How did the ukulele, which during the early twentieth century was one of the most popular instruments around, get shunted into the place it now holds in the musical world; which too often means it is overlooked as a serious instrument, or even looked down on by both practicing musicians and the general public?
Here we look at five reasons why we believe this happened, but to understand such an injustice we need first to step back in time and see how things happened to change so dramatically.
The ukulele’s European roots
By the 18th century musically inclined sailors had developed miniature versions of their favorite instruments like guitars, creating a much more practical sized item to carry on board for entertainment and distraction from their harsh lives. Although these days most people associate the ukulele with Hawaii it was actually Portuguese cabinet makers travelling by sea to sell their goods to foreign lands who introduced it to the island.
The story goes that upon finding there was little call for their expensive furniture they turned their hand to making instruments instead, and the miniature guitar was the piece which took off. However much real truth is in this story we do know that Hawaii adopted the ukulele as their own.
The golden age
When Hawaii became a state of the USA visitors associated the ukulele with tropical paradise, and by the 1920s young people across America couldn’t get enough of it – both to play ad to listen to. Ten years later and the ukulele was still big, and it soon hopped over the water to take the UK by storm too.
Music halls were full of ukulele sounds, and George Formby gained icon status during the Second World War. Meanwhile, in the USA troops returned from Hawaii with toy ukuleles for their children and created lots of young fans.
The tide turns
Somehow by the 1960s perceptions of the ukulele had changed quite drastically, so what happened to cause such a fall from grace?
Reason #1 That is a toy, not an instrument
Perhaps partially due to its small size and the amount of cheap plastic and toy versions that flooded the market, the uke began to be seen as little more than a child’s toy; a bit of fun but nothing to take seriously, or make serious music on.
Reason #2 It became a joke, a caricature
While music was evolving and new styles were emerging the ukulele was being promoted by artists like Tiny Tim who were classed as ‘novelty’ musicians. Despite having been such a major part of the music scene for so long Tony Tim’s 1968 release of ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’– which was an unashamed novelty song – relegated the poor ukulele to the back burners, where it would stay for several decades.
Reason #3 – It’s cute, it’s sweet, and it’s for strange people
From the late 1960s and the following decade the ukulele was firmly off the radar, a total non-runner, and despite having a small but solid fan base it was considered to be something twee, something unsuitable for stable people, best left to those who are oversensitive and unable to follow ‘normal’ activities.
Reason #4 – The ukulele isn’t something for men to mess around with
Real men don’t play the ukulele- or at least that’s what they hype would have had you believe until fairly recently, surprisingly enough. The presumption being that ukulele playing is symbolic of ‘feminine’ traits – basically meaning things like sentimentality and wistfulness – which are emotions ukuleles can do so well – but were deemed by pop culture at that time of being unattractive in men.
Reason #5 – It’s too easy and too small to be taken seriously
It’s possible that this attitude was further fuelled by the uke being fairly easy to learn, therefore it lacked the mystique that guitar playing musicians were automatically awarded. There is some kind of unspoken assumption that only something incredibly difficult to learn or to achieve is worth having, which is incredibly sad really. The perception of the ukulele as a joke instrument is further fuelled by its size.
One description of the ukulele used the term ‘bonsai guitar’ – a shrunken version of a real (and more difficult to learn) instrument, but rarely considered to be an instrument in its own right. This kind of comes full circle back to it being more of a toy than anything else.
How the ukulele is faring now
It may have been relegated to the sidelines but the ukulele rode out the storm and has made an amazing comeback, re-establishing itself as an independent musical instrument that is proud of what it brings to the table, of its accessibility, that everyone from young children to seniors can take it up and learn, whatever their previous musical experience.
Fuelled by Isreal Kamakawiwo’ole’s stunning rendition of Somewhere Over the rainbow’ and the ukulele heavy music on the popular album 69 Love Songs by indie band Magnetic Fields, the ukulele’s rise to the mainstream scene began again in earnest in the first decade of this century as the acoustic-alternative scene blossomed and brought the ukulele along as a key part of its musical output. This and the rapid growth of the Internet created new audiences and the means for sharing all kinds of sounds.
It inspired many new ukulele players too, especially amongst those groups who had no previous experience of actually playing an instrument themselves. The ukulele broke down these barriers and made music accessible to the masses, and being affordable was a huge plus point. You don’t even really need to take lessons – there are plenty of free resources to learn to play the ukulele online! One million ukuleles were sold in the US between 2010-2012 alone.
It’s amazing to see the ukulele back again as a standalone and highly rated instrument which more and more people are choosing to play every year. If you want to learn how to play the ukulele yourself, as well as many other, more popular instruments, then check out Musical Instruments at Sound Chime.