I once tried to build a personal reference library, but became disappointed and stopped. It seemed no matter what I wanted to find out, I didn't have the right resource. Encyclopedias and dictionaries were incomplete or out of date, and even the NY Public Library's Desk Reference series only very occasionally had what I needed. Probably because of the odd nature of what I was usually looking for.
After the advent of the Internet, I was a pretty happy clam. Then came YouTube, and eventually one could find even the very oddest music-related stuff, which I especially like (Indonesian rockabilly comes to mind). So imagine my distress when our Verizon equipment shuddered and died the other day, just as I was trying to find out about another obscure discovery. Scene: while Nancy was using the computer, I had been looking at a few magazines lying in a stack, spending a happy afternoon with last summer's issue of Shindig!, a dense magazine from the UK filled with things very old and very new, almost all of which you will never hear about. They're deeply devoted to psychedelia there (just the subject of commercialized nostalgia here, and little practiced outside of major cities).
I was intrigued by a review of a new album by Ed Askew of Connecticut and New York, as he was described as "the quintessential acid-folk obscurity." Game on. Even better, according to the reviewer, he hadn't issued anything since 1968 (I love that out-of-the-darkness return stuff). As further digging revealed, however, he's been very active since 2000 (the reviewers are enthusiastic and creative with language, but a little lacking in the accuracy and grammar/syntax departments), but his multi-instrumentality also caught my attention. In particular, that he played along with guitar, keyboards, harmonica and ukelele, a Martin Tiple.
That's when the TV and internet connection made gurgling noises and died. Nuts.
A traveling Verizon technician got our workorder and decided that since she was nearby and sensed our distress, stopped by several days before our scheduled appointment and promptly replaced the optical box inside (having already replaced four that day, she knew what the problem was immediately). After some resets, we were back in business. If it weren't 20 degrees and crusty with snow outside, we might have found other amusements, but in the dead of winter that fiber-optic connection with the world is worth a lot.
I found out that the Martin people made the Tiple (pronounced "tipple" here, but it is a Spanish word pronounced "tee-play," meaning "treble") from 1919 until sometime in the 1970s. There were nine or more models, most with ten steel strings and some with eight. You can spend years on Martin model and serial numbers and other production aracana, but you'll always finish more confused than when you started, so we'll leave it at that. Except -- there was only a single T-45 model made, in 1922, and it improbably survived the car crash which killed its owner and player (today it's worth over $15,000!).
So what is it? Manufacturers Martin and Gibson responded to the ukelele and banjo craze after World War I with many models so well made they usually sound great today. The Tiple was copied after a South American instrument that was solidly in the long Spanish and Portugese tradition; you can see the lute and those small gitarras in its look, but in Iberia, the Americas and Hawaii it evolved with a variety of shapes, sizes, sounds and tunings. The strings are in four courses: 2, 3, 3, 2, and usually in a D tuning (a, D, F#, B). Or so one site says. I found a lot of misinformation (like the word "tiple" meaning "little guitar") and typos at various sources, but you have to love a mystery that stays a little bit of a mystery.
(No, it's going to take a lot longer than five minutes to learn.)
Instrument maker Ohana is taking the place of Martin in the current resurgence of the ukelele family, and makes a model (TK-35G-10) out of mahogany for around $400. Take a listen to some performances on YouTube; it's got the bright jangle of a 12-string guitar and harmonics that will keep you more involved than a standard ukelele.