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S2E9 – Tobias Elof

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A fun discussion with one of the most interesting ukulele players on the scene. Join Tobias and I as we talk about tuning, Danish folk music, reggae, working at HMS, visiting Hawaiʻi, socialism, and much more!

Be sure to check out Tobias’s new single, “Blue Lotus” on all your favorite streaming platforms.

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Transcript

Edited for clarity.

Brad Bordessa (00:00:02):
Aloha, welcome to the Live Ukulele Podcast, late night edition. My name is Brad Bordessa. Thanks for tuning in. It is approaching nine o’clock here in Hawaii. Coqui frogs are singing outside. They’re loving all this rain we’re getting. Maybe you can hear them and I’m getting ready to start a Zoom call to the other side of the world to a place called Denmark where my buddy Tobias Elof will be joining me for some sort of interview.

(00:00:33):
I haven’t seen Tobias in a number of years, but he actually came to visit a few years ago and we spent two weeks… He sent me the emails like, “Oh, I bought my plane ticket. I’m coming for two weeks.” It was like, whoa! That’s kind of a long time. But it was great. You know, some people, you never know how it’s going to turn out to just kind of have sort of a stranger come stay with you. And it was fantastic. We got along super well. We had a number of great adventures. Took hiom down to Waipiʻo Valley and he… I don’t think I have a picture of it, but there’s a picture in my mind of him crossing Hiʻilawe stream you know, waist deep with his ukuleles slung on his back in his backpack case. Oh boy, you had to bring those didn’t you?

(00:01:19):
But it was great. I really love the guy and it was so fascinating to watch such a professional and amazing musician just work on his craft constantly. He was always touching an ukulele. He was always playing, always diddling on this idea or that idea and working on something new. It was really fun for me to see and just to be around so much music and somebody who music is so obviously important too.

(00:01:47):
So if you don’t know, Tobias is obviously one of the premier ukulele players in the world. He studied at university and became one of the first people, if not the first person to graduate from a university music program with the ukulele as has his main instrument. And so that was sort of his big news headline. And he’s since been playing kind of Danish folk music mixed with reggae and lots of very open sounding tunings and songs. Not that he’s playing different tunings that I know of, but just open chords, open melodies, just beautiful, beautiful kind of – almost like new age-y music on the ukulele. But super interesting. And his technique is just impeccable, flawless. He spent time studying with James Hill and he’s the only person I know of who’s got the chops to actually kind of pull off James’s style a little bit, and he’s incorporated that into his own music. Really original guy. And I’m looking forward to talking story with him. So enough of an intro, you know, the drill. Subscribe. You can hear the Live Ukulele podcast on the first and third Saturdays of every month. Let’s get to it.

(00:03:08):
So before we got on and started recording, Tobias and I were talking about the difference in Denmark and US as far as like musicians being able to make a living. And that’s one of the, kind of probably the more contrast-y interesting things between, you know, me being in the “US” – quotes -Hawaii, right? And you being in Denmark. Can you speak a little bit to how you are assisted as a musician financially and how you’re taken care of?

Tobias Elof (00:03:43):
You mean in terms of COVID? Or just in terms of, like, in general, or…?

Brad Bordessa (00:03:49):
Just in general as a musician in Denmark.

Tobias Elof (00:03:52):
Yeah, so we have this labor union called Dansk Musiker Forbund – Danish Musician Union. And they… I’m not sure when, I think it was like in the eighties that they negotiated – I’m not sure if they striked or something – but they negotiated with the Danish government to have a budget for tariffs as they call it. Which is clips of 2,000 kroners that every venue can apply for from the government to the [inaudible], which have to go directly to the musicians. So a venue can apply – say like, “okay, let’s apply for a hundred clips of tariffs of 2,000 kroners,” which is like $300, something, $250. And then that’s the minimum wage for playing on venues. Like in real life, sometimes you have to play for less if you want to be friends with the venue and you don’t sell enough tickets, you know, all that kind of thing. But like legally, that’s the minimum wage. So you can always refer to that and people do refer to that. Cause it’s a very strong union. Some, yeah, it’s very special. I know that it’s not something that exists too many places in the world. And I don’t think it exists in the US. Yeah. It makes it possible to make a living from playing a little bit more obscure music. For example, like playing instrumental ukulele music, ukulele music concerts. That the venues, they don’t have to rely on ticket sales for showing a program with a little bit more experimental stuff. There’s a lot of free jazz concerts where people get paid well. The venues can feel like they’re progressive in their program. They don’t have to sell tickets only. So that’s very convenient for me.

Brad Bordessa (00:06:08):
Wow. And so I imagine that frees up your ability to just create as a musician, without worrying about paying your bills every day.

Tobias Elof (00:06:17):
Yeah, I mean, you still have to get the gigs and there’s a lot of competition. So it’s not like it’s a gift shop. But when you get the gig, you’re certain that everything will be fixed and you get a decent pay. And yeah. You can make a living from it. It also means that all the venues they explicitly say on their websites “no cover bands.” So cover… Like playing a cover in Denmark is not something we do naturally. It’s something that has to be a very special occasion. Like, okay, you have to make a cover, make it into something unique. You know, you can’t just play a cover. Like, “Oh, let’s play a cover!” No, no. Even the audience, they like… It’s not something that is expected at all, but if you do it, then you have to really work on it and make it into your own cover.

(00:07:23):
That being said, it doesn’t mean that there don’t exist cover bands. And it doesn’t mean that those cover bands never will get booked for for the official venues. But usually they just take the ticket sales, I think. I don’t think they get the tariffs. I think they can just rely on ticket sales. The few cover bands that make a living from playing cover music.

Brad Bordessa (00:07:50):
Interesting.

