- By Niki Vettel
Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report
Hi, I’m Niki and I play the ukulele. Don’t worry: This isn’t a 12-step testimonial, although I should state up front that I am talking about addiction. It’s almost impossible not to become hooked on the ukulele once you start playing it.
The ukulele has come a long way since Don Ho, Arthur Godfrey and Tiny Tim made it famous (or is that infamous?). It was the beloved instrument of George Harrison, and Sir Paul McCartney performed on it in his honor at the Concert for George, held at Royal Albert Hall on the first anniversary of his death. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder devoted his second solo album, Ukulele Songs, to the uke. And no less a rock god than Bruce Springsteen jammed on it during his 2005 concert tour.
The Hawaiian word “ukulele” comes from uku (a leaping flea) and lele (to jump). According to dictionary.com, it was originally a “nickname given to British army officer Edward Purvis, who popularized the instrument at the court of King Kalakaua, in reference to his lively playing style.” Another theory holds that the term comes from the nimbly flying fingers — “jumping fleas” — of an accomplished player of the Portuguese machete, an ancestor of the ukulele.
Today, ukuleles are wildly popular among the young and those of us who are older. You can walk into the acoustic room of any good music store and find them next to high-priced guitars. How did this happen?
Perhaps my own story epitomizes the larger trend. I’ve always played musical instruments: first the clarinet and flute, and later I taught myself guitar by strumming along to Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary. But my musical “career” went dormant after college, and didn’t return until three years ago: My husband, Rich (a devoted electric guitar player), and I were browsing in the Boston Guitar Center when a salesclerk breezed by, strumming — what was that thing? — a ukulele!
My reaction was strong and immediate: I wanted one. Maybe it was the size (I’m small; the uke is small), or maybe I figured I’d be better playing four strings (instead of a guitar’s six). Or maybe it was that salesman, who said that of the hundreds of stringed instruments he could put his hands on in the store, the uke was the coolest instrument and most fun to play. Sold!
A Ukulele Primer
The first thing to know: Ukes come in four sizes: soprano (the smallest, and what most of us probably envision, thanks to Don and Tiny), concert, tenor and baritone (which has a different tuning than the other three). And unlike guitars, which have six strings, ukes have only four, which means that chords that challenged my entire hand “span” can be more easily played by one, two or three fingers.
And what sweet, full-sounding music those chords produce! There’s not one genre of music that hasn’t been transcribed for the ukulele. You can buy books of tunes for the ukulele by artists including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Taylor Swift. There are also holiday music books, popular-song compilations, kids’ songs, Hawaiian, gospel and Broadway tunes — even music from Glee!
As the Stones and Hendrix references imply, one can truly rock out with the uke. The iconic guitar maker Fender produces a tenor version, which sports the company’s classic headstock, as well as an acoustic/electric model, which has the same kind of pick-up as an electric guitar and allows the use of a regular guitar amp.
It Started With One Small Uke…
My first uke was a soprano: not too cheap, not too expensive ($65), and I also plunked down $10 for a plastic case, another $5 for a pitchpipe and $7 for an instruction book with easy songs. Within one month, however, I was ready to “trade up.”
Serendipitously, I was on a business trip when I heard about the New York Ukulele Festival, popped in, and stumbled upon a wonderful, much-higher-quality soprano Flea, a uniquely shaped uke that was made in Connecticut. I took an exhilarating beginners’ workshop, and suddenly I was a woman possessed. Immediately after the class, I paid a visit to the huge Sam Ash music store on West 48th Street (aka Music Row) and came away with an on-sale concert uke.
Fortune smiled again a few months later, when on a business trip to Phoenix I saw a poster for a ukulele workshop featuring Fender tenors. Now a bona fide uke junkie, I signed up for it — and fell hard for the instrument’s size and feel. (Plus, to be honest, I’d always coveted my husband’s Fender Telecaster collection.)
Once home, I did some creative bartering with my concert-size instrument and scored my dream uke, the Fender. Fun fact: The distinctive lead ukulele riff of Train’s 2011 Grammy-winning hit, “Hey Soul Sister,” is played on an electric Fender.
