Playing the Ukulele

By | September 18, 2017

PLAYING THE UKULELE has never  been more popular.   It all started in 1879 with immigrants from Funchal in Portugal going to Hawaii to work in the sugar plantations.  They brought with them a small 4-stringed guitar-like instrument called a ‘machete’, which the Hawaiians took to immediately – especially the Royal family.  They called it a “ukulele” – pronounced “oo-ku-lay-lay” and meaning “jumping flea” because of the dexterity of the players’ fingers.   So the instrument we know as the ‘ukulele’, far from being an ancient Hawaiian instrument as many people think, is actually less then 150 years old!

The ukulele reached a height of popularity in the 1920s and 30s following visits to the Hawaii Pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.  Even Edward, Prince of Wales, played it and had a special gold-engraved one made bearing his coat-of-arms.  The popularity of George Formby, (who mostly favoured the hybrid ukulele-banjo or ‘banjolele’ simply because it made a louder sound) together with others like Cliff Edwards (known as ‘Ukulele Ike’), on stage, on radio and in films, further increased interest.  The advent of television in the 1950s saw yet another surge of popularity and the ukulele was played by, amongst others, Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, Marilyn Munroe, Lucile Ball and even Elvis Presley.   Then came ‘Rock ‘n Roll’ and the guitar took over; but now the ukulele is back – and with a vengeance! In 2013 the National Association of Music Merchants reported a 54 percent jump in ukulele sales!

Beginning in the 1980s the ukulele began to regain its position.  Paul McCartney plays one, so does Pete Townhend, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, Pierce Brosnan and the astronaut Neil Armstrong.   ‘Beatle’ George Harrison wrote: “Everybody should have and play a uke.  It’s so simple to carry with you and it’s the one instrument you can’t play and not laugh”.  Its small, lightweight size and portability, combined with comparative ease of learning to play (no musical instrument is “easy”, but a uke with only four strings is much easier than a guitar), makes it ideal for both children and adults – including those “extra adult adults” who always wanted to play a musical instrument but never got around to it.  Many people often seem to associate the ukulele only with the comic songs of George Formby or the rather bizarre warblings of ‘Tiny Tim’ (“tip-toing through the tulips”), but there is so much more to the ukulele than that and it can play any kind of music; classical, ballads, popular and ‘pop’.  Listen, for example to Hawaiian virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro playing Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or George Harrison’s; ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. There are now ukulele clubs and societies all over the country; indeed all over the world, and lots of tutorials, help and materials are freely available on the Internet.

Last Updated on May 1, 2022