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Stars of the Ukulele

Updated on August 24, 2011
Album cover for Hawaiin ukulele player, Johnny Ukulele (son of Prince Koeheo Ka'aihue) who made a career in mainland America for fifty years before returning to his island home.
Album cover for Hawaiin ukulele player, Johnny Ukulele (son of Prince Koeheo Ka'aihue) who made a career in mainland America for fifty years before returning to his island home.

~The ukulele is a noble little instrument... anyone serious about music will eventually come to play one.~

Bob Brozman

Back in the 19th century, Portuguese immigrants settling in Hawaii introduced a small guitar-like instrument called a braguinha to the locals. Hawaiians dubbed it the ukulele -variously interpreted as meaning 'jumping flea' or 'the gift that came here'. Within a few years it had taken the island by storm to eventually become the traditional instrument of the Hawaiians.

The ukulele become more broadly popular in the 1920s and 30's, featuring heavily during the Jazz age... and throughout the rest of the 20th century has had roller-coaster periods of popularity and decline. Recently it has enjoyed something of a revival but the ukulele has always had its supporters. Beatle George Harrison was an enthusiastic ukulele fan, as was actor Peter Sellers and it has been incorporated into some indie music and even punk cabaret at various times.

Small and unassuming, resembling something like a toy guitar, the ukulele has at times been treated cavalierly and even been falsely given a status marginally above the triangle by some. Yet the bright, versatile sound of the ukulele has attracted a wide variety of performers, from serious classical musicians to comedy acts. For some, the instrument became an extension of the performers personality, or at least a side-kick...a kind of second banana to the main act. It's hard to visualise George Formby without his ukulele and Tiny Tim's novelty act was dependent upon the uniqueness of his voice and instrument.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ukulele greats...there are many accomplished performers I've had to leave off or this page would be a mile long. and there's probably many more I'm not even familiar with.I don't pretend to be a ukulele expert...just an appreciative fan.

Some players are extraordinary virtuosos, some merely competent players but all of the performers below have made their name synomous with their instrument. They have in some way or other made themselves stars of the ukulele....

Ernest Kaai

Before researching this topic I'd never heard of Ernest Kaleihaku Kaai,1882-1962,  however, I've since discovered that he has probably done more for the promotion of the ukulele than any other single player. Often labelled the 'father of Hawaiian music' Kaai published the first ever ukulele instruction book...Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It. On top of that he operated the Ukulele Manufacturing company and toured extensively.

Performing all over the world, notably with The Royal Hawaiian Troubadours, the tireless Kaai organized music ensembles and composed and published music and has been hailed as a driving force in raising the level of the ukulele.

Ernest Kaai...around 1917
Ernest Kaai...around 1917

Unfortunately I could find no recording of Kaai online, but below is a video featuring traditional Hawaiian music and played expertly by ukulele master, Ohta-San . This is really a lovely musical piece. I've listened to it several times and like it more each time I hear it. Ohta -San manages to extract such a sweet, emotional tone from the ukulele..


Ukulele Ike

Popular in the 1920s and 30's Ukulel Ike, aka Cliff Edwards, was born in Hannibal Missouri (birthplace of Mark Twain) 1895 and as a teenager made a modest living singing in movie theatres and saloon bars.

As an accompaniment to his voice, Ike began incorporating the ukulele into his act, improvising with a style he called "effin"...a bit like the human voice imitating a trumpet. it was a club owner who nicknamed him 'Ukulele Ike", because he could never remember his name.

Edwards had a phenomenally successfully career. Endowed with a beautiful singing voice, Ike's rise to fame was rapid. He was a hit on broadway, made several successful films (appearing in over 100)...and had a massive hit with Singing in the Rain. He sold an incredible 74 million records worldwide, had his own national radio show, his own TV show and after joining up with Walt Disney, was the voice of Jiminy Cricket and the singer of When you Wish Upon a Star.

Such are the vagaries of fate, after shining so brightly, it all ended badly for Ukulele Ike. Addicted to drugs and alcohol...tragically, he died destitute as a welfare patient in a California hospital 1971. His body lay unclaimed for days.

(Note: Thanks to William F. Torpey and Epigramman for drawing my attention to this great ukulele star.)

Nobody But You

Roy Smeck

Mention ukuleles to the old folk and chances are they'll talk about Roy Smeck. Smeck's sensational virtuosity combined with entertaining showmanship has made him a legend of the ukulele. Apart from being a highly accomplished player, as seen in the video below, Smeck flicks, turns and swirls his instrument around between changing chords and strumming with complete ease, never missing a beat..he even blows into it at one stage.

