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S2E14 – Isaac Wang

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Live ʻUkulele’s oldest homie! Isaac helped me start the web site. In this interview we talk about our early days with music and the web and also how slack key can inform ukulele playing feel.

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Transcript

Edited for clarity.

Brad Bordessa (00:02):
Aloha, welcome to the Live Ukulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa. Thank you for tuning in. In this episode, I’m featuring an interview with my good friend and co-creator of liveukulele.com. Mr. Isaac Wang. He comes home to visit me every once in a while, but otherwise he’s off at Purdue University doing smart academic things I mostly don’t understand, as I say. But we had a great conversation, talked about slack key guitar and how it integrates with ukulele and also some things about improving and kind of the application of time when it comes to feel and progress and things like that. Isaac had a lot of really nice things to share. I’m so glad we had the chance to meet up on Zoom and have a conversation.

Brad Bordessa (00:55):
The podcast is published on the first and third Saturdays of every month. Please subscribe if you’re not already. You can do so through Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts or whatever podcasts platform is your choice. And I’ll see you in the next episode. This podcast is supported by liveukulele.com and the teaching materials that I sell therein. If you’re interested in adding to your library of reference materials, go check out some of my eBooks or even my new ukulele course called 6th Sense. I like the way this transaction works out because you get some great reference material, the work that I put into the podcast is supported and everybody wins. Without further ado, I present to you Mr. Isaac Wang.

Brad Bordessa (01:52):
Welcome to the podcast, Isaac.

Isaac Wang (01:54):
Great to be here. Thank you for having me on.

Brad Bordessa (01:57):
Yeah. We go way back. Way, way back. You’re one of my dearest and closest friends and kind of oldest music buddy. We kind of started playing music together and you were really the first person I ever jammed with and kind of had that chance to be in a duo or in a group with. And because of that, I don’t know. We have that special musical connection.

Isaac Wang (02:27):
Yeah. I mean, you were the first person that I started playing with too. And I think we both were learning around the same time. I am a guitar player now, but at the start I had an ukulele too. And we were just like both with our ukuleles trying to learn Troy Fernandez riffs, and sitting outside by the beach learning from our kumu. And that was like, what, 15 years ago now? Maybe not that long, but close to that.

Brad Bordessa (03:02):
Yeah, it was quite a ways ago. But it was also the beginning of the website and a couple of years down the road. Isaac and I played together for a couple of years. We went to a couple of workshops. And then along the way we realized that gee, these workshops… or was it the first workshop?

Isaac Wang (03:20):
I think it was the first workshop.

Brad Bordessa (03:20):
I think it might’ve been actually the first workshop. We were trying to figure out how to raise funds to attend the workshop. And we realized, Hey, maybe a website would be a great way to get rich quick.

Isaac Wang (03:34):
Yeah, I think it was every year the workshops were, do you remember how much they were? Like $1500 or something. Quite expensive if you didn’t have a scholarship. And so it was always, how are we going to get to the next workshop? How are we going to get the family to the next workshop? So there was one year that me and my siblings dug up weeds in a banana patch for someone. And like just basically the main memory I have for that is like buckets full of centipedes that we would grab tongs and like just have a whole five gallon bucket full of them. And that wasn’t the most enjoyable way to make 1500 bucks. And so come round whenever it was that Brad and I were trying to scheme up ways to make money, and I was like, oh, a website where we teach people how to play ukulele seems like a much better idea.

Brad Bordessa (04:26):
So it was that or the bananas. Yeah. And then of course moving down the road, we actually ended up being, for the most part, scholarship students at the workshop, which is Keoki Kahumoku’s… or the Kahumoku ʻOhana Music & Lifestyle Workshop. But it was put on by Keoki Kahumoku. We attended that together for many, many years. And then you went off to college. But yeah, at the beginning of Live ʻUkulele, Isaac was sort of a… We were co-contributors I guess. And it was so early on that we were not sure about the whole internet thing and kind of getting used to the idea of the new web. We actually were writing under pseudonyms I believe at that point. I was Hippie Guy. And you were?…

Isaac Wang (05:16):
What was I?

Brad Bordessa (05:20):
You were Slack Key Kid if I recall correctly.

Isaac Wang (05:22):
I think that sounds right. I don’t think there was a year attached after that, but it was Hippie Guy and I think I was Slack Key Kid.

