On a string and a prayer: How a Sheffield shop helped ukuleles strike a new chord

SHEFFIELD — If you've noticed there seems to be a lot more people playing ukuleles than there used to be, you can blame that on Dale and Phyllis Webb of Sheffield.

Tracing the ukulele's resurgence in popularity after the happy little guitar's appeal dipped from a post WWII-high in the 1960s leads right back to the Webbs' basement in 1999 back when they lived in Hartford, Conn., according to ukulele virtuoso, musical historian and author Ian Whitcomb.

Challenged by his brother-in-law, Jim Beloff, a musician and early adopter of the ukulele, to create a quality uke that could be purchased outside of Hawaii, Dale Webb set to work consuming everything ukulele-related: books, recorded music, actual ukes.

He used his skills as a veteran of the molded plastic industry to create a black plastic back of a ukulele. It was the invention of the molded backboard that has allowed Webb to keep the price of the instrument down while dialing up the awesome on the front boards and designs, fretboards, strings and necks.

Dale Webb named his new design the Fluke. It's a bit larger than concert ukuleles and produces a louder sound than traditional ukes. Flukes can be recognized by their unique silhouette and vivid front board art.

"There's a lot of interest that people have in this business. People are passionate, whether you're dealing with ukulele fans, players or performers," Dale Webb said. "It's a good business to be in. The ukulele has grown in popularity beyond our wildest dreams."

Magic Fluke makes about 4,000 ukuleles and other stringed instruments a year. The pieces are sold internationally in around 100 stores, Webb said.

From 2009 through 2014, the most recent information available from the National Association of Music Merchants, the number of ukuleles sold annually doubled from about 500,000 to 1,000,000. People in the U.S. spent $74 million on ukuleles in 2014, up from $33 million in 2009. Still, the tiny guitars — first developed in Portugal, but popularized in Hawaii — only make up 3.9 percent of the stringed instrument market, according to the music merchants association.

Dale Webb said Magic Fluke has been riding the highs and lows of ukulele popularity for 20 years, but this new life direction just sort of happened — a fluke.

Weary of the corporate world he was working in, Webb took his new design to a trade show to see if there was any interest in his new take on an old instrument.

He racked up more than 100 orders and this series of fortunate "eh, why not?" moments has led to the founding of the Magic Fluke ukulele brand, a new life for the Webbs, and a whole lot of attention from a growing ukulele fandom.

In a 2012 interview with Off-Ramp, a weekly Southern California arts publication, Whitcomb makes Beloff sound like a ukulele evangelical. Beloff took Webb's updated take on the ukulele around with him touring the West Coast, starting uke groups, and spreading the joy of the notoriously easy and fun-to-play instrument.

"There were various ukulele clubs that formed on the coast, we're going back 20 years, so it started here, gradually spread," Whitcomb said. "When the recession began, people could afford to play ukuleles; they couldn't necessarily afford to buy expensive instruments anymore."

In the Sheffield shop

Walking into the Magic Fluke on Main Street feels like you're entering Ukulele Graceland — bring a camera. Greeting people at the door is a wooden ukulele about eight feet high on loan from the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum in Rhode Island. On the right is a hallway of finished ukuleles hanging from the rafters and on the walls featuring expressive front boards with wild colors, intricate details and all kinds of themes, including Hawaiian. Color is added to the wood with a dye sublimation printer — the ink is injected into the wood instead of done in an overlay or with paint.

The ukuleles produced by this six-person company can get expensive — Dale Webb shows a ukulele with a front board made from difficult-to-get Hawaiian koa wood — but Flukes start around $200.

Dale Webb points to a few of Magic Fluke's newer products: violin, banjo and bass. Each one has the signature black plastic back of Magic Fluke instruments.

Maintaining a strong presence in the uke community means a lot of networking, going to trade shows and keeping the business local, the Webbs said. The couple use molders in Connecticut, and get wood and parts from the Berkshires as well as Vermont.

The Webbs are active in getting their Flukes into library instrument loan programs including those in Sheffield and Falmouth, as well as schools.

"They're durable and affordable," said Phyllis Webb, "which makes them perfect for students and numerous classes."

Growing with the niche industry has had its challenges, Dale and Phyllis Webb note. The hardest challenge, Dale Webb said, is as an owner of a small business, you end up doing everything for a job to get done; that means marketing, design, manufacturing, billing, accounting, permitting, purchasing, shipping, cleaning the toilets, everything.

"It's really, you just take it one step at a time," Dale Webb said. "We bootstrapped a lot. We went to tag sales and bought furniture, my dad built some of our work tables. He made parts for us, too."

The future of Magic Fluke is all about staying competitive, Phyllis Webb said. To that end, she took a small business course with Goldman Sachs and has plans to expand the instruments Fluke offers and get more Flukes into libraries and maybe hospitals and nursing homes, places where they'd be unexpected, but possibly helpful.

"They're such a happy instrument," Phyllis Webb said. "They're easy to pick up and learn."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at [email protected] and @kristinpalpini on Twitter.

Add Comment