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Interview with Matt Hicks

Over the coming months, I’m hoping to interview various people from the ukulele world and feature them on the Noah Ukuleles blog.

First up is Matt Hicks. For anyone who doesn’t know him, Matt is a very talented musician, performer and songwriter as well as being a thoroughly nice chap (not to mention a Noah Ukuleles endorsee) – so a great person to kick things off!

Growing up, what kind of music were you into and did you play any instruments?

I would say my exposure to music influences were fairly eclectic. Both my Mum and Dad were massive country fans of Jim Reeves and Kenny Rogers with a little bit of Boney M thrown in. Elvis was the king of all music of course. So my first influence, I suppose, was that basic country chord structure which I gravitate to quite a lot. My folks were also very religious so a lot of my childhood has been influenced by Gospel music.

My first instrument was the guitar. My older brother and I started pretty much at the same time. I was aged 10 and my dad had always had a guitar lying around the place. He was a master of playing songs around the C chord (should have been a ukulele player) so by the time I started at school this was like a dream come true.

My brother very quickly got into hard rock, Bon Jovi, Europe, Meatloaf. He became a master of shredding which was something I couldn’t get my head around. My guitar teacher kept it very basic so essentially I learnt how to play chords without really learning the theory behind it. Much like my dad, therefore, I began playing by ear which is how I’ve pretty much continued through my music life. That said, I am now a little more swept up on theory which has brought music alive in a massive way. So without being able to shred or being that brilliant at working out my favourite songs, I began writing my own from an early age.

During my teenage years I fell in love with The Cure and The Smiths. Johnny Marr became my guitar hero and Morrissey was a bit of an idol. That man ruined my adolescent years!!! Marr and Stephen Duffy became a massive influence on my guitar playing, working melodies out from chord structures. And as I got older, Crowded House and especially Neil Finn became an overwhelming influence on my music and song writing. Morrissey by this point was a sad old man with nationalist tendencies whom I left behind rapidly.

Why / when did you start playing ukulele? How did you find it in comparison to playing guitar?

This is a bit of a strange story I suppose. It all coincided with quite a sad time. I was rapidly becoming burnt out as a young lad who was rapidly realising that he wasn’t going to “make it” as a singer songwriter. I had gigged and gigged in venues where people really only wanted to hear Oasis covers and I had repeatedly felt I was failing to make an impression. Looking back, I realise now I was actually doing quite well in terms of building communities of musicians around me which is what music should be all about. Sadly young men and ladies like myself often miss that point. So it got to a point where I had pretty much put the guitar down and didn’t pick it up for years. I kind of swore I wouldn’t go back there again. A couple of years before that in 2006 though I was at an open mic night and two chaps got up with ukuleles. They were, frankly, bloody awful. The following weeks found me becoming obsessed as to why someone would pick up the ukulele and try and get a tune out of it. I ended up buying a cheap £15 uke and spent hours and hours on it trying to get a decent sound and kind of succeeded. One day I stumbled upon Jake Shimabukuro’s video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and was then totally obsessed. From that point I spent a couple of years learning to play proficiently up to the point where I put my guitar down.

In the absence of the guitar, I found I naturally started writing on the uke. There was something about the lack of two strings and a smaller fretboard that brought everything back to basics. It literally was almost like a creative rebirth.

There are a number of crossovers with the guitar and uke. Essentially on many levels the uke is the highest four strings at capo five on a guitar. But the technique of strumming, picking etc is a world away and the challenge of that caught me. It really was like learning a new instrument. Sure I could bang out songs on the uke in the same way as a guitar but learning the new right hand techniques totally captivated me. To that end the uke is very dissimilar to the guitar and I would suggest no guitarist who takes up the uke should automatically think it’s a given that they’ll be awesome on it.

How long did it take to develop that impressive claw hammer technique and have you got any advice for anyone who wants to learn this style of playing?

So claw hammer is one of those techniques that on paper is really easy. The process itself of doing the “bum ditty” is really straight forward. But learning claw hammer is involves almost a total rethink of what you’re doing with your left hand and chord structuring. The biggest mistake I made was to focus on what I was doing with my right hand. If you refuse to get your head around the hammer-ons and pull offs on the fretting hand, which are so essential to the technique, then  you shouldn’t bother.