Brad Bordessa (05:31):
Yeah. I don’t even know. Did you contribute long enough… Were you working on it with me for long enough that you walked away from a pseudonym where you were writing just as Isaac?

Isaac Wang (05:43):
I don’t think I did. I think I just had a pseudonym. Because if I remember, yeah, I was there at the start of it where we were just like trying to come up with names and logos and that kind of thing. I don’t remember all the names we floated around. And then I was helping with some of the early tabs and stuff. The stage where we were still trying to figure out how to write down tablature and whether we should actually have the musical notation as well. And my tabs were pretty inaccurate. I don’t think any of them are still around.

Brad Bordessa (06:22):
Well I know, I think you did… Did you do a Gently Weeps tab?

Isaac Wang (06:26):
I think I did Gently Weeps. I think I did e Kuʻu Morning Dew. I don’t know if I did a couple others or not.

Brad Bordessa (06:35):
Well, I’m pretty sure on the website that the chord charts that you made are still up. The multi-voicing chord charts.

Isaac Wang (06:51):
You haven’t replaced those, even though you’ve written the chord book?

Brad Bordessa (07:00):
Well, you did it so nice. There wasn’t anything… Yeah, no, at least some of them. Copyright 2008, Live ʻUkulele, Inc. We were never an Inc., Isaac.

Isaac Wang (07:12):
No we weren’t. But it sounded good though.

Brad Bordessa (07:17):
Yeah. And then I don’t really recall. What was your kind of transition away from the website? Was that because of college or just a lack of interest? Or how did we get to here?

Isaac Wang (07:33):
Yeah. So going back to about 2011 is when I left Big Island to finish my bachelor’s degree on Oʻahu. And so at that point I was still pretty invested in music and wanting to kind of continue in the music scene. And my dream, I think at that point in my life, was I was going to go to Oʻahu, finish my bachelor’s degree in English, and then transition into law school. And the reasoning that I had was I knew this one steel guitar player who used to be a judge but played steel guitar on the side and eventually retired to play steel guitar. So I was like, oh, I could do that. I’ll just become a lawyer and then play gigs on the side and eventually retire and play slack key full time.

Brad Bordessa (08:26):
Was that Uncle Gerri?

Isaac Wang (08:26):
I think maybe, yeah, that sounds right. So that was my dream. Not really knowing how law or like side gigs or anything like that worked. So when I was on Oʻahu I still was taking a number of music classes and music theory classes, so I think I took music theory one to four. So basically the very beginning where you’re like clapping rhythms and singing melodies till the four, which was musical stuff that makes no sense at all. Like modern music And when they’re going towards like atonality and all that stuff. But at that point I also was getting a lot busier. And so even though I was still taking music, I think I was playing a bit less music and didn’t have as much time to be contributing to the Live ʻUkulele website. I still had that dream of coming back to play music at some point. But I think just because my chops were not as good as they were, I wasn’t really sure what direction I was going to go. And so one thing led to another and here I am entering the fifth year of a PhD program to skip a lot. But still playing music. My chops are still not where I would want them to be, but still playing.

Brad Bordessa (10:03):
Well, that’s the main thing. And as you’ve gone through all these years of, you know, big time study at these major schools, you’re at Purdue University in the PhD program there. And it’s just been nice to see that you have continued to play at whatever capacity your schedule allows, just because, you know… I appreciate you as a fellow musician and I think you have such a great feel and it’s always great when you come back home to jam a little bit like we did just a couple of weeks ago… Or last week, was it even?

Isaac Wang (10:38):
Yeah, I think it was last week.

Brad Bordessa (10:42):
Time flies. But it’s just always so nice to jump back into that and to know that you still have some music and you can have that in your life. I’m happy for you to be able to have that.

Isaac Wang (10:53):
Yeah. And I think that music is one of those things that when you love it, it’s something that you never really leave. And I love music. I love playing music. I love Hawaiian music. And that’s something that even though I am a lot busier right now – I’m trying to write a 200 to 300 page document for a piece of paper – I still love music. And so that’s still something that is pretty much a daily part of my life. And I think it’s one of those things too, where like chops come and go, but a lot of the knowledge that you have in the feel for music is still there. And I think one of the really fun things about coming back home and playing with you is just that we still have that musical connection. And we still have that conversation with each other when we’re playing our instruments. And I think that’s one of the really fun things that even though every time I come home, I’m always like apologizing for messing up or for like getting a little bit off-beat, there still is that sense of joy in playing.

