BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Ukulele sends UK crazy

Matt Reynolds

Why ukuleles are making a comeback

By Judy Fladmark
BBC News

The modest ukulele is enjoying a surge in popularity. Once considered a novelty, the four-stringed instrument is ready to be taken seriously.

In Spitalfields, where London's financial district borders the city's East End, stands the Duke of Uke, the only specialist ukulele shop in the UK. Dozens of brightly coloured ukuleles adorn its ceiling and walls.

Shop owner Matt Reynolds explains how he first got the idea after his home became over run with his own ukulele collection.

Elvis Presley with ukelele
Uke ain't nothing but a hound dog - Elvis and four-stringed friend

It seemed a good idea to start selling some of them off. Little did he realise that he would soon be riding the ukulele wave.

"In many ways they sell themselves," says Mr Reynolds. "It's so portable and occupies not much space around you. It doesn't have the baggage associated with the guitar. It's very unintimidating, it just says hold me and play me."

After four years of steady growth Mr Reynolds has witnessed an even greater surge in interest - last Christmas sales were 30% higher than the previous year.

And at least half of his customers are "people who have never picked up an instrument before in their lives".

"Customers used to come in and buy the cheapest ukulele now the average customer will come and spend up to £80 on a good instrument."

Sutherland Trading, one of the biggest distributors in the UK, was quick to respond to the public's renewed appetite for the stringed instrument. It now ships at least 3,000 ukuleles into the country every month.

Alan Townsend who runs its ukulele division agrees that, "undoubtedly there has been an astronomic rise," and claims that "it has been the saviour of our industry."

He says that any shortfall in sales of instruments due to the economic downturn has been balanced by a rise in demand for the ukulele.

Rival to recorder?

Back at the Duke of Uke, Matt Reynolds is preparing for a group lesson. He says the magic of the uke is that with its four strings - as opposed to the guitar's six - it is easy to play. As a consequence, "there are a lot of groups forming and running through songs together".

Frank Skinner with banjo
[The ukulele] is a strictly non-threatening musical instrument - not too difficult to play, easily portable and unpretentious
Frank Skinner (pictured playing a banjo)

"It's not long before you have a few chords down so that you can play a large amount of music that has been produced in the 20th Century".

"Indie music has picked it up and in the aftermath of the digital age and back to acoustic feel there is a bigger interest in folk instruments and it happened to be one of them."

"Then there is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain who, in doing covers of songs, have really popularised the karaoke, sing-along aspect that is there."

So could the ukulele replace the recorder as first instrument of choice for schoolchildren ?

Peter Hudson, a ukulele teacher for the Kitchen School of Music, says it continues to grow in popularity with primary schools and demand for lessons in secondary school.

"The ukulele is brilliant for kids to learn. It really comes to life when played in groups and they get a lot out of writing their own song. It would be great if everyone could learn the ukulele. It is a good way into any form of music."

The internet has helped fuel the popularity of the ukulele. Al Wood who runs a website for fans of the instrument, called Ukulele Hunt, says that two years ago he had 700 daily visitors and now there are almost 7,000 a day.

A comic tradition

There has been a huge increase in the amount of ukulele material online, says Mr Wood. And it's the instrument's online profile that helps explain its resurgence in popularity.

Marilyn Monroe, George Formby, Pat Boone and the Two Ronnies
Marilyn Monroe, George Formby, Pat Boone and the Two Ronnies (playing banjoleles)

"The internet has spread the idea of the ukulele as an accessible instrument. Whereas people take up the guitar aspiring to be like Jimi Hendrix, people watch a friend playing the ukulele on YouTube and think, 'I could do that'."

"The big influences are people like Julia Nunes and Zee Avi who were making YouTube videos two years ago and are now touring the world and releasing albums."

Frank Skinner is one of a few British comedians sporting the ukulele, and he says he is "completely hooked".

"It's a strictly non-threatening musical instrument - not too difficult to play, easily portable and unpretentious," says Skinner. "I also like that when I go into a music shop, there's about 5,000 guitar books and then three pamphlets on the ukulele. It feels like I'm operating on the outskirts of music.

"I love George Formby. That's the main reason I play. For me, he is the ukulele - amazing right hand. Consequently I see the uke as part of a British comic tradition. It sounds like it's laughing along."

Gerry Mawdsley, president of the George Formby Society, says membership is at its highest since the 1960s and increasing all the time.

"There has been a renaissance because you can play and sing at the same time. You don't need any musical knowledge at all."

Mr Mawdsley says that the ukulele will always be synonymous with Formby and is amazed by the amount of young people who still aspire to play his style.

What would Formby make of all this? He would "be over the moon that there was all this interest. He was loved by the people and he would love people playing his instrument."

Below is a selection of your comments on the story

Im buying one!! (to add to my collection of other totally useless stuff I never get round to using).
Ben Skinner, Leeds

My wife gave me a lime green glittery ukulele for Christmas, and may have regretted it as I didn't put it down for a week! I've been playing electric guitar in bands for years and would love to do a little ukulele section at gigs, but the drummer would have a fit.
Darren, Dursley

I am an ex-pro musician & music teacher of some 50+ years playing experience. I disagree with the comments relating to George Formby. With his 'Village Idiot' persona, he left a legacy which perceived the Ukulele as being merely a prop for similar style comedians. Formby was a self confessed musical Philistine, and whilst I agree that the ukulele is extremely accessible, it is not strictly true that that you can play it "without any musical knowledge at all" yet Mr. Maudsley seems quite happy to perpetrate the idea that any idiot can do it! This association of the ukulele with Formby caused player like myself such embarrassment that serious musicians were forced to hide their talent in the 'closet'!

Luckily the younger generation, oblivious of Formby, have thrown themselves into a much wider range of music, which as well as adding to the growing eclectic ukulele trend, have enabled us old fogies to emerge from the closet to once more enjoy the original ukulele music of the Jazz era without someone shouting "turned out nice again"!How refreshing.
Stan Gee, Redcar, Cleveland, England

Every time I see anything about ukes. I think back to a very young summer living in Waikiki in a studio with shutters, no windows. My neighbour who I never saw played the ukulele like an angel all the time. What a summer that was.
Stephanie Curtis, San Francisco, CA

I have often visited the Duke of Uke, and love trying the different ukes. I purchased a Kala tenor from there and it changed my life. Just love it!!
Gary Pipe, Saffron Walden. GT. Britain

Actually, I prefer the banjo.

Anyone know any good ukulele jokes? Banjo ones abound, like the one about the banjo player who left his instrument in his unlocked car and came back to find five more... or the definition of perfect pitch: chucking your banjo at the toilet and it lands in the bowl!
Megan, Cheshire UK

The Ukulele has become an really popular instrument here in OZ. Even in my little area, there is a substantial Uke society. All music stores here are selling them. How did this happen? And why is no-one considering one of the Uke greats...Tiny Tim? No matter what people think, the Uke is a great instrument.
Siobhan R, Blue Mountains NSW Australia

Here in Langley we have a ukulele orchestra who have played all over the world, and win competitions all over. They are amazing. look for Langley ukulele ensemble on the web.
W Brown, Langley, BC Canada

I've recently begun learning the ukulele to break the monotony of my final-year university studies.

I haven't played a musical instrument since I left senior school so I'm surprised at how reasonably easy - and therefore enjoyable - the 'Uke' is to learn. 'Honolulu Baby' is a classic!
Ewan Waugh, South Shields, Tyne and Wear

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific