10 Things I Learnt from John King

This was an incredibly difficult post to write. Not for the usual reason that tribute posts are difficult to write – to my regret, I was always too intimidated to even email him – but because everything he did is absolutely fascinating. A quick scan through his writing for a few juicy quotes ends up being half a day spent engrossed in his extensive and detailed histories. A glance through Classical Ukulele turns into hours picking apart his note choices (and trying to my fingers in the position 9058 for Bach’s Prelude). Visiting his YouTube page to pick out a couple of examples results in endless rewinds and ‘How did he do that?’ moments.

As someone who plays, writes about and tabs for the ukulele, I’ve always been a John King wannabe. Here are just ten things I’ve learnt from him.

1. Campanela Style Playing

Truth be told, if I had been rich you wouldn’t be reading Ukulele Hunt right now but Harp Hunt (or possibly Genial Harpes). I love the sound of the close harmony notes bleeding into each other. Which is why I was drawn to John King’s campanela style of playing. A technique he resurrected from re-entrant players of JS Bach’s time.

The idea is to play one note of the melody on each string and let the notes ring into each other. For example, you would usually play a descending E major scale like this:


And here’s how you’d play it in the campanela style (letting the first four notes and the last four notes ring together):


And here’s how they sound (standard technique first).


Playing in this way the re-entrant tuning from a restriction into the element that lets the ukulele ring and shine. It’s been a huge influence on how I arrange tunes: take a look at my arrangement of Baby Elephant Walk for example.

For a masterclass on campanela, watch John playing Carol of the Bells and get his tab for it here.

But it ain’t easy. As John himself said:

The truth is it’s a crazy way to play the uke; ease of execution is all but sacrificed, subordinated to whatever it takes to get that shimmering, harplike sound.

2. You can be classy on the ukulele.

Just watch his performance of Bach’s Bouree. Fluid and perfect.

Whenever I feel the need to impress someone with the classy potential of the ukulele I break out Tarantella Italiana from Classical Ukulele

3. If you’re really good you can make it look easy.

While some idiots can’t get through a tune without gurned and waggling their tongue around, John King made it all look simple and effortless. No matter how difficult it actually is. On his Larry O’Gaff & Swallowtail Medley with James Hill for example.

4. Dynamics are more than just quiet verse/loud chorus.

Take a listen to what he does with Chopsticks. Without a great deal of light and shade in the dynamics, it would be a very boring piece.

5. Every bit of information I trust about ukulele history.

A lot of the ukulele history out there tends to be either dull and superficial or romanticised. But everything John wrote had obviously been thoroughly researched and carefully disected. Whether it’s a quick overview of the uke’s history for a museum exhibition or a post on the development of plastic ukuleles.

6. I’m not the only one who thinks the ukulele is difficult to play.

I might have caused a bit of a kerfuffle with last week’s post, but if John King was on my side I was probably right.

Some people may tell you the ‘ukulele is easy to play, but don’t you believe them… anytime someone tells you something is easy to learn, it’s probably because they want to sell you lessons.

7. Concentrate on your playing by thinking about boobs.

Finally, an aspect of playing in which I can call myself a master.

8. Anyone who tells you they know the origin of the word ukulele is lying.

I love his article debunking one of the ukulele naming myth: taking in discussions of political wranglings, the pestilent nature of fleas, racist stereotypes and whether Edward Purvis got the nickname ukulele by being an asshat.

His conclusion on the real origin of the word ukulele:

Final answer? Your guess is as good as mine.

9. I should be more pro-active with my emailings.

10. Always end on a joke.

At the ‘Ukulele Guild of Hawai‘i Exhibition and Conference in Waikiki last November, someone was interested in buying one of my collections of uke music, but after attending my workshop she was worried it might be too difficult for her. “No, no, you should try it,” I assured her. “It’s easy.”

View Comments


  1. todd April 8th, 2009 3:37 pm

    really enjoyed this Al,

    great insight and yet with your slightly sick sense of humor ;)

  2. cardboardfrog April 8th, 2009 6:19 pm

    thoroughly interesting insight, some of the peices he plays baffle my mind, the campenela scale shall be played with at great length too! what an interesting guy, great articles, great arrangements even better execution a real loss to the uke playing masses to see him go really.
    before sunday i’d never heard of him much to my shame.
    i tell people playing the ukulele is easy all the time, usually i provide free lessons too, clearly i’m not buisness minded enough!

  3. Andy Brockman April 8th, 2009 6:38 pm

    Al, Great entry today. I really enjoyed it. Thanks to things like youtube (and various Uke blogs) newbies, like myself, can start to see and understand what great uke musicians are all about. After watching the “in memory” video, I went and pulled some tabs off the site, so that I could force myself to get better, instead of just thundering away on chords.
    Genial Harpes… awesome.

  4. Iain April 8th, 2009 7:53 pm

    That was really a really nice post.

  5. Woodshed April 8th, 2009 8:56 pm

    Thanks, guys. I was nervous about getting this one right. Glad you liked it.

