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Dominator is a legend in the ukulele web world. He pioneered one of the very first ukulele tab sites and provided countless uke players with high-quality transcriptions.
In this episode I catch up with Dom via a ZOOM call and find out some of his tips on transcribing and what he’s been up to since his last tabs.
- Dominator Ukulele Tabs
- Wine Country Ukulele Festival
- Pure Heart
- Transcribe software
- “Skipping Stone” video
- Guitar Pro
- Ukulele Underground
- Bryan Telentino
- “Little Rock Getaway” video
Edited for clarity.
Brad Bordessa (00:01):
Aloha. Welcome to the Live Ukulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa. Thank you for tuning in. Today I’m joined by somebody from the very early days of the ukulele interwebs, who was really the first person on the scene and creating high quality tablature. If you wanted an amazing tab or a note for note transcription of a song, you went to Dominator Ukulele Tabs.
So today I’ll be talking with the man himself, Dominic. I haven’t seen Dominator in person for over 10 years, though in the past, we’ve stayed in pretty good touch via email. He’s very much an icon for the folks who were around on the internet back when the Ukulele was first starting to make a fresh appearance and take advantage of the web medium. I thought I’d have him on and see if he could share some of his expertise and maybe some stories about what he does and where he’s been for the past 10 years.
The Live Ukulele Podcast is published on the first and third Saturdays of every month. Please head over to Apple Podcasts or Google Play or wherever you consume your podcasts and hit the subscribe button so that you don’t miss any episodes. And also that the podcast can be more visible for other folks looking to discover content and tune in.
Well, welcome to the podcast. Dominator. Thanks for joining me. It’s been a while since I’ve seen your face.
Thank you so much. Yes, I appreciate it. It has been awhile.
Brad Bordessa (01:48):
What have you been up to in the years since we jammed at, it was Elk Grove, right? At the Hawaiian Style Grill, I believe? What have you been up to?
That’s right. I was also thinking about that this morning. I mean the first time that we met was at the Wine Country Ukulele Festival, and I believe that was 2008 or so. And so you were just a youngster then! I think I remember your mother being there to kind of chaperone our meeting and our little discussion. But yes, since then, you know, I’ve just been doing my ukulele thing. I started to experiment with building ukuleles in 2004, you know, I built my first ukulele back then. But you know, I’m just playing, had been playing music and doing my thing. We were living in California. Roseville, California. And we’re now in Nevada. We’ve been here since July of 2015 and we really, really like being in Nevada.
Brad Bordessa (03:02):
Nice. So everybody in kind of the old school version of the ukulele internet knows you for your tablature. And I know that that’s how I first knew about you was I found your amazing tabs on your website. How did you ever get started transcribing and creating these tabs? Was that something… Because you played guitar first, right?
Brad Bordessa (03:29):
So were you transcribing guitar songs first or how did the ukulele tab thing come about?
No, it was definitely ukulele first. My wife and I, we made our first trip to Kauai in 1997, met some of my high school buddies over there, and we fell in love with the place and ended up buying a timeshare, you know, before we left the Island. And, you know, the whole time that we were there, we’re driving around and listening to the music. And that’s when I heard Jake, when he was playing with Pure Heart. And I was just listening to this ukulele music. And I was just… I couldn’t believe it. And I just fell in love with it.
And so when we got home, I just started to… Because I was a guitar player, right. So I actually had a magazine subscriptions to a couple of different magazines that had tablature for guitar. So I was very familiar with it and I used it. And so we didn’t have Google then, but I jumped on the computer and fired up the modem and did the old dial in internet. And I started searching for ukulele tabs. You know, I punched Jake’s name in, you know. Basically nothing came up. At that particular time there was just zero tablature information for ukulele, you know, now you can find it everywhere, but… So I thought about it and I wanted to learn this stuff. So I just got the CDs and I just started to figure them out myself. And I started with not his stuff at first. I think maybe a John Lennon song, Imagine, or something. I did a couple of easy things. And I just got to thinking, well, all right, if I’m figuring this stuff out and I’m putting it on paper, I might as well, you know, make it available for other people. And that’s kind of where I got the idea to put the website together. And you know, I just put a few tabs up there. I, you know, I had three or four, you know, a half a dozen tabs for a long time.
Then, you know, I started getting into it more and more. And I purchased some software that helped me quite a bit. The software is called Transcribe and it was the best $60 that I ever spent. And I’m sure you’re familiar with that program. And so that allowed me to not only slow things down, but I was able to isolate sections and chords and actually figure out in detail, the right voicings for these chords. And it just helped me. So I just started continuing to do the tabs and then just started putting them up there. I think before I quit doing it on a regular basis, there was you know, like over a hundred tabs on the website.
Brad Bordessa (06:49):
Yeah. They were all of fantastic quality. You always really went for like the note for note transcriptions for the most part, from what I remember seeing and studying. And yeah, it was always amazing. What was your process for figuring out a song and breaking it down? Because I know you did some amazingly difficult pieces, like “Skipping Stone” by James Hill. How did you even get to the point where you could dissect what was going on and put it on a page,
Just listening and listening. You know, and at first there weren’t videos to go by, you know, but it did get easier, especially with someone like a James Hill or a Jake, by being able to look at the video and know what position that they were playing in, et cetera, that helped a lot. But I mean, as far as the process, it was just listen a lot, you know, to the original that I was trying to work with and then just take it, you know, a few bars at a time. And if I needed to slow it down and isolate something, I’d just, you know, break it down. Cause that software, if you highlight a chord, it will show these peaks of the different notes. And there’s little dots there that – different colors that are showing you what’s going on. So not every one of those peaks is the correct note, but it’s a note that’s in the spectrum that the software’s picking up. But you just use your ear and then figure out what notes that the chord has in it, and then just play it and practice it.
And, you know, a lot of times I wouldn’t be able to really play the song until after I was completely done. Like it’s one thing to figure something out and know what you’re supposed to do. And it’s a whole nother thing to sit down and be able to, you know, really play it with the right feeling and, you know, et cetera. But…
Brad Bordessa (08:54):
Yeah, and that kind of brings up a question that… I wasn’t sure if I was going to ask this or not, but you kind of led me. There is the discussion between the benefits of tabs and then kind of the skill that they take away for like… You’re exchanging your transcription knowledge and your efforts listening for the end user is not having to put in that time of figuring out the song. Do you feel that… I know you made these available to the public. Do you feel like you got almost more out of the experience as a musician of learning to transcribe than maybe the players who just learned the song from the tab?
That’s a good point. I mean I did grow as a result of that. It became easier to do, you know, the transcribing and learning the songs. And so, yeah, I think that I benefited from that quite a bit, I think, I mean, much more so than me going to your website and downloading the tabs and learning how to play it. Being able to actually get involved in the nuts and bolts of tearing it down and putting it into the transcription program. Yeah. That was a very worthwhile experience for me, for sure.
Brad Bordessa (10:27):
Well then what would your recommendations for somebody who wanted to figure out a song and transcribe a song be? Is there any starting points for somebody just getting into the craft?
Well, I would definitely get some software that would help with being able to analyze the tones that make up the chord. Because you can highlight just that chord and see what notes are involved in that. And basically you just have to listen over and over again and not get into a big hurry. Okay. Because you have to take it sections at a time. The problem is most people just want to learn it all right away. And it doesn’t work that way. You just have to, you know, take it from the intro and break that down, slow it down until you understand it. And then just take it a section at a time. And before you know it, you’re done, you’ve got the whole thing laid out. And I think you are familiar with Guitar Pro. Don’t you use Guitar Pro?
Brad Bordessa (11:41):
I used to I’m using Musescore now.
Okay. Well you know, when I started, I was using that free software from Power Tabs, right. The Power Tab software. But I started using Guitar Pro a number of years back. And just recently I upgraded to their, you know, most recent version, which is still an, an old version, the 7.5. But because I had updated my Windows operating system on my computer and hadn’t done any transcription work for, you know, a couple of years. And so just recently I wanted to transcribe one of the songs that I’m working with this local musician on that… We’re just about ready to release this video coming up here shortly. And I wanted to transcribe that and have it for his archives and for mine as well. And so I opened up Guitar Pro and it crashed, and I was like, well, what’s why is this? But anyway, so it didn’t take very long to figure out that it was not compatible with Windows 10. So it was a very inexpensive upgrade, but I have upgraded to the the newest version and it’s much better. So definitely if you’re going to transcribe stuff, you need some sort of software to be able to plug it into and Guitar Pro’s, you know, it’s pretty nice. And like you said, there there’s others out there, but I’m liking Guitar Pro here now. Again.
Brad Bordessa (13:13):
Awesome. And what kind of upgrades did the new version bring? Because when I left off, I was still on number six and I heard that seven was kind of, eh, not really that exciting and maybe even a backtrack in a couple places.
Yeah. I’ve heard that. See, I didn’t even realize that when I had six, that it had the capability, I guess, to do drum tracks and stuff like that, but it was there. I never used it, but in this new version, I’m noticing that the sounds that they have there… There’s more of the presets, if you will, to make the guitars sound better or whatever. That I think has gotten a little bit better. And I’ve been using the drum section of it and transcribing, inputting drums for these songs. And I never did that before. But it’s relatively, you know, it’s intuitive and easy to do, you know? And so I’ve been kind of enjoying that. But other things about that version that might be better. I don’t know. I think it’s more, I’m exploring what might’ve been there before, and didn’t even realize it kind of thing.
Brad Bordessa (14:36):
Well, you sent over a number of songs for me to check out and I think “Rise and Shine” was a super fabulous composition and I’d love to play it for my people if you don’t mind sharing that. Can you walk me through a little bit, like how you wrote it and how the pieces fit together? Cause I noticed you do a really nice job combining the chord invoicings between the different parts in the mix.
Yeah, I did that with two ukuleles. Now the reason that came about was actually at Ukulele Underground, they… And I was trying to figure out when that would have been, I mean, I think they started, what, in 2008 or something like that? But they had an ukulele compilation CD that they were putting together. And they were asking for people to submit songs and I think they were asking for original songs. And it was for, it had something to do with a benefit for muscular dystrophy, I do believe. And so I don’t know how I came up with that, to be honest with you. I was just messing around with… In C and just came up with some voicings and next thing, you know… I think we were in Kauaʻi and the sun was coming up and I sat there and just started noodling around and I came up with this thing and as the sun was coming up, you know, my wife just said, oh, you know, “rise and shine,” you know, or something, you know, and that’s how the name came.
But yeah, so I don’t really know, remember how I came about the chord voicings and stuff, but just… I scheduled a little bit of studio time in Sacramento at that time. And I just went in and laid down two different tracks and I was in and out in pretty short order. And that was that. I also submitted that same song. It was on another ukulele compilation CD for the Reno Ukulele Festival. They had put one – Doug Reynolds had put one together. And so it’s been on a couple of different CDs.
Brad Bordessa (17:07):
Very cool. Let’s take a listen to it now and we’ll be back on the other side.
So what was the toughest piece that you put together for a tab? I remember “Skipping Stone” as being the standout hard song you did, but I know you did a number of pretty crazy ones.
I don’t know. They were all hard actually. I mean, yes, “Skipping Stone.” I don’t even remember what that sounds like at this point. And that is definitely one… That’s a good example of a tab where I was able to kind of figure out what was going on. And James, you know, I met with him a couple of different times at ukulele festivals. And so he was really, really good about letting me send him the tabs and then he would go over them and let me know, you know, where to change this, or, you know, I had the wrong position or whatever. And so there was a short window of time that I was working on his stuff where he had the time to participate a little bit. And we sat down once, you know, and went over some of the tabs. And so that was helpful.
But that is an example of me being able to put a transcription together, of how you’re supposed to play it, but I never could play that song. I mean, I could muddle through parts of it, but, you know, I could never play it like it should be played. So it was just never a song that I ever played at a gig or anything, because it’s just way too way too complicated. Like most of his stuff.
Brad Bordessa (21:16):
Do you know of anybody who’s actually tried it?