Tobias Elof (00:07:50):
So that’s very different because I noticed that, especially in the UK, it was like, it was kind of expected that you do a cover at some point, at least. Cause we have this setup, it means that we don’t have to rely on that effect of playing a cover. Yeah.

Brad Bordessa (00:08:11):
Hmm. So that must be part of the reason that when you were here visiting, I saw you working on so much original music is because covers are not really what you do.

Tobias Elof (00:08:25):
Well, I guess… You could say it like that, that was the reason why. But also I just grew up in this culture. So I didn’t even know that cover music was such a big thing outside of Denmark, as a musician. I wasn’t even aware of the fact how much it means to people. I just… I’ve always been writing on the uke since I was starting when I was eight, actually. So it just felt naturally to go with that, I think.

Brad Bordessa (00:08:56):
So how did you start?

Tobias Elof (00:08:59):
I started when I was eight, because my dad’s colleague was a fiddler, local fiddler, and he had a lot of instruments on his walls when we were visiting him in his home. And I can’t really remember it, but I’ve been told that there was a uke hanging on his wall and I was just mesmerized by it and just standing and looking at it every time we were visiting. So at some point they asked me if I wanted to buy it. And then I bought it for 20 kroners something, which is, I don’t know, $3. And I started. And for some reason there was a free ukulele course on my primary school. So it just fitted naturally. So I bought the uke, started on the free course – two years course on ukulele. And I started playing with my dad who played the guitar. So played Danish folk songs and it fitted nice together the guitar and the uke. For singing evenings, community singing evenings, kind of thing.

Brad Bordessa (00:10:06):
And then from then on, I mean, you kind of came upon the headlines and attention in the ukulele world for being… You were the first person to graduate from university, with ukulele as your main instrument from a music program, right?

Tobias Elof (00:10:25):
Right. I’m pretty sure. Yeah. But it depends how you define it as well, because I know that James Hill told me at some point that there was one lady who graduated from like a pedagogical studies – musical studies – in Canada at some point, but I can’t remember the name. But like for the music academy that I studied on, it was like old school kind of music studies where we don’t write too many assignments, just learn to play an instrument really well. And some pedagogical subjects, but it was… Not really, not really that kind of thing. No assignments, not too many kind of academic writing and stuff like that, just playing. So in that way, that kind of understanding of music academy, I was the first to graduate here. But just with a bachelor degree. Cause I know Mika Kane, he graduated with a masters degree, right. From University of Manoa Valley. Like, the guy works in Hawaii Music Supply, I think. But actually I applied for my master’s degree because of COVID and I’m a little bit worried whether it will continue the next couple years and will all my gigs be lost. So I applied last year and I got in. So I’ll start my master’s in September.

Brad Bordessa (00:11:49):
Wow. And what do you think that will entail from where you’re at as a very accomplished musician already?

Tobias Elof (00:11:57):
Hmm. Well, it kind of depends what teachers I end up getting. But I’ve asked Cathy Fink if she could teach me a little bit. I can basically ask any teachers I want, I think, and then they will pay for it on the music academy. I hope I can find some new paths in the uke. I feel like I want to dig in more to clawhammer. And definitely Cathy Fink. She’s the clawhammer lady. The clawhammer master, on the uke as well as the banjo. So that’s one thing and I also… Haven’t asked him yet, but I want to ask Byron Yasui, if I could get some lessons from him as well.

(00:12:37):
In terms of having like a specific goal, I’m not really sure. It was more of a safety issue really to apply for it. But yeah, cause you know, it creates a space where you can write music as well and you can work on certain stuff without being… Without stressing on getting money. Cause we’re… In Denmark we get money to study on the university. I think it’s $700 or $800 US dollars every month. You just get. No paying it back. You just get it. So it creates this space where – even though it’s not super much – I still have my Patreon and I gets some income with that. And the combination of that I can work on getting better at certain stuff. Or getting more… Making my content more …narrowed maybe? Or more clear. I feel like I want to work on more tutorials and make it even more clear. Yeah.

Brad Bordessa (00:13:41):
Yeah. You mentioned the Patreon thing. What do you see that being?

Tobias Elof (00:13:45):
Yeah, I started a Patreon. I hope it can be a part of a stable income at some point in the future. Well, it is sort of already, but… I think I have 107 subscribers today. But it goes up and down and, you know, that if you have tabs, it goes like crack cocaine for ukulele players. It’s really… Ukulele players, they do love tabs. So if you have some decent tabs, arrangements, people will subscribe. That’s my experience. I want to pursue it. So it’s not only about buying certain tabs. I want to make it, I want to make it so people want to stay a little bit longer. But I’m not so good at selling myself really, to be honest. I think it’s difficult to sell myself. I just kind of do what I like with my Patreon. I hear a song and like, “Oh yeah, I want to do a cover of this one!” Ukulele cover of this one or write something. And I feel like, “Oh yeah, I can write this on tabs and put in on my Patreon.” And I just, I never planned anything from it. And I think if I plan, I feel like it could grow more easily maybe. But yeah, I’m not so good at that. I hope I can get better at that on the music Academy.

Brad Bordessa (00:15:12):
Is there a course for Patreon?

Tobias Elof (00:15:15):
No. No, not really. Most people in Denmark they never heard about the website. It’s really not common here. I know two Danish people who use it. I’m not really sure about it. How Patreon will be in the future. But it makes sense, right? To subscribe on content that you like. I guess it could be the next step in the internet thing.

Brad Bordessa (00:15:46):
Yeah. It’s so tough to try and like stay one step ahead of the curve and what’s cool and what’s working. Cause it, it does, it changes every couple of years dramatically.

