Ukuleles have gone viral

YouTube videos, online how-tos and social networking fuel the musical instrument's renewed popularity.

July 25, 2009|Dan Fost

SAN FRANCISCO — Thanks to the Internet, the humble ukulele is pushing its recent popularity well beyond anything that old-time performers Don Ho, Arthur Godfrey or even Tiny Tim could imagine.

From YouTube to manufacturers' websites, from bulletin boards to iPhone and BlackBerry applications that mimic ukes and teach chords, the Internet has been stoking the craze for nearly two years and unveiling fresh talent.

"The number of new players keeps going up," said Mike DaSilva of Berkeley, who ditched a 20-year software career to make ukuleles.Guitar maker C.F. Martin & Co. stopped producing ukes in 1994 because they had become so unpopular, but resumed in 2001 and is selling some of the handmade instruments for as much as $10,000 -- even in these tough economic times.

C.F. Martin wouldn't release sales numbers, and no one has kept track industrywide since 1980, when the ukulele numbers were folded into overall guitar sales. But uke makers say they are busier than ever.

"Monthly, we're selling more and more. Demand is exceeding the supply," said Michael Upton, whose Kala Brand Music Co. in Petaluma, Calif., sells ukuleles made in China. Artisan ukulele makers such as DaSilva, who makes ukes that sell for $600 to $3,000, said they have waiting lists stretching out more than a year.

Uke makers are riding the wave of popularity that began around the time of former Beatle George Harrison's death in 2001. Harrison was well-known in uke circles, but it was former bandmate Paul McCartney who reignited the public's fascination by playing the instrument in the 2002 tribute Concert for George and in other performances.

Though big stars helped spur the instrument's latest round of popularity, the Internet has been "more important than anything" in the uke's resurgence, said Jim Beloff, a leading publisher of ukulele songbooks and a major promoter of the sweet-strumming, four-stringed, long-maligned uke.

In the last two years, singer-songwriter Julia Nunes has parlayed her YouTube videos, most of her own compositions, into online stardom and an invitation to last month's Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. Actress Molly Ringwald reportedly was inspired to take up the ukulele after watching Nunes on YouTube.

Last year, rock journalist and self-described "ukuholic" Sylvie Simmons called for a "Million Uke March" -- online only -- in support of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

And ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, already big in Hawaii, the uke's homeland, became a nationwide sensation with his wailin' on Harrison's "My Guitar Gently Weeps," which has attracted more than 3 million hits on YouTube since 2006 and earned him tours with Jimmy Buffett, a recording session with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and various television appearances.

As with so many groups the Internet has helped to foster, Ukulele lovers have been searching for like-minded folks among isolated pockets of uke players and creating online communities. Beloff's website Flea Market Music hosts a directory of more than 3,000 ukulele players so they can find one another in their local communities. Good ukes, once hard to find, are popping up on EBay.

"There are a lot of ukulele specialty websites," uke maker Upton said. "For years, music stores didn't carry them."

The website Ukulele Underground posts YouTube videos and ukulele reviews and hosts spirited discussions about concerts, techniques, instruments and everything else a ukulele fan would want. Last year, the Underground staff posted a video lesson on how to play Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" on the uke, saying, "We're blasting [Don Ho's] 'Tiny Bubbles' right out of the water."

The novelty aspect still exists, as anyone who listens to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain can attest. Picture eight men in tuxedos, strumming and picking the tune of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

But DaSilva, pointing to growing sales and interest, sees a different story in the bigger picture: "It's not a novelty thing. It's being taken seriously."

Upton said his Kala Brand Music sold nearly 100,000 ukuleles last year, up 75% from the previous year, and is likely to grow 50% more this year to nearly $4 million in sales. He figures he controls about a third of the U.S. market.

Many in the business credit Upton with successfully getting a decent ukulele made in China, which has given a huge boost to the instrument's popularity. Kala ukuleles range in price from about $30 to $500.

"The lower end of the market is really booming," he said.

The ukulele even had a revival in Hawaii, where it had fallen out of favor as a tourist cliche, and also has long been popular in Japan. Hawaii's oldest factory, Kamaka Hawaii, produces 3,500 to 4,000 instruments a year, a quarter of which are sold in Japan.

The Internet also has helped to spread demand internationally.

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