People associate the ukulele with the Hawaiian culture. This of course is where this instrument began its popularity. The ukulele however stems back to the late 18th-century when Portuguese immigrants left their island home to settle in the Hawaiian archipelago, seeking work.
The Portugal forerunners or pioneers of the ukulele was led by the following musicians: Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo. All three men immigrated to Hawaii in 1879. bringing the forerunner of the modern ukulele with them. The Portuguese string instrument was called machete de braga or braguinha.
Nunes, Dias, and Santo arrived together from the same ship. All three men worked on sugar plantations. After working in the fields. Nunes, Santo, and Dias would take their braguinha to small gathering places for they and many locals. Native Hawaiian’s also began playing and reproducing the ukulele.
By the 20th century, the ukulele was the main musical instrument that helped to establish its prominence on all the Hawaiian islands. Also at this time, the ukulele was introduced to the U.S. and much of the world’s musicians who further popularized its presence.
Many global musicians used the ukulele in their varied musical genres that included rock, indie, jazz, blues, and Broadway musicals.
Etymologists state that the ukulele was so named by Hawaiians. Its name stands for “jumping flea.” The popularity of the ukulele on the Hawaiian Islands was fully assured as the Island’s musical instrument by the royal family members. The Hawaiian kings and queens loved the sound of the ukulele.
The monarchs of Hawaii made sure that the ukulele would become completely intertwined with the musical culture of Hawaii. The royal family would often hold ukulele contests. Today, the ukulele is finally becoming a mainstream instrument whose nickname is “uke.”
However, during the 1950s on the Hawaiian mainland, the ukulele fell out of prominence due to the introduction of rock and roll. Teens wanted to play the guitar like rock and roll artists. Hawaiian adults remained true to the uke heritage.
But since the ukulele is easy to play, is fun to play, and has a haunting tropical sound, families remained true to the earlier historical ancestral instrument playability. Before long the ukulele made a quick comeback with local artists rendering their ukulele-inspired songs on leading radio stations.
Popular Ukulele Songs
In case you are not aware of what a ukulele sounds like. Here are some popular songs you can listen to online. You will be surprised how these famous artists used the ukulele to highlight their songs:
- Ed Sheeran: “Perfect”
- Justin Beiber: “Love Yourself”
- Adele: “Someone Like You”
- John Legend: “All Of Me”
- Lady Gaga: “Shallow”
- Beatles: “Let It Be”
- Billie Eilish: “Idontwannabeyouanymore”
- Demi Lovato: “Let It Go’
- Elvis Presley: “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”
- Chance the Rapper: “Cocoa Butter Kisses”
Musicians of all levels enjoy playing and creating songs on the uke. The most popular website ukulele player is Einer Bankz. He is an accomplished ukulele player. Einer Bankz is also a musical producer that plays in and around the San Francisco area. His viral a cappella videos with hip hop and popular rappers is very popular.
Bankz has played tunes on his ukulele that have been popularized by hip hop and rappers like Da Baby, Lil Tjay, Roddy Ricch, and many others. In fact, he has recorded videos with these artists.
Let’s talk a little about a ukulele versus a guitar. Simply put. with only four strings the ukulele’s chord shapes can be played with just one finger unlike a guitar. Guitar chords are more intricate but with just a couple of lesson, the uke gives you an introduction to all the chords you will need to play a myriad of songs.
Most Famed Ukulele Player
You would think that with the lengthy history of the ukulele around Hawaiian shores that the most famous player would be Hawaiian. Well, this is very true. At the top of the most famed player would be Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (May 20, 1959 – June 26, 1997). Literally, he was one of the most famous ukulele players in the world. He was phenomenal in bringing this historic stringed instrument to the forefront of global music.
Israel was a Hawaiian musician, entertainer, and political activist. His famous ukulele rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is known worldwide. A native Hawaiian, Israel was popular musician with Hawaiians and Europeans around the world.
He appeared on and made many ukulele recordings that were used in movies, commercials, and on TV series. He and his ukulele appeared on Billboard World Music Charts quite often. Israel was born in 1959 and began playing the ukulele at age 11. He formed a band as a teenager where his vocals and his ukulele playing was all the rage.
Additional Famous Ukulele Players
There are many global ukulele players. But for now, let’s look at 10 famous ukulele players, both past and present:
1. Jake Shimabukuro
Jake Shimabukuro (1976 – present) is a master musician that can make the ukulele produce sounds that are amazing. Born in Hawaii, Jake is a composer whose fingers strums the ukulele with complex precision.
The ukulele is his main stringed instrument as he composes music in varied musical genres that includes classics, folk, rock, pop funk, jazz, blues, and even flamenco.
His ukulele renditions make people around the world dance. People have given him a standing ovation with tears in their eyes, as he performs a sentimental rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Jake Shimabukuro enjoys making masterclass ukulele videos. He is so proficient at playing the ukulele that musicians and artists call him the Jimmy Hendricks of the ukulele.
2. Eddie Kamae
Eddie Kamae (1927 – 2017) was an eight-decade long ukulele player, composer, producer, and singer. The Sons of Hawaii was a popular island group whereby Eddie Kamae was a founding member.
He led this award-winning musical group with ukulele musical chords that was unknown at the time. Yes, he made the ukulele sing!
He enjoyed experimenting with different ukulele techniques that many artists have imitated today. Jake Shimabukuro always stated that it was Eddie Kamae who truly inspired him. Eddie Kamae brought his ukulele musical prowess to the U.S., after an invitation was extended to play along many West Coast stops.
When he returned to Hawaii, Kamae was intent on reprising many of the Hawaiian musical culture to the world, including the history of the ukulele. He created and produced several award-winning PBS documentaries about the Hawaiian culture featuring the ukulele.
