Ukulele fever: Four-stringed instrument rides new wave of popularity

By The Associated Press

The unassuming ukulele has gone viral. No longer are the instruments seen as a frivolous novelty. They are popping up all over YouTube _ and being strummed in chart-topping hits.

As a result, music stores are having a hard time keeping up with demand for the four-string instruments.

“Within the past year we’ve doubled our sales of ukuleles,” said John Sandoval, manager at Nicholson Music in Folsom, Calif.

Two years ago, Sandoval said, it was normal to sell two or three ukuleles. This year, he is selling that many in a day.

The instrument has been popularized by such artists as Eddie Vedder, Bruno Mars and actress-singer Zooey Deschanel. And 35-year-old ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro has led the charge on YouTube, with his rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” tallying 9 million views.

The uke’s status has climbed so high that future generations likely will encounter it for the first time in a school setting _ as part of a music class or club.

At Golden Valley Charter School in Sacramento, the ukulele has been part of music instruction for the past two years, as part of its choral singing program.

“You can’t help but smile when you hear a ukulele,” said Deborah Lenny, principal of the charter school.

The instruments range in price from $35 for an entry model to handmade Hawaiian instruments that fetch $1,300.

The soprano ukulele is the smallest and most popular of the four varieties. Ukuleles increase in size from there _ concert models, then larger tenors and finally the baritones.

People now are buying the higher-priced models, said Chris Teresi, president of Northridge Music in Citrus Heights.

“The dollars spent on ukuleles are going up,” Teresi said. “People are coming back and buying better models than the beginner’s ones.”

Teresi said the average purchase a few years ago for a ukulele was $80 to $100. Now it hovers between $200 and $400.

Internationally, the number of ukuleles sold jumped 16 percent last year, said Scott Robertson, spokesman for the National Association of Music Merchants, while retail sales figures increased by 26 percent last year.

That fact is not lost on instrument makers, Robertson said. “At the most recent NAMM show, we saw many more music companies coming out with ukuleles,” Robertson said. “Taylor Guitars came out with its first ukulele, and ukuleles were much more present at this show than we’ve ever seen before.”

The instrument received its most profound artistic expression on the Hawaiian Islands, although it hails from the Portuguese islands of Madeira.

One of its greatest appeals is that playing it is easy for the novice.

“The fact that the instrument only has four strings means that you can play a lot of chords with just one finger _ so from a learning standpoint, it’s an easy instrument,” Sandoval said.

Noted local jazz guitarist Ross Hammond recently bought one and instantly grew fond of the ease in moving from one chord to another.

“On the uke, chords are laid out in a small area,” he said. “It’s like having the most amount of chords in the smallest amount of space.”

The instrument’s popularity has risen so steadily that at Nicholson Music, Sandoval now leads a ukulele clinic every Saturday afternoon. On a recent Saturday, 20 players gathered to take part, with ages ranging from preteens to senior citizens.

One of those was Angelina Francisco, an 11-year-old who taught herself how to play the popular tune “Honey Baby” on the ukulele by watching a YouTube how-to video.

“I first saw the ukulele when my cousin brought a ukulele to a party,” Francisco said. “He played it and I liked it.”

Golden Valley Charter School’s Lenny also attended the ukulele clinic. The instrument roster at the school now includes six ukuleles and hosts a ukulele club with 15 students. Such efforts mirror those in Canada. Since the early 1960s, generations of Canadian children have learned their first musical concepts on the ukulele.

In Lenny’s estimation, the ukulele offers a fruitful portal into music as an analog experience in a digital society.

“We want our students to have real instruments in their hands and not have them learn music digitally,” she said.

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