level an idea what is resources are available to players at every level.
Issue Ten kicks off a series of book reviews and an artist profile of Curt Sheller, a jazz guitar and ukulele player, prolific writer, and tireless worker.
You play guitar, bass, and ukulele. What other instruments do you play?
For the last thirty plus years I been mainly a jazz guitarist. I been a serious student of jazz guitar since my early twenties. Always studying and exploring the genre. For the past seven years or so the ukulele has take over and been my main instrument. I continue to perform as jazz guitarist locally in an around the Philadelphia area. I mainly do solo jazz gigs.
I did the Top-40 band thing many, many years ago, playing four or five nights a week. I’ve played bass guitar in a few rock bands over the last ten years.
What came first, guitar or ukulele? How old were you when you first started playing?
The guitar came first around 1963 or 64. Like most guitar players around that time and my age I was influenced by the British Invasion, the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the like. My first teacher, my Dad calls him “the Beatnik teacher”, just started me with the Mel Bay book one and wasn’t really into teaching. So my dad talked a local jazz guitarist he worked with into teaching me. His name was Franny Boyle and he was a great player and teacher. Then his nephew, a local rock guitarist taught me. My Dad says he never had to tell me to practice. Then after a renewed interest in really playing the guitar while in the Navy. I started studying with Paul Byrne after I got out and finally with Chuck Anderson. I’ve always kept playing and working at the guitar, albeit poorly until hooking up with Chuck Anderson.
Initially my introduction to the ukulele came about twenty years ago, after attending a family reunion where two distant uncles where playing ukulele and singing. It was great, I could see the joy and fun they where having. So I went out and I bought the only ukulele available, a cheap soprano ukulele from George’s Music in Spring City, PA. There weren’t any books or resources like today to learn the ukulele. I found one book and how to tune it. It was such a cheap uke and I was just learning my way around the guitar, I didn’t really get much out of the uke at the time. It wouldn’t stay in tune and was really detrimental for learning the uke. A lot like some of the beginner "tourist" instruments today. It eventually came unglued at the seams and fell apart. It must have planted a seed for later.
I was reacquainted with the ukulele while researching travel and smaller guitars to take on a Camp Fire USA trip to South Dakota. My wife and I where driving a fifteen passenger van load of kids and adults on a ten-day trip up and around the Great Lakes visiting Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota. I wanted a small guitar to take along. I was seriously into guitar and didn’t want to be without a guitar that long. I was into music full time at that point. I was teaching, playing and practicing a lot and had started my publishing company and written a few guitar books by then.
Never did get that guitar but learned there where other sizes of ukulele other than the smaller soprano I had. I also learned about the various common tunings and how close it was the the guitar. Gotta love the Internet. I collected a lot of information and when we returned I bought my first tenor uke from Roy Cone at UkuleleWorld, a Lanikai tenor cutaway. Still, no instructional material for what I wanted to do. I wanted to play jazz, chord melody style. The same stuff that I did on guitar. I started with “G” tuning, DGBE for awhile then quickly went with “C” tuning, mainly a low “G”. At that point in time I was somewhat of a decent jazz guitarist and understood the guitar and how I could transfer my guitar knowledge to the ukulele.
My main uke now is a Ko’olau CS Cedar top Tenor and a couple of Pono’s. I try and keep one tuned with a re-entrant, high “G” tuning. I’ve had a few Flukes and need another one for the winter. They travel really well in our Northeast winter weather. I have my eye on a Mahogany Concert or Tenor with the new PegHed tuners.
Your website says that you've played for over thirty years and taught for over twenty years. What instruments do you teach?
I maintain a steady teaching roster of between 50 and 65 plus students a week, depending on the time of year. I teach at a Music and Arts Center in Plymouth Meeting, PA and my home studio/office. I teach everyday except Fridays. Student ages run from six year old beginners exploring simple melodies to sixty- year-old players wanting to explore jazz guitar. The bulk of the guitar students are interested in playing contemporary rock guitar. A few venture into jazz guitar. I also have a few bass and ukulele students. Several of my students got turned on to the uke through me, as I always have one of my tenor ukes with me at all times. Some split their lessons between bass guitar and guitar with a little uke thrown in for a few.
Which instrument did you teach first?
