Once the province of novelty acts and traditional Hawaiian music, the ukulele has become the hip instrument of the moment. The question remains: Does all the attention the ukulele is getting from big shots translate into a trend? Some evidence suggests the answer is yes.
Once the province of novelty acts and traditional Hawaiian music, the ukulele has become the hip instrument of the moment.
With a Top 10 album from Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, the Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer making a splash with an EP of Radiohead covers and even country-pop princess Taylor Swift picking up the instrument, we seem to be in the midst of a ukulele renaissance.
Then there is ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.
Shimabukuro, 34, is Hawaiian-born and of Japanese descent. He became prominent in the island music scene in the late ’90s, playing in bands that won several Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, the Hawaiian-music equivalent of the Grammys.
He’s gained a steady following on the mainland over the last decade, and he may be best known for his instrumental cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — the YouTube video has been viewed more than 8.3 million times.
The sounds that ring out from his four-string, two-octave instrument are amazing, and the dexterity with which his fingers move about the frets parallels anything you’ve seen from the greatest classical guitarists.
But even a virtuoso wouldn’t be enough to propel the ukulele toward the superstar status — or at least super fad status — it seems to be attaining.
Enter Eddie Vedder, who recently told the Seattle Times he bought his first uke a few years ago while on a surfing trip in Hawaii. He was on a beer run when he saw the instrument in a drugstore window.
“I went in and picked it up, and it sounded great,” Vedder told the Times. “And I must have had the cash on hand because I walked out with it.”
Last month, he released “Ukulele Songs,” a solo album featuring, for the most part, just Vedder and his tiny little ax. Listening to him without the sonic envelope of his Pearl Jam bandmates, you can’t help but be struck by the intimacy of the experience.
An all-ukulele album is probably the closest most of us will get to hearing an artist singing a cappella into a microphone. Listening through headphones, it’s so close, so immediate, that it’s almost uncomfortable.
That’s certainly the effect of “Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on her Magical Ukulele.”
Palmer, formerly of the Dresden Dolls, sings “Fake Plastic Trees,” “High and Dry” and “Creep,” among other songs. If Radiohead’s electronic- and effects-heavy arrangements are a crowded Vegas light show, Palmer is a woman standing alone beneath a cool blue streetlamp.
You hear every bend and crack in her voice, all accompanied by a delicate strumming. It puts the lyrics front and center in a way that rarely happens on Radiohead’s elaborately produced albums.
The question remains: Does all the attention the ukulele is getting from big shots translate into a trend? Some evidence suggests the answer is yes.
Two years ago, I remember seeing just two ukuleles at Samuel Music in Springfield, Ill: an inexpensive model and one that was well over $200 — a Luna High Tide, with abalone fret markers that looked like rising waves as they went up the fretboard.
Last week, there was significantly more inventory on display. A rack was given pride of place near the cash register and decorated with straw grass, fake plastic leis and unlit tiki torches.
Store manager Mike Taft said people have been asking about the instruments.
“There are only four strings, so the chords are a lot easier to play,” Taft said.
There are high-end models out there — one custom, handmade job costs $25,000, Taft said — but you can get one of “reasonable quality” for $50.
“If you’re trying to teach a 5- or 6-year-old how to play a little bit of guitar, you start them on ukulele, and they get the idea of the frets and the strings down a little more quickly than they would if they were playing a traditional six-string guitar,” Taft said.
Music publishers have been trying to tap into the market, with uke books ranging from the Beatles and Radiohead to traditional Hawaiian fare.
Shimabukuro started on the instrument when he was 4 years old, so it might take more time than you have to catch up to him.
But as Vedder and Palmer’s albums show, you don’t have to be a virtuoso to make a powerful statement with a little instrument.
Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.