Ukulele – the little instrument that could

Anime Ukulele GirlIn recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in a small instrument which has it origins in Hawaii. Considered by many as more of a novelty or cliché rather than a serious musical instrument. The ukulele has seen a remarkable explosion in interest not seen since the 1920’s. It seems that everyone is getting in on the ukulele bandwagon these days.

You don’t need a loud shirt or grass skirt to play. In fact you could play in the buff…

When I think of Hawaii I can imagine sandy beaches, sunsets, coconuts, hula girls in grass skirts, Dog the Bounty Hunter and Jack Lord saying “book ’em Danno!” and that’s not before George Formby and his little stick of Blackpool rock I might hasten to add. It goes without saying that the ukulele is to Hawaii as fish is to chips!

I’d go into the origins of the ukulele but since we have Wikipedia you might was well get the story straight from the source.

So lets take a look at the phenomenon that is the ukulele.

Dancing Flea

The ukulele has a unique sound, which is often characterised with the Polynesian islands, due in part to its unusual tuning enabling chords to be played with as little as one finger. The fact that the ukulele resembles a miniature guitar that looks far too small to play and yet has a loud voice that can easily fill a room is another peculiar characteristic. Its size allows young children easy access to a musical instrument.

Despite having only four strings it is remarkably versatile and can easily hold its own alongside other stringed instruments. In the hands of a master it can take on any musical challenge and leave the audience in astonishment.

Music for everybody…

The ukulele is an instrument for the people, played by everybody from young children to their grandparents. Unlike other instruments where learning chords are often difficult and require many hours of practice, with a few basic chords you can play a wide variety of songs. I believe that the reason for the ukulele’s success and increasing popularity is in its simplicity. Through the 1950’s the ukulele was part of many Canadian schoolchildren’s musical education for this very reason.

You don’t need much in the way of equipment other than a ukulele, a tuner and a beginner’s guide to get started (to quote Barry Barmcake “You’re sat in front of a computer… use Google!”). You don’t need a loud shirt or grass skirt to play. In fact you could play in the buff as the exceptionally talented Miss Zooey demonstrates below:

Note: Not that we’d advise you to post yourself in the buff on YouTubeTM as it may disturb small animals 😛

It seems that wherever you look these days there is a ukulele society or group gathering in every major city worldwide. In some ways it is reminiscent of the small groups of jazz players who gathered to continue the legacy of Django Reinhardt with the exception that they are taking what is a traditional Hawaiian instrument and bringing it into the 21st century through adapting popular songs to the ukuleles distinctive style.

Here in the UK we have the Ukulele Orchestra and there are a number of Ukulele groups dotted around the country. One of my favourites were (now disbanded) Re-Entrants for their amazing rendition of Motorhead’s Ace of Spades.

When it comes to true virtuosos there is Jake Shimabukuro’s spine tingling rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

Famous Ukulele players you may not even know

Apart from George Formby and Elvis Presley there are an amazing variety of celebrities who also play the ukulele. Ryan Gosling, The Rock (true), the late Neil Armstrong and former 007 Pierce Brosnan.

Armstrong & Ukulele by Don Blair


The future…

Given that most things that occur in life are mere passing phases and go out of fashion I think that the ukulele will still be around for a very long time to come.

And so it is time to say aloha brah as we go out with the legendary Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole.