Tiny Tim never saw this coming.
For those unfamiliar with late-1960s television, Tiny Tim was the stage name of the late actor (no one would say, “singer”) Herbert Khaury. He achieved notoriety on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” by accompanying himself on the ukulele while warbling “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and, most infamously, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” all in an ear-bending falsetto.
The ukulele itself was half of the joke. What a silly little instrument. And there was homely, long-haired Tiny Tim, all six-feet-one of him, clutching it to his chest, strumming away as viewers across the country lunged at their TVs to change channels.
Now, the ukulele is hip – and enthusiasm has been growing for more than a decade. According to market and consumer research firm Statista, sales of ukuleles in the U.S. soared to 1.77 million in 2018, up from 501,000 in 2009. Locally, staff at Gelb Music in Redwood City and Clock Tower Music in San Carlos estimate they collectively sell around 900 ukuleles a year.
The 700 PUGS
On the Internet, YouTube brims with performances ranging from those of virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro to kids’ laptop-recorded versions of their favorite pop tunes. The Peninsula Ukulele Group, known as the PUGs, counts more than 700 members, and an event in Santa Cruz called “Burning Uke” (in a turn on the “Burning Man” festival in Nevada) sells out each September.
What’s going on?
Brian Kimmel, who with his wife Susan owns Clock Tower Music, and Mike Craig of Gelb Music both say the ukulele is the perfect starter for someone who wants to try playing music.
“The instrument itself is small and portable, and it doesn’t require a lot of hand strength to produce the chords,” Kimmel observes. “And the chords are so simplified that you can often play a three-chord song with just one or two fingers.”
Adds Craig, “It’s not as intimidating (as a guitar). We see with a lot of customers who come in, they look at a guitar and a ukulele, and for whatever reason, the ukulele looks like it’s not as challenging or the mountain is not as high.”
While Brian Kimmel was commenting for this article, Clock Tower co-owner Susan Kimmel sold a ukulele to a musical beginner, Michele DuBarry, of Belmont. Now in her 60s, DuBarry says she always wanted to get involved in music again after briefly studying the viola at age eight. “I play air guitar like anything,” she laughs, and was pleased that after one lesson with Clock Tower teacher Mike Ehlers, she could play “Clementine,” which requires just two chords. (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” takes just one, which can be played with a single finger.)
Beyond instant gratification, low prices offer another attraction. Whereas a beginner’s electric guitar and a small amplifier cost around $200, a rock-bottom, plastic ukulele retails for just under $40 in the Kimmels’ shop. Serviceable wooden models start at around $50. At the other end of the scale, premium ukes crafted from exotic woods such as Hawaiian koa can bring up to $5,000.
Then there’s the social aspect. Ukulele players like to get together. Amelia Lin of the PUGs says monthly meetups at the Belmont and Woodside libraries draw an average of 40 to 60 musicians. Each gathering starts with a lesson for beginners, and then the group branches into folk songs, classical music, oldies and even contemporary pop hits by artists such as Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. (Information about the PUGs is available at www.facebook.com/peninsulaukulelegroup. The organization should not be confused with another Peninsula Ukulele Group, in New Zealand.)
Ukulele-playing spans generations; Ehlers says his students range literally from seven to 70 years old. For players above 55 years of age, the Avenidas Ukulele Band at the Avenidas Village senior-citizen center in Palo Alto focuses on older adults. Founded by Redwood City residents Edward and P.A. Moore, the Avenidas group holds twice-monthly jam sessions that typically attract around 20 participants.
Another source of the ukulele’s continuing popularity, says Edward Moore, is that the instrument “has crept into the mainstream of media.”
In a current television commercial for Hawaii’s Kona Brewing Company, actors David Bell and Blake “Brutus” LaBenz pose as two Hawaiian “bruddahs” who ask why each day features just one “happy hour,” while LaBenz strums a ukulele. Meanwhile, pop-music hits by singers such as Jason Mraz (“I’m Yours”), Paul McCartney (“Ram On”) and Taylor Swift (“Fearless”) have all included the ukulele. The late former Beatle George Harrison was a big ukulele fan, and Shimabukuro’s ukulele cover of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has generated nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube.
The Internet, says Gelb Music guitar and ukulele teacher Chris Stone, has propelled the wave for many of his students.
“YouTube is huge,” Stone says. “Not only can you see artists from all over the world very easily, but you also see people in their rooms recording themselves, doing their own versions of their favorite songs. It’s endearing and it’s inspirational to see someone like you – not some star up on a stage – sitting and just strumming something.”
When it comes to stars, however, no ukulele player is more widely respected than Jake Shimabukuro. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, the 43-year-old Shimabukuro is, in Craig’s words, “the Van Halen of the ukulele.” Shimabukuro combines rock, jazz and other musical genres, pushing the ukulele’s melodic, harmonic and rhythmic extremes and achieving a unique sound that’s an entire universe away from “Aloha ‘Oe.”
A Childlike Sound
Even with the complexity of his playing, Shimabukuro believes it’s the “childlike” character of the ukulele that contributes considerably to its popularity. The instrument’s lowest note is middle C; consequently, it plays in a fairly high range like that of a child’s voice.
“I tell people that sometimes I feel like the tone of the ukulele or the sound or the frequency range of the ukulele is very similar to a child laughing, or children laughing and playing on the playground,” Shimabukuro says. “When I pick up the ukulele and play it, it makes me feel good. I feel like my day gets better when I hear the ukulele or when I get to play it. I feel more positive. I feel like I have more energy.”
All this comes from a simple, four-stringed instrument that descended from the Portuguese braguinha, which, according to the richly illustrated book, “The Ukulele: A Visual History,” is still popular on the island of Madeira. It was a collection of 419 immigrants from Portuguese-held Madeira, in fact, who introduced the instrument to Hawaii in 1879. Jim Beloff, the book’s author, credits three craftsmen from Madeira – Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes and José do Espirito Santo – with developing the modern ukulele.
How the ukulele got its name appears to be a matter of folklore. “Ukulele” in Hawaiian means “jumping flea.” Beloff says one version of the story holds that Edward Purvis, a British army officer who was appointed to the royal court of Hawaii’s King David Kalakaua, was nicknamed “Ukelele,” in part because of his relatively small size next to that of the Hawaiians. Purvis was an exceptional braguinha player, and the name may have hopped from the man to the instrument. Another telling has it that “jumping flea” refers to a ukulele player’s fingers as they leap from string to string.
However it donated its name, the “jumping flea” bit Beloff big-time. He left his job as associate publisher of music-industry publication Billboard Magazine and devoted his professional life to writing for and about the ukulele. His ukulele method books and song collections have sold more than a million copies. He has performed his ukulele compositions, including a concerto called, “Uke Can’t be Serious,” with the Michigan Philharmonic and other ensembles.
Shimabukuro says the ukulele’s reputation for frivolity helps when he plays before audiences.
“One of the things that I usually say at the end of my concerts, I tell people that one of the best things about being a touring ukulele player is that audiences all over the world have such low expectations,” Shimabukuro says. “And I think that’s another charming characteristic of the ukulele – that you don’t take it so seriously. That’s one of the things that I love about the instrument. It’s not intimidating. It doesn’t push people away. It embraces people, and that’s something I love.”