In the ever-changing world of western music, it seems there are always those who strum the six-strings and tickle the ivories. Looking forward, it seems there will be another member of the mainstream popular instrument club.
In recent years, the small and plucky ukulele has grown extensively in popularity and presence, especially among millennials. According to the National Association of Music Merchants, ukulele sales increased 54% in 2013 and have grown steadily since. So why the sudden revival?
According to student Josh Needles, who recently picked up a ukulele of his own, the instrument’s appeal is thanks in part to its accessibility.
“I’ve always had a passion for music,” said Needles. “But I especially love the ukulele for its uniqueness and simplicity. You can do so much with such a simple instrument, and just about anyone could learn to play.”
Unlike the guitar, the ukulele has only four strings, which makes for much easier chord shapes. It’s also much shorter, thinner and lighter than a guitar. Additionally, ukuguides.com states that one need only learn three chords to play a wide range of songs. The ukulele can be strummed in a number of different ways—there isn’t just one acceptable technique.
Needles also mentioned how inexpensive it is to play. “I always wanted to learn to play the guitar, and I even took guitar lessons, but I just couldn’t afford it. Ukuleles are much cheaper than guitars,” he said. “I think I got mine for $40, and it’s a decent one.”
Ukulele music is also becoming more and more accessible online. Most popular songs have been transposed into ukulele-friendly chords that players can access for free on the same sites where they’d find guitar tabs. There are also dozens of free ukulele tuning apps available for download.
Marion Jacobson, an ethnomusicologist — one who studies music and culture — explains in a recent article on theatlantic.com that though the instrument originated in Europe, it was introduced to Hawaii in 1879, which is why Americans tend to associate the ukulele’s sound with the islands.
The Hawaiians were so impressed by the rapid fingering of the man who played it that they named it the ukulele, which translates to “jumping flea.” According to Jacobson, its popularity spread widely among the Hawaiian Islands and eventually made its way to the mainland United States in the 1900’s, where it enjoyed on-and-off popularity for its laid-back, distinctive sound.
Currently, the ukulele is used to play wide range of music. Songs such as “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen and “Sunday Morning” by Maroon Five have been adapted from their mainstream styles to fit the four strings of the jumping flea and are listed among the most popular ukulele tunes on ukutabs.com.
Ukuleles can be purchased in most guitar stores and are widely available on Amazon.com. In the words of the quiet Beatle, George Harrison, “Everybody should have and play a uke, It’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh.”