Instructor Jackson McLellan dives into his Workshop: Build a Ukulele for students of all ages. See the cigar boxes, ukulele kits, and more that students will use to create their own unique instrument.


Center for Musical Arts: Good morning, I’m Erica Reid. I’m with the Center for Musical Arts, and I love talking to our faculty about all the interesting lessons and classes that they offer. I have another separate interview about Jackson McLellan, who teaches ukulele and trombone and a number of different things with the Center. But today, I want to talk to Jackson about his Build a Ukulele class. How are you doing this morning, Jackson?

Jackson McLellan: I‘m good, thanks.

Center: So I saw, when we were looking at all the different summer offerings that we have, that you are offering a workshop to build your own ukulele. Can you just tell me a little bit about what that class looks like?

Jackson: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve had fun in the past making cigar box instruments, just using found material and pre-made kits to make little instruments. And I thought that would be such a fun summer activity, to show people how I do that. And so this camp would be two days where over two afternoons, how to build your own working ukulele, and you end up with a great instrument at the end.

Center: So this sounds really fun, but I would have no idea how difficult that is. Can you show me a little bit about the kits you’re working from and how that comes together? Would it be too hard for me?

Jackson: First question, definitely not too hard.

En el centro: Bien.

Jackson: So the wonderful thing about cigar box kits is we start with all the hard work being done by some manufacturer who made us a nice cedar box. That’s why we use these cigar boxes that are made of cedar, which is a traditional wood for any stringed instrument. They sound great. It’s easy to work with. So this takes out most of the hard work because we start with a pre-made box.

Center: And you’re providing those with the workshop registration?

Jackson: Yeah. You just show up, and we’ll have everything you need to leave with a ukulele.

Center: Okay, great.

Jackson: Yeah. And so we start with just a store bought box, just a regular old cigar box. I’ve used other types of little cedar gift boxes too. And then we use a company called Michael G Breedlove guitars, and he’s a cigar box guitar maker, and he makes these amazing, beautiful ukulele necks.

Center: Oh, okay.

Jackson: And this has all the hardware ready to go, everything in place, all the frets are there. The holes for the tuning pegs are already drilled. And they send out the hardware and a template showing you where to drill holes and where to assemble this thing on the box. So it ends up being more like an advanced set of Legos than a woodworking project.

Center: Okay. That’s really helpful. So in our description, I saw that there are two days, and on the first day, you’re doing the basic gluing, and on the second day, strings and decorations. Do I have that right? Am I missing any steps there?

Jackson: No, that’s right. The power tool work that goes into this is pretty minimal. We just need to make sound holes and one hole to attach this bolt in the neck into the box. So that’s all we need to do with cutting wood. We do that with a cordless drill, and then we do all the gluing on the first day, give that 24 hours, so it sets up perfectly and we have a nice strong glue joint everywhere we need it. And then the second day, we can do painting on the ukuleles. We can do staining, like a traditional wood stain. It’s really up to the student.

Center: And speaking of the student, you have this workshop listed as all ages, but then if you’re 10 or under, you’re going to need some caregiver help. Does that sound right, or is there sort of a sweet spot for who would enjoy this workshop?

Jackson: One thing I really am excited about is I think this workshop scales up with ages, with anybody. So if you’re curious… I’ve got some eight year old ukulele students that are interested in building one. They bring along a grownup to help with the power tools and things like that, and they’ll end up with a great instrument. I think a weekend warrior, a hobbyist, who thinks the idea is fun, someone who’s in their twenties, thirties and beyond, I think they would love this.

Center: Okay, wonderful. I like the Lego analogy. I think if it sounds fun to you to do a Lego set… And I love the weekend warrior idea too. So another thing that really caught my eye in the description of your workshop is that on day two, you will actually teach a little tune or two, so that I can actually walk out with my ukulele and play a song?

Jackson: Yeah, yeah, absolutely! So ukulele, one wonderful thing about it is it’s set up to be easy to have success very quickly. So with just using one or two chords, you can play a lot of folk songs, something you would play around a campfire. And so that’s the idea, is we’ll have enough time to get the instrument built on the first day, decorated and strung up on the second day. And then by the end of the second class, we’ll be able to go through a couple chords. And I’ve got a demo. This is a finished one I just did.

Center: Oh, I was hoping!

Jackson: Yeah. And it’s fresh. So the strings are a little…

Center: Let’s see it first. Can you hold it up for me first so we can really… Oh, she’s a beaut.

Jackson: Isn’t it cute?

Center: She’s a beaut!

Jackson: I found this box and it’s got a little teddy bear with a crown on it.

Center: Oh, it does!

Jackson: And I was just blown away by how cute it was. And so I just finished this one up. I’m not going to do any finishing on it because I love… just the sanded cedar looks so good. And all the stickers and everything, it just worked out. But yeah, I just finished this this morning. I got this ready to go, and it’s playable. Yeah.

Center: Will I be able to choose a cigar box? Will you have ones with different character to them?

Jackson: Absolutely. Yeah.

Center: Okay, wonderful.

Jackson: Yeah. That’s one of the fun things about this is you have very little say in what cigar boxes you’re going to pick up when you go get a batch. So you get a mix of… whatever. It’s always a surprise. And so you get really classic looking ones with the paper decorations, the things you’d be familiar with. And then you get really cute, funky things like this and everything in between. So it’s going to be a surprise. We’ll get a big batch of cigar boxes, and I think people will find something they like in that. And then of course you can decorate it to make it your own.

Center: That would matter to me. I would want mine to be cute. I would want mine to have a little Havana bear on it. [laughs] 

Jackson: Absolutely. That was priority one with this thing, is making it cute.

Center: Well, thank you. You’ve answered all of my questions. This sounds, like you said, really scalable for age and ability, and you’ll be on hand to help people out, and you’ll even teach them a little bit of music so that they can leave playing their instrument. I think that that is masterful. Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you think people should know about this workshop? Have we covered it all?

Jackson: I think so, yeah. It’ll be a quick run, just two days of fun building and you’ll end up with something that’s… Oh, I guess I should mention, the quality of these kits is high enough that you’re actually probably going to walk out with an instrument that’s of a better quality than store-bought ukuleles, usually.

Center: Interesting. Okay. Well, thank you so much. I will say to anybody who has any more concerns or questions to watch my interview with Jackson just about his teaching philosophy, because he is so fun and creative and passionate about just the joy of music that I think that that would really assuage any other fears you might have. Thank you again for spending time with us today, Jackson, and I hope your ukulele workshop goes really well this summer.

Jackson: Thanks so much, Erica.

Jackson McLellan’s Build a Ukulele Workshop takes place on Junio 17 & 18. Find more details and register here >