With its chunk-a-chunk sound, whispery nylon strings, and diminutive body, the ukulele is having a moment. Or maybe even a decade. Zooey Deschanel strums one while crooning sweetly with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tony Blair disrupts Labour Party conventions with one. When Eddie Vedder impulse-bought one on a trip to Hawaii, he was compelled to record a whole album of Ukulele Songs. (It won a Grammy, of course.) And then a Hawaiian ukulele prodigy played a Beatles cover in Central Park, and the video went viral—but more on that later.
Despite a long history that once included a reputation as an exotic and highbrow instrument, the ukulele has also endured decades of snubbing from both the pop music scene and the more cultured world of classical music. But with the help of trendsetters and tastemakers, it's making a strong comeback—the National Association of Music Merchants reported a 54 percent jump in ukulele sales in 2013—that can be traced in large part to the instrument's accessibility, affordability, YouTube popularity, and celebrity esteem.
The instrument's renewed appeal can be seen in the rise of ukulele music festivals, which have cropped up in places like Reno, Milwaukee, Napa, Port Townsend, Washington, and Rockville, Maryland. Take New Jersey's second annual Ukefest last August at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship Hall, which kicked off with 86 beginners tackling their first piece, "Surfin' USA." During the festival, the rented church was awash with love for the novices—a kind of generosity rarely seen at a piano or guitar convention. “Strum with your index finger or thumb—whatever feels good,” ukulele teacher, author, and songwriter Jim Beloff told the beginners. “There are no ukulele police.”