Interview with Jerry Hoffmann of Boat Paddle Ukulele Company

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I recently had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Jerry Hoffmann. He runs Boat Paddle Ukulele Company of New Haven Missouri. Jerry has developed a ukulele that has a unique shape that immediately caught my attention when I stumbled upon his website a few months ago. I was so interested in his Boat Paddle ukes, that I commissioned him to build one for me. :)

Julie: How did you originally become interested in the ukulele?

Jerry: It was Joe Brown’s rendition of I’ll See You In My Dreams at the Concert for George in 2002 that did it for me. I think that was the turning point for a lot of people who hadn’t considered the ukulele as a serious instrument up until then. I went out and bought a cheap uke right away, but there was no way that it could sound as good as Joe Brown’s old Martin. After becoming frustrated at the quality of ukes available, I decided to build my own, and then the frustration of not being able to build a great ukulele inspired me to keep building them.

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Jerry with some of his creations

Julie: What prompted you to start Boat Paddle Ukulele Company?

Jerry: I’ve been self employed most my life and my interests have a way of turning into businesses. Fortunately my last interest-turned-business leaves me enough time to work on starting up another one. One of my earliest interests was woodworking but I never really knew what to do with it. I tried building furniture for a while but it wasn’t all that satisfying. After building several ukuleles I knew it was about to become a business. I like the idea of building and selling an item that is so much more alive and fun to use than a piece of furniture.

Julie: When did you start Boat Paddle Ukulele Company?

Jerry: Spring, 2005

Julie: How did you come up with your unique ukulele design?

Jerry: It’s a cross between a Fluke and a Hawaiian pineapple uke I guess. I love designing things and never gave a thought to starting out with a traditional ukulele, although I’m now thinking of offering one in order to give customers more options. Unlike other instruments, it seems anything goes when it comes to the shape of ukuleles. To me the construction of the instrument is just as interesting as its outward appearance. I’m fascinated by the things that can be done to effect the sound and playability of stringed instruments. There’s no end to what you can do when you think in terms of design rather than just traditional norms.

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Julie: Tell me about your new unique nut design with the pins?

Jerry: The design is inspired by the pins used in pianos. When I first noticed them I wondered if they would work on a ukulele or guitar. I made the first one using pins cut from 3/32″ stainless rod that was fit into a standard nut blank. It worked very well from the start and I’m still making them the same way. The advantage is that you don’t have to make a different size groove for each string gauge. In traditional nuts normal wear or using a different string gauge can cause the strings to buzz. Pinned nuts eliminate this problem and hold the strings in place just as well as a grooved nut.

Julie: Is that you playing the sound samples on your site?

Jerry: No, that’s Thom Pallozola, we get together occasionally to record my instruments. Actually Thom played a part in a sequence of events that led me to building ukuleles. We live in a small river town west of St.Louis Missouri that was first settled in the 1830’s. A friend of mine opened a liquor store in a historic building in the old part of the town and had trouble making ends meet from the beginning. In order to boost business, he started hiring bands from St. Louis to play on Saturday nights. (Thom was one of the musicians that played there). It still wasn’t enough to help his failing business and he was forced into closing the store. That meant the music which had gathered a loyal following would stop. My wife Janelle, a guitar player who was inspired to start playing again after a long hiatus, came up with the idea of turning the store into a non-profit organization run by volunteers. Around the same time, I was thinking about building instruments and told Thom about it. Seeing an opportunity, he offered to supply some old spruce he had if I would build him a ukulele. He still plays the ukulele I built for him on and off stage to this day. The non-profit has become an amazing success and it is where I make my recordings. Information about the organization can be found at http://www.riverfrontsociety.com/home.html.

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Jerry’s wife Janelle

Julie: Do you know of any famous or notable people that own and play one of your instruments?

Jerry: I’ve yet to sell an instrument to a really well known artist but there are a few lesser known musicians who own Boat Paddles. I already mentioned Thom Pollozola, He plays mostly electric and acoustic guitar, but always has his uke nearby wherever he goes. Steve Andsager plays lead guitar and ukulele for the Bait Shop Boys, he owns a long neck concert Boat Paddle. I’m also currently building a parlor guitar for Rich Berry, a well known Delta blues player from Kansas City.

Julie: How many ukes have you built to date?

Jerry: I’ve been building them for three years and lost count about a year ago at 45. My work is still done in small batches while I work on production techniques that will eventually speed things up. I’m mostly focused on refining designs I’ve already established.

Julie: Including your own personal Boat Paddle ukuleles, how many ukes are in your collection right now?

Jerry: I have four Boat Paddles ukes that I call my own and one mandolin.

Julie: What is your favorite uke to play?

Jerry: I really prefer tenors. I also like playing a good soprano or concert.

Julie: Besides building ukuleles, what are your other hobbies/interests?

Jerry: I primarily a designer and my work includes computer graphics, illustration and architectural design. Part of my time is spent publishing a how-to periodical focused on blacksmithing techniques ( www.blacksmithsjournal.com ) and doing architectural ironwork design and project management.

Julie: Thanks for letting us get to know you a little bit better and keep up the fantastic work. I can’t wait till you start working on my ukulele. Everyone stay tuned as I’ll be posting a series of progress articles as Jerry works on my custom uke. :)

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