Isaac Wang (12:02):
And every now and then like, I’ll have time where like, I will be playing more, my chops will get a little bit better and then I’ll get busy again. I think actually not this summer, but last summer was the best my chops had been in a while because I was playing and writing every day. Like my goal for that period was to write a song every day. And I didn’t quite get there, but I did write a handful of songs and at least part of a song every day.

Brad Bordessa (12:27):
Nice. Well, that’s sort of an interesting topic that I was kind of hoping we could touch on is that there’s so much emphasis on chops and being able to play skillfully and perfectly and execute all your ideas. But something that I’ve noticed over time is even if your chops don’t necessarily stay up, the more that you just kind of exist in music and you kind of have a finger on the pulse of that, is that your feel continues, it seems to me, to kind of develop and you still have, when you return to the instrument, it’s almost like you have even more to say, even if you haven’t been necessarily practicing. Which I think can be a little bit reassuring to people who are like, oh, I haven’t practiced in a while and it’s pointless. There’s no point going back to it. But for me it seems like that that feel like you said still is there.

Isaac Wang (13:19):
Yeah, I think that is something that’s interesting. I think if I am playing on my own now, by myself, in absence of someone who is kind of like maybe showing how my rhythm is not keeping up or getting a little bit offbeat, I think I do sound better than I did five years ago. Which is an interesting thing, because I think it is that there is that feel that continues to develop and just, I think by listening to music, by having more life experience, by having more experience on your instrument, you just do have more to say, and even if you don’t have the ability to execute it completely perfectly, there’s still something that is coming out. But the whole playing with people thing and chops, that’s the part where it actually does take practice. And there was nothing that really replaces that. But in expressing yourself, you still do have something to say and you continue to get more to say, because you have more experiences and you have more things that you’re thinking about as you come to the instrument.

Brad Bordessa (14:33):
It’s a deep well, this music thing.

Isaac Wang (14:35):
Yeah. Yeah. One of the things that I think was most important in my musical journey was, early on, I put a lot of emphasis on developing my ear. So I think there’s a tendency for some people to just focus on learning songs or like working on tabs. But I remember early on my goal was just to like develop my ear so I could play along with anything that I was listening to. So I spent a lot of time just figuring out very simple melodies, like even things like listening to children’s songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Okay. How do I pick that on one string? How do I pick that out on a couple strings? Getting that fundamental ear training, I think kind of set me up to be able to continue to hear and process music even when I’m not playing as actively. So if I hear something in a song that’s like, oh, that’s a really cool progression or change up, I can at some point come back to my instrument and work that out, even if I haven’t been playing all that much. And so if you’re someone who does listen to a lot of music, there are things that are still going on that you’re still processing and are in your head, even if you’re not necessarily on your instrument quite so much.

Brad Bordessa (16:01):
Hmm. So talking about ear training and playing by ear, let’s rewind a whole decade or more. I know we kind of cut our teeth at the workshop in a Hawaiian style learning venue where it was mostly like, you know… I feel like at that point, the majority of the learning was trial by fire at like the kani ka pila or something you’d like learn a little lick during the day or learn how to play a scale during the day. And then at the kani ka pila is where you would like learn to express it and use it in a practical sense. And you know, that moment when somebody calls for you to paʻani as like, you know, you freak out and, oh my gosh, what am I going to play? I have, you know, what do I pull from, what do I play? I have so many ideas in my head. And then just getting to a point where you’re able to follow your ear and execute that. Can you contrast that to like your more traditional university-style theory classes and how kind of each are beneficial or which one you’ve leaned on more over the years?

Isaac Wang (17:15):
That’s a really good question. Honestly… So the theory classes that I took in university, a lot of that knowledge has gone because that’s how knowledge works. And it would be really interesting actually to see how musical knowledge is stored, because I bet the knowledge that’s in your fingers and in your head, like your ears is different than the intellectual knowledge about how a progression goes. And so there’s probably some crossover where you, when you work at those things together, it connects. But I think a lot of it isn’t conscious knowledge. So I think what I was learning in university was that kind of theoretical side of things, like how does a progression work? How do you get a cadence to resolve? How do you write down musical notation? And honestly, I don’t use a whole lot of that anymore.