Known as the 'wizard of strings', at times his fingers move so quickly they become a blur and just the sheer energy of the music is impressive. During his career he made over 500 recordings, appeared in films and wrote method books and arrangements for various string instruments. Smeck was also a virtuoso on the banjo, Spanish guitar and Hawaiian guitar but the ukulele remained his favourite.

Interestingly, he pioneered audio and video techniques, creating multi-tracked video years before anyone else. Smeck died in 1994, aged 94.

Tiger Rag

George Formby

"Eeh, isn't it grand!"

British entertainer George Formby, son of the famous musical hall performer George Formby Snr (or John Booth) made his name singing amusing songs and playing the banjo ukulele on screen, stage and various recordings.

A popular instrument of the 20's and 30's, the banjo ukulele had the neck, style and small scale tuning of the ukulele but the body and tone of a banjo. In the clip below however, he appears to be playing a kind of elongated ukulele. Although Formby once joked that he "could only play in one key" it wasn't true, and he did develop several distinctive strumming techniques including the 'split stroke', the 'triple', the 'circle', the 'fan', and the 'shake'.

The Lancashire lad was endearingly cheeky and his comedic songs often loaded with double entendre -his song With my Little Stick of Blackpool Rock was banned by the BBC in 1937 because the lyrics were considered too risque..

Formby's most famous piece, written by Noel Gray, was Leaning on the Lampost:

I'm leaning on the lampost on the corner of the street

In case a certain little lady goes by..

Oh me, oh my...

Adopting the persona of the good-hearted klutz, Formby was hugely popular and his catchy, syncopated ukulele style has been emulated countless times by subsequent performers.

Why Don't Women Like Me?

Tiny Tim

Tiny Tim, (Herbert B. Khaury) who's signature tune was Tiptoe through the Tulips, enjoyed a relatively brief but widespread period of popularity in the 1960s/70's.Tim was an avid fan of music of the 20's and 30's and was something of a musical archivist -his knowledge of vintage tunes was said to be encyclopedic. Tim's trademarks were his high-pitched falsetto voice,colourful clothes and his ukulele.

Originally Tim sung in 'normal' voice-the story goes he discovered his high voice register while singing along to his car radio and was amazed by his own range. With his new found vocals he entered a talent show, singing You are my Sunshine, to great applause. Subsequent performances earnt him a cult following and he eventually became a household name.

As the punk era 80's dawned, Tim's star faded, although he still produced albums, played live venues and appeared in television commercials. Eventually he became a permanent act at Spookyworld, a Halloween themed amusement park.

Tim suffered a heart attack in 1996, on stage holding his ukulele, at a Gala benefit in Minneapolis. As he was led off stage by his wife Susan Gardner, she asked him if he was okay, to which he replied "no, I'm not". He died shortly afterward.

In the following video, a clip from an appearance on an Australian television show, Tim doesn't so much play the ukulele as use it as a prop. Not sure quite what's going on with the eye movement and head Love him or loathe him...he was certainly an original.

Living in the Sunlight

Jake Shimabukuro

Regarded as one of the best players in the world today, Shimabukuro's incredible, complex technique and skill puts paid to the idea of the ukulele being a 'toy' -an idea that he himself suggests has come about largely because of the amount of low-quality ukuleles on the market. They range in price from $30 to $5000.

A Japanese American who grew up in Hawaii, Shimabukoro has been playing the ukulele since he was four (a family tradition) and never felt a desire to change instruments, always believing he could he could play anything 'with time and creativity'. Jake is certainly an innovator and has brought new interpretations and sounds to songs never before played on the ukulele. Like Ernest Kaai before him, he has raised the instrument to a new level.


James Hill

~I remember the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix…He did things with an electric guitar that I hadn’t imagined, hadn’t thought possible. James Hill does that with the ‘ukulele.~

David Kidney, The Green Man Review

Like Shimabukuro, Canadian James Hill is at the top of the field..and is regarded by many as the greatest player. Hill does things on the ukulele few thought possible and is constantly touring the world amazing audiences with his virtuosity.

Growing up in Langley, British Columbia, where learning the ukulele has evidently been mandatory in many schools since the 1970s, Hill began playing at age nine and was seduced by what he saw as the endless possibilities of the instrument.

Hill released his first album Playing it Like it Isn't in 2002 and is yet another performer to have done much to bring back the ukulele from the dead zone of popular culture. Believing the ukulele has long been underestimated, Hill has said it's his mission to convince the skeptics of the extraordinary capabilities of the instrument...and so far, it looks like he's succeeding.

