The ukulele — that humble four-stringed icon of all things cute and tuneful — is enjoying its biggest cultural upswing since Tiny Tim tiptoed through the tulips with one in 1968.
A bargain at less than $50 for an adequate model, the ukulele is acquiring new respect as a legitimate musical instrument and as an easy, relaxing way for people to discover the simple pleasure of making music at home without investing heavily in either instrument or lessons.
"The ukulele has always appealed to the older generation," says Jake Shimabukuro, 34, whose solo rendition of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is rapidly approaching 8 million views on YouTube. "Now you see many young kids doing pop and rock tunes on it."
Recent ukulele converts include Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who will feature the instrument during a summer tour in support of his upcoming solo debut, Ukulele Songs. The female half of popular goth-cabaret duo Dresden Dolls released Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele last year. The band Train's "Hey, Soul Singer," which treated the ukulele as just another rock instrument, reached the number three spot on Billboard magazine's pop chart in 2010. And Doris Day devotee, singer-songwriter (and occasional rapper) Nellie McKay, 28, accompanies herself on the uke as a break from her usual seat at the piano.
"Bill Gates recently picked up the ukulele," Shimabukuro notes. "And Warren Buffett is a huge ukulele fan. I even got to strum a few chords with Francis Ford Coppola. It blows my mind that these people, who have everything in the world they could want, have picked up the ukulele and found a little bit of joy."
Like countless other Hawaiian children, Shimabukuro was enrolled by his parents at Roy Sakuma's Ukulele Studios at age 6. He went on to record a series of increasingly successful albums, the most recent of which is titled Peace Love Ukulele. One of the high points of his solo gig earlier this year at Brooklyn Bowl was his ambitiously faithful cover version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."