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11 June 2010

Ukulele Breakthrough (2004)

(c) 2004 Calvin Chin
Pages: 118
Size: 6 x 9 inches
ISBN: 9780595312580
iUniverse Inc.

The cover tells us that Calvin Chin has over 70 years ukulele experience and that he has been teaching ukulele workshops in San Franscico. Other than that, we don't really learn too much about Calvin in this book. I've scoured the internet but haven't managed to find anything else out about him.

I bought Ukulele Breakthrough knowing very little about it. I was hopeful after reading the blurb that I might uncover a treasure chest of 'old school' insights and relive a little bit of ukulele history. It wasn't to be; This is an instruction manual plain and simple. However, this book does have something good to say and it says it in a way that other books don't.

First impressions are important and I don't think that Ukulele Breakthrough does itself any favours here. The cover has a kind of amateur Photoshop feel and inside the chord charts are complete, but very functional and not too pretty. I get the feel that this book has been put together on a budget.

Like the artwork, the book itself is very functional. The coaching starts right from the first paragraph and Calvin keeps up a fair pace throughout the whole book. To his credit he keeps the lessons clean and focussed; He has a plan and he sticks to it.

Calvin's primary aim is to teach you chords, and this he does well. There are only so many ways that you can go about doing this and Calvin's approach is to concentrate on each string and the chords that use that string as a root note. Whilst he covers the open chords (the meat and veg of most books), Calvin encourages you to play up the neck and places a lot of emphasis on learning the entire fretboard. It's easy to see the benefits of this approach even if the effort involved might be a little off-putting. Calvin starts with common chords and progresses to more exotic ones in a way that feels natural and well thought-out.

Most lessons follow a similar pattern: You get the theory; the chords; and some practice tunes to try your new knowledge out on. Finding the right practice tunes can be very hit or miss, and unfortunately for me it is pretty 'miss' with Ukulele Breakthrough. This is obviously a subjective thing - you may love them. For obvious reasons, Calvin has picked songs that are out of copyright, so they are all old. For me, that's not a problem; I'm pretty good with the old stuff, and ukulele almost demands it. But even I struggle with a number of the tunes in here. You have some classics like "Greensleeves" and "Ave Maria", and a number of marginal standards like "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now", but I found a lot of the 37 songs just way too obscure for me. Perhaps YouTube could help me here.

I would have liked to have seen Calvin cover more ground on strumming and general playing technique. He does touch on the subject, but I think that he could have done more. Don't let this put you off; what Calvin does cover, he covers well.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, and I'm still enjoying it. Calvin achieves a new perspective on an old subject. I think that there is something here for most players, irrespective of your current knowledge.

On the Ukulele Blog's (just invented) Triple-B scale of 1 to 9, I give Ukulele Breakthrough an inspiring 7. Go buy it...

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