Guitar and Bass Guitar where the first instruments that I started with and are the my main instruments today. A lot of people start guitar. I’ve had beginner Banjo and Mandolin students and even had a Violin student. I had a saxophone student studying jazz improv with me. He was the Dad of one of my guitar students. The Dad is now studying jazz guitar with me. I’ve had a few parents of students start taking lessons from me.
I have some musicians that come on a consultation basis to the home studio. They are not on a regular schedule and take an hour or two whenever they can. Busy adults like that arrangement. I’m pretty flexible with my home teaching schedule.
When did you first decide to start writing how-to books? What was the first book you wrote?
The when was around 1997. The why of the when was the state of a lot of material out there. A lot of the material isn’t organized or focused very well. They typically try an present too much material and and have “kitchen sink” approach. It’s always a struggle with what to NOT put into a book. It is too easy to put it all in. I never set out to be a writer, just fell into it. I have always organized my study material for myself. Chuck Anderson (www.chuckandersonjazzguitar.com) has been a valuable resource as mentor, editor, teacher and sounding board for my publishing and music efforts. My background as a graphic artist allows me to do all the layout, art and covers myself. That and learning how to program for the Internet makes it somewhat easy. I don’t need to farm out or depend on other people for that part of the job.
My first book was in my QuickStart Scale Series. It was for guitar and titled: QuickStart Scale Fingerings for Lead Guitar. I then produced a play-along CD of 24 tracks covering the Blues, Pentatonic, Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Ionian scales to use with that book. In fact, I use the play-along CD with most of my guitar and bass students today. Great practice for playing with others.
I then wrote the three volumes of the Advanced Guide to Guitar Chords. Those books cover 4-part, a.k.a. “Jazz” chords. Vol 3 is for 7 string guitar. My main guitar is a custom seven string guitar built for me by Dale Unger, Dale is a master luthier and owner of American Archtop Guitars. He is building me a tenor uke right now. I finally wore him down and talked him into building a few ukes. He is a master guitar builder and spent three years with Bob Bendetto learning to build archtop guitars. His shop is in Nazareth, PA and Dale has access to all the great Martin staff and instruments. His is good friends with Dick Boak, Chris Martin and quite a few the Martin staff. Martin has actually had me up consulting on a few ukes in the works.
The outline, foundation and information from writing the QuickStart Scale books and Advanced Chord books for guitar, provided the ground work for the chord and scale ukulele books. For the ukulele, with the three common tunings, there are three versions for the scale books. The Advanced Chord series of books for the uke are mainly “C” tuning.
How many ukulele books have you written in all?
I think I’m up to well over twenty ukulele books at this time. The different tunings allow for multiple versions of the same book. In the QuickStart Series there is a scale book for C, G, and D tuning covering six essential scales. I’ve been able get the triads books of arpeggios for C and G tuning done as well. I categorize chords into four types. Basic open position chords, movable versions of the basic open position chords, 4-part jazz chords and finally free form chords. My www.ukulelechords.net site has more information and detail on this organization.
2015 Update: Now at over 40 books for ukulele (mainly ) and guitar.
My book A Guide to Ukulele Chords is an introduction to all of these chord categories in C, G and D tunings. This is a great book for introducing a new player to what is possible chord wise on ukulele. The smaller half size book, Ukulele Chords, takes the open position chords and their movable forms and presents it in every key for “C” tuning, low or high “G”.
The Advanced Guide to Ukulele Chords and Exploring “Jazz” Chords is all about 4-part, a.k.a “jazz” chords. It is these jazz chords when you hopefully realize that there are just way too many chord shapes to memorize all the chords. This books presents and organizes a core set of major, minor, diminished and augmented four- part chords. These you memorize and build from. From these you can create any chord you ever need. This is based on how chords are constructed and what notes to displace to create more advanced chords. This is how the great jazz players, any instrument know so many chords.
Luckily, as uke players we have it a lot easier than guitarists. As an example, for a serious jazz guitarist, you need a set of twenty dominant seventh chords as your core you can build on to really explore jazz guitar. For uke player if is only four.
A Guide to Blues Chord Progressions for Ukulele A to Z, my best seller, takes these basic jazz chords through twenty-six blues progressions with various chord substitutions and explanations of where the subs came from.