So I watched YouTube, people like Aaron Keim, Lil Rev and James Hill endlessly for hours for about 4 months and then suddenly I got it. It all came into place and I began writing songs with it.

I think it was about 3 months later when I had begun to tout myself as a bit of a claw hammer expert that I quietly realised that the picking pattern I was using wasn’t claw hammer at all. It was similar but not claw hammer. I had to then re learn it and take back all I’d said. At the end of the day, the technique is secondary to whether or not you’re enjoying playing and getting a decent tune out of it. For those curious, I did learn claw hammer properly and have written a few songs since.

A little while ago, whilst I was beating myself up about my fake claw hammer period, Phil Doleman told me the story of Pete Seeger. Seeger was a renowned songwriter and banjo player who taught for decades about claw hammer until someone came up to him and told him that what he was teaching wasn’t claw hammer. That made me feel a lot better.

As well as performing, you’ve also put on some workshops at festivals in recent years. Do you enjoy teaching the ukulele and is it something we might see more of from you in the future?

I try and avoid putting myself across too much as a teacher. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve taken myself on a journey to learn all the music theory that I didn’t learn in my formative years of learning music. I like to think of myself more as a facilitator. But within the structures of my lessons and workshops I really enjoy enabling people to find direction and expand their experience of making music. Much of what I teach is little tricks that have helped me over the years. One of my favourites is “how to jam without using song sheets”. Essentially this work shop covers the basics of relationships between different chords. I have learnt loads about this as well from Matt Stead and Phil Doleman and now my workshop is a little more theory based, going through the circle of fifths on a basic level. I also mix it sometimes with basic bluegrass/country strums and picks and claw hammer if people are up for it. I am looking to sandwich performances over the next few years with workshops and that building communities of musicians.

You set up Uke to Bridge a few years ago, which has been hugely popular in the online ukulele community. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, what exactly is it and can anyone join?

So a couple of years ago I became really bored with online ukulele Facebook groups. They became full of five minute uke playing experts who were touting bad habits and false information and I craved a group that wasn’t affected by this. I noticed there were a lot of people who could play but were really nervous about performing. I took a few months to work out how I could create the safest place on the internet to perform and receive constructive and warm feedback. Essentially Uke to Bridge is a group which sets a challenge every month with quite a narrow set of criteria. So one month we’ve had “sad songs” another “happy songs”, “Indy songs”, “Country”. So far we haven’t run out of themes. I started it with prizes from notable judges like the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, but then with the aim of becoming more inclusive, I have moved away from too many prizes and less judging. What we have is a group where, I feel, everyone has a sense of ownership through recognition that it is a very safe place to play your uke or even just listen to people play. There are relatively strict rules, but they’re not oppressive and it weeds out any false information or teaching of bad habits. Literally anyone can join provided they answer the questions in the application and agree to the rules.

In the past few years, you’ve appeared at numerous festivals as a solo uke performer. However, your latest musical project – Matt Hicks and The Stolen Hour – is a bit of a departure from that. Could you tell me a bit more about it?

I still perform solo and 2020 sees me performing predominantly as a solo act. However a short while ago I got together with a group of the most talented musicians I know. We have a few different outfits that we step out as but we increasingly found ourselves drawn to playing uke songs. So Matt Hicks and the stolen hour is a basic 4 piece band playing my original songs and old covers with drums, violin, bass and uke. It works really well and proves my theory that the uke works exceptionally well as a folk instrument. Sure you probably couldn’t join a thrash metal band with a uke but as a folk/bluegrass/country band instrument it really holds its own. We are really pleased to be debuting at Winchester Ukulele Festival this year.

What plans have you got over the 12 months in terms of your music / the uke?

That’s a really good question. I leave the Navy this year after 22 years. I have a civilian job to go to as an Intensive Care Nurse but I’m hoping that the stability of not having to deploy every year will free up a lot more time to teach and perform. I am probably going to give my guitar a bit more attention in 2020 so my set outside of Uke Festivals will be an interesting balance between guitar and uke. My overall plan this year is to spend time with my family but also really build on those musical friendships and collaborations that I’ve promised to do but never had the time to. So in terms of music, I haven’t really got a strategy. I learnt a long time ago that to have too many aims imposed on music can really limit where you end up. Sometimes you have to re define success and I think 2020 will be a year of celebrating that.