Ukulele is – or was – the Napoleon Dynamite of musical instruments.
Nerdy? Put it this way: Any instrument associated with luau theme parties, raccoon-coated 1920s college students and Tiny Tim has an image problem.
But nerds – even in the world of music – get revenge. The accordion, once fatally associated with Lawrence Welk, was reborn in the 1970s as a hard-rocking zydeco machine. The banjo shed its cornball Dixieland image thanks to cool modernists like Bela Fleck.
And now, ready or not, the ukulele is back to kick butt.
"There's definitely a resurgence," says Julian Bennett Lessin, a Hackensack guitar teacher who currently has four uke students.
Eddie Vedder plays a ukulele. So do Taylor Swift, Chris Barron from The Spin Doctors and Greg Hawkes of The Cars. Zooey Deschanel, actress and member of She & Him, has posted videos online in which she accompanies herself on a ukulele.
Jersey rocker "Southside Johnny" Lyon recently contributed a version of a lesser-known Beatles tune, "I'm Down," to an ongoing online music project, "The Beatles Complete on Ukulele" (see thebeatlescompleteon ukulele.com).
Music stores can't keep them on the shelves. "We used to sell four or five a year," says Jim Krazit of O. DiBella Music in Bergenfield. "Now we sell four or five a week. It's an exponential increase."
The four-string mini-guitars have their own display in the store: sopranos, tenors and baritones, at prices ranging from $39 to $300. The sheet music department has songbooks: "Black Sabbath for Ukulele," "Taylor Swift for Ukulele," "Uke 'an Play Jimmy Buffett."
"It has cheap price, and portability, and ease of play," Krazit says. "When you're out on the street with a uke, it doesn't take a lot of room. If you drop and break it, you don't lose a fortune. It's almost made for street play."
Indeed, when you see buskers or college students making music on a street corner in 2012, it's likely to be a ukulele they're strumming – just as their counterparts did 90 years ago, during the uke's first heyday.
The current worldwide ukulele craze probably dates back to the late 1990s, when a version of "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" by the late iconic Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole was featured on popular TV ads and soundtracks to films like "Meet Joe Black" and "Finding Forrester."
Other soundtracks and TV ads began featuring the half-pint guitar, and soon musicians who were too young to know the instrument's "Tiptoe Thru the Tulips" stigma were captivated by its cuteness, novelty and unique sound.
In 2006, Jake Shimabukuro had a YouTube hit with a uke-ified "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." In 2009, Train's ukulele-filled "Hey, Soul Sister" became a Grammy winner and was featured on "Glee." In 2011, Vedder released his album "Ukulele Songs."
Lessin, the Hackensack guitar teacher, explains, "It's that whole unplugged thing, getting back to roots."
Those roots go back to at least 1915 – when Hawaiian ukes made their mainland bow at the San Francisco World's Fair and sparked a Hawaiian song craze. Stars like Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, later the voice of Disney's Jiminy Cricket, sold millions of records.
"Newspapers used to print the ukulele chords and lyrics to songs," Lyon says. "People would hear the songs on the radio."
But by the rockin' 1960s, ukes had lost their cachet. They hit cultural bottom, arguably, in the novelty act of Tiny Tim – whose much-mocked falsetto was merely a studious attempt to re-create the shrill sounds of "Ukulele Ike" and his chums.
The instrument's appeal today, Lyon believes, is the cheapness, the ease (most people can learn the rudiments in under an hour), the simplicity, the honesty.
"We were in Europe not too long ago, and there were plenty of ukuleles being played in town squares there," Lyon says. "It's the people's music."
Ukulele versus guitar
The ukulele, which evolved from a 19th-century instrument called the "machete" that Portuguese immigrants brought to Hawaii, is not just a miniature guitar — even if it looks like one. Here are some differences:
- Typical ukulele size (varies by type): As little as 1/10 the size of a guitar
Number of strings
- Ukulele: four strings
- Guitar: six strings
- Typical ukulele tuning: GCEA, low to high
- Typical guitar tuning: EADGBE, low to high
Type of strings
- Ukulele: nylon strings
- Guitar: nylon or steel strings
- Ukulele chord: sometimes one finger
- Guitar chord: three fingers or more
- Typical ukulele: $39 to $300
- Typical acoustic guitar: $60 to $3,000