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The Ukulele Is Hot

Just ask Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder or financier Warren Buffett

Shimabukuro attributes the light, portable uke's appeal to its tuning. Unlike the guitar, the uke's lowest string — tuned to middle C on a piano keyboard — lies in-between its two highest strings. This makes it simpler to play than a guitar because you don't need to worry about resolving bass notes from chord to chord. It also lends the instrument its friendly, chiming sound.

"When you're strumming the ukulele it sounds like children," Shimabukuro says. "It's in the same register as a child's voice, and that's what makes people smile when they hear it."

He believes the instrument's close association with Hawaiian splendors is another mark in its favor.

When it moved from Hawaii, the ukulele became a frequently featured player in Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville and Jazz Age productions thanks to performers such as Roy Smeck and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. But the uke has transcended its novelty appeal. Producers David Barratt and Roger Greenwalt's The Beatles Complete on Ukulele Project, for example, releases a new recording of a Beatles song by a different artist online every Tuesday, with 115 of the group's 185 songs covered to date.

The biggest misconception about the ukulele, according to Barratt, is that it's only a toy.

"Its great misunderstanding is that it's thought of as a joke instrument," he says. "There is something humorous about ukuleles, because they're so bright and shiny sounding. But the idea of the uke being only a toy instrument is disappearing. Now even the cheaper ones stay vaguely in tune."

Ukulele World proprietor Roy T. Cone, meanwhile, is keeping the ukulele dream alive down in Seabrook, Texas, halfway between Galveston and Houston. Cone got into the ukulele business in the late 1950s after learning to build his own instruments as part of a seniors ukulele club. Today he recommends ukulele therapy for stroke victims looking for something to help with hand movement.

"It's a happy instrument that makes you smile and feel good," attests Cone, who says he sold "hundreds" of instruments over the past year. "Hell, I'm 84, so anything that makes me feel good at my age is bound to not be too bad."

 

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