Super Mario Theme

John King

John King was an American classical guitarist who developed a penchant for Hawaii and all things Hawaiian. Here he plays Bach, written for the violin and transcribed by King for the ukulele. The performance highlights the different sounds that be this case, classical. I'm amazed at the sound here and it further confirms the versatility of this little instrument.

King scoffed at the notion that the ukulele was an easy instrument to play..."some people may tell you the ukulele is easy to play, but don’t you believe them… anytime someone tells you something is easy to learn, it’s probably because they want to sell you lessons"..and certainly at the level he achieved, I can believe it.

The Journal of the Society of American Music has referred to King as "perhaps the world's only true classical 'ukulele virtuoso'. King had written extensively about the ukulele, as well as writing blogs and books on musical arrangements. Before his untimely his death in 2009 from a heart attack at age 55, King was in the process of writing a book on the history of the ukulele.

Bach Bouree

Julia Nunes: Youtube Star

Julia Nunes is a young singer/songwriter from New York who has carved out a stellar career on her ukulele through youtube. Nunes won the Bushman World Ukulele Video Championships in 2008 and has played live at various venues around the world, including gigs as a support act for Ben Folds, one of her musical idols.

Whether she's singing an upbeat melody or a poignant ballad, Nunes throws her heart and soul into the performance. Often filming from her university dorm, her energetic, original style, appealing videos and her sheer enthusiasm for life and music has a contagious quality and she's managed to drum up a renewed interest in the ukulele..having inspired hundreds,if not thousands of ordinary people to try their hand at playing. She makes the ukulele seem accessible to anyone, which it is.

Nunes sparked my own initial interest in ukuleles and I've been dropping some heavy hints around in the right places that I want one for christmas...

Build me up Buttercup


The Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum

Curt Shellar..Ukulele, Guitar and Music Resources


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    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Dolores, I like Tiny Tim too, he was unique...and I agree, the songs were lovely. Ukelele's ARE cool.


    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      How cool it was to see Tiny Tim up there! I love the old kind of music that he played and he was wonderful, though he appeared to many as a joke. The ukulele is such a cool instrument!

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Jon..thanks. Yep, ukulelehunt is an excellent resource. Here's hoping we get our Christmas wish!

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 

      8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi Jane - terrific hub. A really good uke is on my Christmas list too, and maybe a baritone guitar one day. has got some good info on playing.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      I know..William mentioned Ukulele Ike too...I'm going to have to find a space and put him in.


    • epigramman profile image


      8 years ago

      ....oh god Dame Jane you such a renaissance woman - I LOVE THIS HUB BIG TIME - but you left out Ukulele Ike - Ukulele Ike was Cliff Edwards of When you wish upon a star fame!

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Thanks for reading redblue. I was pretty bowled over with some of the talent out there on the uke.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Rod...I'll bet that was odd! Tiny Tim is one of the strangest performers ever, yet he must have struck a chord with people to gain that sort of popularity. I think it was those great old songs.


    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Know what De Greek? Lol...that's very cryptic.

    • redblue02 profile image


      8 years ago

      This is amazing. I've not heard of 90% of this list, great research!

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      8 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      I was familiar with the connection with Hawaii and the 1920s but not much else. I once saw Tiny Tim play live which was an odd experience but, then again, he was an odd performer.

      Good hub.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      8 years ago from UK

      So now I know! :-)

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Rochelle, I love the comment..thanks! I'm very keen to have a go at the ukulele. I've been playing guitar for about 18 months and I love that but there's something about the little ukulele that's very appealing.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      William, I checked out those videos and they were fabulous. I think I should definitely have had Ukelele Ike on the list! Arthur Godfrey was great too. Thanks for that.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      8 years ago from California Gold Country

      I feel enlightened and elevated. My uncle, a Pearl Harbor survivor, brought back a beautiful uke from Hawaii. it was a Pineapple uke-- with a body shaped like the outline of the fruit, rather than having the "waistline" of the more familiar ones.

      It was a beautiful thing with a mellow tone. I learned to play a few chords on it and later graduated to the four string guitar.

      (His daughter, my younger cousin, later got the uke.)

      I now have a baritone uke-- bigger and deeper tone than the smaller ones-- gotta get it down from the shelf again one day.


    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Interesting piece on the ukulele, Jane Bovary. Aside from Tiny Tim, I've only been familiar with Ukulele Ike from nearly a century ago:

      and entertainer Arthur Godfrey:

      Thumbs up.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Lol must be a speed reader! Most of them are new to me too, as I only discovered them doing the research but gee they're amazing.

      I so appreciate your comments on my pages. Thankyou.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      After reading this enlightening hub, Jane, I feel like a uke expert. I can remember watching Tiny Tim on late night TV, but the others are new to me. Thanks for the education.


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