Tobias Elof (00:15:56):
Yeah. Yeah. And I never do covers that are on the billboard because they’re on the billboard. I don’t bother with it. I know that a lot of people do that for ukulele teaching. They just look on the billboard and then, “Oh, which one is the popular song?” And then they choose that one, but I don’t like the popular songs, so why should I do a cover of it? But if I do like it, of course, we can maybe do a cover of it. But if I don’t feel like it, I dunno, I don’t feel like it. So I’m really not good at putting my own needs away from just doing work. I don’t really… It has to be satisfying for myself in some way.

Brad Bordessa (00:16:42):
Speaking of which is your ukulele handy, do you wanna share a song?

Tobias Elof (00:16:47):
Yeah, I can share a new one that I haven’t released. I played it a couple of times on live shows. I did this live stream a couple of weeks ago in an old water tower outside of Copenhagen. You can find the link on my Facebook. And I played it there. But here it goes. It’s called “Circular Path.”

Brad Bordessa (00:18:29):
That’s incredible.

Tobias Elof (00:18:36):
Thanks.

Brad Bordessa (00:18:37):
So watching you play, something that I’ve always noticed – and especially in recording settings – is your playing comes across unbelievably intimate.

Tobias Elof (00:18:50):
Oh, thanks.

Brad Bordessa (00:18:50):
There’s something about the way you touch the strings and the way you fret notes, it’s just like it draws you in and it feels… I don’t know if it’s silly, but it sounds so like more personal than lots of other ukulele players. Is that something you cultivate or have ever worked on or is that just your sound?

Tobias Elof (00:19:10):
That’s a good question. I think ultimately because I grew up in another – literally the other part, if you just dug through the hole of Hawaiʻi, I guess. I grew up in a very different culture than where the ukulele originated in. Of course, it’s also a pop music instrument nowadays, but I’m not sure I even cultivated it. I just went for what I liked, I think. What I enjoyed. I know a lot of people think that it’s very different from other kinds of ukulele players. But I never really thought too much about it. But I don’t play with nails maybe. So in that way, it will never sound like this kind of attack. You know, it will always sound soft in some way cause I use the tips of my finger. But you don’t play with nails either, do you?

Brad Bordessa (00:20:09):
I do play with nails.

Tobias Elof (00:20:11):
Oh, you do play with nails. Okay. But there are some people who don’t play with nails as well. And maybe I prioritize to compose. But a lot of players do that as well. Also I really dislike flamenco music. I think that could be one thing. Not to say that I don’t like certain flamenco music, but if I can choose not to listen to it, I will do that. But sometimes, you know, I do understand the vibe of like some of the masters like [inaudible] or something. You know, all those masters. I understand that, you know, aggressive vibe of like, okay, and all the clapping and you clap on… You, don’t clap on one, you clap on something three and six and I don’t know. In a 12 bar beat, you clap on certain things. And I understand that kind of, but I just, I can’t resonate with it. And I don’t like when ukulele players play flamenco music, really. I don’t like that. I don’t enjoy that sound really. So I was just inspired by something else.

(00:21:30):
I think it would be wrong to say that flamenco music isn’t… Or flamenco inspired music or this kind of “shredding” music is something new to the uke. Although I don’t really know. I’m not a historian, so I don’t know, but I can just imagine if the music comes from Madeira or if the instrument came from Madeira. There must have been some influences from Spain as well. Like there must have been some kind of a connection there, although I’m not sure. I want to ask Kilin Reese about that at some point. Subconsciously I always found it interesting to take another standpoint compared to what other people do. Saying that… It’s not really the first priority. I just go for what I hear in my head, I guess, and the exploring the different possibilities on the instrument, different paths on the instrument. I don’t know if that answers your question, really.

Brad Bordessa (00:22:41):
Yeah. It’s always just insight into the, the musician’s mind, like what is actually happening in there. But you sent over a new single that you’ve got coming out. Is it out now? Blue Lotus. It’s a lovely tune.

Tobias Elof (00:22:56):
Oh, thank you very much. It will be out the, I think it’s 1st of April. It’s kind of the same vibe. I’ve been recording, I’m working on an album with, with a double bass player called [inaudible] a good friend of mine. It will be sort of these kind of songs. And I want to make it into an album where you can’t really hear that the song is changing to a new song. I’m fascinated by making an album where it feels more like a playlist or like a DJ set in some way. But then I just want to make it super chill. I like to meditate as well. And I like to make music where I feel like it’s meditation even for myself. So I’m working on that, but the single will be out I think it’s 1st of April and kind of similar vibe. I dunno if you could play it maybe?

Brad Bordessa (00:23:56):
Yeah. If you’re open to that, I’d love to play it for my listeners.

Tobias Elof (00:24:02):
Yeah, for sure. For sure.

Brad Bordessa (00:24:04):
Great. Well, we’ll edit it in right here.

Tobias Elof (00:24:09):
Yeah. World premier!

Brad Bordessa (00:26:23):
So listening to that piece, you’ve always kind of done – from some of the recordings that I’ve heard, I won’t say always – but was it Byen Sover… Is that how you say it?

Tobias Elof (00:26:35):
Byen Sover. Oh yeah. Some years ago, it’s six years ago did the album with another double bassist.

Brad Bordessa (00:26:44):
And it’s a beautiful album. And again, it’s very intimate, but also something that struck me. And that’s kind of the same about this Blue Lotus single is that you leave so much space and it’s so sparse the way you play and you interact with the double bass. And to so many ukulele players, that’s like very brave. Not many people are comfortable, just existing in music and letting it, be so quiet all the time.

Tobias Elof (00:27:13):
Oh, that’s interesting.

Brad Bordessa (00:27:16):
Do you think that’s something that comes from your background or is that intentional and you kind of like stare down the rests and just get really comfortable in that openness?

Tobias Elof (00:27:28):
Oh, that’s a good question. I’m not really sure either… I never really thought about it like that, that people don’t dare to do it. I was just under the understanding that people don’t like it. But maybe they just don’t dare. Or maybe they’re afraid of doing it. I never really thought about that.

Brad Bordessa (00:27:48):
That’s my understanding. It seems like.

Tobias Elof (00:27:51):
Yeah. Maybe there’s some truth to that. I’m thinking about that now. People are afraid of it… But aren’t there some natural limitations to the uke in terms of sustain? You know, traditionally it’s not really a sustain instrument. And when you play one note and hold it, I guess it can be intimidating for the player if there’s no sustain, maybe. Well, the ukes I play on now, they do have a lot of sustain compared to it being a uke. But maybe that helped me in my playing. I’m not really sure.

Brad Bordessa (00:28:41):
It’s just an interesting thought because you’re kind of… You just come at it from such a different angle from every other player that I know of.

Tobias Elof (00:28:49):
I was very inspired when I started, I was very inspired by the way James plays and makes the uke sing. I think that was a big inspiration. But also, yeah, I want to say that I also played a lot of fiddle music, but that’s not really either. That’s not really either the vibe I’m going for these days. But I want to make the instrument sing. I love trying to find certain spots on the instrument where you can hear all the overtones and it resonates a lot. Going for that kind of open string sound.

Brad Bordessa (00:29:24):
Well, that was going to be one of my other questions is that… You’re this fabulous player. You have incredible chops. And yet for a lot of your stuff, you choose to play in open keys and like, you know, like easy ukulele keys. What is your approach to like composing in those keys and why do you play in them?

Tobias Elof (00:29:48):
Hmm… It’s not to say that I don’t like when it’s a closed sound, because that has a quality as well, but for solo uke, it’s easier to make it sing, it’s easier to make more sound of it when you have the open strings and when you can jump around campanella style, making it ring out even more. So I think that’s probably the first thought I have about that.

(00:30:22):
I guess that was something I became aware of when I started on the music academy back in the day, some years ago. That all the fiddle… Like all my study mates, all the people I studied with, there was some virtuoso fiddlers who could play… They just hear a song – they could just hear a fiddle tune and then they can just play it in D, A, G, and F maybe. But then if you mentioned to them, “oh, can you play an Eb melodic minor?” Then it will just be a blue screen of death. Like it would be like you do something in Windows and then it just crashed the computer. Cause they had no idea. And they’re just virtuoso in D major. And they just don’t know the concept of Eb major or they never played an Eb major scale in their life and they’re terrified and I can see the fear in their eyes still. And it was very provocating to me back then. But then I think I understood it from the fiddlers perspective that you want to use the open strings to make it a more solistic instrument. You could do that on a closed sound, but for a whole song it’s really challenging. If it’s not that kind of ringing music. Of course, if it was a jazz song, it would be no problem at all to have it, a closed sound like swing jazz kind of music. But this kind of open sound, yeah. This kind of ringing sound where you make the uke really sing, you have to use those keys. I’m more aware of it now than I used to be. So in a set, I still choose when I play a concert, I’ll still try to shift a little bit between different keys so I don’t end up playing in F all the time. Or C. I think it came from that experience playing with violins that I started being very provocated by it until I understood the idea of it.

Brad Bordessa (00:32:58):
This is great stuff, man. Kind of the first and only time we really have connected is the two weeks that you came out here and, and spent with me and we had a great time. But afterwards I believe you headed over to Oʻahu to meet the Hawaii Music Supply guys.

Tobias Elof (00:33:26):
Yeah.

Brad Bordessa (00:33:26):
And then ended up working over there.

Tobias Elof (00:33:29):
Yeah. Yeah. I had a – what’s it called – internship at some point some years ago. And I’ve been there at the podcast a couple of times as well. They’re really nice people. Good friends. What was your question again?

Brad Bordessa (00:33:45):
I was just curious, like, were you ever running the storefront? Did you ever like help people choose ukuleles or anything like that?

Tobias Elof (00:33:52):
Oh yeah. Yeah. I was, yeah. I was in the… When people asked about certain things… I really enjoyed that kind of AB test, you know, ask the budget and then okay. $300. Okay. Let’s pick all the $300 ukes and then just really be acknowledging what is it that you want? Do you want a full sound or do you want this kind of brittle sound? Do you want to full sustain, or do you want to like sharp attack, short note. And then just AB three ukes. ABC three ukes. Listen to it back and forth until you, like, really acknowledge which one you really love. I really liked that process, actually. I really enjoyed that process in the store. Yeah, that was good fun, actually. I think I enjoyed it… I think some of the other… I don’t think Corey enjoyed it. I don’t think Corey understood how much I enjoyed it. I don’t think… It was, I was like, Oh, it’s only a $300 uke. Just let them choose themselves.

(00:35:03):
But I was, I don’t know, I was just so keen on, “Okay. Let’s really decide. Let’s really listen to these three ukes,” and then really try to talk about it with the customer. And which one do you like, how do you experience the sound? I don’t know why I was very satisfied by the process. But I also didn’t work in the same store for over 10 years. Not to say that Corey is not the master of knowing that for sure. But I think when’s it’s the cheaper ukes, I don’t think he bothered too much trying to figure out which one is the best. Cause I think he thinks all of them are good. So it’s just a matter of taste really, which is true as well. But I don’t know. I just really loved that process for some reason.

Brad Bordessa (00:36:00):
Hmm. And having that access to so many different instruments, that’s sort of the dream when somebody is buying an ukulele and so many people like go on Amazon and they just pick the one that looks nice, but being able to go and actually listen to them and experience them. Were there any like trends? Are there any trends that you noticed helping people find different instruments? Like what they were looking for or… Because I feel like so often people are, they’re kind of confused by the whole thing. They don’t actually know what they want.

Tobias Elof (00:36:32):
Mm, well, I think people… I think… In my experience, people know what they want, but they are a little bit afraid of telling it. And also they can’t… Sometimes, quite often they can’t explain it with words, what they do like and what they don’t like. But yeah, if you have a store like that, a physical store, it really makes sense to go and try it out and really take your time to really find the one that you really enjoy, I think. And you can do that for yourself, which is fine as well, but I don’t know. I just enjoy it, helping it out. And also it was a big, a big journey as well, for me as a player, to be able to hear all these different kinds of ukes and really listen carefully and taking your time to understand, okay, how does this one compare to this one? It takes a lot of time to understand that and even to be able to describe it and there are many parameters to be aware of. It takes many years.

(00:37:39):
I remember the first time I got an endorsement from Mya Moe. I had no idea. I was just like, “Oh, this is a uke and it’s nice. And it’s not Kala from 2005. It’s not an old crappy uke.” I know they’re much better nowadays. But isn’t it amazing how the development of ukes…

Brad Bordessa (00:38:07):
Yeah, it’s just profound.

Tobias Elof (00:38:10):
…Went up like a thousand percent the last 10 years or more. It’s crazy. Yeah. It’s very crazy. Like even some of the Makalas, they do sound decent compared to when I was a kid. That kind of factory uke when I was a kid, it sucked big time – so bad. The frets were too high, and yeah. But now… It was like basically a toy back then, but nowadays, you can actually… It actually works for strumming some chords. Yeah. It was a big journey in my – listening journey – just working at the store and then in the factory as well.

Brad Bordessa (00:38:54):
Did you find that it was disorienting to play so many different ukuleles with different sounds and not be able to like get comfortable with one of them? I mean, obviously you’re playing your own personal instruments more than the rest, but I feel like people who like switch between a lot of ukuleles leave a little bit of tone on the table because they don’t necessarily get really familiar with what makes that ukulele work.

Tobias Elof (00:39:18):
Well, I always had my custom Anuenue in the store. So I could always go back to that one as a reference point. And I always ended up thinking, “Oh, I’m so happy that this is my uke.” Even playing some of the really expensive ones in the store. Like the… What’s the guy called… Oh yeah, like, I’m just looking at the YouTube channel right now. But even like the… Trying some of the really high end ones, like the Moore Bettah and the ʻIʻiwi, of course. I can’t find it now. But trying some of the really expensive ones I was still… Which was still mesmerizing and some really great luthiers, like single, single luthiers. I still went back to my uke and thought, “Oh, I’m really happy that I got this one.” The only thing I really want at some point is a Kamaka concert size. The one with the funny head. I really love those ones. But even the expensive ones with $5,000 ukes and all this bling bling thing, even though they sound really amazing, I don’t think I would want one, actually. I think I’ve found what I enjoy with the Anuenue.

(00:40:44):
So in that way, I had a point of references at least. But I’m not sure it was confusing, I guess, at some point that it must have been confusing listening back on 300 different ukes over a time period, but the more you do it, the more you can describe it, I feel like. And I haven’t really recorded much, I haven’t really worked with other ukes than the Mya Moes and the Anuenues. And I also have a soprano Kamaka. Is it called the gold label? One of the old ones from 69 or something. I like that for the old school sound of it, but for recording or for gigs, I just stuck with those. I feel like the Mya Moes give a more rough sound. More sounds like a wooden cabin. And the Anuenue is just… It has this kind of Asian perfectness that some people would describe as really boring, but it’s just very filling. It’s just, when you listen back and forth with that one, I was listening to a lot of other high-end ukes and A, B back and forth. And every time I would play a high-end uke in the store I would like, “Oh, wow, this is, this is a good instrument.” And then I went back to the Anuenue and I was like, “Whoa, okay. Okay.” There’s just more frequencies. And I want to say, but it’s not a negative way. I just want to say less personal sound. It’s just more of everything I feel like. But it’s a custom made one from the Moonbird series. So I’m not really sure how they made it. I’m not sure how my bracing is compared to other Anuenues. Yeah.

Brad Bordessa (00:42:40):
Do you ever wonder about having to, if you ever like, wear that one out and have to find another ukulele? That’s sort of a fear that I have. It’s like, “Oh no! I have to get something new.”

Tobias Elof (00:42:52):
Yeah. I used to have that feeling with my Mya Moe that broke when I was in Hawaiʻi the first time. It broke because of the humidity was… It was just going directly into the instrument because it wasn’t lacquered. It was just oiled and I didn’t take good care of it. And I was so sad when it broke. In the end, it’s just an instrument, I feel like. I’m not too attached to it. I think I could find another one that would be satisfying as well. And I’m pretty sure that if I asked they would give me a new one, but I don’t know how they’re heading as a company these days. I don’t really speak too much with them, actually. Just to have that now and then I will record as much as possible as possible with that one. But I’m not really too afraid that it will break and I won’t have another instrument. And I also have two of them. Maybe that’s why. I have two Anuenues, which is a little bit different custom made.

Brad Bordessa (00:43:58):
That’s good. And each one wears out twice as slow. Cause you play both of them kind of evenly, right?

Tobias Elof (00:44:04):
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.

Brad Bordessa (00:44:07):
That’s a good problem to have.

Tobias Elof (00:44:09):
In 50 years.

Brad Bordessa (00:44:12):
You were talking earlier about the reggae band project you’ve been working on. Is that new? I mean, I know you did a little bit of reggae. I heard you play some reggae stuff, but is that like a new endeavor or is that something you’ve been involved with?

