For 30 years Owen Burke has been trying to make a living by handcrafting stringed musical instruments. Best known in San Diego music circles for his decade-long stint as drummer with lounge singer Jose Sinatra, he’s built everything from a bass sitar to a tambourine banjo (most of which have stayed in his collection). Now he’s convinced we’re on the verge of a ukulele revival.
“People had started telling me I needed to find something else to do, that maybe it was time to start painting houses,” says Burke. “But I told them the ukulele is coming back, that I was going to refocus my energy on reinventing it and help create a buzz.”
Burke has managed to get one of his prototype models into the hands of acoustic troubadour Gregory Page. However, it was a chance meeting with vaudeville-influenced Americana trio the Smart Brothers that convinced him his hunch about “ukes” was correct.
Immediately following the Smart Brothers’ set at Java Joe’s March 1 showcase, Burke approached the band, ready to offer them, free of charge, their choice from his stockpile of handmade instruments.
“I instantly felt that they were made for the Smart Brothers, I just didn’t know it when I was crafting them,” says Burke. “When I approached them, I felt like saying to them, ‘I’ve got your instruments at the shop and I need the space.’ ” Burke invited the Smart Brothers to his workshop.
“Hanging from the ceiling, on the walls — everywhere, really — were the most peculiar and unique instruments any of us had ever seen,” says Jay Smart. “All made from interesting, unconventional materials such as recycled woods, tin pans, fiberglass, and palm-tree branches.”
To date, Burke has given the group a violin uke, an electric steel-string uke, a banjo-uke electric hybrid, a baritone uke, two electric guitars, and a stand-up mini bass. He will create custom gear for the Smart Brothers’ upcoming tours, including a cocktail drum set, and is designing instruments named after each band member.
Burke plans on producing a line of ukuleles later this year that will retail for between $250 and $1000, with models planned for beginners, special-needs players, and art collectors.