ROY SMECK: THE EDDIE VAN HALEN OF UKULELE PLAYERS

One of the many rumors passed around the Internet (imagine that!) concerns musician and ukulele player Roy Smeck, known as “The Wizard of the Strings.” It turns out that a lot of people seemed convinced that Smeck was actually Eddie Van Halen’s father and an innovator of “two-hand-tapping,” a method of playing a stringed instrument by tapping the strings with an object or your fingers. The technique has been traced back to the late 1700s, but as far as the popularization of two-hand-tapping, that honor belongs to Roy Smeck – a visionary ukulele player who rose to fame as one of vaudeville’s premier attractions. Smeck’s popularity was such that he was invited to play at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration celebration in 1933. Getting back to the popular notion Smeck was EVH’s dad…after the devastating loss of Eddie earlier this month, keyboard warriors started sharing videos of Smeck tapping away on his uke with lightning speed, with the caption “this is Eddie Van Halen’s father.” I suppose it was an easy mistake to make, given the skill level Smeck possessed, and its eerie similarity to one of Eddie’s calling cards, his blink-and-you-missed-it guitar tapping wizardry.

Ed’s real father, Jan Van Halen, was, of course, a great musician in his own right and mentor to both Eddie and Alex Van Halen. He was also born twenty years after Smeck in 1920. To my knowledge, Eddie has never credited Smeck as a source of inspiration for his style. Though he has given the nod to another musician known for his finger-tapping innovations, Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. In a 2012 interview with Ultimate Guitar, Hackett credited himself as being the “inventor of tapping on record,” which isn’t really true as guitarist Jimmie Webster was known for his tapping (or the sexy-sounding “touching”) technique, which you can hear on at least one recording, Webster’s Unabridged, from 1959.

Roy Smeck was born in 1900 in Pennsylvania. Starting at a young age, the future virtuoso would teach himself to play the guitar, steel guitar, banjo, octo-chorda (or “octachorda,” an eight-string steel guitar), jaw harp, harmonica, and his weapon of choice, the ukulele. While still in his early 20s, Smeck would become one of vaudeville’s most successful stars without uttering a single word during his energetic performances. Smeck preferred to dance for his fans while he frantically tapped on his uke. He’d also play it upside down with the same alarming speed and precision. His early exposure in vaudeville would lead to a myriad of incredible opportunities. His music would be featured along with the 1926 film Don Juan—the very first film to use Vitaphone sound-on-disc, which allowed both music and other sounds to be played in sync with the moving picture. His Pastimes, a short preceding Don Juan, featured an electrifying uke performance by Smeck would send his star soaring. The following year, he was approached by Jay Krause, the president of the largest string instrument manufacturer in the U.S. (at the time), the Harmony Company of Chicago. In a 1984 interview with an 84-year-old Smeck, he recalled Krause’s proposal that Smeck “produce” a Hawaiian guitar, uke, banjo, and guitar exclusively for Harmony. Smeck’s bosses at Warner objected to the use of the word Vitaphone for the line. Smeck and Kraus changed directions slightly by naming the various instruments as “The Roy Smeck Vita-Uke,” The Roy Smeck Vita-Guitar,” etc.

From ‘Dangerous Minds.’

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