Did you know that the ukulele has been around for more than 138 years?
However, this century-old instrument is no way out of fashion. Ukulele sales have actually doubled between 2009 and 2012, and they’ve been going up ever since.
What is it that has caused this dramatic rise in popularity? Read on to find out all about why the ukulele is so “vogue” right now, and how the history of the ukulele began.
So, what are you waiting for? Let’s strum on!
Why is the ukulele so popular today? The ukulele is so popular today due to famous songs such as “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, “I’m Yours”, and “Hey, Soul Sister” and exposure from top ukulele players such as Jake Shimabukuro, James Hill, and others.
What’s so Special About Ukuleles?
What’s so special about the ukulele? Is it the chunk-a-chunk sound? The teeny, tiny body? Or the Hawaiian Roots?
Ukulele mastermind Jake Shimabukuro said, “There’s something about the ukulele that just makes you smile. It makes you let your guard down. It brings out the child in all of us.”
Yes, the easy listening, almost tropical sound of ukulele music can make you feel happy, even on a gloomy day. It’s actually almost impossible to play a sad song on a ukulele!
It also gives off an innocent and humble vibe. Other large instruments can come across as quite intimidating and brash, whereas a ukulele is a simple unpretentious instrument.
On top of the joyful sounds it produces, it’s also a practical instrument. It’s portable, affordable and not overly difficult to play.
Most who have learned to play the ukulele say it’s not a hard instrument to learn. With so many YouTube videos and online tutorials available, you may even be able to master the art without a teacher.
Ukuleles come in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. These different sizes mean they are comfortable for almost anyone to play.
Many other instruments take years of intensive study to master, but there is a level of immediate gratification when learning the ukulele. Its beautiful sounds and ease of use mean you can strum along nicely after learning just a few basic chords.
You don’t even need to read music to learn the ukulele. But you will need to learn how to read simple ukulele music tabs.
The same cannot be said when it comes to the frustration of learning the violin or the piano!
The Ups and Downs of Ukulele History
The history of the ukulele certainly has its ups and downs. Although it is an old instrument that is entwined throughout the Hawaiian and Portuguese culture, many have snubbed the ukulele as a kids toy.
But a ukulele isn’t a toy, and it’s not a mini guitar for kids either!
A ukulele is a member of the lute family and deserves its place in all genres of music. In fact, over the past few years, artists have broken boundaries and really shown us what the ukulele can do. Jake Shimabukuro playing Bohemian Rapshody proves my point…
With the help of new age trendsetters, the ukulele is back on top. But, what happened on this historical rollercoaster ride? Read on to find out.
The History of the Ukulele
When you think of a ukulele, Hawaii no doubt comes to mind. But did you know that it actually originates from a completely different place?
Keep reading to find out all about the unique history of the ukulele.
1879 – A Jumping Flea
Ukuleles came onto the scene in 1879. Although the facts are a little hazy, the story goes like this:
A Portuguese man, Joao Fernandez, immigrated to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields. As he reached the shores of the tropical islands, he jumped off a boat and started playing a “braguinha” (small guitar-like instrument).
The local Hawaiians watched in awe as he strummed and plucked away at the strings. They were so fascinated that they named the instrument “ukulele” which literally translates to “jumping flea”.
Even the reigning monarch at the time, King Kalakaua, learned how to play it! After mastering the art he promoted the ukulele as a traditional Hawaiian instrument. By 1900, it was a local sensation across the islands.
1893 – The Uke Reaches the Mainland
In 1893, the Chicago World Fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival. They invited visitors from 46 countries.
At the world fair, a group of ukulele players entertained the crowds. They really showed what they were made of, but this performance wasn’t enough to spark the fire that would come about later on.
1912 – An Exotic Play
A US Broadway performance, The Bird of Paradise, featured a Hawaiian quintet playing background music.
Although the ukulele was slowly becoming more of a common sight, it was still considered as exotic and somewhat mysterious.
1915 – A Novel Souvenir
In 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco gave ukuleles a huge boost of popularity.
