A project that started a year ago has become somewhat of an addiction for Larry Vitalo. Now through the middle of January, the 56 year old from the south side of Chicago will have his handmade cigar box ukeleles on display at the Harrison Works art gallery in the Arts District of Oak Park, IL. Harrison Works owner Elizabeth Gaylord, who painted several of the ukeleles herself, was kind enough to open her doors for our conversation with Larry.
Light Post: So, who is Larry Vitalo?
Larry Vitalo: (Holding one of his handmade cigar box ukeleles, and smiling) Just your friendly neighborhood ukelele player I guess.
LP: How’d you start playing?
LV: My brother-in-law bought his son a ukelele in Hawaii, and at that time I had just heard “IZ” (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole) play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” And we were coming home one day from Wisconsin and it was 10 below zero out and it comes on the radio, and I thought , oh what a magical song, and so my ear started leaning towards ukelele a little bit. So when he brought back a ukelele for his son, who’s a guitar player, I said great, I’ll get one and we’ll learn together. Well he lasted about two weeks on it, and I never put it down since I got it. I felt it was very accessible for me, and more a joy to play than the guitar.
LP: Who are your musical influences?
LV: (Sighs) Muddy Waters. Chicago blues, mostly. The first time I saw Muddy Waters years ago, it was amazing! So ever since then...I mean, we always listen to some blues. I can’t play it great, but I just really like that sound, that powerhouse Chicago blues style. Then I went backwards and started liking all the old blues guys like Robert Johnson and Son House, and I liked seeing where it developed from because when it hit Chicago, it got electric and it got gritty and it got really cool sounding.
LP: Are you influenced by anything outside the genre of blues or folk?
LV: Oh, everything! You know, I listened to a lot of soundtrack music. I really like Bernard Herrmann, he did a lot of the old monster movies, a lot of the Hitchcock stuff. Its more dark, more subtle. He fascinates me. Back when I was younger, guys like Mike Oldfield who did ‘Tubular Bells’ from ‘The Exorcist’. I’m not as influenced by it now as much as I was, but I’ve always like soundtracks. You could always daydream off on your own or create some scenario in your head.
LP: What is it about the sound of the ukelele that drew you to it?
LV: The ukelele...its just, bright. And with my ears getting older, six strings sounds really muddy to me cause you’re doubling up on a lot of the notes that you’re playing when you play chords. So these four-string and three-string instruments are really clear, so it sounds good.
LP: What made you want to build your own guitar?
LV: Well, I saw this guy, we were up in Wisconsin and he was playing in front of a coffee house. And he was playing a little three-string cigar box guitar. So I see him and he had a couple guys with him, so I went out and we were talking, and he says ‘They’re really not hard to build.’ So I went online and I got a couple books, and I just got them and I looked at them. And I am not a carpenter. I’m not a craftsman, and I never was. But I looked at it and said, I think I could do this. And the first one I made, (knocks on the table) it sounded good, so I was inspired by that and made this one (taps the one he’s holding). And it just starts to get addictive, and I start to think I could make one better and I can make one different, and then you just start getting these ideas.
LP: How many have you built?
LV: I’ve lost count, I’d have to go back. But after this show, its probably near 40, I think altogether. And I just started a year ago, it was October 30th when I finished that one (points to one hanging on the wall).
LP: What’s the story behind these guitars?
LV: (Big smile) Every one you make, you got it and say this is my favorite one and I’m gonna play this one for a while. But my wall was full at home from building these. And I showed Liz and we were talking and I said would be you interested in maybe painting the front of one or two of these and hang them in your gallery, and maybe we could sell them. And Liz was great, she was like well how about we make a show, we’ll have a whole show. And I was like...OOOKAAY. And then I was just in the garage, I didn’t stop.
LP: What’s more gratifying for you...creating the instrument or creating the sound?
LV: Boy. I would have to say creating the sound. But its nice to be able to sit down with something that you’ve made and put together. The first time I strung that thing and tuned it up, I’m like I don’t know what I’m gonna get out of this. And then I start playing it and I think, OK I made this, this is kinda neat. So its both, but I’m a player before a maker. But I like doing both. Its a double addiction (laughs).
LP: Its gotta to be 10 times gratifying playing on an instrument you made.
LV: It is. I mean, I have a nice ukelele collection, a few nice guitars. But I play these most of the time, you know?
LP: Is it because you made it?
LV: Sometimes, and its the sound too. The sound that comes out of them. Like I said, my ear goes more towards the bluesy stuff. So you plug these things in, put a slide on it, and I could just sit for hours and just get lost in it.
LP: What’s your vision for what you’re doing? Is there a purpose to building these?
LV: (Smiling) Spread the fun. Its the joy of making it, the joy of playing it, and its joy when somebody else gets one. I mean I make them for presents and that. When somebody gets one, they just get lit up by it. So in a small way, I’m spreading the cigar box sound and the ukelele sound a little farther out. Like you say, you never know who you meet and what happens with it, so thats really cool in my mind.
LP: You seem pretty passionate about it.
LV: You know, its been such a joy in my life to play these things, and now to make them. But its not just getting people to listen to music. There’s so many great musicians...there’s great musicians up and down this block here. People are out here, they gather sometimes. Its neat to see people not have to walk around with a boom box or an MP3. They’re making music themselves, and that’s really cool.
LP: What’s the next challenge for yourself in creating these instruments?
LV: I had some one-stringers on the wall, some diddley-bows. And myself and Liz, Liz is gonna play the theremin and I’m gonna play the diddley-bow. And we’re gonna do a little recording just to see what this thing sounds like. Its just a different interest in sound of music, something like a soundtrack. Something that’s not for everybody, and might not be for most, but its...let’s say sound exploration.
LP: Ok, so if you can only cover one song on a cigar box guitar that you’ve built...what song do you choose?
LV: I’d have to think forever. I actually can’t play it because I can’t sing it, but its ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’...I don’t have the voice. I just love that song, its a beautiful song. I was working on a jazz style instrumental of it, but its elusive for me.
LP: And if you could play alongside one of your musical idols, who do you play with?
LV: That’s a tough one. That would be like Muddy Waters or Jake Shimabukuro, I love him. He’s an awesome ukelele player. But I mean, (laughs) I have no business being anywhere near those guys.
What does a cigar box ukelele sound like? Watch an exclusive video of Larry Vitalo playing one of his handmade cigar box ukeleles on the Music page!