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For Ukulele Lovers, Small Is Beautiful

January 13, 2002|ANDREW VONTZ

The ukulele was the furthest thing from Steve Salardino's mind as he whipped his long hair around in the '80s to the goat-slaying sounds of Brit-metal avatars such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. But during a protracted period of unemployment in 1994, he was given a toy ukulele by his friend Eddy French. The pair would pass afternoons on French's porch with Salardino on uke and French slinging the banjo. "It gave me a way to express myself that was simple," Salardino says. "And small. And not too loud."

Today, the two now sling strings with Jason Holley and Salardino's younger brother, David, in Ukefink, a band joining pop songwriting with off-kilter acoustic arrangements using instruments such as the ukulele, banjo, National guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, pump organ, melodica, cymbals, drums and cardboard boxes.

Salardino, a 34-year-old Los Feliz resident who works at Skylight Books, has begun to accumulate ukes, which he cherishes for their sound and sentimental value. Ukes cranked out by renowned guitar manufacturer Martin during the craze that swept America in the '20s are prized today, but Salardino follows a simpler operating principle. "I could save $300 to buy a Martin, but I'd rather buy three or four $25 ukes," he says. "The cheaper ukes of yesterday sound better than the cheaper ukes of today." His collection features a koa wood Jonah Kumalae, a Waikiki and a Harmony toy uke with a plastic fret board that he got at a flea market for $25. More esoteric prizes include the Surfalele--complete with a long curved neck designed to be jammed into sand at the beach--that Salardino bought for $40 at a Hollywood junk store, and a Globe baritone resembling a miniature four-string guitar.

Salardino's approach to collecting reflects his aspirations for Ukefink, which don't include major-label yearnings. "I find the music industry to be completely satanic," he says. "I'd be happiest if everyone stopped buying records and picked up an instrument and played it."

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