Check out RSL’s top 10 performances that are here to argue the case for the often much-maligned (wrongly!) four-stringed instrument, the Ukulele.
The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument, which was introduced to the Hawaiians by Portuguese immigrants, primarily from Madeira and the Azores. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century and spread internationally from there. The tone and volume of the instrument vary with size and construction, with the Ukulele commonly coming in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.
The ukulele has since become a largely mass-produced, plastic instrument, manufactured by the millions throughout the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, which has since led to the ukulele receiving a fair share of scorn from musicians ever since. As far as we’re concerned, this criticism is wholly unfair. So, in defence of the ukulele, RSL HQ have put their collective minds together to present our 10 top performances that highlight the versatility and unique expression of the diminutive, but effective, Ukulele.
Paul McCartney, George Harrison & Ringo Starr — Ain’t She Sweet
Taken from the 1995 Anthology documentary series, the surviving Beatles get together on a summer day in George’s garden. Harrison, who was a big fan of the ukulele, leads this casual sing-along of “Ain’t She Sweet,” a call-back to a song the gang used to perform in their early years. We’re sure you’ll agree, it’s lovely to see them all gathered around a uke for a cup of tea and a sing-song. In Hawaii, where Harrison owned a retreat (and where he was known as ‘Keoki’), it’s said he bought ukuleles in batches and gave them away. The story may be legend, but it’s a nice image to remember him by all the same.
Queen – Good Company
While Brian May is best-known for his electric guitar acrobatics, he also played the ukulele on some of Queen’s material, one being “Good Company” from the band’s breakthrough LP, ‘A Night at the Opera’. May first began the song during his early school years when he first learned to play the uke. One of the main features of the song is that it contains a recreation of a jazz band in Dixieland style which was provided by May’s Red Special guitar played through a Deacy Amp. This is also one of the few Queen songs without Freddie Mercury participating at all!
Israel Kamakawiwoʻole – Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World (Medley)
It would be extremely remiss of us not to include this track in our list of top Uke-moments. Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. Known to his fans as ‘Iz’, the Hawaiian musician passed away in 1997, but his medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” has become ingrained in Hawaiian culture. It’s become so popular, it is now the most requested version of the song by far, according to EMI publishing. That’s quite remarkable for a rendition with one voice, accompanied only by ukulele!
Eddie Vedder — Sleeping by Myself
The Pearl Jam front-man, Eddie Vedder, has always had a huge soft spot for the uke. ‘Soon Forget’, which featured on the bands ‘Binaural’ album released in 2000, contained a solo track accompanied by a uke, which served as a preview to Vedder’s solo project, ‘Ukulele Songs’ (2011), which comprised of his unmistakable vocals over a Ukulele only. ‘Sleeping by Myself’ is one of the album’s most popular tracks; a beautiful, forlorn and folky composition that highlights Vedder as an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right.
Taimane Gardner — Beethoven, System of a Down, Led and ACDC Medley
Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner, has been playing since she was knee-high to Don Ho. She was quite literally discovered by the Hawaiian music icon before going on to study under another in Jake Shimabukuro (who also appears on this list) even before he himself rode his ukulele magic to world stardom. You can check her out here as she tears through compositions from Beethoven, System of a Down, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC is one of her many, super-impressive uke-medleys.
Jake Shimabukuro — While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Racking up almost 17 million views on YouTube, the YouTube uke classic is one of the site’s first viral videos! This clip introduced modern day ukulele virtuoso and Honolulu native, Jake Shimabukuro, to the world. Since then, Jake has become a living legend of the instrument, and this is the video that started it all. For those who’d like to dig a little deeper, an award-winning documentary was released in 2012 tracking his life, career, and music, titled ‘Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.’ Go check it out!
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – Psycho Killer (Talking Heads Cover)
The Orchestra was formed in 1985 as a bit of fun, but after the first gig was an instant sell-out, they have been performing ever since. By 1988 they had released an LP, appeared on BBC TV, played at WOMAD and recorded a BBC Radio 1 session. The current ensemble has been playing together for over 20 years, and has become something of a national institution. Below, you can revel in their endearing version of Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’, which was performed at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms in 2009. You can watch this, and all the other performances from the night on their DVD “Prom Night”.
Honoka & Azita — Bodysurfing
Honoka Katayama and Azita Ganjali were 15 and 13, respectively, when this jaw-dropping display of ukulele ingenuity appeared on YouTube of the pair performing a killer cover of Ohta-San’s “Bodysurfing” on a gorgeous beach in their native Hawaii. The duo were named MVPs of the 2013 International Ukulele Contest in Honolulu and — as you’ll be able to see from the video below — it’s easy to see why from their playing. After the contest, they opened for the popular music festival in Okinawa, Japan, and regularly performed at the Hard Rock Cafe in Honolulu.
James Hill — Billie Jean
James Hill, an award-winning ukulele player and songwriter hailing from Canada, has been called a “ukulele wunderkind,” and an artist who “gives the ukulele its dignity back without ever taking himself too seriously.” Performing live for a crowd in California, Hill and his “imaginary band” illustrate these comments perfectly during an enchanting version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” With just a uke, Hill plays the bass line, percussion, and piano parts. Put it all together, and you have a fascinating one-man ukulele performance.
Noah & The Whale – 5 Years’ Time (Sun, Sun, Sun)
No, this isn’t a trailer for the latest Wes Anderson film – it’s the ultra-catchy, top 10 hit from 2007 by Noah & the Whale! Since it was uploaded to YouTube on 13 June 2008, and as of January, 2020, it has been viewed almost 12 million times. The singer-songwriter sensation, Laura Marling, provides backing vocals on this track. Only a teenager at the time, Laura used to often perform with Noah and the Whale before striking out on her own. She also went out with frontman Charlie Fink for a time with the bands second album, ‘First Days of Spring’ being a concept record based on Fink’s emotional meltdown after their eventual split.
As some of you may already be aware, Rockschool’s second instalment of their Method Book series will focus on the Ukulele in 2020, with plans to extend the grade exams all the way up to grade 8 already in the development phase. Keep your eyes peeled for updates on our social channels very soon!