He had a famous slogan about the ukulele, where he said that this instrument was important to Hawaiian families and now maybe it will make a family out of the whole world.
3. Grace VanderWaal
Grace VanderWaal (2004 -) Grace VanderWaal. if this name sound familiar it is because you were watching her sing and play the ukulele on Simon Cowell’s hosted TV show “America’s Got Talent.’ At the age of 12, she won the talent contest.
One who sings and plays the ukulele is known as a ‘ukulelist which Ms. VanderWaal is known to be. VanderWaal is seldom with her ukulele. In fact, she has a YouTube video in teaching people how to play the ukulele.
Grace VanderWaal composes her own songs and has starred in Disney movies, where she is also shown carrying her ukulele as well as playing a ukulele artist. When Grace is asked about her love for ukulele, she states that it is a misunderstood stringed instrument. She said people would like to put it in cutesy category, but ukuleles can be used to play in every musical genre.
4. James Hill
James Hill (1980 -) is an award-winning classical musician from Canada. His main instrument is the ukulele. He was introduced to this string instrument when he attended a ukulele instructional program and participated in a ukulele ensemble group for more than ten years.
James Hill enjoyed the ukulele stringed instrument so much that he created the ‘Ukulele in the Classroom” program in 2008 and the programs continues today. His ukulele instrumentation concerts are a global success.
James Hill is an active proponent of the ukulele instrument, as he conducts classes wherever he travels. He is also an annual guest workshop instructor at Hawaii’s Ukulele and Slack Key Guitar Institute.
Wherever there is a ukulele anything, James Hill is there: Great Britain’s Ukulele Festival, Ireland’s Ukulele Hooley Festival, and Hawaii’s Ukulele Festival.
5. Daniel Ho
Daniel Ho (1968-present) has won the Grammy Award six times. He also has won the Taiwanese Golden Melody Award six times. His ukulele skills have given him the recognition as a ukulele magician and one of the best ukulele artists today. He was born in Hawaii. The Hawaiian cultures loves his ukulele renditions and thus has received many Hawaiian music awards.
Daniel Ho’s artistry as a composer and musical arranger on ukulele songs helped bring more attention to this fun stringed instrument. The concert ukulele is a favorite type of uke. His music is defined through soothing lyrics and blending harmonies.
There are occasional sharp rhythm themed song arrangements that stirs your soul. Yes, many of these chords can be achieved through strumming the ukulele. This requires skill!
Let’s continue looking uke players that are present-day well-known celebrities. Ukulele playing is not a cute hobby with them, they are truly ukulele aficionados. The following celebrities enjoy playing and have given more popularity to this amazing stringed instrument.
Of course, to begin our celebrity recognitions, we must give a nod to the high-pitched voice of Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury who with his ukulele helped us tiptoe through the tulips:
6. Craig Hawkes
Craig Hawkes is the former keyboard player from the famous rock group The Cars, In 2008 he released an album paying homage to the Beatles. The songs of the album features Hawkes playing the ukulele to the Beatle’s great hits.
Hawkes has been playing with the ukulele since 2001. He would experiment playing The Cars song with the ukulele.
This included their popular “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Drive” and more Cars hits. He termed his musical experiments ‘Ukesymphonic songs.
7. Zooey Deschanel
Zooey Deschanel often shows her love for the ukulele as she and Joseph Gordon-Levitt perform at various Hollywood events and jazz cabarets.
Award-winning actress Zooey Deschanel loves writing songs and performing with her ukulele, piano, and guitar.
8. Kermit and Miss Piggy
Kermit and Miss Piggy will often play a ukulele song during certain TV performances. As a matter of fact. Kermit played the ukulele as he performed “Ukulele Lady” for Ms. Piggy.
Many of the Jim Henson Muppet’s song were themed by its characters playing the ukulele like the popular ‘The Rainbow Connection” song.
9. The Rock – Dwayne Johnson
The Rock – Dwayne Johnson is of Polynesian ancestry, and he is very adept at playing the ukulele. Several of his movies have included his playing and singing with a ukulele (Mysterious lsland:2).
The Rock says that he grew up in a family where members got together to sing, dance, and play the ukulele.
10. Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift loves playing the ukulele. This instrument is not something that she plays infrequently. In fact, she plays the ukulele as often as she does a guitar.
On many of her award-winning hits, she backs herself up by playing the ukulele. Taylor Swift has made several ukulele tutorials.
Ukuleles are the best flexible and mobile instrument. They are available in different types that features different sizes. Ukuleles come in the same singing voice models that we sign in. This includes, soprano, tenor, baritone, and the concert ukes.
The soprano uke is what most people associate with its sound as a traditional ukulele stringed instrument. There are also many other ukulele variations. Ukes share the same shape. The uke has not deviated from its shape since the Polynesians introduced its existence to Hawaii.
The ukulele features many benefits as an instrument played during social events, classical concerts, and other types of musical stages. When family, friends, musical groups, and other gather together for musical fun. a ukulele can be the star stringed musical instrument.
Now, the uke is not always the first instrument that parents think of buying for their kids. However, ukuleles are so affordable and durable. Ukuleles are easy to play with its basic three chord easy to pick-up tone.
In introducing individuals who helped make the ukulele a global success, we must mention the great American-Hawaiian Don Ho. I can still hear “Tiny Bubbles” playing in my head. Don Ho was strumming his ukulele while walking, singing, and drawing us into his tropical musical experience.
So, come on everyone, grab your ukulele and let’s play and celebrate “National Ukulele Day” that is celebrated annually on February 2nd.