Tobias Elof (00:44:27):
Well it’s a couple of friends – musician friends – that I’ve been playing with for many years, almost 10 years in different session session bands. And in 2016, we had 10 days in the summer where we recorded like full band altogether roots music. Roots reggae. Four horns, drums, bass, picking guitar, off beat guitar, keys, organ, percussion – two percussionists actually. Just full roots session. And everyone recorded together. And we were many different musicians everyday. Different guitarists, different horn sections everyday. And it ultimately, it just became a record. You can check it out on Spotify: Guiding Star Orchestra. And the album is called Natural Heights. We also have a single called “Upfull Melody” where I actually play uke on, which is something that you have to listen carefully to, to really hear that it’s a uke. Cause I played it through a guitar amp.

Brad Bordessa (00:45:36):
So are you not playing ukulele with the band?

Tobias Elof (00:45:37):
Well, I am on certain songs, but back then for the session, I did record with the uke. But a couple years ago, my little brother’s girlfriend, she had this really bad electric guitar that she didn’t want any more. Like a, you know, teenage starter pack, “I want to play electric guitar” guitar from, I wanna say, Walmart, if it was in the US. Kind of like really bad guitar. Which is perfect for roots reggae music, because, you know, that was the instrument they had. They couldn’t buy new instrument because there was… I think it was trade blocking thing, trade – what’s it called in English? Like they couldn’t import new strings and everything sounded really wrecked. Which is perfect because my guitar sounds like that. So nowadays I’m mostly playing guitar, but on certain songs. When I have a feature, like an ukulele melody, I will play the uke on it through a guitar amp with a pick. I hope too many people won’t unfriend me on Facebook now for playing with a pick on the uke.

Brad Bordessa (00:46:53):
A pick and an amp? What are you thinking, Tobias?

Tobias Elof (00:47:00):
But yeah, it’s been a long going project, Guiding Star Orchestra. But we having a lot of momentum these days and all sessions that we have every second week with… Is we actually recording here in the studio. It’s just setting up the mics, everyone recording at the same time. Sometimes in the different rooms, sometimes in the same room, which is the… It feels like it’s really going with that. We have a lot of gigs in the summer, I hope, I really hope we’re allowed to play it. But if not, I’m very sure that we will keep the momentum and then just play the gigs when we can.

Brad Bordessa (00:47:46):
Do you ever see the ukulele becoming more in the forefront for a reggae band, like ever taking the place of the chank guitar? Could you do that on the ukulele or is there a specific reason?

Tobias Elof (00:47:59):
If you listen to the record I play a uke as the offbeats in the band. So that is definitely possible. But when I got the guitar and started playing with the guitar, I felt like it just sounds, it sounded more traditional, it sounded more right. And the vibe in the band is more traditional. And I’m not a hundred percent sure, but my good friend, who’s the piano player in the band, I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t like uke. I haven’t really spoken with him about it, but he can be a little bit sour to work with sometimes if certain things doesn’t play well. So I figure out, okay, I might as well try play guitar, even though I’ve had this idea all my life, that I was never going to play guitar. But I don’t know. I just want to fit in, in the band. And I really enjoy that role, really. Just being in the background and nobody gives a shit about me afterwards. Nobody want to talk with me afterwards, the concerts. It’s perfect. And just playing the off-beat and I’m just playing it right now. I’ve used a lot of time to just not make mistakes all the time. Just play the same thing and play nice in the right flow. Play, you know, with the piano. Just play it at the same time, a hundred percent, one unit kind of feeling for getting myself in it. I really like that thing. And it’s much easier with the guitar.

(00:49:42):
Not to say it’s not possible with the uke. But I feel like with the uke I had to invent the spoon again. I had to invent the D plate with playing a uke in the reggae band. Which is not a hundred percent true because I know in Hawaiʻi there’s a big tradition of playing the uke in reggae bands. But with my approach of it was okay, I just wanted to make it sound like traditional roots music. That was my main goal of it. And it just, in the end it feels like a struggle. So I still do it on certain songs, but I’m not sure I’m going to pursue it in the band, in the future for new songs. But our single, it’s very clear in our single, “Upfull Melody” that it is uke. So I kind of have to still keep it along in the band. But I don’t know if I want to go more that way. Because I… Playing live gigs with it, I just experienced that being anonymous, background player. I really enjoyed that. So I think I’m sticking to that.

(00:51:02):
Yeah. Which is the opposite of when I play solo concerts or with the double bassist where it get all the attention. A little bit of both. I see the reggae band as another way of having a career in music. We can at least play music and get a decent income from just playing gigs. I think it’s easier with the guitar.

Brad Bordessa (00:51:32):
Are you any kind of well-known in Denmark for playing the ukulele?

Tobias Elof (00:51:38):
Um, within the musician… Yeah, I think within like… How do you say it in the…? I think we say the “cultural class.” When we talk about class system in Europe. I’m not sure you say the same in the States or in Hawaiʻi. I think within those people, I’m kind of underground known at least. Yeah. Not sure “famous,” but… I’ve been on a couple of podcasts here in Denmark where people want to talk about the uke. Yeah. Cause you know, it’s like the most selling instrument. I think probably the most selling instrument in music history, maybe. Some stores, they told me couple years ago, they sold a uke every day, these small local stores, instrument stores, which is crazy in Denmark. So yeah, not super famous. And I never had any ambition of being famous. It was never my ambition. My ambition has always been to just make a living from… I just want to just make a living, just have enough money to survive and just be humble with that. I don’t need a big mansion or like, I don’t need a lot of stuff. I don’t really like stuff, in general, as a concept. I don’t really like things too much. It bothers me too much. It gives me too many troubles, I think. I don’t want a lot of money either. Just want to survive with music.

