Today’s ukulele musicians are introducing the instrument into the mainstream with more seriousness than in the past. The ukulele, because of its small size and the popular misconception that it’s not a “real” instrument, was oftentimes viewed as a toy or a novelty by non-islanders. Today, however, musicians such as James Hill and Jake Shimabukuro have exposed more and more people to the ukulele as a versatile, modern instrument. The late Israel Kamakawiwoole and George Harrison also worked hard to give the ukulele more mainstream credibility, and did so to great effect.
Where modern, fiery playing is concerned, ukulele musicians Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill are two of the biggest names. Shimabukuro was already a big name on the islands when an online video of him covering George Harrison’s classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became a sensation. For many people, the sight of Shimabukuro’s fingers working the fretboard with the sort of agility and precision that would make any concert guitarist envious not only gave the ukulele credibility as a serious concert instrument, but gave it a “cool” factor that made it interesting to a wider, and younger, demographic of players.
James Hill has also brought the ukulele into the mainstream consciousness as a serious instrument. With strong folk roots and a penchant for playing the instrument at blazing speeds, this Canadian prodigy has already become a well-known name in the music world. He has expanded the use of the ukulele in ensemble playing, as well, having worked with a cellist on the album “True Love Don’t Weep”. His breakout album, however, came in 2002 in the form of a record with the tongue-in-cheek title “Playing it like it isn’t…”. Though the title makes it seem like the instrument is being played like something else, Hill has merely exposed the world to the versatility of this instrument.
George Harrison needs no real introduction. This legendary guitarist, a member of the Beatles and widely-regarded as one of the best rock guitarists in the world, was a huge fan of the ukulele. His introduction came in the form of comedy; the popular English comedian George Fromby used a ukulele frequently in his routines. Harrison never lost a nostalgic love for Fromby or the instrument and he continued to play the instrument throughout his life. There are numerous photos of this legendary rock musician playing the ukulele, and he had a reputation for playing it very well.
Israel Kamakawiwoole is a Hawaiian legend. He is most well-known for his solo ukulele and vocal rendition of “Wonderful World” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which appeared on the television show ER and gained him a great deal of mainstream attention. He was a very powerful force in Hawaiian music long before that success, however, and had recorded albums from the 1970s until his death in the late 1990s. His album “Facing Future” is considered one of the most important of Hawaiian recordings and contains the popular “Wonderful World/Somewhere over the Rainbow” medley.