I recently had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Heidi Litke and Aaron Keim. They both run Bean Sprout Ukulele Company, which builds the Bean Sprout banjo ukulele.
Julie: How did you both originally become interested in ukuleles and how did that lead to an interest in banjo ukes?
Aaron: When I first moved to Colorado I was mostly playing the upright bass, which is a pain to carry around and travel with. I got a job at the local music store and they had an old Martin ukulele on the wall. I played it everyday and fell in love with the ukulele! I liked how portable and simple it was and it inspired me to learn and create. I play in a five-piece band (Boulder Acoustic Society), so I was always looking for more volume without replacing tone. Along the way I have played some wonderfully loud wooden ukuleles including a National for several years and more recently two ukes by Mike DaSilva. But I never found a banjo uke that had good volume and good tone.
Heidi: It was in March 31st, 2005. My husband and I took a trip to Oahu and we stopped into a little shop called “Bob’s Ukuleles”. I knew very little about musical instruments and certainly nothing about the ukulele. Anyway, I started strumming primarily soprano ukuleles but far in the corner, way up high, there was one a little larger. I did not know at the time that it was a concert ukulele, but it sounded so much warmer than the others and I bought it for about one hundred and thirty dollars. When I returned home I found a ukulele group, learned to play there and finally moved on to direct the Denver Ukulele Orchestra. I am still not a music expert so finding a great musical director to run the music side of things was really key. It is a natural progression to start playing a banjo ukulele. It is so cool to be able to play two completely different instruments and not have to learn anything knew. They both play exactly the same way. A few different techniques such as a “claw hammer” strum and now you look really smart! Besides I just love both sounds, how can anyone resist!
Julie: What is the origin of the Bean Sprout Ukulele Company?
Heidi: When I first went out to find a banjo ukulele I realized that there was not really a good selection of quality ones out there. Most were cheap and sounded like it or you had to buy an expensive rebuilt vintage model or buy a custom banjo ukulele that cost a fortune and took months to get. I pretty much gave up at that point. That is when I met Aaron who was thinking the exact same thing. We decided to form Bean Sprout and build a good quality ukulele at a reasonable price and get it to the customer in a reasonable amount of time. I just retired and had owned many companies, so I had great business experience.
Aaron: As I said above, I was always looking for a good banjo uke, but the good ones seem to be vintage ones priced at over $2000! When I was on tour, I drove an overnight shift in the van and spent the entire night planning the Bean Sprout in my head. When we got to LA, I called Dan “Soybean” Sawyer and he let me spend the day going through his huge banjo uke collection. We measured and noted all the things we liked about various models of old and new banjo ukes and the design for the Bean Sprout was born!
Julie: How many Bean Sprout Banjo ukes have been built to date?
Heidi/Aaron: We have built close to thirty instruments, which are pretty much sold and we have the next ten being manufactured as we speak.
Julie: Do you know of any notable/famous people playing your instruments?
Heidi: Oh yes, James Hill owns one of our Bean Sprouts and also Chalmers Doane is taking one out for a test drive and will be letting us know what he thinks soon. And of course our own Aaron Keim of the Boulder Acoustic Society.
Aaron: And don’t forget Jake Schepps who is a famous bluegrass banjo player. I built him a bright green five-string Bean Sprout.
Julie: Including your own personal Bean Sprout ukuleles, how many ukes are in your collection right now?
Aaron: Since I am a full time performer, I only own things that are good enough to play on stage. Because I am a multi-instrumentalist, I don’t have that many ukes! Bean Sprout #1, a DaSliva #80, and a DaSilva #92 and a 1930’s Martin style 3.
Heidi: I have never been much of a collector, so my ukulele collection is small. My number one most used ukulele is a Palm Tree #12 Concert Koa. I play this one at least 4 hours a day and just love the sound that it makes. I also own a second Palm Tree #9 Tenor as well. Finally I have my sassy red stained Bean Sprout #2 that Aaron made for me. I love the warm sound and I play it every day as well.
Julie: What is your favorite uke to play?
Heidi: Well that is a loaded question! I should be saying my Bean Sprout of course! I really love my Palm Tree also. They are both very different instruments, with great unique qualities. I have two hands so you won’t get either from me!
Aaron: All of them.
Julie: What style of music do you enjoy playing most?
Aaron: I like to write my own music that draws from depression era American music: blues, gospel, folk, jazz, etc…
Heidi: I play a lot of old time songs with the Denver Ukulele Orchestra because we play at retirement communities. My love however is Folk and Irish/Maritime music. I live up on the east coast of Canada during the summer months on the island province of Prince Edward Island. We have very old traditional music in that area, that is very unique and not very well known. A lot of Irish music is played and mixed into this culture. It is very interesting.
Julie: Besides building ukuleles, what are your other hobbies/interests?
Heidi: Well Aaron is the builder. I take care of the business side of things. My hobbies include gardening, motorcycle riding, wine making, and snowboarding, golfing, astronomy, investing and of course playing the ukulele. I love to take long walks on the beach or curl up with a great book. I am never bored!
Aaron: Mostly everything I do is about music: performing, touring, writing music, teaching lessons, practicing, jamming, booking, marketing, publicity and building instruments. Besides that, I like vintage clothes, reading, hanging out with my wife Nicole and cocktail hour.
Julie: Thanks for letting us get to know you both a little bit better!