Isaac Wang (18:20):
The part of that that I use as the part that’s connected to the more practical side of just knowing my instrument, figuring out like a progression… And the things that are still useful are scales. It’s good to be able to know how a scale works. It’s good to be able to know how chord progressions work and why chord progressions work. Building chords is also something that’s useful to know, like how to do that. So I think a lot of those things are still in there, but they’re more in the context of me picking up my instrument and trying to figure out a progression for a song that I want to write, or me picking up my instrument and being like, okay, the song that I’m listening to is in the key of E that means that like the chords I’ll probably be playing are A, B, C#m, et cetera. So I think like that theoretical side is useful. And especially if you are someone who is maybe wanting to write music or like do music more professionally, that’s really useful because it’s going to give you a foundation to extend what you’re doing beyond what is maybe in your head. Because a lot of times, I think it’s easy to just get stuck with the music that’s in our head or in our fingers, because that’s kind of like what’s comfortable, but I think having that knowledge can push your boundaries. But just because I haven’t necessarily had the time to be pushing my boundaries like that, it’s not something I’ve used as much recently.

Brad Bordessa (20:02):
It’s just interesting to see the different approaches and especially teaching a majority of Western thinkers, how to play ukulele. Everybody tries to conceptualize everything and put it all in their brain and like learn the “rules” as it were. And to hear that you don’t necessarily think about the rules or store the rules in the long run is interesting. Because I feel the same way. It’s like, all that stuff is, it’s just a means to an end sometimes.

Isaac Wang (20:32):
Yeah. I mean, I think my music in part, because I haven’t played as much as I wanted to has gotten very simple. Like the things that are in my head are like, I know how listen to something and pick up, remember a melody and play it. And then I know my chords. Like all the chord shapes – or all the basic chord shapes – for the tunings that I use and the scales for the tunings that I use. And it’s mostly just like remembering the shapes and knowing how the shapes relate to each other, rather than actually even always remembering the chord names or what note I’m playing. Like, I know what something is supposed to sound like, and then I know the shape to get to that sound.

Brad Bordessa (21:18):
So you don’t necessarily even need to know what you’re playing. You just know the relationships, the family relationships between the different stops in the key.

Isaac Wang (21:27):
Yeah. Relationships are more important than names.

Brad Bordessa (21:35):
Hey, Buddy! How’s it going?

Isaac Wang (21:35):
Exactly. Hey, auntie.

Brad Bordessa (21:40):
Right. The ultimate cop out.

Brad Bordessa (21:43):
Well, so most of your background recently is all on guitar. You kind of transitioned from ukulele to guitar. And that’s been a great dynamic for us. And for me. I think we both benefit from that dynamic of having separate instruments because when you have two ukuleles, it’s just like two of the same sounds kind of competing for the same space. But when you have that different instrument, you can kind of… Everybody can play a little bit louder and a little bit bigger and take up more space and there’s room for that because you’re in different sonic ranges. What inspired you to transition to slack key from ukulele?

Isaac Wang (22:23):
That’s a good question. And I don’t really remember all the details because it was like when I was 16 and I’m 31 now. But I know that ukulele was my first instrument. My grandpa, when I was maybe five or six would play ukulele and teach me the basic chords, like C, F, G7. Those were like the ones that I knew when I was under 10. And just teaching me how to play some simple songs like “Yellow Bird” or “Puff the Magic Dragon.” And there was this old worn, torn apart song book that my grandparents had that I would practice songs out of. And so that was what I kind of knew. Just like some of the basics. Then we started taking ukulele lessons with kumu Roselle. And I really enjoyed that and enjoyed learning a bit more. And I don’t really remember what sparked the transition to guitar.

Isaac Wang (23:26):
I knew that Uncle Keoki was putting on lessons at the Donkey Mill Art Center for ukulele. And then I think I saw that he advertised lessons for like the next quarter or whatever for slack-key guitar. And so I think that was actually the impetus for me picking up a guitar and starting to learn that is I saw, he was advertising lessons for that. And I was like, oh, I want to try that too. So my dad actually got me a cheap Jasmine guitar. It’s like a $200 guitar. Which I still have back on Big Island. It now has five strings, which I leave it in five strings because if you tune it to like D and put it in five strings, it’s basically the same setup as taro patch or like G or like, it has the same intervals, but you don’t have a top string, which I like, because who plays on top string anyways?

Isaac Wang (24:23):
But anyways, so he got me that guitar, he got me a Ozzy Kotani beginning slack key book, and I just practiced the songs in that a lot. So when Uncle Keoki started teaching slack key, I just had had a little bit of experience and just really fell in love with the instrument and the sound and just that relaxed nahenahe vibe. I think maybe the instrument kind of fits my personality too, because I’m someone who walks at that sort of relaxed, steady pace, and having that kind of walking pattern actually in how you play the instrument really just seemed to match how I move through the world.

Brad Bordessa (25:10):
So that’s something, a benefit of slack key that the ukulele really struggles to create is that alternating bassline and keeping the low end moving or creating a low end at all.

Isaac Wang (25:26):
I mean, should I just define slack key really quickly for your audience?

Brad Bordessa (25:32):
Yeah, why don’t you? Because it’s important for like the Hawaiian context of the ukulele, people know that, you know, the ukulele is Hawaiian, but that the ukulele kind of exists in this spectrum of other Hawaiian instruments and has its own unique place. So, yeah, go ahead.

Isaac Wang (25:46):
Yeah. So the first guitars were brought to Hawaii in the 1800. Basically by Spanish cowboys who came over to teach the Hawaiian some ranching and that kind of thing. And how the story goes is the Spanish cowboys came over and brought a few guitars, but they didn’t actually spend enough time there to teach the Hawaiians how to play. And so the Hawaiians just kind of fiddled around with the tuners and then created tunings that sounded good to their ear and created a style of playing that was distinctive from anything that the Spanish or any other guitar styles that were going on at the time. And so some of the distinctives of slack key is that loosening the tunings the Hawaiian name for slack key is kī hoʻalu so it’s like slackening or loosening the strings. So you have a lot of open tunings which create that really nice full sound when you strum them and having those open tunings usually means that the bass strings are the root and usually fifth of the the key that you’re playing in.

Isaac Wang (26:54):
And so for pretty much all slack key, it’s defined by a steady alternating bass between roots out of octaves or the root and the fifth. And so it’s that steady bass, the kind of finger style progressions and the different tunings that there are, I think someone told me maybe it was Keola Beamer said something about like 60-something tunings or different tunings that exists. I only knew at one point maybe around five and now I’m mostly familiar or can play proficiently in just maybe three or four tunings. No. It’s a little bit more than that because tunings are often variations where you just have like a tuning where you slacken an extra string.

Isaac Wang (27:47):
But for a long time slack key was mostly a sort of secret practice that stayed within families. So one family might have a couple of tunings that they pass down through the generations and a certain style of playing. But what happened with that is that a lot of the techniques and knowledge started to be lost. And so in the 1970s, around the time of sort of the cultural revival in Hawaii and the Hawaiian cultural Renaissance, some people started actually teaching the tunings to outsiders – people outside of their families. And that’s where slack key really started to take off and become more popular. And I am really honored to have had people from slack key families from traditions, teach me how to play when I was growing up. And actually one of the reasons like I still want to keep playing is because, at some point, I feel like I got to pass that knowledge down to people the next generation. Because right now there aren’t actually a whole lot of new players coming up, that I know of.

Brad Bordessa (29:05):
Yeah. I haven’t heard of a whole lot. And I think that’s great. That’s such an important part of what we learned is that, you know, yes, we’re teaching you, these things – our mentors. Yes, you know, they taught us these things, but they sort of taught them on the condition… It was almost always expected that these things that we’re teaching you, you will pass on yourself someday, sooner rather than later, hopefully. Which I think is why we ended up… We actually taught some classes together early on. And, you know, continue to teach where possible, you know, I do it through the site and I know you just pass on what you can over there to the different people that you meet.

Brad Bordessa (29:50):
You want to play a quick little something? Do you have a guitar?

Isaac Wang (29:53):
I do have a guitar. I’ll just like, demonstrate like kind of how slack key works. So the first fundamental of slack key is sort of that alternating bass. And then you kind of just add like the finger style stuff. So you can see like the basses are that foundation, and then you have your chord progressions, but they’re not so much strummed as they are just picked on guitar. And then moving between different vamps to move between chords or the turnarounds. Actually turnarounds and vamps are one of the most fundamental sounds of slack key. So there’s like a couple of basic ones that I learned over 10 years ago now, just when I was starting. And you’ll hear them in a lot of Hawaiian music, even ukulele music they’ll have variations of these vamps.

