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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/CARY JENKINS The Dogtown Ukulele Band jams out with Michael Rodman (from left), Jason Plaxco, Rick Lee, Joe Roitz, Hannah Moore, Mitch Vire and Deb Moore.

The band members are talking and joking with one another as they tune their instruments. A few beers are swigged amid the easygoing cacophony and, because these are musicians and because musicians seem to always be on the lookout for gear, there's mention of a deal found online for a used conga drum.

Soon, the tuning turns to grooving and the next thing you know a song -- "Feeling Alright" by Joe Cocker -- emerges from the swirl. As the evening progresses, the group will run through versions of songs by the Rolling Stones, Them, The Pretenders, The Faces, The Band and others.


The Dogtown Ukulele Band

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Have we mentioned that the union of players cranking out these FM rock radio nuggets is made up of a bunch of ukuleleists?

They are the Dogtown Ukulele Band, a seven-piece unit that kicks out the jams on little four-string instruments more commonly acquainted with Hawaiian music and "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

The group has gathered, as it does most every Wednesday, at the home of Deb Moore and her husband, Joe Roitz, in North Little Rock's Lakewood area. After a supper of tacos, cheese dip and salsa, they've eased downstairs to start rehearsing.


The rehearsal space is large and accommodating. Christmas lights are strung from the ceiling, a spare drum kit sits off to the side along with electric guitars, a keyboard, a mixing board and other sound equipment. Several ukuleles hang on a rack, and CDs and albums line a few shelves. Framed fliers from the group's gigs, crisply designed by Moore and featuring vintage black-and-white photos that bring to mind the art for early Smiths singles and records, hang on the wall.

Moore, 56, sits in a chair plucking a small electric bass ukulele, holding down the bottom end for the rest of the band, which includes her daughter, Hannah Moore, 32; Roitz, 57; Mitch Vire, 54; Michael Rodman, 46; Rick Lee, 48; and Jason Plaxco, 43.

Hannah Moore and Roitz take turns behind the drum kit, while the other members play ukuleles. Roitz and Vire handle the ukulele leads, with Roitz bent over his four-string, electric tenor guitar and Vire picking on an amplified ukulele.

Each member, save for Roitz and Deb Moore, takes a turn on lead vocals. Rodman also handles maracas and beats on a conga drum when called upon, like during the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil."

Deb Moore started playing guitar as a teenager and was introduced to the ukulele in her mid-20s by her stepfather. The roots of the Dogtown group can be traced back to her time at a low-residency graduate school at Queens University of Charlotte in Charlotte, N.C., where she studied creative nonfiction.

"You would go there four times a year to meet and do classwork," she says over tacos before rehearsal begins. "I took my ukulele, and I Johnny Appleseeded it to all the people in the school. Every time I went, we'd get together and have a big ukulele jam."

She wanted the same thing back home, so she and Roitz, who were living in west Little Rock, tried to get something off the ground. Nothing stuck until they moved across the river about three years ago.

"There's just a different vibe in North Little Rock," she says.

She posted signs at Lakewood United Methodist Church, where Roitz is communications director, and the response was immediate. About 25 people showed up to play.


The nonintimidating nature of the little ukulele and its four nylon strings make it an ideal gateway instrument for beginners, says Deb Moore, a retired college professor who works as a programmer for the Central Arkansas Library System teaching classes in Adobe software and writing.

"It's really easy to play all different kinds of music on a ukulele that might be more difficult to play on a guitar. It's a cool instrument, and it's a friendly instrument. No unhappy person plays ukulele."

Steve Evans, owner of Jacksonville Guitar Center, started a nine-piece ukulele group at First Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville last year.

"About half of the people in the band had never played anything before," he says. "We just play little three-chord songs and pick the easy chords. We've played seven or eight times in front of the church, and the beginners are picking it up really fast."

Ukuleles come in four sizes -- soprano, concert, tenor and baritone -- and besides being easy to play, they're also inexpensive. A good starter model can be had for less than $30.

Soooo ... they're easy to learn and pretty pain-free from a financial standpoint -- it's no wonder Evans has seen ukulele sales pick up.

"It's crazy," he says. "We've been in business 44 years, and 20 years ago we didn't have a ukulele in the store. Now we have 60, and at Christmastime we'll have 70."

Pop culture has also contributed to the ukulele rise.

You know how the story goes that everybody ran out and bought guitars and started bands after The Beatles debuted on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Feb. 9, 1964? The ukulele equivalent, Evans says, is the June 7, 2016, appearance by 12-year-old Grace VanderWaal on the 11th season of "America's Got Talent."

VanderWaal sang one of her own compositions, "I Don't Know My Name," while accompanying herself on ukulele. A clip of the performance has been viewed more than 97 million times on YouTube.

"It was so fantastic," Evans says. "It made everybody want one, but especially girls. Every 12-year-old girl has a ukulele now."

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/CARY JENKINS Joe Roitz riffs on his four-string tenor guitar.

NAN What's Up on 04/21/2019

Print Headline: Ukuleles, unite!

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