Someone inform Zooey Deschanel on an olde tyme phone: the ukulele has gone mainstream. Yes, the instrument that was once a hipster essential alongside thick-rimmed glasses and craft beer is currently enjoying a massive sales boost. Amazon reports that, between 2013 and 2014, sales of the ukulele have increased by 1,200%.
But is the rise due to the so-called “Mumford effect”, or should we blame recent four-string abuser Meghan Trainor instead? “Ukuleles are replacing the recorder in schools now,” says Will Grove-White, member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and author of Get Plucky with the Ukulele. “It’s an easy way for kids to get into music. Unlike the recorder, you don’t need a lot of technique to get a tune out of it quickly. And ukuleles are also cheap: a good one costs less than £30 (or $45).”
OK, we’ve got our diminutive friend in our hands, we have banished all memory of Tiny Tim tiptoeing through his tulips and we’re trying hard to channel Joaquin Phoenix in Her instead. So where do we begin?
“The easiest place to start is with some one-chord songs such as Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up,” says Grove-White. That’s just a C minor chord for the whole thing. Or you could try Chain of Fools by Aretha Franklin. It’s just a C 7th chord.”
Great, but now we’re getting pins and needles in our fingers and we have to admit that our Aretha impression isn’t quite what it used to be. Is there anything we can try that makes us look more like, say, “Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine”?
“Singin’ in the Rain is a C and a G 7th chord and Rock Around the Clock is C, F and G.” Simple enough and no bleeding finger tips or having to play Under the Bridge. “Learning ukulele is much easier than learning the guitar,” agrees Grove-White. “That’s mainly because on the ukulele you’ve got four strings and not six.”
Still, the ukulele had a formative part to play in rock’n’roll: the best Davids (Bowie and Byrne) started on it, Joni Mitchell had one and even Jimi Hendrix began on a humble one-stringed one.
“All you need is the three basic chords and, once you’ve got those, you can play pretty much every song in the history of rock’n’roll.” Even All About That Bass (A, B minor and E 7th, since you ask).