In the process of promoting Hawaiian products and tourism, they featured a traditional Hawaiian show. This performance featured Hula dancers in grass skirts playing ukuleles.
Tourists could purchase a ukulele to take home as a novel souvenir. As a result, thousands of people in the US and from around the world were introduced to the humble ukulele.
1920 – The Rise of Ukulele Sales
By the 1920s, department store catalogs started selling ukuleles for a couple of bucks. Some who offered lessons, gave the uke away for free if they signed up for classes.
Mainland luthiers and businesses such as Martin, Dobro, Gibson, and Harmony all jumped on board the uke craze.
1930 – A Decline in Ukulele Music
Throughout the 1930s the ukulele craze declined. A variety of music tastes hit the scene with post-war genres. The ukulele was essentially buried but still soldiered on in Hawaii.
1950 – Rock ‘n’ Roll Takes Over
In the 1950s TV host, Arthur Godfrey brought the almost forgotten ukulele right into peoples homes. Sporting a Hawaiian shirt, he gave ukulele lessons to millions of viewers.
Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Betty Grable all caught onto the trend. In fact, the movie Blue Hawaii was one of Presley’s biggest box office hits!
The sales of plastic ukuleles skyrocketed. Even Americans who hadn’t picked up an instrument before started learning the uke.
But as the 50s went on, when kids started doing the Twist and rock around the clock, the uke had another blip in popularity. The ukulele was treated more like a toy than a “real” instrument, becoming incomparable to the electric guitars in the rock ‘n’ roll scene.
1968 – A Novelty Instrument
In 1968 Tiny Tim strummed along on a ukulele as he sang “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”. Although it gave the ukulele some much-needed advertising, Tiny Tims novelty performances made the ukulele a joke in the music world.
Even the local youth in Hawaii fell for the glamorous world of rock music. Their traditional island music waned among the young generation.
1980 – Blurring Boundaries
In the 1980s a few rock acts started to introduce the ukulele back into mainstream music.
Hawaiian artists also started to rediscover their forgotten roots again. They began to blur the boundaries between mainstream pop music and Hawaiian folk songs.
1993 – The Great Ukulele Resurrection
The great ukulele resurrection took place when Hawaiian musician, Israel Kamakawio’ole, put ukuleles back on the map. With his unique medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” he sparked a new craze.
2000 – Becoming Mainstream
The uke became a popular sound throughout TV ads, in movie soundtracks, musical shows and throughout the pop music scene.
Steven Swartz, Zach Condon, and Stephen Merritt at times replaced their guitars with the gentle sound of a uke. In 2002 Paul McCartney strummed on a uke in concert as a tribute to George Harrison, who absolutely loved the Ukulele.
2006 – Going Viral
In the YouTube generation, overnight stars were made from simple homemade videos.
In 2006, someone uploaded a video of Jake Shimabukuro playing the uke, without his knowledge. The video went viral, starting off a huge ukulele career.
As time went on, Shimabukuro cemented his “ukulele god” status with a performance of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Yes, you really can play it on only 4 strings!
However, he wasn’t the only one on the scene. Jason Maraz broke ukulele records in 2008 when he released the song “I’m Yours.”
2010 Until Now – The Modern Ukulele
James Hill won several awards as the years went on for his ukulele music. Later Eddie Vedder (from Pearl Jam) released his “Ukulele Songs” album which won a Grammy. The Band Train had a huge hit in 2010 named “Hey, Soul Sister” and even Taylor Swift plays a uke during concerts.
Other celebs have caught on the trend too. From Zooey Deschanel strumming away while wooing Joseph Gordon Levitt to Tony Blair disrupting Politics, the uke is everywhere.
In fact, in 2017, approximately 1.75 million ukuleles were sold in the U.S. From toddlers and teens to professionals and seniors, people are seeking every opportunity to learn how to play the ukulele.
Uke’n Do It!
It’s clear to see that this century-old instrument is here to stay. Through its ups and downs, it’s still winning hearts today.
If you want to learn how to play the ukulele but don’t know where to start, you’ve come to the right place. Start your ukulele journey by checking out this how-to guide: How do you play basic chords on the ukulele?
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.