It’s often said that fact is stranger than fiction. With this in mind what exactly are the chances of a bagpipe playing German ukulele builder, and a ukulele artisan of 23 year’s standing, working together at the foot of the glorious Welsh mountains?
Earlier this year I discovered the answer to this question for myself when I visited Pete Howlett and his assistant Tommy Ziegenspeck. I arrived at the workshop early one Saturday morning, which is at the foot of a quite breath taking mountain with (that day) a dusting of snow on the top. I had planned to interview both Pete and Tommy for a couple of hours, as I was mindful that it was the weekend and I didn’t want to intrude on their private time. I actually stayed for hours and quite frankly I could have kept going, if it wasn’t for having to get back to Leeds for other commitments. Pete’s generosity is also reflected massively in many other ways, including this year he is working with Uke magazine to offer a gift Howlett to a nonprofessional deserving player.
I started the interview by asking Pete about his philosophy for building instruments
“The reason I build ukes is I have a short attention span. I am 61 , I have Parkinson’s, I have an undefined future. What I want to do is to produce a product which people say “gosh that is so good “-which has that magic to it! I also get asked a lot of technical questions about what I do and I haven’t got an answer!
I failed physics as a kid and I can’t maintain my machinery because I don’t understand what they do I don’t understand science! I am not technical in the least which astonishes people!
In blues parlance it is mojo, in artistic parlance it is being that artist that enables you to put something together intuitively because you love what you do
I often quote Hokusai who is the Japanese print maker who printed “The Wave “. He made that when he was 73 and thought he was just about learning how to do it, and said by 86 he may have understood, and said at 90 if I am granted that-he may know what to do, and the idea is that effectively he is saying that it takes a long time to get to the point where you get to know what you are doing.  After about 22 years I am sure footed enough that I know what I am doing when I am doing it, but ask me how it works and I have no idea!
Holtzafel was an ornamental turner and he wrote a book called “An Ornamental Turning” and he said a really important thing- he said that the finish on the work is never as good as the finish on the tool- and if you link that with what Coleridge said -which is that poetry is the best words in the best order- you have the 2 principles about making.
Making is about taking the best materials that you have and putting them together in the best way possible, to respect those materials, to do the very best that you can, to take what God has created in my system, and make it as beautiful as it naturally is, and to make sure you have respect, not only for the materials, but all the tools that you use.
The idea is to always have in my mind the following when I come to work “hands to work hearts to God” This way you build for a perfect supreme being who is going to judge your work, so your peer is a perfectionist who is going to judge your work, so what would you do?
You would have to get it as good as you can. That is a quotation from the Quakers in Pennsylvania and when you look at their work you see perfection in simplicity and that is what am aiming for. I wouldn’t have a ukulele that looked like a piece of art.”
Pete also made the point that he specialises only in making ukuleles and how the internet has become a game changer in communicating to a wider audience. This is no surprise to me as he has a very active FB group and a well-designed and informative website
 “I’ve started the business 4 times because the internet and the ukulele consciousness wasn’t there at the time but I kept going. I am the first ukulele maker in the UK who concentrates solely on ukuleles I don’t make any other instruments”
One of the many things that struck me about talking to Pete and Tommy is that they have a total love for creating great instruments.  This means an almost obsessive attention to detail to ensure that all work is of the finest quality.
“When you are building there is a tightrope walk between it falling apart and holding together. You often think as a luthier as you work in isolation you know where you are in building and what works and what doesn’t.  It is kind of interesting that boutique builders have a different take on what they do than production builders…”
We also talked about the resurgence in interest for the ukulele and Pete made a very interesting observation
“Everyone quotes the 1984 George Harrison memorial concert with Paul McCartney and Jo brown on uke but it wasn’t that which lit the spark it was the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain playing Smells like Teen Spirit on Jools Holland”
Pete describes Tommy as “a luthier” and himself as “an artisan” and with some degree of humour today reconfirms this on his Facebook page –
“Just so you know – there is only one luthier working at Pete Howlett Ukulele; his name is Tom Ziegenspeck. Pete is an artisan builder, autodidact who by doing has become multi skilled across a range of disciplines. I think he could say with absolute assurance he is leading Tommy gradually astray down the artisan pathway… smile emoticon Let’s hope they both don’t get lost and one of them has the sense to keep their phone fully charged and the other brings a torch!”
Tommy is in his own right a skilled builder and brought some of his instruments for us to see. It was interesting to note the differences and similarities between these and Pete’s designs. Tommy’s ukuleles are also extremely well made, and noticeably heavier than the Howletts. It’s clear to me that there’s a great deal of mutual affection and respect between Pete and Tommy and Pete was keen when we set up the interview that we should also interview his bagpipe playing colleague from Germany! The standout instrument was Tommy’s harp ukulele, that plays as great as it looks and clearly caught Pete’s attention!
“The thing which really did it for me was his degree masterpiece! I looked it and thought “This is a perfect piece”, it warrants its degree award and qualification. Very rarely do you get a perfect piece…When you are building there are anomalies which you are trying to resolve but rarely do you get a perfect piece!”
what interested you in ukes how did you first get into building them?
