Story by Nick Welsh
Photo by Marty Osborn
Without doubt, Carl Villaverde is the reigning chop-monster of Santa Barbara’s ukulele set, but that may not be what sets him apart. Instead, Villaverde is that rare virtuoso who makes mere musical mortals imagine they too can really play. More than that, he shows them how. I speak from direct experience. As a certified weekend warrior of the fret-board, I’ve achieved limited dexterity as a musical noodler over the years, but, still, the simplest structures of even the most basic songs elude me.
Shortly after meeting Villaverde in his Carpinteria digs, he had me strumming along. First, the chords, then a quick lesson on the C-scale, from which I was to plunk the notes for what passed as my melody line. “Let’s jam,” he says, sitting on his couch, his black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Not surprisingly, one of the four classes he teaches at Santa Barbara City College is titled “Play the Ukulele Today, Not Tomorrow.”
“If I can play it, anyone can,” Villaverde says. “I’m not that special. I just play a lot.” That’s true, but it’s also not. Most people can never learn to play like Villaverde, no matter how many years they put in. He does slow-and-tasty to mouth-watering perfection. And the startling acceleration of his leads—which switch back rhythmically with knuckle-popping nimbleness—pack sufficient G-force to pin most listeners in their seats.
Little wonder. Villaverde was all but bred to be a ukulele wizard. He grew up in Hilo, where his father led a band specializing in romantic Hawaiian music of the Don Ho ilk. The schools he attended offered ukulele classes and ukulele marching bands. Added to Villaverde’s talent and background was a relentless, obsessive work ethic. Now 58, Villaverde has been playing the instrument almost non-stop since he was nine. Just weeks after he plucked his first string, Villaverde’s father entered Carl into a ukulele contest, where he placed fourth. After that, he all but owned the top uke prizes. As a child, Villaverde jokes, he practiced so much his father had to threaten bodily harm to get him to be quiet and go to sleep.
Villaverde picked up other instruments in high school—bass, drums and guitar—and has since mastered steel guitar and mandolin. His father wanted Villaverde to become a doctor. He attended medical school, but 18 credits in; he decided his true calling was music. “It broke my dad’s heart,” he says. But eventually, his father—who died two years ago—came around, “and became my biggest supporter.”
For 14 years, Villaverde teamed up with his brother in the band Mango. When his brother left, Mango continued in various incarnations, working hotels and recording. In 2002, the family moved to Salt Lake City for the Olympics. Afterward, the clan came to Santa Barbara in search of something new, something different. He landed a temporary gig at the Biltmore. Club gigs, he would discover, didn’t pay the bills, but rather provided venues for musicians to line up work playing private parties and giving private lessons. Today, Villaverde can be heard around town, playing regular Sunday afternoon sessions at Café Luna in Summerland. And he’s about to release the first of two CDs. And, of course, he teaches.
Throughout Villaverde’s musical career, the ukulele has been rediscovered so many times, you’d never know it had long been relegated—thanks, no doubt, to Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips—to the status of a running kitsch gag. Ukulele young-gun Jake Shimabukuro achieved supernova status by virtue of his astonishing pyrotechnics, and rocker Eddie Vedder is one of a long line of musicians who have embraced the ukulele. All over the country, ukulele orchestras and festivals are sprouting up, expressions of a new sweetly effervescent folk revival.
For Villaverde, there’s little mystery to the ukulele’s resurgent popularity. “Let’s face it, it’s player friendly, it’s small, it’s easy to carry and it has only four strings. No one has attitude about the ukulele. If you have a violin, you’re either good or bad. If you have a guitar, people have certain expectations of what you should be able to do. A ukulele, I swear it can do anything, but there isn’t that attitude, and there aren’t those expectations.”
All that is liberating for a multitude of would-be players looking to dip their toes in the musical waters without drowning in the seriousness of the enterprise.
As a teacher, Villaverde is, by reputation, both entertaining and demanding. His class is so popular, say SBCC officials, that the school added a new offering to accommodate intermediate players. “I tell my students that it will change their lives,” says Villaverde, “that they will play better than they ever imagined they could…If you can strum and count to four, you can make music.”