Monday, April 27, 2015

It's a tiple

I finally made a short video of my other ukulele-family instrument, a 10-string "tiple." I'd like to think it was by popular request... usually phrased as "What the hell is that thing?"

The Martin guitar company made tiples for 30 years or more, using the same  combinations of woods they used for guitars -- all mahogany models, or mahogany or rosewood tiples with spruce tops -- but I see no immediate threat of a revival in tiple playing... although something inspired the Ohana ukulele company to produce this version. In Colombia there is a larger instrument by the same name, with some marvelous players. YouTube will find you examples of both.

(Video oops... for some reason, when I talk about the tuning and play the four open notes, I say "from top to bottom" while picking the strings from bottom to top! Sorry if that confuses anyone. More on tuning below.)

They were also made by companies from Regal and Harmony to D'Angelico. I haven't retrieved a copy of Mike Longworth's Martin Guitar history recently, but the folks at Mandolin Brothers did -- when they had a tiple for sale some years ago -- and said, "The Martin Tiple, Longworth says, was designed around 1920 from a somewhat larger prototype imported from Argentina by Mr. William J. Smith who owned a New York City music company that bore his name." They also included more details about the specific model, a rosewood-and-spruce T-28.

For a couple of years while the bookmarking service "Delicious" was in regular operation, I saved almost 50 bookmarks to Web pages about the instrument (including parts of the blog and YouTube videos of tiple players including the Spirits of Rhythm, the Cats & the Fiddle, Ed Askew, and more (at but the service has changed hands and has gone in and out of operation, while the internet archive preserved only a few of the links. So I have added a few more links below and will write other blog posts about interesting tiples now and then.

How "The Cats and the Fiddle" kept their instruments in tune with all the flipping and twirling in this movie clip amazes me. Perhaps Ohana needs to study 1930s Martins a bit more

The tuning is similar to a uke (or a guitar capoed at the fifth fret), but in four courses --
Gg-cCc-eEe-aa -- with the big letters indicating strings tuned an octave lower than the ones they are paired or tripled up with.

The second tune I play is one of my favorites, "I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate," using a chord progression folks of a certain age will recognize as being pretty similar to Country Joe MacDonald's "Feel like I'm fixin' to die rag."

So far the high point of my tiple career is introducing Nellie McKay to the instrument in a southwest Virginia theater lobby after a Mountain Stage concert recording session. (Be still my heart.)

In 2017 I added a few links to a Southern Virginia band with a rhythm tiple in a separate post here:

Here's another knowledgeable post about tiples, with some interesting discussion:

And a reissue of recordings by "Big Boy" Teddy Edwards, Chicago blues singer who recorded some solo tiple-accompanied vocals in the 1930s:

Here's a sample of Edwards' style on YouTube:

A couple of decades later, Timmie Rogers recorded a couple of TV scenes with a tiple that probably has been seen and heard by thousands, maybe millions, thanks to years of syndicated reruns of "Sanford and Son," where he played Smiley Rogers, a friend and singing duet partner of Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx)...

Finally, here is the only classical piece of music I've heard orchestrated for an ensemble that includes a tiple: GymnopĂ©die No. 1 - Eric Satie, arranged and performed by Russick Smith for cello, double bass, mandolin, tiple, resonator guitar, and banjo: