If somebody told me five years ago I’d fall in love with the ukulele as an instrument, I would not have believed you. Back then I had no idea of the sonic possibilities or the diversity of sounds possible with the instrument and imagined the ukulele a gimmick in many ways.
Of course I now know better!
An accepted definition of a gimmick is
“something designed to attract extra attention, interest, or publicity”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a gimmick of course, but personally I would love to change this stereotypical image that many people have which does not reflect the wonder of this musical instrument.
A few things started to change my mind about this misconception. The first was seeing the superb Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain play their version of Shaft on YouTube. I had always imagined the ukulele as a solo instrument and a novelty item for cabaret acts. There’s nothing wrong with cabaret and/or novelty acts, but in my mind its not what I would call great music. The second thing to change my mind was purchasing a Collings pre production concert ukulele in New York from Zeke in Matt Umanov Guitars.
I knew Collings by reputation to be an excellent brand and saw the concert in the store before trying it out. Zeke enthused massively about ukes and was the spark that set me in motion to create everything that has subsequently occurred including creating this site. When I played the Collings concert I had no idea how to play it, BUT I love the size of it and the sound. I now own 24 ukuleles and am fascinated by how these tiny instruments can be used to express some truly excellent music. I have also recorded over 30 original songs written on the uke, and played a number of great gigs in the UK and overseas.
I set up the OUS site to showcase how the ukulele can be used to create a wide range of diverse and fascinating music. I deliberately focused on original music as a lot of what I saw and heard online were endless cover versions of classic songs. many of these to my ears although enthusiastic, were not great to listen to. I started to notice that there is a wide diversity of opinion for those who love this instrument. There are lots of social meet up groups that run strum along’s and have a great deal of fun. I have run a PA system for such groups and its clear that this social connection is a love for many people. There is also a huge number of people online playing cover versions of classic songs. This is of variable quality, but its great that people are learning how to express themselves through this instrument.
The growth of OUS showed me that there are also a great number of musicians who are interested in creating new music for the wider world. I was blown away by the quality of a lot of the submitted OUS video footage. One of the aims of OUS was to show the wider world the ukulele is a genuine dynamic and extraordinary instrument. Despite all of this my view is that the ukulele is more often than not seen as a gimmick or novelty item. I appreciate that many people love presenting the uke in this way and many events and festivals encourage this impression. As with all niche interests there are some genuine fanatics in the ukulele world who talk about “non ukers” Fortunately there are also many great musicians who appreciate that the ukulele does not in itself posses any magical powers and is one of many instruments.
In recent years Grace VanderWaal won America’s got talent and of course this brought an awareness of the ukulele to a wider audience. Personally her material is almost everything I hate about “packaged artists” deeply affected vocal expression and production coated with endless reverb, BUT clearly I am in a minority as many folks love this type of output. I increasingly see the ukulele presented as a prop for some artists. In “the music business” the record companies want a return on their artist investments and this is especially true with talent shows. The label “ukulele” has in my view niche appeal and I would never describe The Small Change Diaries as “a ukulele band” Similarly if I promoted the album launch this November as “a ukulele evening” I know from conversations we would have had far less people attend it.
In stark contrast Jake Shimabukuro is a guy who is an exceptional musician and who also has caught the public’s imagination especially with his brilliant covers of Queen and Beatles material. Another great example of someone I consider a brilliant creative artist is Eddie Vedder who I saw live in New York where he played his “Ukulele Songs” set of all original material. It was a brilliant showcase for the instrument and demonstrated how the uke is a fantastic tool for singer songwriters. Of course brilliant songwriters like George Harrison, Elvis Costello and Loudon Wainwright 3rd all know this. I love writing with and playing ukes, but of course its not the only instrument I play. For me the uke is a truly extraordinary instrument and my hope is that increasingly more people will discover this for themselves.