Mya-Moe Ukuleles puts the four-stringed instrument back on the musical map
When Gordon Mayer first set up a shopping cart on his website where he sells his hand-made ukuleles, he initially thought it would be a “technical challenge,” but when he got an order the very next day, he knew he was onto something. Mayer, who heads up Mya-Moe Ukuleles with his wife Char, just sold his 500th ukulele and shows no signs of slowing up. He now takes orders from around the globe and over 100 professional touring musicians play his ukuleles. Advocates such as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who just released an album of tunes he plays on the ukulele, and Dave Matthews have spurred renewed instrument in the funny four-stringed instrument. We recently spoke to Mayer via phone about his burgeoning business. Here’s what he had to say.
You and your wife founded the company in 2008 but you initially started making guitars, right? How’d you acquire the skill to make guitars?
I started making guitars as a hobby. I played some piano when I was younger, but I always wanted to learn guitar. I bought a guitar and bought another one and I was semi-retired. At that rate, I figured I would have to go back to work. I thought it would be a cool challenge to build a guitar. That was maybe eight years ago. I taught myself how to build a guitar and there are lots of DVDs and books that tell you how to do it. We’re lucky to have great musicians who live near us who could try out my guitars and give us some musical direction. In the end, I made 23 guitars and mandolins over a five-year period. I wanted to make more than a few a year because I really enjoy doing it. I just don’t think the world needs another guitar builder. There’s Martin and Taylor and Gibson.
I think it was Moe Dixon who initially asked you to make him a ukulele and got this ball rolling. What is the story there and how did you know him?
He asked if I would build a ukulele. I’m not sure I had ever used ukulele in a sentence before. I don’t think I knew how to spell it. My vision of a ukulele was Tiny Tim and it was a joke instrument. I said to Moe, “I do serious instruments.” He said I should research it on the internet. He wanted a resonator and I researched it overnight and realized that you couldn’t buy one. I couldn’t find high-end ukuleles. It became obvious that it was a different market. There wasn’t a Taylor, Martin or Gibson. It was a different landscape and I said I would build him a resonator and non-resonator. By the time I was done in 2008, enough of the local musicians had heard I was making one, and they wanted one. We had a few things happen to us right then. We went to a festival in Portland and all these enthusiasts were there. I thought, “I want to build for these people; they’re fun.” They were a lot more fun than guitar players. You pick up a guitar and get all-serious. There’s an expectation how you should play it. With a ukulele, there are no rules. We were at a music store in Portland, Oregon and a guy walked in right off the street and gave me a check for one that was half finished. We put up a Google ad and we got an order the first day it was up.
You then realized there wasn’t a notable ukulele manufacturer and that you had a golden opportunity. Why do you think that is the case?
I think we hit it right at the right time. There were two large ukulele booms that happened less than a hundred years ago. They kind of went away and with them people like Martin stopped making them. When we hit, it was still new enough that nobody had discovered. There’s big makers, all made in China and distributed here. For guitar makers, it’s a different business model if they put time and money into the instrument and it sells for half the price. It’s not an attractive business model for them.
How difficult was it to get the company up and running and to learn to make different styles of ukuleles?
I’d say in ways, we still haven’t mastered it. We finish one every day we go to the shop, and we set up our shop as a production line and I feel like we’re continually analyzing what we’re doing and adjusting it. It took awhile.
Talk about what your wife, who initially had no woodworking experience, brings to the table?
Well, I think that’s our hidden asset. Early on, I said I need my own shape for my head stock. I want people to recognize the shape. She was doing shades for window coverings and she showed me a design for our signature headstock design. I said, “That’s ridiculous. I don’t know to make that. It would take me forever.” She told me how she does it on sewing. She’s responsible for our design and right after we went to the festival and had that initial demand, I thought I could build three a week and I need someone to help me. She said, “What about me?” I said, “You’re talented, but you’re afraid of the band saw.” She said, “There must be something I can do.” Within a month, she was building the bodies on her own. She does the bodies, and I do the fret board and finish the binding. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you can get very creative. She is singer, so she has a great ear. With our tops and backs, she measures each one precisely at multiple points so we’re very consistent. In other ways, she can be very experimental. I don’t know many people who have hand built instrument bodies without fancy machines and innovation. She brings a lot to the table.
I know there are different styles of ukuleles but are no two ukuleles alike?
Well, yes and now. Wood is organic so to the extent that not two people are alike and no two snowflakes are alike, no two ukuleles are alike, so there are a lot of similarities. We don’t vary the design once we’ve settled on it. The thickness on top and back is done by hand and our job is to understand the destiny of each set of wood and help each one reach its destiny. Our job is to understand the destiny of each set of wood and help it reach its acoustic destiny. It’s like if we tried to make every single person into a basketball player. But you can find each person’s different specialties and where they excel and that’s what we try to do with each piece of wood.
To what do you attribute the instruments recent rise in popularity?
I think there are two groups driving it. In a lot of schools, the kids will start their music programs on the ukulele rather than the recorder. Kids naturally are attracted to the instrument. The other area is adults who are 50 years old, plus or minus, and they regret at having given up music in their teens and they look at professional musicians and they want to be that. They want to be on stage and there are hundreds of groups that get on stage and jam. We are in a rural area and we have two groups here and they all have their songbooks and they sing and strum and they have smiles on their faces and they’re convinced they’ll be the next big hit. They wanted to make music and now they can.
What about someone like Eddie Vedder?
I think there are different reasons. In Eddie’s case, he’s not a newcomer to the instrument. He’s very passionate about it and has been for a long time. Because of his recent record, people who don’t know his background think he’s jumping on the bandwagon. I’ve also heard people say he is the reason it’s popular. I don’t think either one of those is correct. He’s wanted to show what the instrument can do. When you write songs on that instrument, you can’t cut corners. With four strings, it forces you to have a very solid structure. It strips everything down to a basic level. A lot of the mainstream people, like Dave Matthews, he’ll say that it opens up a creative avenue for him. I think there are musicians who maybe feel stuck and it unsticks them. It certainly provides tones in a part of the spectrum that you don’t normally hear. It cuts through the mix. I like seeing that three or four years ago, people used to say they were ukulele players. Now, it’s used as a tool — just like a guitar or mandolin — where it should be. It might just be one lick or one solo on an album. It provides a dimension that people haven’t had before. It’s so portable. People like Mumford and Sons and Florence and the Machine are traveling on tour buses and they can take their ukulele on the bus with them and jam on it. That shouldn’t be overlooked.
How long do you anticipate you’ll continue to keep working and making ukuleles?
I think it’s going to be awhile. I don’t even think of myself as retired any more. We have two other people who work for us now. I think Char and I put in between 60 and 80 hours a week. Most of that is because we do everything in the business, even the web site. All the customer service and YouTubes, too. It’s very consuming. I think we’re at a point where we just celebrated our 500th and we have to ask, “How many will we build?” We came up with the number 3000. But now we are of the opinion that we created something and would like to see it continue. I don’t know to make that happen. We love it. Every day we go to the shop and we’re still charged up, and every instrument is unique and different. We know all our customers, even if it’s just email. You can deal with meeting one new person a day.