Slightly larger than the concert, the Fender is what “uke god” Jake Shimabukuro plays and is the sound I fell in love with. (This Shimabukuro video, which many credit with fueling the current uke revival, is achingly beautiful, but don’t let his masterfulness intimidate you or deter you from picking up the instrument.)
Learning to Play
Over the past two years, I’ve taken classes alongside people of all levels and all ages (occasionally I’m the oldest). Some students have never held a stringed instrument before; some can sing, others not so much. But none of that makes a whit of difference. The ukulele is completely unintimidating. It could be the kitschiness factor or its invitingly small size, but something about holding and playing a uke melts any potential self-consciousness. In fact, if you take yourself or your instrument too seriously, it can torture you.
In our “no pain, no gain” culture, we expect to put in many hours of practice (Malcolm Gladwell claims it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in any endeavor.) And while becoming an expert takes time and sacrifice, what’s great about the ukulele is how little time it takes to play your first simple song, as demonstrated in one of my favorite youtube videos in which a fellow shows how to learn to play the uke in less than 10 minutes.
If you’re not already sold, how about an endorsement from Warren Buffet? The financial wizard started playing in college. “You can learn how to play it very quickly, even if only badly, as in my case,” he once said.
In a music-saturated world, where the Apples of our i’s make us primarily music consumers, it’s terrific to become a music maker. Add affordability (you can get a decent one for $60), cool design, portability and instant gratification, and the ukulele renaissance makes total sense.
While devotees may debate whether today’s craze was started by the rock legends, or Shimabukuro, or the late Hawaiian icon Israel “IZ” Ka`ano`i Kamakawiwo`ole (whose “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is now a worldwide classic), to me it couldn’t matter less. The uke is fun, melodious, whimsical — and it’s practically impossible to play it without smiling, even if you’re smiling at yourself.
I learned that when I brought my uke into my mom’s nursing home in 2010. Most of the residents, in various stages of infirmity, recognized the instrument, and a surprising number could hold and strum it correctly — bringing big smiles to their faces. A few of them persuaded me to perform.
Emboldened by their enthusiasm, I launched into a heartfelt version of “Jamaica Farewell.” It was my first “public performance,” and I felt masterful, proud. I had gotten out exactly one verse when a voice in the back row called out, “When are we having our ice cream?!” It didn’t bode well for my musical career, but it hasn’t stopped me from playing every chance I get.
For More Information
If you want to give the uke a whirl, these sites and vendors are good places to start. Independent music stores offer lessons and classes, as do adult education centers. And there are uke “meetups” all across the country. Should you become hooked, here’s a wealth of information to feed your addiction.
- Ukulele Hunt has great information on all things ukulele.
- Search Music Notes lets you download and purchase individual songs.
- Hal Leonard is one of the largest publishers of ukulele instructional books and music.
- Alfred Music Publishing offers instruction and music (including Jimmy Buffett and Led Zeppelin).
- Mister Music in Allston, Mass. (a Boston neighborhood), is where I bought my prized Kala tenor. They know their ukes!
- The Music Emporium is the place to go when you’re ready to jump into the deep end of the ukulele pool. For a one-of-a-kind high-end instrument, consider Martin, Collings, Pono, Kamaka and others.
Books and Films About Ukuleles
- The Ukulele: A Visual History (Revised & Expanded), Jim Beloff (2003).
- The Ukulele: A History, Jim Tranquada & John King (2012).
- Under the Boardwalk, A Ukulele Love Story (2012). How a house party in a small California town grows into the world’s biggest ukulele club. The film also follows the instrument on its unlikely journey from Portugal to Hawaii to the U.S. mainland and shows the birth of a uniquely Hawaiian-American musical tradition that is currently experiencing a worldwide revival.
- The Mighty Uke (2010). This documentary travels from Hawaii, California and the gritty streets of New York to swinging London, Tokyo’s high-rise canyons and back to Hawaii to discover why so many people of different nations, cultures, ages and musical tastes are turning to the ukulele to express themselves and connect with the past — and each other.