No, I don’t. I do not. Years ago I might’ve seen somebody from Japan that put a video together playing, I don’t know if it was Skipping Stone, but one of his difficult compositions. Because like I said, most of them were pretty challenging. I mean, he’s an amazing gifted musician, for sure.
Brad Bordessa (21:46):
So you mentioned being in touch with James. Is there anybody else that you had a chance to work with through the tabs or even just in passing for nice musical experiences throughout your festival attendances? Anything like that?
Well, no. I mean, obviously I’ve had some meetings and discussions with Jake. You know, I’ve talked to Herb, Jr. a little bit at some of his little shows here and there. Who else? Oh, you know, Brian Tolentino. I mean, I talked with him when I was working on his tabs. But which ones did I do? “Little Rock Getaway” I believe. His arrangement of that.
Brad Bordessa (22:31):
Did you do “How D’ya Do”?
No. I don’t believe so. Was that one on… How many CDs does he have? He only had the one for a long time.
Brad Bordessa (22:49):
I don’t even know at this point. I know he did a couple duo pieces with Herb, but I’m not sure. I’m double guessing myself, whether that’s even on that album.
I’m trying to think of the other name of that song. Cause there’s two songs of Brian’s that I had transcribed and I can’t think of the name of it. Now what’s that one? That’s not the one you’re talking about?
Brad Bordessa (23:24):
That’s not the one that I remember looking at.
Yeah, I forget the name of it though. Why can’t I forget the, or remember the name?
Brad Bordessa (23:45):
I don’t think I actually ever had that album and listened to it all the way through.
Because you had a little tab of “Little Rock Getaway” Didn’t you? That you put together.
Brad Bordessa (23:57):
That was Da Ukulele Boyz’s version off of the slack key compilation though. Yeah. Different arrangement.
But I notice you just there were playing with a pick. How did you transition from guitar to ukulele? I know some people do that in different ways and some people… I know you’ve got a real nice approach to ukulele that sounds… It sounds ukulele. But not everybody does that coming from guitar. What has remained the same and what has changed for you?
Well when I first started playing the ukulele I was in the camp where I was one of those that believe that you needed to play with your fingers only. And so at first, for a number of years, when I was playing more solo ukulele, I didn’t use a pick. But I started to develop some some issues with my – with both hands, actually. And I ended up having carpal tunnel surgery on my left wrist. They wanted to do the right one as well, but I decided that I didn’t want to have to go through that. And so there did come a point where I wasn’t able to finger pick the way I used to. And actually it was a very depressing moment when that actually happened. Because I wasn’t… I found myself getting to a point where I wasn’t able to play the songs that I so loved and wanted to play. So one day I just sat down and I was thinking about it and I had to make a decision. Okay, do I try to be a purist and continue to play with my fingers, but not be able to be happy about it, not be able to play as well, or use a pick, adapt, and play music that I love. And so at that point, I just decided, I’m going to use a pick and not worry about, you know, somebody going, “Oh, this guy’s using a pick instead of his fingers.” And I’m so glad I did.
And then here’s another thing that did give me an opportunity… When I got away from playing solo, what it did is it gave me the opportunity when I found these people to play with… I was, I had a group in Sacramento area in Roseville before I moved here. And then I was actually able to play many of the songs that I had transcribed on my website that weren’t for solo guitar [ukulele]. And so lots of those songs I then started playing and it just kind of opened up a whole different avenue for me. And it’s like… I’ve had a number of people over the years, you know, want me to do solo shows and stuff. “Can you do this solo show?” And I just, I don’t do it anymore, you know, because I’m not comfortable doing it. And I so enjoy playing with other people and playing off of another musician. And it’s more fun. And I’m to the point in my life that I’m going to play music, I just, I want to be having fun, you know, and if I have fun, hopefully the people that are there will also have fun. So that’s kind of how I look at it. But yeah, it wasn’t a difficult transition. It was just a difficult mentally for me to psychologically make the transition.
