Jumping Fleas

I think you should do a piece about Ukuleles and how great they are. It’s the only way you’ll learn.

Wow. A whole blog post on ukeleles? Well, here we go. First, I have to confess, I had a surprisingly enjoyable time researching this topic. I’ve scoured YouTube, Googled my way through the first few pages of 6,150,000 results (yes, you read that number right, I haven’t added an extra 0) and plucked at one in a music shop. I even nearly dragged my long-suffering husband about 50 miles to a ukelele night at a pub, before thinking ‘No, this is silly. Get a grip, Becca’.

Basically, ukeleles are taking over the world. I’m on Twitter nearly every day, I see a LOT of tweets, and a lot of web pages, and I was confused by how often ukeleles kept cropping up. I wondered why people were talking about some sort of banjo-y thing that George Formby used to trill “When I’m Cleaning Windows” to. Why??

I’ve asked a uke expert (yes, I’m using the nickname. I’ll be wearing a trilby next.) to give me some insights. Known only as ‘Mr Uku’, here is his unique insight into the mysterious world of ukeleles:

Me: How did you get interested in ukeleles?

Uku: I have no idea. I am fascinated by all kinds of musical instruments but am unable to actually play any. The Ukulele was something I happened across while guitar shopping. Hearing The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain clinched it for me and I bought my first no-mark generic Ukulele, that has since been sold on.

The name Ukulele, is Hawaiian and roughly translates as Jumping Flea and reflects the way the players fingers jump around the fretboard.

The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, playing The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Me: Are there different types of uke?

Uku: Yes. Ukes come in 4 sizes, Soprano (the small one you have probably seen), Concert (slightly larger, slightly louder), Tenor (larger still) and Baritone (larger and tuned differently). They all look like small 4 string guitars although the baritone is basically a full size guitar but with only 4 strings. Then there is the Banjolele as played by George Formby and NOT to be confused with the 4 string Tenor Banjo. The Banjolele was developed to allow the tiny Uke to be heard over the noise of a music hall crowd. Don’t forget there was no electrical amplification back then.

Me: Do you think there is a ukelele revival, and would you say this is among any particular group of people?

Uku: Yes. Ukes haven’t been this popular since 1920 and Uke music regularly appears in TV ads and the pop charts. Last year, The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain played a concert for The Proms and Jake Shimabukuro played at the Royal Variety. You tube is so full of ukuleles that there is an entire meme on there just for cute girls in glasses who play the Uke. Schools are finding that kids take to the Uke quite easily too and given the choice, most kids would choose a Uke over the Recorder. Ukes are easier to play, you can sing while you strum, they look cooler than a recorder and they don’t make that awful squeaking noise when you blow too hard. Plus they come in all sorts of colours and they’re cheap. What’s not to love?

Me: If you were in a burning building would you save your cake or your ukelele?

Uku: My ukulele case has a cake pocket so I could save both. See, always thinking.

Me: Is there anything interesting or quirky about ukeleles?

Uku: Anything interesting or quirky about Ukuleles??? Have you not been paying attention. Tut. Honestly. Women.

OK, how about some celebs who play the Uke? Bette Midler bases a lot of her music on the Uke as she is from Hawaii. William H. Macy, Pierce Brosnan, Steve Martin, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Phil Jupitus, Frank Skinner and of course, SpongeBob SquarePants are all huge Ukulele fans.

And finally from our guest:

Uku: In order to fully appreciate the Uke, you need to play one. Anyone can learn a simple tune in under 30 minutes. They’re a great way for kids to express themselves and explore their musical abilities. And even if you can’t play one properly, they don’t sound annoying. Not like those awful recorders. So get some advice on what to look out for and then jump in. You’ll never regret buying a Uke.

It’s not just beginners who are loving the ukelele either. A fifteen year old girl from North Devon has studied Classical Guitar to Grade 7 (there are only 8 grades people, that’s pretty impressive!) and is now taking up the uke because: “It’s such a happy instrument 🙂 my friends at school are all cool, and think ukes are awesome…”. So there, it’s not just for geeks. And if any more proof of the uke’s popularity were needed, it featured in the Season finale of the fabulous tv show, Glee.

I went along to a music store and tried one out for myself. I have to say, I could easily see the attraction. The models we looked at were beautifully made and finished, had a lovely sound even with a total novice strumming away aimlessly and even the most expensive ones in the shop were relatively cheap for quality musical instruments. It was light and portable, making it ideal to take anywhere, and it did seem to be fairly easy to pick up. The shop assistant we spoke to, however, denies that it’s a new phenomenon. He said that people have been coming in asking about ukes for years, and that it was far more popular than you’d think. He even directed us to a pub nearby that specialised in folk music, and held a ukelele night once a week with around 30 people strumming away happily.

I won’t be buying a ukelele any time soon. For one thing, I’ve had so many interests I think my husband will keel over if I announce a new hobby (and he really doesn’t get the appeal still. Philistine.). But I was seriously tempted on behalf of my son, who’s nearly three. I actually may get him one in a couple of years, instead of the dreaded recorder. Andrew, if you’re reading, think carefully about this. Ukelele? Lovely, gentle, strumming? Or the RECORDER? Is there really a choice?

If anyone has been bitten by the ukelele bug, check out www.theukeleleshop.co.uk for a starter guide, or seek out @mruku on Twitter. Amazon sell Mahalo ukeleles for £19.99 plus P&P. If you’re in North East England, JG Windows at the Metrocentre have a nice range in, including a child’s ukelele in bubblegum pink for £14.99, and you can play them to see if you like them.

Anyway, just to finish off, here’s a lovely version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, as performed on Glee, featuring, yes, a ukelele. Ignore the cheesy feel-good acting and listen to the music. 🙂