(00:53:19):
And I want people to listen to it if they like it. That’s also a goal for my music. I want to make music that people actually listen to. It’s something that really changed, something I see in the music business that really changed since the CD. I’m not a hundred percent sure that it’s true, but the way I see it is that when we had the CDs, as the main thing, as the main business thing, all these big companies, they would boost all these boy bands, girl bands, these kind of five people, and you have different characters and okay… You know, we really promote the people around it. And okay. Even though the music suck we’ll just promote the music so much, and then people will buy the CD because they fell in love with the persons. And then they buy the CD. And then economically we in the business, we don’t care whether you listen to the CD actually, cause there is no economical benefit from the industry for you to listen to the CD. When you’re sold the CD for… Was it like 20 bucks or something, back then? Sell a CD and you sell millions of CDs for 20 bucks. That’s a lot of money. That’s really a lot of money. And nowadays you can’t do that trick. You can’t just boost a lot of music that sucks. It has to have some certain qualities so people want to listen to it again. I’ve been thinking a lot about that when I write or release more music. I think it’s important that people actually use it and listen to it.

(00:55:07):
I also see a lot of… You know, with streaming, in general, with playlists, it’s such a big thing with Spotify here in Europe. I’m not sure how big it is in the States. I think Apple Music, or like, iTunes is bigger in the States. But with playlist that’s such a big power. Cause then you have like… It’s really used for certain things. You have a coffee playlist, like coffee in the morning at 11:00 AM playlist. Or cardio workout playlist, or… The 80 year old birthday from your grandparents playlist. I don’t know all these different kind of scenarios playlist. And then people really value that the playlist is curated so it doesn’t disturb the vibe that you show in the playlist. If you have meditative sounds in the playlist, it must have certain quality, otherwise people don’t listen to it because it disturbs the vibe. But it also means that people don’t care about you as a musician, in general, if they’re only into playlists. They don’t care about how you look or where you from. They just listen to the song. And then when they hear the song in another context, they say, “Oh yeah, I know that song. Oh, that’s the song from from the playlist!” You know, they never refer to the album.

(00:56:43):
I’m talking very generally now. I’m not talking about the people that are true music lovers and really still buy albums and really value that process of it. I’m just talking about the general use of music nowadays. But I feel like it’s… I’m not sure it’s necessarily negative. I just feel like it’s another perspective of music. And I think it’s interesting that development of it. It’s interesting that it’s getting used and the industries have to be aware of that when they sign new artists. They can’t just sign artists that are beautiful. That looks great. Or have a pop song that goes up, because then it goes down. You know, you can’t just have a flying high and then it just falls down. Cause it’s not good business for the music industry nowadays. You want to have a song that people keep listening to the next 50 years in a certain mood in a certain vibe. Yeah. So that’s interesting. That’s something I’ve thought a lot about. Not to say that I’m there yet at all, but I wanna do an album where I keep that in mind more.

Brad Bordessa (00:58:01):
So do you have any plans for new ukulele albums?

Tobias Elof (00:58:06):
Well, I have been recording and I’m starting… I have a… Is it half through or like two third parts through? I just lack a couple of songs and then there’s an album. And one of the songs from the session is that single the “Blue Lotus” as we talked about before. So it’s kind of the same vibe. I can try to play another one if you want.

Brad Bordessa (00:58:34):
Please. Yeah, that would be fabulous if you’re into it. Before you do that though, can I bug you to demonstrate how you tune with the octaves? Because you’re the person I learned the octave thing from.

Tobias Elof (00:58:45):
Oh, really? Like this one?

Brad Bordessa (00:58:52):
That one. Or like the 3rd fret and the open string.

Tobias Elof (00:58:52):
Oh, I never thought about that. That’s interesting. So when I tune the uke without a tuner, I kind of, I want to have the G matching. But it’s sometimes difficult. And then I also want, you know, the fourth string G I want to match it with with the second string, 3rd fret G. And then I also want to match the open C-string with the 8th fret on the second string. And then I also like to match the open E with the 7th fret E on the first string. And also the open C and the 3rd fret on the first string C. Was that what you meant with the octaves?

Brad Bordessa (01:00:00):
Yeah, it was just… Seeing you do that was such a kind of an epiphany for me. It was like, “Oh, duh!” It’s so easy to hear the octaves, as opposed to like tuning with the fifths or the fourths and the third. It’s way easier to hear the octaves. And as soon as I started doing that, tuning became much easier for me by ear. I mean, I had done it for years and years.

Tobias Elof (01:00:24):
That’s very interesting.

Brad Bordessa (01:00:25):
Yeah. But it was just kind of a “wow” moment.

Tobias Elof (01:00:26):
That’s very interesting. I’m not sure where I got it from. But I have had tuning issues throughout the years, playing with fiddles that you know, they tune fifths and the fifth are pure fifths. And then sometimes I feel like my third, when I was playing in D-tuning, I felt like my third was… It didn’t tune with the piano too much. It was like an issue sometimes. But nowadays I guess I tune more temperated. Yeah.

Brad Bordessa (01:01:09):
And what do you mean by that?

Tobias Elof (01:01:11):
Like tuning for fiddles, you know, when you have stringed instruments like the… Why is it called that in English? Because the uke is also stringed… But like strings, you know, violin, viola, double bass… When they play together, they don’t play temporated scale, like the piano, they play for the overtones. They aim the aim to play so they resonate as much as possible with each other and doing that. It’s not in tune with the piano. I’m not too sure how it is, but I think it’s the third step are very different, like the third note in the scale gets very different. The octaves are probably the same and the fifth may be the same. Oh, I wish I knew more about this. But I just know that it’s a different thing.