I also wrote Ukulele for Guitar Players which covers a lot. Chords, scales, transposition and an introduction to reading. Shows you how to transfer the information to ukulele. Any proficient guitar can pick up uke in a short time. The hard part is to, ultimately, not sound like you’re play guitar and treat it as a its own instrument. I went through this process. With being a pretty good pick style guitarist, I started playing the uke with a guitar pick. I slowly over a long period developed a finger style approach, that I’m still working on. Always trying new stuff.
How many books have you written on jazz guitar? ...and bass guitar?
I have about ten books out on jazz guitar.
I started a QuickStart Scale book for Bass guitar, but have taken a new direction with packaging the books in QuickStart Scale and Arpeggio series. Books in the series are now being released as single scales in the QuickStart format. No more volumes of scales. Each scale has its own book. Most are now being released as eBook/PDF downloads only. You can pick and choose the scales and arpeggios that you want to learn. Any one scale or arpeggio book is only $4.95. So if you only want the Mixolydian scale for C tuning, you buy just that scale. I’ve included in each book an introduction to the fingering principles used in the series. I’ve been fortune enough to have and continue to study with Chuck Anderson and use his Six Secrets of Guitar fingering principles for the QuickStart Series.
You have a CD coming soon, "How About Some Uke?", how near completion is it?
I going to go into the studio with bass and drums first of the year. Charts are done and should get going then. Juggling teaching, the web sites, publishing and practicing. I’m pretty sure I can get it out for Spring.
2015 Update: It's finally out and only off by five years from original plan!!!. How About More Uke? and available on iTunes, cdBay, Elderly Instruments, Flea Market Music, Funky Frets and right here on LearningUkulele.com
Is this a home-studio project or from a regular studio?
Going with a pro studio. I’ve got enough on my plate and can only do very, very basic recording stuff at home. I’m Mac based and have only done simple stuff with GarageBand for the lessons on my site.
Are you self-producing it?
I have the help of Chuck Anderson with production. I’m actually using his bass player and drummer. Ed Rick on drums, with whom I have worked before, and Eric Schreiber on bass. They have been working with Chuck for the past two years and they can bring a lot to the project. Very seasoned pros.
Do you have a released date set?
Shooting for Spring 2010.
( NOTE: Only off by five years. Curt )
Will there be a tour when your CD is released?
I mainly doing it to sell on-line and at festivals. Plus to aide in booking performances at festivals and club events. Jim Beloff and others have been prodding me to record. I’ve been lucky enough to perform at ukulele festivals based on my web presence and book reputation alone.
I’d love to do the west coast next October and hit the festivals and clubs. I attended the Southern California Ukulele Festival a couple of years ago and presented several workshops and hawked my books. Had a great time and really enjoyed meeting players that have my books and have meet on the web.
Will there be any videos to accompany the project?
I’m in a great position for this. My daughter and boy friend have had their own video production company for the past ten years. The shoot dance performances, weddings and corporate video. Their end product is more like a film then video. This past summer they won first place in 19th Annual International Wedding & Event Videographers Association conference in Florida. Their stuff is really good. The do all their shoots using three or more cameras and shoot digitally in High Def. I’ll con them into shooting the recording and see how that goes.
Your website has to be the most comprehensive of any I've seen. How long did it take to create it?
Thanks. I liken the site to the monster in the cult classic movie, The Blob. The sites just keep growing and growing.
The main sites, my www.curtsheller.com and www.jazzguitarresources.com have been on the web site 1995 or so. I’ve been on a Mac since 1987. I’m constantly tweaking and trying to organize the content of the sites. With the curtsheller.com site at over 500 pages that can be hard to do. I even have a hard time finding stuff myself.
2015 Update: All my ukulele content has migrated to my new LearningUkulele.com site.
The original site was guitarresources.com with evolved into jazzguitarresources.com around 1995. The site was hand coded as they weren’t any programs like DreamWeaver and GoLive then. I just used BBEdit, a programmer’s text editor on a Mac. I still use BBEdit and have organized the sites like a programmer might do with include files and templates. I try not to change the same information in more than one spot. I suck it in from a common file.
2015 Update: Finally did make the site all database driven and LearnignUkulele.com is a Laravel site to boot LearningUkulele.com site.