  6. JCMcGee April 9th, 2009 12:25 am

    Lovely post.

    I had mailed John and had a wee yap about Bach, Eleanor, my girlfriend, taught herself piano using a Bach book and it’s one of my wee pleasures in life listening her play it…we watched John’s videos together and Eleanor said “Oh…THAT’s how it’s supposed to sound!”


  7. ronhale April 9th, 2009 2:09 am

    There’s a nice photo of John with James Hill, both with ukes (John with a Fluke), sitting casually together outdoors at the 2004 Nor. Cal. Uke Festival in Hayward. One of my favorite uke-world shots, you can’t help but wonder what they were chatting about.

  8. Jim Tranquada April 9th, 2009 2:42 am

    Al: Thank you for mentioning John the historian. As his co-author on some journal articles, book chapters, and an upcoming book on the history of the ukulele, I can vouch for John’s meticulous, omnivorous, obsessive approach to research. He worked as hard on his history as he did his playing — and his knowledge as a working musician proved to be a perfect BS-detector when peeling back decades of mythology. His intimidating musical skills also provided me with a perfect excuse for not improving on my three-chords-and-out approach to playing — why bother, since I’ll never be able to match John. I can’t tell you how much I miss him. Jim T.

  9. Tamster April 9th, 2009 3:17 am

    Great post. He seemed like a great guy. I love the song Ahe Lau Makani on his Royal Hawaiian Music CD.

  10. todd April 9th, 2009 5:20 pm

    “His intimidating musical skills also provided me with a perfect excuse for not improving on my three-chords-and-out approach to playing — why bother, since I’ll never be able to match John. I can’t tell you how much I miss him. Jim T.”

    this is beautiful and full of great humor at the same time….

  11. Terry Truhart April 9th, 2009 7:02 pm

    Mahalo, Al

    “You can be classy on the uke” Yes, and John King proved it.
    His music brought a whole new level of class to the ukulele.

    A great tribute to a master uke player, John King. RIP.

    Mahalo nui loa, Al

  12. Minamin April 10th, 2009 5:42 am

    As easy as he made it look, my favorite video of him is this one shot by Mike DaSilva:


    There was something incredible for me about seeing him so loose, just practicing, messing up and laughing. This was way more impressive to me than all his flawlessly played classical pieces.

    He was the master.

  13. Woodshed April 10th, 2009 7:12 am

    Jimmy: His playing does make me wonder if Bach intended some of his stuff to played on the ukulele.

    ron: Judging by James’s obituary, they were discussing boobs.

    Jim: I can’t wait to read the book.

    Tamster: Thanks.

    todd: Agreed.

    Terry: Thanks. Appreciate it.

    Minamin: Thanks for the link. Gives hope to us all. He’s playing the five string uke that turned up on eBay in that clip.

  14. Alec March 10th, 2010 4:20 pm

    I just had a true campanella epiphany, months into his book. I suddenly realize what I can do with all the songs I’ve arranged too. Every time one of my arrangements (or other people’s arrangments I play) sounded awkward (plunk plunk, same note and or same string), it could be fixed with a little Campanella. Sometimes it’s actually easier. Thank you, ukulelehunt.

  15. Woodshed March 10th, 2010 5:01 pm

    Alec: Thanks. I think it’s definitely a great way to play the uke. Really takes advantage of the re-entrant tuning.

  16. Jim Tranquada Interview: Ukulele History | Ukulele Hunt August 25th, 2010 6:01 pm

    […] Tranquada has just completed a book on ukulele history that he and John King were working on at the time of his death. He’s also on the board of the Ukulele Hall of Fame, […]

  17. Amy King Majer April 30th, 2012 9:53 pm

    Can’t recall if I have read or commented on this article before…but came across it today. Very lovely tribute! Made me smile. I have to admit that the top ten I learned from John King aren’t exactly the same! The boob thing was a suggestion from Pepe Ramero, I believe.

  18. Woodshed May 16th, 2012 11:25 am

    Amy: Thanks very much!

  19. Mike Warren October 20th, 2012 3:09 pm

    I recently just found out about JK when a friend of mine said I have a Ukulele book you can have. WOW! I have never looked back. I’m best part of the way through The Entertainer that John published in his second classical Ukelele book. Oh how I would have loved to have met him. A very rare and talented guy. RIP John King. Never to be forgotten.

  20. Emma June 3rd, 2013 9:27 pm

    Many of these links to Kings work aren’t working anymore (All of the History of the Ukulele stuff) – perhaps the pages have been taken down??

  21. Woodshed June 4th, 2013 7:19 am

    Emma: Argh! It looks like the site has moved and they’ve only redirected the homepage. That’s a pain in the arse.

  22. Gerald Stewart September 15th, 2013 11:17 am

    At age 69 I am continuing to learn how to play on the uke and other stringed instruments such as the 5-string banjo which has tuning like the Braguihna.

    I was impressed by John King on the Braguihna and I was pleased that my playing style over the years has been heading in the direction he has gone.

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