The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 1, 2012

Ukuleles surge in popularity; instruments easy for kids to learn

By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor

JOPLIN, Mo. — The popularity of ukuleles rises and falls like the tides surrounding the state most commonly associated with the small instrument. The tide for this trend is rising right now, thanks to viral videos and popular musicians.

“There’s a renewed interest,” said Greg Rosander, manager of Palen Music Center. “It’s been growing the past few years with all the different musicians like Train and Jason Mraz.”

Rosander said that the instrument’s popularity surged in the ’20s, then faded until the ’50s and ’60s. The instrument was widely used in the folk movement and is now enjoying another surge.

That raises the question for parents about whether they should let kids attracted to the instrument learn it.

Whether it’s a trend or not, Rosander recommends feeding the interest.

“Any instrument that a kid starts on gives a basic foundation,” Rosander said. “Anything you can take from one instrument can translate to another, as long as you’re getting that foundation.”

Eddie Vedder, Bruno Mars and actress-singer Zooey Deschanel have popularized the instrument lately. And a 35-year-old ukulele virtuoso named Jake Shimabukuro has scored more than 9 million views of his rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Another YouTube video featuring 8-year-old Aidan Powell in 2010 performing a cover of Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” has earned more than 10 million views.  

“There are all kinds of kids 5 to 12 who are picking up the instrument,” Rosander said. “They are all over YouTube.”

Part of the popularity has to do with the ease of playing, Rosander said. Four strings on a small fretboard is not as complex as the average guitar.

As popularity goes up, so do sales. The Sacramento Bee reported that 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.”

Rosander has models that range in price from $50 to $300, he said. The models feature the same craftsmanship and construction found in other instruments sold in the store.

Across the country, shoppers can find $35 for a toy instrument to $1,300 for a handmade Hawaiian instrument.

The soprano ukulele is the smallest and most popular of the four varieties. Ukuleles increase in size from there Ñ 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, Calif.

“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.

“It’s a great entry level instrument,” Rosander said. “Anyone can pick it up, from a kid to an adult.”

Rosander cautions parents, however. Playing the ukulele is the same as playing any other instrument: It takes practice.

-- Edward Ortiz, of the Sacramento Bee, contributed to this report.


Though the ukulele received its most profound artistic expression on the Hawaiian Islands, it comes from the Portuguese islands of Madeira.    Source: Sacramento Bee