Isaac Wang (31:19):
So like, those are some of the very simple slack key turnarounds or… That’s kind of like the classic slack key sound: the alternating bass, fingerstyle picking, and then those turnarounds. And the defining characteristic of slack key is that nahenahe, that gentle, mellow vibe where you’re kind of displaying at a relaxed rhythm. You’re not pushing the beat. You’re just kind of like resting in the beat, kind of dragging a little bit at times. But you’re not like pushing forward, you’re just sitting back, relaxed. You can think about just sitting on the back porch, playing with some friends, kani ka pila late at night, like that’s that the vibe of slack key.

Brad Bordessa (32:20):
And so how does an ukulele fit in with slack key, role wise? Because, you know, for us, when we’re playing, it’s very second nature to just pick up our instruments and just play. We kind of know where to live, but for you, as a slack key player, where do you expect the ukulele to be to support you or to stay out of your way, depending on the situation?

Isaac Wang (32:44):
I mean, I think the ukulele actually has a pretty easy time staying out of the way of slack key, just because it is a lot higher. And so if I’m playing like a melody or something, you’ll probably be just strumming chords and maybe chords and just doing yeah… So I don’t think there’s usually a lot of times where we’re getting in each other’s way, but if I’m playing with the an ukulele, I’ll often intentionally play a bit more on the bass strings or play a little bit lower down. If I’m soloing or something. I think often the sort of typical setup for slack key and ukulele is the slack key providing the bass, the ukulele doing more of the melody side of things. And so in that case, like I’ll often even be strumming, but still keeping that alternating bass going. So it’s both basically playing the rhythm guitar as well as the bass players part.

Brad Bordessa (33:49):
The illusion. The Isaac illusion.

Isaac Wang (33:54):
Yup. And I think too, just when I’m playing with ukulele, I’m not actually playing as much traditional slack key. Like there is a lot more strumming, a little bit less fingerstyle and sometimes I’m focused more just on providing a full sound for whatever setting I’m in rather than kind of playing that alternating bass or doing that fingerstyle melodies. And I think that is because too, the slack key works really well as a solo instrument. Just because it does have both the bass and the melody and then you can also like strum a bit too. And so it works really well on its own, but when you’re playing with people that’s kind of where you sometimes transition into more of that rhythm role, or just it’s about filling the space.

Brad Bordessa (34:50):
So when you say filling the space, you mean like if I was playing a lead where I’m not playing… I’m not providing any rhythm to flush out that sort of strumming *chicka* *chicka* kind of sound. You would jump into fill that.

Isaac Wang (35:04):
Yeah. Yeah. The one thing that can be challenging just if it’s ukulele and slack key or even just ukulele and guitar is like, once you’re actually starting to solo as the guitar player… Because it can feel like the bottom drops out. Like, because you’re providing that low end, if you solo pretty high up the ukulele is also going to be kind of high. And so that’s where you have to think about, okay, do I just kind of continue some of the bass notes as I’m soloing? So just like doing, basically if you’re playing in like, have a capo on, or if I’m playing in G, then I can still kind of maintain some of the bass note because my bass strings are tuned to G and D. But if I’m doing something else, then maybe I’m going to have to be like thinking, okay, maybe I’ll be soloing a little bit lower on the scale so that we’re not losing all the low end.

Brad Bordessa (36:05):
Right. So the benefit of the open tuning is that when you’re playing in the key that the tuning is kind of designed for, you sound fricking fabulous.

Isaac Wang (36:16):
Yes.

Brad Bordessa (36:16):
But if you’re playing in the key of like E or something, if you’re in G taropatch. If you’re playing in the key of E, you’re kind of get the hose on any moment you want to solo or take that kind of finger barre off, right?

Isaac Wang (36:30):
Yeah. Yeah. And I think like a lot of those traditional slack key players, they would just change tunings every time they wanted to play in a different key. Because they wanted that sound where they have those bass strings and they have that ability to play open. And that can be challenging if you’re in a gig with people who don’t necessarily have like a… Where it would break things up if you stopped like for 45 seconds between every song to change your tuning. So I mean, if you’re really lucky or Keola Beamer who has a ton of guitars, you can just have like six guitars on stage. But most of the time I end up just like, kind of sacrificing some of my flexibility in having those like bass strings and just doing something that’s more rhythm if we’re playing in like say E, which is a really bad key for G taro patch.

Brad Bordessa (37:34):
Sorry, Isaac!

Brad Bordessa (37:40):
No, we don’t play in E that much. But speaking of alternate tunings, do you have any thoughts on… Just as, from kind of a principle standpoint on learning alternate tunings or having that library or what the happy medium is of having those different sounds, but also getting carried away with knowing too much? Because I know a lot of ukulele players I see are like curious about alternate tunings and because there’s not really any material for them, it’s sort of something that they’re left to their own devices to figure out. Any thoughts on that?

Isaac Wang (38:13):
Yeah. So I think there’s a couple of ways to approach alternate tunings. First off, I would say, know the tuning that you play in the most really well. Like I think someone a long time ago said that they’d rather be able to play every song in one tuning than one song in every tuning. So I think it’s first, important to just know your main tuning really well and be able to play everything in it. Because then that also means you’re developing your musicality and your skills as a musician, which will transfer over to those alternate tunings.

Isaac Wang (38:50):
In terms of alternate tunings. I think it can be good to maybe know a couple, just because it gives you some flexibility in the sound of your instrument. And changing the tuning can really change how your instrument sounds. Just having familiarity with a couple tunings gives you more opportunities to create different sounds. Which can be really useful for songwriting too, because if you’re in something that sounds a little different, it’ll get you thinking a little bit differently too. And maybe writing something that you wouldn’t have written in the standard tuning for your instrument.

Isaac Wang (39:31):
And that’s kind of like the next point I was thinking of, that alternate tunings, especially when you don’t know them can be a great way to break out of the boxes that you have is for, especially when it comes to your writing. So it’s easy to get stuck in the patterns and chords and things that we usually play. And so changing your tuning to something you’re not familiar with and playing around with it can allow you to come up with some really cool sounds that you wouldn’t usually come up with. And for songwriting, that’s a great thing to just be able to experiment and like step into something that’s uncomfortable and pushes you.

Brad Bordessa (40:16):
That’s great. Good thoughts.

Isaac Wang (40:18):
Yeah. So basically alternate tunings are great, but make sure that, you know the main tuning you play in first. Maybe learn one or two more if you’re like wanting to play around. And then also experiment with tunings you aren’t familiar with just to push your songwriting too.

Brad Bordessa (40:39):
Is there anything that you want to cover, talk about? Any stories you want to share or anything? Probably try and wrap it up here.

Isaac Wang (40:46):
I mean, I’ll just ask you some questions, because these are the things that I was thinking about kind of going into this podcast too. What would you say has been the key to your success as a musician and a progressing musician?

Brad Bordessa (41:08):
Thanks for the real underhand pitch there, Isaac. I mean, I think the main asset that I’ve tried to cultivate over the years is just like being super humble in that I really don’t know anything. Like, you know, I’m fairly accomplished with what I do and what I know, and I know enough to teach and be confident in that. But outside of that, I try not to assume anything. It’s like, after having kind of… I think everybody goes to like the cocky phase where it’s like, “oh yeah, I’m a hot shot! Blahdy, blahdy, blah. And then the first time you get knocked off the high horse… I don’t know. I feel like I kinda just, I stayed down there and was able to, you know, realize that, okay, my timing is never going to be as good as I want it to be so I’m just going to, you know, act like my timing isn’t good at all times and just continue to work on it. Not from like a, “oh, I can’t play at all,” kind of standpoint, but more like just constructive, like, always questioning, always trying to, you know, keep things on the straight and narrow and do the best that I can and keep improving where I can improve.

Brad Bordessa (42:23):
I mean, I feel like that’s been kind of the biggest asset to get to where I’m at. Just to make no assumptions at all about what I know, kind of. Just always be curious, always be learning and trying to come up with new angles on things and explore. and to not take music as an absolute. Because so many people say like, “Well, that’s the way it is.” And I will always be the guy there to contradict that and say, “No, it always depends. Every single time.” You know, you can learn all the theory in the world, but at the end of the day, if it sounds good, and it’s outside of the theory that you’re taught, if that theory is going to stop you from using what sounds good, you know, those are just shackles, you know, to your creativity. So why would you necessarily follow that? So, you know, just when in doubt, keep an open mind and kind of question everything.

