Ukulele revival creates the Magic Fluke

NEW HARTFORD/SHEFFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS — Dale and Phyllis Webb remembered when they were just starting out as a business. The Magic Fluke Co. began in the basement of their New Hartford home in 1998.

Dale had been laid off from his corporate medical-device engineering job, and he and Phyllis had three small sons at the time. The Webbs had been inspired by the latest ukulele revival and by Phyllis’ brother Jim Beloff, an accomplished ukulele player and publisher of sheet music. They realized that there was a dearth of affordable options when it came to the ukulele and other stringed instruments.

At the time, while trying to justify the expenses of a fax machine and an Internet connection, Dale constructed the first musical instruments using a combination of wood and plastic materials designed with acoustic performance and manufacturability in mind. He made the first prototype using thermoformed parts from the kitchen oven. Little did they know what would happen next.

Dale explained the origin of The Magic Fluke Co.’s name: “The name Fluke has the word ‘uke’ in it [short for ukulele], and my original uke body design was similar to the flukes of a whale’s tail, so we decided to call the first instrument the Fluke Ukulele. Adding ‘Magic’ [to the name], was just a whimsical association to Mozart’s famous opera - and in keeping with the musical theme.” He referred to Mozart’s 1791 work “The Magic Flute,” in which a prince is induced by a supernatural being to undergo trials of initiation, which he fails but is rewarded for anyway.

The difference between Mozart’s work and the Webbs’ is that Dale and Phyllis took a chance and succeeded. In January 1999, they showed their new type of colorful ukuleles at the National Association of Music Merchants show in Anaheim, California. NAMM is a national and international retail association whose members include commercial companies, distributors, affiliates and manufacturers.

“We were the only ukulele-exclusive exhibitor with three prototypes and a box full of Jim’s books,” Dale said. They went home with orders for dozens of instruments and production of the instruments’ back shell mold commenced.

In 2003, the company had grown out of the Webb’s basement and into a renovated, historic gas station in New Hartford. Today, the business produces about 4,000 musical instruments per year — more than 55,000 since its inception; has dedicated corporate and celebrity clients; and, since 2011, has been run out a tan-colored, 4,000-square-foot, timber-framed, solar-powered office in Sheffield, Massachusetts. In keeping with the town’s thriving arts and music community, the Webb’s products are uniquely-shaped, colorfully-patterned, and are sourced from local and U.S.-made materials. In going against the competitive, inexpensive import market, The Magic Fluke Co. has become a force to be reckoned with in terms of accessible prices and manufacturing.

“We are branching out,” said Phyllis. “We have an electric travel fiddle and an electric bass guitar. We are not just ukes anymore.”

Dale has said that plastics can have properties close to or surpassing the quality of wood. Also, an advantage of plastics is the ability to design complex assembly features and shapes into the molded parts that would ordinarily, in wood form, contribute to a high price tag. Dale said the musical instruments their company makes are consistent, high-quality, durable and affordable. The instruments’ faces’ water-soluble “trans-tint” dye yields such striking colors as sapphire blue, mango, hibiscus red, and citron yellow. Some are in sunburst patterns, others sport leopard prints. The neck and tops are made from a variety of woods, including walnut, maple, koa, and Adirondack red spruce.

“All the woods used are local, with few exceptions,” said Dale. “We use local shops for machinery and molding right in the Tri-State area.”

“The hybrid materials make it durable,” said Phyllis. “It is a go-to instrument for travel and for kids.”

In addition to their considerable celebrity and corporate sales, the company has provided instruments for the elementary-school band at Sharon Center School in Sharon.

Dale said, “Twenty years ago, ukuleles had very little of the market for instruments and for music, except for the high-end Hawaii stores.”

Compared with handmade, solid-wood, and high-end instruments priced at $5,000, Dale says their instruments start at $189.

“We took everyone by surprise,” said Dale. “We have a high-quality product that is competitive with China.”

Phyllis added, “We were at the forefront. Dale and I were responsible for the explosion of the market.”

Dale added, “In terms of manufacturing, we are the largest independent manufacturer.”

Their original instrument, the Fluke Ukulele, departs from the traditional “small-guitar” ukulele shape with its injection-molded thermoplastic and flat bottom, which means it can stand on end.

Phyllis said, “The uke is an affordable instrument that spans socio-economic groups and ages. Everyone from a little person to the elderly can play. It is great for people with arthritis.” She added, “It is affordable and accessible to everyone. The uke is a gregarious instrument that is incredible at parties.”

Although he does not play the ukulele, Dale said that years ago after meeting his brother-in-law, a renowned ukulele player and sheet-music publisher, Jim Beloff, Dale connected with the instrument immediately. Dale elaborated: “My background as a mechanical engineer has helped. I worked in medical sensory transducer design, with medical devices. Ultrasound is a great background for acoustics. It has helped me with material properties and design.”

Another of their popular products, the Firefly Banjo Ukulele, combines the ease of playing a ukulele with the distinctive twang of a banjo. Weighing in at less than one pound, the instrument is available in tenor, concert, and soprano sizes. “It was extremely well-received,” he said.

One of the company’s newer products, the Cricket Violin is a full-scale yet thin and aerodynamic-looking violin whose body is molded of glass-reinforced, durable thermoplastic. A viola scale is also available for this instrument.

Another of the company’s newer products, the Timber Electric Bass has a triangular cherry/butternut/ash body and a maple fingerboard. Designed by the couple’s eldest son, Josh, the instrument weighs about 3.25 pounds and is also available in fretless design. Dale described the creation of the guitar as a “challenge.”

Of the company’s array of instruments and their unusual shapes, Dale said, “By taking liberties with the materials and the shapes, it has made it easier to build. They are also more durable and portable. If a musician travels, you just plug in and perform.”

Phyllis also makes peace-sign-designed earrings sold in the store. The materials come from the leftover wood from the instrument-manufacturing process. “It is another part of using things up,” Phyllis said. “Nothing is wasted.”

Phyllis and Dale have been involved with their communities for years. Phyllis served as a New Hartford Selectman from 2007 to 2009. She and Dale were involved in the recent preservation efforts of Sheffield’s Dewey Memorial Hall, a local historical performance space dating from 1887. Dale was also involved in the Eagle Fund, a grant-making organization serving to promote educational opportunities to students and teachers in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

Dale said, “I like to design. I also design a lot of furniture, and I am working on a vehicle, a customized dune buggy, which has been a 15-year process.” The vehicle is a 1971 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.

Of their seven employees, Phyllis said there are three original employees since the company’s inception. Giving a tour of the expansive musical-instruments workshop in the building, Dale explained, “My whole career has been in Research and Development and manufacturing. So it has been a nice shoe-in to do our own thing using the same processes. I had known nothing about the ukulele. It makes one look out there and study the mechanisms and what is important to the player. We created a serious quality instrument that is appreciated by the professional player.”

Dale said their instruments’ different shapes and colors have attracted passionate customers, like singer/actress Bette Midler; actor William H. Macy; actor Tony Danza; and musician Jack Johnson, who all commissioned customized ukuleles. “A lot of bands have incorporated the uke into their music,” said Dale. “Like the band Beirut, which uses an original Fluke ukulele in the video ‘Elephant Gun.’” He added, “A lot of mainstream commercial music uses the uke.”

“Each of the instruments undergoes careful testing,” Dale added. “We have taken much input from musicians.”

It has been said that in 1879 the ukulele was brought over by Portuguese explorers to Hawaii, where the instrument was given as a peace offering to the islands’ locals. The locals thought the instruments’ players’ fingers moved like “jumping fleas,” hence the Hawaiian name for the instrument and its inclusion in the region’s musical history.

Phyllis said, “We have three kids, and they all like the ukulele. It is considered a cool instrument among younger people. With so many people today using technology, it’s pretty exciting that a group of kids on campus can be brought together by people playing such a low-tech instrument.”

The Magic Fluke is open Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Weekends and holidays are by appointment. For more information call 413-229-8536, email [email protected] or visit www.magicfluke.com.

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