Ever thought you needed two functioning arms to play the ukulele? Think again! The Ukulele Strum Buddy is a device that allows the player to control a pick using a foot or knee.
I recently spoke to Tavit Smith, the man who dreamed of this amazing contraption. Tavit has had a fascinating career; he has worked as a psychotherapist, helped people with developmental disabilities, volunteered in prisons, opened group homes, and done some computer programming. On top of that, he helps people by sharing his love of music and his great enthusiasm for the ukulele.
Tavit played guitar as a child, and at age twelve, he played in a garage band. Though Tavit loves music, he described himself as a “terrible” guitarist. Later in life, he visited his son in Seattle and tried playing his son’s ukulele. Instantly, he fell in love with the instrument— it felt so easy to play. Tavit went home and immediately bought a ukulele for himself.
Not long afterwards, Tavit decided he wanted to play with other people. When Tavit moved to Florida, he asked the directors of his local library if he could host a jam session there. To his surprise, 32 players showed up to the first gathering! The group has been together for four years and now has 95 members. Tavit also started a group in Rhode Island which has 85 members!
It became clear to Tavit that playing the ukulele has a profound effect on people’s lives. People of all ages — even 92 year old beginners — love to play the ukulele. Then Tavit started thinking: What about Wounded Warriors? What about people who lost limbs from explosions and violence? What about people who lost limbs due to other circumstances? Could they play the ukulele, too?
Tavit wanted to create a device so that people with one functioning arm could play the ukulele. He had several stipulations in mind:
- Possible to make at home
- Cost less than $10
- Made of materials that can be found in third world countries
During a jam session in Rhode Island, Tavit asked if any players were engineers. He met Don Pillsbury, an engineer who agreed to work on the design for a ukulele adaptation. Over a summer, they tested several designs. The first one, which went over the neck, did not work. Eventually, they found a design that they liked.
The construction directions are available on Tavit’s website. Right now, Tavit and Don are working on a new and improved design. In the current model, the pick placement is fixed. Ideally, the pick angle would be different for upstrokes and downstrokes, so Tavit and Don are experimenting with ways to make strumming more expressive. Stay tuned to learn about new models!
Tavit does not want to make money from the Ukulele Strum Buddy, but he does want to give more people access to the ukulele. If you make a Ukulele Strum Buddy, please let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tavit would also like to have a user make a video demonstration.
Thanks, Tavit, for making instrumental music more accessible to people with physical disabilities! As Tavit says, “Bringing music into someone’s life is unbelievable.”