Isaac Wang (43:29):
It’s funny, I have an answer for you.

Brad Bordessa (43:32):
You have an answer for me?

Isaac Wang (43:32):
Yeah. For why you’ve been successful…

Brad Bordessa (43:41):
Tell me why I’ve been successful, Isaac!

Isaac Wang (43:41):
Well, I think one of the reasons is that humility. And I think that’s also allowed you to have a really good relationship with other people and the music community in Hawaii and on the Big Island. And I think when you approach people with that, like wanting to learn, not assuming that, you know, things, that’s where you are able to learn from people and people respect that. And I’ve seen you just develop in that way and gain the respect of the community there.

Isaac Wang (44:15):
I think the other thing that you maybe didn’t mention as much – and I think this is in part, personality – is just determination. That you love music and you decided you wanted to do that. And so you put in the time and work to become a musician and to become really good at what you do. And it’s funny, if we go back to like 2008 or whatever, it was you, me, and my brother, Micah, who were playing music and trying to do the music thing and get gigs and get better. Of three of us – and I think you would probably agree with this ranking – I would say that like – and this is not to be insulting – but I think that you were probably the least musically talented and Micah was the most.

Brad Bordessa (45:09):
I would agree with that.

Isaac Wang (45:10):
Yeah. But because you worked really hard, you have become by far the best musician out of all of us. And Micah barely plays at all now. And so I think a lot of your success in music is that you stuck with it and you put in the work and you put in the time to actually get really good at it. And you kept learning and you are like continuing to learn and like bring in new things and new ideas and new approaches to how you play.

Isaac Wang (45:43):
I guess, one encouraging thing for people who might be listening is that if you feel like, “Oh, hey, I don’t know, like if I have musical talent…” Like, talent is way overrated. I mean, yeah, if you’re completely tone deaf, it might be a bit harder for you. But if you put in the work, you’re going to be a lot better than you were when you started. And if you work really hard, you’re going to be a lot better than people who actually have more quote talent than you do.

Brad Bordessa (46:16):
Yeah. I think, I think that that’s an interesting point, is that the definition between talent and skill or the difference between them. Because people say, “oh, you’re so talented!” And I’m like, no, I’m the least talented of the three of us, actually, as Isaac bluntly put it, which is great. I feel like, no, I’m skilled because I’ve practiced to be in that place. And I think that, you know, obviously a mixture of the determination and the talent would be the best of both worlds. But since you can’t always choose, sometimes you just gotta, you know, put your nose to the grindstone and keep at it.

Isaac Wang (46:58):
Yeah.

Brad Bordessa (47:00):
Well, thanks for embarrassing me.

Isaac Wang (47:04):
You’re welcome. That’s what I’m here for. And I mean, you have the edit control in this podcast, so you can cut out any parts that are too embarrassing.

Brad Bordessa (47:16):
I do, but I won’t.

Brad Bordessa (47:20):
Cool, Isaac. Well, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule working on your grand finale of the PhD to come talk on the podcast with me and revisit some old times and share some great thoughts. I think that even though you have the slack key background, it’s going to be very useful for people to hear some of your impressions of music and of, you know, the different approaches.

Isaac Wang (47:46):
My pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

Brad Bordessa (47:49):
Yeah, hopefully I’ll see you here on Big Island soon and we can play some more music.

Isaac Wang (47:54):
Yeah. Sounds good.

Brad Bordessa (48:00):
Well, there you have it. Right from the source itself. Isaac’s been there since the very beginning of my music career. Want I extend a thank you to him again for joining me. Thanks to you out there for listening to the Live ‘Ukulele Podcast, we’ll be back on the first Saturday of next month. In the meantime, if you like what you hear, please write a review on your podcast platform of choice. Better yet, tell your friends, spread the word, and be sure to check out liveukulele.com for lots more content and lessons and tabs and songs and chord charts, et cetera, et cetera. I hope you all have a great rest of your month and I’ll catch you in the next episode. All my best. Aloha.

brad bordessa avatar About the author: Brad Bordessa I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from an off-grid cabin in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once jammed with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me