When you think of the ukulele, maybe you think of Arthur Godfrey, Tiny Tim, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam or America’s Got Talent season 11 winner Grace VanderWaal. Or perhaps the ukulele reminds you of Elvis Presley or George Harrison or Paul McCartney.
For Jen Conley of DeKalb, director of Wild Blue Ukulele Orchestra, she thinks of many different artists spanning multiple genres: Hawaiian, pop, rock, classical and jazz.
Wild Blue recently performed at Ax in Hand in DeKalb and next will play at the Gurler House Folk Music Festival on June 15.
“With the ukulele, you can create music of the people, by the people, for the people, because it’s a very democratic and accessible instrument,” Conley said. “It’s just fun.”
The word “ukulele” is the traditional Hawaiian name of a small stringed instrument called the machete, which was originally developed in the Madeira Islands of Portugal. The instrument was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants who worked in the sugar cane fields in the late 1800s.
Ukuleles are similar to other stringed instruments, such as the lute, oud and guitar, but ukuleles have four strings compared to a guitar’s six.
John Lindhorst, owner of Ukulele Station America in Oregon, Ill., said the popularity of the ukulele first rose in 1915 during the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
“That jump-started the popularity of all things Hawaiian, including the hula and ukuleles,” Lindhorst said. “Then, with the rise of the electric guitar and rock ‘n’ roll, the ukulele lost some of its popularity. But now, the ukulele is very trendy, very popular. The ukulele has never been this big, ever. It’s insanely huge right now.”
Ukulele’s rise in popularity
According to Music Trades magazine, which tracks music trends, more than 1.7 million ukuleles were sold in 2018 with a retail value of more than $123 million. In 2009, just 501,000 ukuleles were sold with a retail value of $33 million.
Except for 2013, when there was a 9.8% decline in sales, ukulele sales have been increasing.
Ax in Hand Manager Wes Carr said there has been a ukulele “craze for six to seven years.”
“Before, we only stocked one or two, and now we have a whole wall dedicated to ukuleles,” he said. “There has definitely been a bump in ukulele sales, maybe due to a push for acoustic and the folk music renaissance.”
Ukuleles at Ax in Hand range in price from $47 to $280. Half-hour lessons are offered for $20.
“Ukulele sales are easily keeping up with our guitar sales,” Carr said. “The shape and size are similar to a guitar, so it’s easy to transition between guitar and ukulele. Young, old, everyone across the board are buying ukuleles. The market is definitely trending up.”
Lindhorst said more than 1,000 ukuleles were sold at Ukulele Station America last year. The 208-square-foot shop has more than 100 ukuleles and 15 brands on display, ranging in price from $50 to $2,000.
Lindhorst opened the shop four years ago after seeing the popularity of ukuleles when he taught in California and lived in Hawaii. He also is a ukulele songwriter, famous for “I Want a Ukulele for Christmas.” He gives $10 hourlong ukulele lessons in small groups every Saturday.
Because of the demand and rise in sales, Lindhorst plans to construct an annex building with a stage for performances and workshops.
“I never dreamed of the popularity of the ukulele or my shop,” he said. “People make the store a destination, traveling from all over Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. I’ve even had people travel from Colorado, Florida, Texas and New York.”
Lindhorst’s only advice when purchasing a ukulele is to buy it from a store.
“You need to see it, play it, feel it, hear it and then buy it,” he said. “Go to a music store and try it out. Don’t buy it online, period.”
Learning to play
Eric Schroeder, director of NIUkulele Ensemble at Northern Illinois University, said the fun of playing the ukulele is its unique sound and versatility.
“You can play Bach, Chopin or even Disney songs, and the ukulele still sounds fun, no matter what you play,” Schroeder said. “You don’t have to practice eight to 10 hours a day; all you need is a ukulele and the desire to play.”
For Conley, three things factor into the popularity of the ukulele: its inexpensive price tag, how lightweight and easy it is to handle and the simplicity of learning how to play.
“The ukulele makes it easy so almost anyone can learn how to play, and they can play songs of any genre or style,” she said. “In the last 10 to 15 years, the ukulele has grown in popularity and has become a serious instrument of study. Some schools are looking into creating a major in ukulele. I have a degree in music, but prior knowledge of music isn’t needed. You can just grab a ukulele and have fun with it.”
In addition to stores where ukuleles can be purchased, classes are offered at Kishwaukee College and NIU.
Melissa Gallagher, coordinator of short-term training and continuing education at Kishwaukee College, said a ukulele class was offered in the spring. Four-hour introductory and advanced classes for all ages will be offered in the fall. The classes cost $35 if you bring your own ukulele or $90 for the class and a ukulele. The cost also includes a songbook and an electronic tuner. For more information about the classes, call 815-825-9441.
“Our ukulele class was very popular and we hope it grows in popularity at Kish College,” Gallagher said. “I think it’s because ukuleles are cool and trendy. You can have a lot of fun with the instrument after learning a few basic chords in four hours.”
NIUkulele Ensemble, a class taught through NIU Community School of the Arts, will meet from 7 to 7:55 p.m. Mondays, June 10 through July 15, at the NIU Music Building, Room 241. Joining the ensemble costs $90, and a concert will be held at 7 p.m. July 15 in the NIU Recital Hall. NIUkulele Ensemble also meets fall and spring semesters. For more information, call 815-753-1450.
A Ukulele for Kids class for ages 6 to 12 will be taught at NIU from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays for 12 classes during the fall and spring semesters. The class costs $135 and players must bring their own ukulele.
Jim Kanas, general music instructor at Tyler Elementary and Huntley Middle schools in DeKalb, teaches the ukulele to students in kindergarten through fifth grades and to sixth- and eighth-grade students.
Through a DeKalb Education Foundation grant, Kanas was able to purchase 30 ukuleles from Ukulele Station America to teach his students. He also teaches students how to play percussion instruments, the recorder, vocals and singing and music theory.
“Within 30 minutes, students can have a successful experience in playing the ukulele and sound really good,” Kanas said.
“There has been a lot of research that links the success performance of music to learning and development,” he said. “When you’re learning to play the ukulele, you’re opening up your learning process, learning how to learn. That process can be applied to everything.”