The sites started small, as a few pages and have continued to grow and morph into what they are today. They are really a fews types of sites in one. Especially the main CurtSheller.com site. A directory site of listings and resources, lessons, TABs, a blog, forum and eStore. That site contains everything. My sub sites like, www.JazzUkulele.net, www.UkuleleForGuitarPlayers.com, www.UkuleleClubs.com and a few others are my attempt to present a sub set of the material that is on the main site. Sort of a mirror. Navigation is one of biggest issue I wrestle with on the main site. There is just so much stuff there.
I would love to have the sites be more database back-end driven, especially for the resources listings. I just don’t have the time to learn or have the resources to have the code done. I looked into SQL and PHP and somewhat understand what has to be done - but don’t think I want to learn that. Looks like fun to learn but I need to focus, “Oh!, look a squirrel.” I did do a long stint as a computer programmer on Macs and even taught myself how to do object- oriented C++. So I can probably figure it out myself but - focus, focus, focus.
Thirty years ago someone once told me. “There isn’t much in this world that you want to learn that hasn’t been written down somewhere.” With the Internet it is a lot easier to find it.
How often do you add new content?
Pretty much everyday. If I’m not teaching or practicing. I’m at the computer. Either doing freelance graphic design work for a few select music clients, working on a book of mine or another author. I visit every link people send me before I add it to the site.
For new lesson material I try and add a new lesson or two every month. TABs and arrangements I add as I’m working on my repertoire. I mainly add ukulele content.
When I’m working on a solo uke arrangement like the upcoming CD. I always write out a chart and put into Sibelius, a music notation program. I just finished Feliz Navidad and posted it to the site. It is in standard notation and TAB.
Do you know how many members the site has?
I think I only started the members part of the site three months ago and have around 1000 members. All but a handful are the FREE members. The premium membership is only $9.95 for three months. the premium member gets access to quality play-along tracks, mostly jazz standards I had professionally recorded many years ago. Members also get discounted and free books. Premium members get more FREE books.
You have a lot of FREE content as well as premium content. Have you found that beneficial?
Visitors love the free stuff. I love free stuff. But, it’s a fine line between when and what to charge or give it away. At heart, I’m a teacher and love helping fellow musicians realize their goals. So a lot of the content is and will stay FREE. It really depends on the amount of production and time that I have to put into a lesson, whether it is to be FREE. It does give visitors a chance to see the content quality they would get from my books. One note, is my fingers are known to improvise on spelling and typing on the web. The books are edited and pretty much typo free. I chuckle at some of my typos on the web. The footer of the web site has my typing disclaimer.
This sit has ben profesionaly prof red. awl tpyos aree free and no aditonal chrge.
I’m not going to retire to some island with what I make from the web. Maybe the island between the north and south bound lanes of the I-95. It’s probably a break even proposition with what I spend on web sites, hosting, software and the like.
Between the teaching, web and books I can make a middle class living as a full time musician. The CD, performing, selling books at festivals and presenting workshops really are to fund the trips to more festivals. I love hooking up with fellow uke players. Travel expenses really eat into profits you might make. They are more of a working vacation. Especially when I have to cancel and loose a day or two of teaching income.
I do have some dealers for my books and I’m always thinking of expanding that network for selling books. But I really like keeping the publishing operation small. It is just me. It looks a lot bigger than it is. I’m the CEO, CFO, CPO, COD, publisher, editor, videographer, graphic artist, musician, in-house entertainment, mail clerk, janitor, secretary, errand boy, web master, accountant, programmer and what ever else is needed. So if a dealer contacts me I’ll take them on.
There are some parts of learning an instrument that are so critical and overlooked by most players that I just give the content away. It is that important. One of the big areas for players is they think they KNOW THE NOTES OF THE FINGERBOARD. This is a problem with guitar players and even more so with ukulele. Nt many other instruments suffer from this. TheY think they know the notes, the names of the notes on the fingerboard. They can figure them your but don’t know them intuitively. So I just gave the Learning the Ukulele Fingerboard books away. I was actually planning on getting 2000 printed and give half away to clubs and with orders. And selling the rest for $1.95 each. But the funds just aren’t available right now.
Chuck Anderson says this about guitar players and the notes of the neck, and I was one of them a long time ago. “There are two types of players. Player’s that know they don’t know the notes of the neck and player’s that think they know the notes of the neck.” This is different than reading. This is just knowing the names. Ukulele players are just as bad at it.