Brad Bordessa (27:58):
Hmm. Yeah. I imagine that’s a very tough choice to kind of abandon what you’ve done for so long. When playing with people, you seem to… I always remember you being part of groups, but not always part of groups that had other ukuleles. So what are your tricks and techniques for incorporating with the rest of the band? I know a lot of people are used to jamming with like a big, giant ukulele group where there’s 40 ukuleles strumming along. Is it significantly different with like, say a bass and a guitar or drums and a guitar?
Well, my approach has always been that you have to listen. You know, most people, a lot of people when they’re jamming together or whatever, they’re jamming and having a good time, but maybe not necessarily listening to what the other people are doing so that they can mesh in and fit in and know when to play and you know, when not to play. And so I think listening helped me when I played with other people. Just listening to what they’re doing and when it’s my turn to go, go. And that’s kind of my view on that. Listening to others.
Brad Bordessa (29:29):
That’s a big deal. You could say that for the whole rest of the podcast and I think it would be incredibly useful. Listen, listen, listen.
So you’ve gotten in… Was it 2005? You said that you started building ukuleles. Can you tell me about that?
I built my first one in 2004. That’s when I was recovering from my open-heart surgery and decided that I was gonna build an ukulele thinking I was going to build guitars after that. Right. That was sort of the motivation for building the ukulele was that I thought I wanted to build a guitar. And I thought, well, I’ll start it off with a little ukulele, cause I liked the ukulele and see where we go from there. But after I built the first one, it was like, I’m not going to build guitars. I mean, the ukulele was very enjoyable to build and I would’ve had to retool the entire shop… Because I’ve thought about that later on, do I want to build guitars? I’ve had somebody asked me, will you build me an acoustic guitar? And I’ve declined because I would actually…
As a luthier, you build… Much of what you do when you’re building ukulele or guitars is you’re building forms and molds and different jigs to, you know, help in the process. Well, right now I’ve got a shop full of ukulele gear and molds and jigs, and I would have to do all of that over again – most of it – for the guitars. You know, cause the guitars are obviously much bigger. And so yeah, it’d be a pretty significant investment to decide to change. But no, I just love building ukuleles, you know – w when I can. You know, cause I’m doing the music stuff and then build ukuleles. I think it was in 2017. We moved here in 2015 into Nevada. In 2017 was my first full year of ukulele production. And I completed 10 ukulele in 2017. Since then it’s been a fraction of that because 2019 was my biggest and most busiest gigging year that I’ve ever had in my entire life. And that’s because I was playing with the ukulele group, of course, but I also was playing in a rock and roll tribute band playing guitar. And so 2019 was almost every weekend. And during the week I had a steady gig at a particular winery. So I was gigging two to three times a week, every weekend. And so it was my biggest gigging year, but the ukulele production obviously took a, took a hit.
Brad Bordessa (32:41):
So how many instruments have you done all told?
I’m at number 50 right now.
Brad Bordessa (32:49):
What do you think is kind of your thing as a builder? Cause everybody’s got different specialties and I remember playing one of yours and it was fabulous, but what do you, what is like, kind of your lane? Do you have one?
You know what, I actually don’t have a lane. I’m not doing anything that’s outside of the normal traditional ukulele construction, really. My body shapes are traditional. My headstock shapes are traditional. I do a little bit of experimenting with with bracing patterns. But other than that, as far as the look of my ukuleles, I just want them to be clean lines you know, nice wood clean lines, you know, put together with love and just and hope they sound good. But yeah, I don’t have like a specialty. Don’t have a special, you know, line of ukuleles. Just a Dominator ukulele.
Brad Bordessa (34:03):
Are you actually taking orders? Are you in a place where you build for people or is it mostly just because you feel like building one?
Well, no, it’s word of mouth is pretty much how I’ve always done it. I’ve never had a website or anything. Because with performing and stuff, you know, I can’t… I don’t want to, you know, get myself in too deep to where I, you know, can’t meet commitments. I mean, it already takes me… When I first started building, I mean I built the first one and that took me about a year, maybe even longer. And I could right now, if that was all I did, I could probably, you know, knock four instruments out in a matter of, you know, four months or so if that’s what I did every day. But I just don’t have that kind of time. So it’s, it takes me you know, six months plus. I mean, I’m getting ready to finish… I have a little soprano in the spray booth right now for a gentleman and we’re at 11 months right now. And so it definitely takes me me time to get them completed. And but most people are happy with the end result and that it’s well worth it. I hope.
Brad Bordessa (35:31):
Nice. Well, that’s, that’s the main thing, I guess.
Brad Bordessa (35:36):
Well, just to follow up. Do you have any plans in the future for creating more transcriptions? Is that on the wishlist?
Well… Actually now that I’ve gotten reacquainted with with Guitar Pro… Yeah, I may do some stuff. You know, Andrew Molina has wanted me to do some stuff for him and I’ve been way too busy. And so I may, at some point, find some time and, you know, reach out to him and see if we can’t figure out what he needs me to do. But yeah, I won’t have a website or anything dedicated to transcription or tabs or anything, but yeah, I’m sure that I will do a few and, and people will find out about them if I have them through Facebook or other social media, whatever. But yeah, I’m not going to say that I’m not going to ever do any more, but I’ll definitely do some, some sort of ukulele tablature. And and I have a few things guitar related that I’m going to do. As I mentioned, I’m going to be finishing up this new video that we’re about to release. And I’m transcribing all those parts to have. And then the next song that we’re going to work on is an original song of mine. And so I’m going to transcribe all of the parts for that as well. And so I will be definitely using the software here for a while. So I’ll find some sort of ukulele tune that I can figure out.
Brad Bordessa (37:25):
Great. Well, thanks so much for joining me, Dominator. This has been very interesting and thank you for all of your service to the leather community through these great transcriptions over the years.
Well, thank you so much, Brad, for having me. And really thank you because when I quit putting out tabs, you know, that’s kind of where you took over, you know, cause your website, you’ve done so much as well. And you do really good transcriptions too, because I’ve downloaded and checked a few of them out myself. So I appreciate that.
Brad Bordessa (38:01):
Well, thank you. It’s big shoes to fill, for sure.
Following this interview, I was in touch with Dominator about the possibility of helping host some of his additional tablature files, because on the original website, he included the power tab source file that he created the tab with and also the MIDI file export, so that folks could listen to the song and learn it from ear instead of having to read the standard notation, which was very helpful. And he was very receptive to the idea and we’ve been working together for the past month to bring this page into fruition and completion. And I’m just really thrilled to be able to give that back to him and to his content and be able to help host that for the next generation of ukulele players. So really would like to mahalo Dominator for his willingness to work with me and to help make that happen. And I invite you folks to please head over to liveukulele.com/tabs/dominator to find, a. an entire index of all of his tabs sorted in the original order and kind of what the original intent that he had, but also, b. the MIDI files and the Power Tab files and also links to external MP3 performances and some YouTube videos and other supporting content that really kind of brings the picture home.
I think that the pieces that Dominator took the time to transcribe are more than just tabs. They’re sort of cornerstone performances in the world of ukulele. And that’s something I always really appreciated about his content was that he wasn’t just creating a way for people to learn ukulele. He was sort of in a way, perpetuating the art and the craft of playing the instrument and showcasing some of the performances that inspired him and inspired the rest of us as specific ukulele pieces. Cause I know there are many more tabs available these days than when Dominator was first creating his tabs. But so often these are like arrangements of jazz songs or arrangements of more contemporary pieces, that are all equally valuable, but Dominator really spent his time creating transcriptions of ukulele songs. And especially ukulele instrumentals where the ukulele was featured as its own instrument. And he always honored that with the tabs. So I really appreciate that. And if you certainly need any kind of study pieces, I recommend you go have a look. There’s over a hundred tabs and they’re all wonderful.
Thanks again to Dominator for being on the podcast, sharing this time with me and also for sharing his hundreds of hours of work that he gives to us in the form of these tabs. It’s an honor to be hosting his content into 2021 and beyond.
The Live Ukulele Podcast is published on the first and third Saturdays of every month. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your ukulele people, spread the word and I’ll see you over on liveukulele.com for more lessons, tabs, chord charts, scale charts, resources, et cetera. And I’ll see you in the next episode. Thanks for tuning in, be safe out there. Aloha.