“I started playing classical guitars at 6 years old, and I had a really good classical training, and my plan was to study classical guitar, and then I came into a guitar workshop because my instrument needed a repair and I thought “wow “and I asked him for an internship. A few days became a few weeks and he told me about the instrument making university in Germany, so I applied for a place, and they took me. Then I started studying, I specialised in plucked instruments. The first 2 years I made classical guitars, then a friend gave me a really nice small set and I couldn’t make a guitar out of it ,so I made a ukulele just for fun and I really enjoyed it.
In the 3rd year of study you have to do a longer internship for half a year and I asked for one at a guitar making workshop, but I really WANTED a ukulele making workshop, so I searched on the internet and an American Uke maker recommended Pete. “
“This was 2014 for 4 and a half months, after which I went back to Germany and finished my study. We had chats over the internet, his work is great and he was abroad which was important for me, and at this moment I was not really well informed about the ukulele scene so Pete was really the only one good instrument maker I knew. At the moment I would still say the same so it was a rally good decision to get into this workshop”
so what makes for a really good instrument for you?
“I’m a guy who really likes a bit of character in an instrument, visual character, not too much, just a character. The feeling is important when you take the instrument out of the case, this decides whether you like it or not, and of course the most importation thing the tone”
in building do you have a favourite wood or construction?
“For my ukuleles because I was classically trained I still use some guitar making techniques inside the instrument.You need a good design, a shape can be nice or just awful, the way you work on the instrument the quality of hand work -the first thing I do when I take an instrument is to check whether it is well made or not ,this is important as a luthier to do a really good quality build. Pete totally changed my head. When I first came here it was to do what the customer wants-so it takes 1 and a half months to build a ukulele ,but this is not practical ,so Pete taught me how to make good quality in a reasonable time. He showed me how to get a really good routine, this was really great and I see how a running business works now, so it is a really good experience for me”
What is your routine on a weekly basis?
“We don’t have a big plan about what I do and what Pete does, but we are in a good relationship, in the workshop it just works. Pete has his favourite parts, so do I.I like to do all the finishes stuff, and set up. Pete really likes making the necks, so everyone has his favourite parts to do”
“Tommy carves a Tommy neck shape; I build a Pete neck shape. When it comes to the neck we do a completely different process, the rest we do much the same. With my health I am restricted with my movements, so Tommy does finishes and detailing, and I do the necks. Tommy is better at finishing than me. it’s one of the things which Tommy really excels at!”
As an outside observer I can confirm Pete’s comments. The finishes on the three ukuleles Tommy brought for me to look at are excellent. Similarly, all his finishes on Howlett’s are similarly excellent and this is one of many reasons why this partnership works so well.
Tommy is also a very accomplished player and during our interaction when Tommy had one of Pete’s ukuleles in his hands there was a slightly surreal moment when Pete shouts out
“JAKE IT TOMMY!” who then proceeds to play “While my guitar gently weeps” with some relish.
Pete commented “Yes all instruments are “Jaked…”
“Team Howlett” is clearly in full demand and I for one am not at all surprised that there is so much interest in these instruments. Tommy brings additional energy to the creative process and it was quite fascinating to see these guys in action.
“Tommy brings the energy of youth he would work 12 hours every day if I let him but I tell him to go home. He has a great vision of where he wants to be and is very fixed in his mind as to where he wants to be. At some point in the future he really does need his own business, and he needs to take everything from this that he needs to take back to Germany with him. If he can build on what he has learnt from here, then he can take that back to his own market.”
“If I was in Germany now I would never have the chance to make so many instruments, and that is important at this time in my life to make so many instruments.”
“It really helped me to make those instruments for Hawaii really early on in 1994
carving that number of necks every month teaches you how to carve necks, hand bending difficult woods repeatedly, having loads of repeatable constant exercises to do, it is priceless to be able to do that, to learn how to do tasks ,and I can give that to Tommy. I’m about sharing my work and it is so worthwhile sharing that with Tommy, as I know he will do something with it. He has a passion for this and we have so much fun!”
Regardless of Tommy’s input it’s clear that Pete is pretty driven and has a genuine love for creating the very best instruments possible. Like all smart creative individuals, he has a genuine curiosity and love for what he does which is reflected in the final builds.
“I am hoping to get to Hawaii this year. I am in the second round interview for a Winston Churchill travelling fellowship, so next week I am in London being interviewed for that.
If I am successful, my project is to meet luthiers in America and Hawaii and to discuss with them building techniques, then write the definitive book.  I am a religious person and I believe I am living in a world which has been created for me, and there is a spiritual aspect to everything that I make, which I think is where instruments find themselves.”
I highly recommend checking out Pete’s site as well as his FB group page and YouTube channel.
Tommy’s site is
Harp Ukulele photos courtesy of Tommy Ziegenspeck
All other photos courtesy of Susan Elton
Pete Howlett Ukulele Builder from Wales