I’ve also made the Reading Primer for Ukulele available as a series of free on-line lessons for members.
You have paid advertising, too. Do you do your own advertising sales along with all the other work? Where do you find the time?
The paid advertising actually started by accident with my www.JazzGuitarResources.com site and a company called Fine Cases contacting me about running a banner ad on the cases page of my JazzGuitarResources.com site. I said sure, as long it is directly related to the content of the site. I quoted a, probably too low price and they went with it. I’ve always created banners for the sites of my stuff and the products and gear that I use or admire. I did that for Sadowsky Guitars and sent it to them see if I could run it and they offered to pay for it and they have now been running the banners for several years.
I would love to keep the sites advertising free but need to pay for the hosting and site name registrations. This is one reason for the members area. To have it banner ad free in the content area.
You play some festivals and teach seminars and workshops, too. What percentage of shows and festivals are guitar and what percentage are ukulele?
All ukulele festivals. Ukulele players are so much nicer, sharing and welcoming. The uke has pretty much taken over. I though of doing a few guitar festivals to promote the ukulele. Guitar shows are mainly geared to sell vintage and custom instruments. I do perform at Dale Unger’s American Archtop booth when he does the guitar shows.
I love presenting workshops at festivals. They are typically more advanced material that I try and present without scaring anyone away. My wife mans the sales table while I do do the workshops.
Who are some of the celebrities that you have played with?
I’ve pretty much stayed as a local pro with music. Up until 10 years ago maintained a full time day job with the teaching. First as a graphic designer then as a computer programmer. Always keeping the music going and at times teaching up to 40 students a week. Then after a few downsizings in the corporate world. I cut my earnings in half and I went full time music.
Playing wise, in the ukulele world you can pretty much play with anyone and everyone at the festivals and jam sessions. I sit in with Jim and Liz Beloff when we are at the same festival. They use me as lead ukulele and I get to improv off their great tunes. Jim writes some great songs. Jim and Liz are a great couple that has done a lot for the ukulele. A personal celebrity for me is Gordon Velesco in the Washington D.C. area. I love playing with Gordon whenever I’m in that area. So much fun.
Dauod Shaw, the original drummer for Saturday Nite Live and producer of some Van Morrision albums played drums on my jazz guitar CD, Midnight at the jazz Cafe. The bass player was Steve Bescrone who has played with everyone from Ray Charles to Pat Martino.
Have you had any students go on to become entertainers?
A lot of students get into bands. A few have gone into college and pursed music as a career. Some you just loose touch with. My main focus has bee in the private education and publishing area of the music business. Especially since going full time into music.
What lies ahead? Are there any goals you have set aside for the future?
More content for the web, books and get that CD done. I’ve been planning on doing more with video and creating DVDs of a few of my books. a DVD would allow me to add additional material that wouldn’t make it into the book.
More scale books in the QuickStart series. With each book I can add web content and examples that are not in the book. Figuring out how to handle that. I sometimes think I give too much away.
I started a Hearing the Changes series of web lessons that I’ll be adding material to.
The Reading Primer only dealt with reading in open position and the key of C with no sharp or flat notes. Which is actually pretty easy on uke. Future books will deal with reading in other positions and keys up the neck.
Guitar material has taken a back seat and my focus is all ukulele. More fun anyway.
I want to thank Curt for taking time from his busy schedule to answer our questions.
Curt's website is filled with lots of useful information. This interview gives lots of insight into the "business" of music, but also maintaining a website and developing a good readership.
Just browsing over both books, they look fantastic! I'm a guitarist and uke player for over 25 years and was thinking about writing a ukulele book but you've already written what I think are the best, most comprehensive and thorough books I've ever seen for the instrument. I just might end up buying every book you've written and I'll be giving my highest recommendation for your books to my friends and students. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such great books! — Peter Rhee
Aloha, Curt, All I can say is WOW! What you have accomplished is simply incredible! All the best — Glen Hirabayashi, The Aloha Boys
Folks, if you haven't stopped by Curt's site, do so right now! ..And get his books, they are fantastic. This guy knows his stuff and is able to pass it along too. — Alan Johnson Proprietor, The 4th Peg
I can highly recommend Curt's Uke books — I have four of them and they are excellent. — fatveg — Portland
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