Letter to Terry: speculations on the popularity of the ukulele, A-N

The ukulele is experiencing an enormous wave of popularity. There’s historical precedent for this fad, going back to other waves of the ‘20’s and ‘50’s. I’ve often been asked why they’re so popular.

I’ve been playing uke for over 20 years (with meal and toilet breaks).  When I was a student I picked up a ukulele for two dollars in a junk shop, replaced the tuning pegs and made it playable. It sounded like… two dollars. Later I played ukuleles in theatre productions, and in street theatre, mainly for the novelty factor, but when I brought a Bruko I fell in love with it.  I tuned it in what I now know to be ‘English’ tuning (ADF#B) rather than the standard tuning which is a tone lower it was more audible outdoors and worked with the vintage chord windows on old sheet music.

Since then a lot of my compositional and performing work has involved the instrument, so when photographer Chris Osborne selected me as a subject for a planned exhibition of Brisbane composers,  I brought along my uke and a wistful look.

photo by Chris Osborne

photo by Chris Osborne

My old friend Terry, who’d just been given a uke as a gift,  wrote me an email asking various questions about the ukulele, including why people are so nuts about it at the moment. My reply turned out to be longer than expected. I’d love to collect more reasons. If you can think of any,  let me know…

A] ACCESS  they’re relatively cheap – you can pick up one that works OK  without outlaying too much cash – and you can’t do that with a guitar. On a similar note,  if you decide it’s not for you,  or more likely don’t practice and it gathers dust, it’s only a small investment so there’s less guilt or regret.

B] BEAUTIFUL they’re relatively easy to get a beautiful, sweet sound out of. the nylon strings (only four, therefore chords are instantly easier) don’t hurt your fingers. Also, as a piece of furniture, they’re fine to have lying around the house, whereas a guitar needs a stand, etc. This is beautiful…

C] CABIN baggage

D] DAGGY  equals fun. Pick up a uke at a party, and look at the smiling faces turn towards you,  even if it’s a smile of pity. pick up a guitar at a party, and suddenly things get serious. There is a trend towards uke virtuosity (Jake Shimabakuro et al) but most people know they’re a bit , well,  daggy. and that’s ok, and are content to play simple things for fun.

E] EVERYONE knows a pop song with a ukulele in it. They use the uke in their instrumentation to stand out from the rest of the FM dross. Train’s Hey Soul Sister and Bruno Mars’ Lazy Song being prime suspects.  On a more credible note,  many have been moved by  Joe Brown’s I’ll See You In My Dreams at the Concert for George,  or Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ ole’s Somewhere over the Rainbow. Ukulele blog Ukehunt has made a nifty list of songs that are irrevocably associated with the ukulele

F] FESTIVALS. Always surprising, a ukulele festival will have more acts than you can poke a stick at and they’re great places to learn as well as play and party. I’ve seen and played with some amazing and nutty acts at uke festivals including the virtuosic Benny Chong, the Nukes, and Azo Bell, who i believe once said that a ukulele is ‘..the least harmful thing you can make out of a piece of wood’. I’m very much looking forward to the Melbourne Ukulele Festival where Tyrone is playing on the same bill as James Hill – check him out playing Billie Jean – no loop pedals here,  its all him.

G] GROUPS they’re a community oriented instrument. they’re fun and easy to learn and play in groups. In this context music’s used as a social glue, where all sorts of people of different skill levels can learn and play together if it’s well run. it’s easier to learn anything  in a group.  The ukulele gives the misfits a place where they can ‘fit’. Most of us think we’re misfits. Hence its popularity.

Many established uke groups in Australia have a naughty sounding acronym such as MUK, BUMS or SCUM.

H] HELL, it connects us to older, vaudevillean traditions of performance, and weirder, outsider artists like Tiny Tim.  I’ve explored this phenomenon (with a dollop of dada) alongside Tyrone. More on him some other time…

I] IRONY There’s also a nice irony to picking up something that many people think is a toy and taking it seriously. As Clive James wrote “I suppose one of the reasons why I grew up feeling the need to cause laughter was perpetual fear of being its unwitting object.”

J] JINGLES advertisers use the sound of the ukulele on television and online commercials to connote a kind of quirky friendliness,  usually in combination with someone whistling. You can, however,  be sure that if a commercial uses ukulele in its soundtrack,  it is for something intrinsically evil, like banking,  insurance,  or fast food.

K] KIDS  like them. My personal highlight of the 2011 NZ Ukulele Festival uke orchestra of 2000 children. They played Maori tunes, singing harmony,  and a very moving version of this Kiwi hit:

L]  LEFT-HANDED as a left-hander, most of the smaller ukuleles are symetrically strung (ie 4 strings – small  big big small) so the left/right handedness isn’t an issue.

Tyrone (with slideshow of dogs) Ukuleleland, Newtown,  2006

Tyrone (with slideshow of dogs) Ukuleleland, Newtown, 2006

M] MIGHT it be because we are a Pacific nation? At the Cairns Ukulele Festival in 2011, I hung out with some Cook Islanders who made their own ukes. When I played ‘Ukuleleland’ in Newtown, Sydney,  2006, I saw there was a very eclectic mix of hobbyists, professionals, novelty acts and pacific groups. I chose to present a romantic musical slideshow of vintage images of dogs.

N] they are sexy

So, that’s A to N. Any suggestions for O-Z?

I’m working on a new uke project with my buddy Sam, check it out here


4 responses to “Letter to Terry: speculations on the popularity of the ukulele, A-N

  1. Glad to read an article from a fellow left hander, I just picked up a right hand tuned uke and learned to play it left handed as a Kid – I still play that way even though it confuses right handers and other left handers as to what I’m actually playing. I love the uke and chiefly play a Baritone and Soprano. I think the criticism of Baritone ukes (its just a 4 stringed guitar) is unjustified as there are chords that sound sweet on a Baritone that sound plain awful on a guitar. Glad to read the article and I’m going to try English tuning too.

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