September 29, 2020

By LINDSAY TESSIER

From music stores to YouTube videos and television commercials, the ukulele is taking the world by storm.

Once considered to be little more than a novelty gift or tourist cliche, the ukulele has been making inroads into popular culture for a few years now.

Jim Beloff, a leading publisher of ukulele songbooks and a major promoter of the cheery, four-stringed instrument, says he has been watching the uke’s steady rise in popularity for years.

“The ukulele is the iPhone of musical instruments,” says Beloff. “Small, light and easy to learn and use, it encourages creativity.”

Local businesses have also noticed an increase in customers asking about ukuleles.

“Ukuleles have definitely become more popular,” says John Granger, salesman at Long and McQuade in Guelph.

“In the past two years our sales of ukuleles has increased dramatically.”

Granger says low prices are another factor in the instrument’s rising popularity.

“We have ukuleles that start at $30 and go up from there. If you’re looking at a guitar that’s $200 … it’s an easy decision to make.”

High-end ukuleles made of solid hardwoods such as mahogany or koa from Hawaii can cost more than $1,000.

The ukulele’s first wave of popularity began during the First World War, when the instrument was demonstrated at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

The second wave occurred in the 1950s, courtesy of TV and radio star Arthur Godfrey, who played the ukulele regularly on his show Arthur Godfrey and His Ukulele. Godfrey-endorsed instruction books and ukuleles sold millions.

Most recently, the pint-sized instrument has been popularized by artists as diverse as Eddie Vedder, Jason Mraz, Dave Grohl, Taylor Swift and punk-cabaret singer Amanda Palmer. Actor Zooey Deschanel played one on Saturday Night Live. It’s even been featured on Glee.

But it is the Internet that has been instrumental in the ukulele’s resurgence, says Nicholas Russell, professional musician and ukulele instructor at Folkway Music in Guelph.

“Over the last 10 years anyone with a computer has been able to not only hear audio recordings of other styles of music but also to see real videos of even the remote regions of the world,” Russell says.

“In regards to the uke, the renaissance really started happening when Israel Kamakawio’ole from Hawaii became a worldwide sensation through new media outlets like YouTube.”

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, already popular in Hawaii, became an overnight success with his rendition of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which has garnered over 10 million views on YouTube.

Russell began playing the ukulele as an extension of the guitar.

“I love playing it and it brings out different aspects of my musicianship,” he says. “I don’t treat it like a guitar, because to me, it is more rhythmic and meant to accompany a voice.”

One reason for the ukulele’s mass appeal is that, with its four strings – as opposed to the guitar’s six – it’s easy to learn and play. With only a few chords under your belt you are well on your way to being able to play most modern pop songs.

Add to that the ukulele’s portability, versatility and low price point, and it starts to become clear why more people are picking them up.

Lastly, ukuleles just make you feel good.

“There is something innately fun about playing the uke,” says Russell.

All these factors add up to the ultimate instrument for cash-strapped students: cheap, easy to learn, portable and fun.