(01:02:06):
So when you, for example, play chords on like a violin, viola, double bass, the note Gb is not the same as the note F#. It’s not the same note at all, you have to really change it otherwise it sounds really bad. It’s very interesting, actually. It just feels a little bit different when you’ve been in it for a while and then go back to temporated scale. I know also that, well, I don’t know if it’s a legend, but I heard that story when Bach made the piece called “Das wohltemperierte Klavier” – the well-temperated piano. When he did that piece, a lot of people walked out because they thought it was outrageous that he tuned the piano so you could play in all keys on the piano. Cause then it wasn’t in tune a lot of people thought. So they walked out cause it was like, “Whoa, it sounds crazy!” And in folk music, in Scandinavian folk music, some traditions, they really dig into those kinds of old ways of tuning the scale. It can be.. Inspiring as well. I guess it was inspiring for me when I was studying.

(01:03:27):
Okay. But let me play one of the other songs from the, from my album that is not released, but will be at some point when it’s finished. This one is called “Gratitude.” Sounds like this.

Brad Bordessa (01:06:04):
So mellow.

Tobias Elof (01:06:07):
Thanks.

Brad Bordessa (01:06:09):
Well, I know I could, I could sit here and listen to you play all day, but I know you’ve got to vacate the studio shortly ish. But before that I was going to share a story from when you were here. And we went down to Chuck Moore’s house.

Tobias Elof (01:06:27):
Oh yeah! It was so nice. I really hope he’s doing well now.

Brad Bordessa (01:06:29):
Yes. I believe he’s doing better. But we went down to his house. I took you down there to meet Chuck. And it just so happened that Uncle Ledward Kaapana was playing at Uncle Robert’s. And so he rolls up at Chuck’s house with his whole entourage. They had two cars worth of people, all of his sisters and his, his whole ʻohana. And they’re just lovely, lovely people. We ended up jamming all together and you know, Tobias is here from Denmark visiting. And, you know, I think… Like it’s strange enough for me to be like the haole white kid at the Hawaiian jam, but then for you to show up and be the guy from Denmark who plays so well, everybody’s just like scratching their heads. They can’t quite figure it out. But I remember from earlier in your trip, we went down and stayed with my friend, Larry, down in Waipiʻo Valley. And we taught you that song, Pua Lililehua.

Tobias Elof (01:07:26):
Oh yeah, yeah. I’ve been playing that quite a while, actually. It’s really nice.

Brad Bordessa (01:07:31):
Yeah. It’s a beautiful song. And when it was your turn in the song circle at Chuck’s house, sitting around with the uncles and the aunties and everybody, and you pulled this song out, it’s like, “Here’s a song that I learned from Brad and from Larry. And I want to share it with you,” and you played it and you started it like you expected no one to know it. And that’s one of the songs that Uncle Ledward made so super famous with Hui ʻOhana.

Tobias Elof (01:07:58):
Yeah. Yeah. Actually I didn’t know that version back then from Hui ʻOhana. But I knew that, of course they would know it cause it’s a traditional, but I wasn’t aware that it was such a big hit. But I actually bought the record afterwards. I listened a lot to it. It’s really beautiful. It’s from like 72 or something? Just a trio bass, guitar, electric guitar, something like that. So beautiful that song, wow.

Brad Bordessa (01:08:26):
Hui ʻOhana is my favorite Hawaiian band. They’re Just magic to me.

Tobias Elof (01:08:32):
Makes sense.

Brad Bordessa (01:08:33):
We had so much fun on that visit and so many great moments, but that one sticks out as one of the most fun musical moments of being able to jam with Uncle Led of all people and then to have you spontaneously present that song that he is so well known for. It’s just a beautiful moment.

Tobias Elof (01:08:55):
Yeah. I just imagine that if it was myself, like someone else coming from the… Like the totally different part of the world and then coming to Denmark and playing some kind of traditional Danish song. That must be weird to experience. Must be special to experience for them as well, but for Ledward. But yeah, that was a big, big thing.

Brad Bordessa (01:08:55):
That’s the beauty of music.

Tobias Elof (01:09:22):
That’s true. It really travels. And we can share it without speaking really or could just share the vibes of it.

Brad Bordessa (01:09:34):
Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Tobias, for joining me from your morning, from your studio.

Tobias Elof (01:09:41):
Thanks Brad for having me.

Brad Bordessa (01:09:43):
Yeah. It’s wonderful to see your face, man. It’s been far too long.

Tobias Elof (01:09:47):
You too. You too. Yeah. It’s been far too long. Yeah. Hope to see you in the future.

Brad Bordessa (01:09:53):
Yeah. Well now we’ve established. Hawaiʻi is like always your backup plan. When COVID is over and you don’t know what to do. Just come to Hawaiʻi.

Tobias Elof (01:10:01):
Yeah, it’s my backup plan – if Andrew still wants me.

Brad Bordessa (01:10:04):
Well, you’re always welcome here and I hope we can have another visit like that sometime soon.

Tobias Elof (01:10:10):
Yeah, I hope so too. I really want to,

Brad Bordessa (01:10:15):
You can find out more about Tobias’s music and see some of his tutorial videos on pretty much most social media platforms. He’s super active, always posting new things and little riffs he’s been working on. Plus how-tos. And of course, Tobiaselof.com along with Spotify and Apple Music and all that good stuff. Check him out. Throw was some support his way. He’s also on Patreon.

(01:10:45):
The Live Ukulele Podcast is published on the first and third Saturdays of each month. Please subscribe and I’ll catch you in the next episode. Be well out there. Keep jammin’ your ukuleles. 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