Once seen as uncool, the ukulele enjoys mainstream resurgence.
HOUSTON — For a little instrument, the ukulele carries a lot of baggage. The four-stringed member of the guitar family was tuned for decades to the most uncool connections and connotations in popular culture: dwarfed by the 1960s novelty act Tiny Tim, blinded by the bright Hawaiian shirts worn by Don Ho and smothered by the cleavage of cheesecake models posed on postcards. In short: It wasn’t considered a utensil for hip musicians.
The uke, though, is in different hands now — and enjoying a peculiar renaissance:
• Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam has an entire album of ukulele music (although he doesn’t plan to release it).
• The uke is heard on recordings by acts such as Jack Johnson, Jens Lekman, Nickel Creek and Andy Partridge.
• Family-oriented artist and former rocker Dan Zanes sells a uke on his Web site.
• Stephin Merritt, frontman for the alt-pop Magnetic Fields, plays only a uke on tour. Their albums, too, make great use of the ukulele, which has inspired a pair of Merritt songs — Ukulele Me! and This Little Ukulele.
• Bruce Springsteen is known to have recently played a uke onstage.
"It’s not perceived as a silly instrument anymore," said Jason Verlinde, editor and publisher of the Ukulele Occasional (with two issues printed in the past three years) and the more regular Fretboard Journal.
"You’re seeing it at more music stores. And the nice thing about it: The ukulele is the one instrument at a music store that you’re never too intimidated to pick up."
The most popular uke lore pinpoints the instrument’s birth as 1879. Traditional Portuguese stringed instruments mutated into the uke in Hawaii by immigrants who worked in sugar-cane fields.
The most popular account pegs the word ukulele as the native term for "jumping fleas" — an observation made about how one of the immigrants played the uke.
The instrument caught on stateside about 1915 and became a favorite with Tin Pan Alley songwriters.
The uke’s popularity waxed and waned, dropping in the 1930s, coming back in the ’50s with TV host Arthur Godfrey, then drifting into novelty songs in the ’60s.
Martin, the instrument company that once made more ukeleles than guitars, eventually ceased ukulele production.
But the uke never became uncool in Hawaii, where it remained the basis for lovely music largely untainted by mainland pop.
And even at its lowest points, the instrument made shy appearances in mainstream pop culture.
At least half the Beatles were uke enthusiasts. Three songs on George Harrison’s final album featured ukulele, and Paul McCartney, whose 1971 album Ram proudly showcased the instrument on a few songs, did a uke tribute to Harrison on his 2002 tour.
Harrison loved the uke.
"It sounds kind of corny, but (playing ukulele) gave him so much joy," his friend Tom Petty told Rolling Stone in 2001. "I was there when he first discovered it. The rest of his life was ukulele. He played the hell out of the thing."
Years after leaving the hardrocking Del Fuegos, Dan Zanes found a second life making family music. His main instrument is mandolin, but he also plays ukulele.
The uke’s simplicity and price — a starter model costs less than $50 — make it appealing, he said.
The Guinness Book of Records once cited the ukulele as the world’s easiest instrument to learn — a point that Zanes echoed.
"It only takes 10 minutes to learn how to play Sloop John B or Jamaica Farewell."
Something about the uke’s simple, small shape and simple, sweet sound is endearing. Unlike the guitar, it lends itself to strumming as you walk around the house; it doesn’t smother conversation.
"It’s like a little friend," said Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, who played a custom-made uke nightly on a 2006 tour.
"You can hide in a corner and play, it’s so unintrusive. It’s really useful for those kinds of songs when you’re hiding within yourself."
In the uke’s pop revival, that sadness comes through; its current vogue is distinctly different from the novelty peaks of its past.
Vedder’s album was, according to a source who heard it, largely informed by his split from his wife.
Merritt’s songs fuse big melodies with romantic melancholy.
Similarly, Harrison’s swan song, while upbeat in parts, was recorded after he learned he had terminal cancer.
At 99, the so-called Duke of Uke, Bill Tapia, has outlived most of his friends and family. He says playing helped him get past the deaths of his wife and daughter.
"The ukulele is a powerful instrument," he said. "It hardly leaves my hands."