The Ukulele – Still Fighting for Respect?

I never liked plastic ukes. My dad thought they were cool. He always had a “TV Pal” hanging along side vintage Hawaiian ukes. I guess for those that lived in their hayday it has a nostalgia appeal. And I know some Plastic ukes are better than others. But to me they represent the root of a misconception. A violin is not considered the kiddy version of a cello. A flute is not considered less of an instrument than a saxophone. Yet many people outside of Hawaii, and even some here, look at the ukulele as a toy. Why? Even soon after becoming an instrument, musicians made intense and powerful music on the ukulele. Roy Smeck was one of them. Check him out, rippin’ it up-

The first wave of ukulele popularity in the teens and 20’s came about from adults that fell in love with this musical instrument. The second wave of the late 40’s and 50’s had many great players, yet it was dominated by the plastic ukulele and it was mostly adopted as a kids toy. Mattel sold 11 million plastic ukes from 1947-1957, and they were just one of the insanely cheap and crappy toy ukes on the market. Cheap has it’s place and these may have helped some kids get involved with music, but at that point in time the publics mindset changed. Dad’s didn’t want their teenage boy playing ukulele. You’re supposed to get a guitar when you grow up. And that’s the baby boomer era’s initial perspective of the instrument. Hawaii never thought of the ukulele like this. Yet the consumers need for cheap allows our ABC store equivalent. Aloha painted on the front. It does the instrument a similar disfavor (IMO).

The ukulele has come a long way. The advent of internet and online sharing has revealed it’s potential again. It’s light hearted perception is part of the charm. Not taking yourself too serious. But my family has been making high end ukes for the last 20 years. I’ve heard, “Boy, I remember when they were $1.49.” And ukes over a grand have often given way to the ol’, “what’s it made of gold?”…hilarious.

The value of the injection mold into society is arguable. But maybe it has given value. I don’t wish things different and I don’t mind plastic ukes like I used to. Actually we have a number of them from a collection we bought last year. Yet for some reason I can’t bring myself to list them on the website… they’re cool…I just can’t do it…maybe I will.

What’s your thoughts? Is plastic ok? As this ukulele craze grows, is that something we may see more of? Followed by a new Tiny Tim?? Noooo, Someone wake me up.

Comments 11

  1. Smeck is so insane, but I enjoy Corey a heck more lately. Don’t know enough about the plastic uke to really have an opinion, yet we humans are so much closer to trees in how we grow, mature, provide for others, experience death.Wood has so much to sing about, the mystery of life and all of our mortality… love. Plastic just never dies, so it’s missing that ‘broken hearted’ piece. Go with your gut, (unless we’re talking strings!)

    Date: Mon, 25 Feb 2013 09:48:41 +0000 To: redbarn.studio@live.com

  2. I play ‘ukulele and harmonica so I get hit with a double-whammy: two toy instruments! I’m currently taking guitar lessons so I can play at least one “legitimate” instrument!

    Yesterday was the second time I played ‘ukulele in church during the service. My pastor was skeptical but I told him I could play anything on the ‘ukulele that he plays on his guitar. He is now a believer in more ways than one! It’s cool to be able to introduce the ‘ukulele to an audience that otherwise thinks of the ‘ukulele as a novelty that they hear on vacation in Hawai’i.

    On my infrequent vacation trips to Hawai’i I feel like I’m among people who “get me” in terms of music. Same is true when I go to events like the Arizona Aloha Festival which is in two weeks here in Phoenix. The last couple of years the festival has drawn about 150,000 people with an interest in Hawaiian music, culture, etc. I teach beginners basic ‘ukulele at the Aunty Aloha tent each year, introducing them to the instrument, and the Phoenix ‘ukulele meetup group now has about 330 members.

    The ‘ukulele is definitely gaining legitimacy but I still get the same sort of response when I tell people I play ‘ukulele — “That sounds like fun. Do you play any real instruments?”

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Paul. Keep opening minds over there on the mainland. So do you strap on a harmonica and play it along with uke? That sounds fun. Makes me wanna try.

  3. Wonderful article, Andrew, as usual…

    Noooooo, I want to be sure you are awake, Andrew!

    Here in S.E. Asia we see every store and corner market carrying cheap ukuleles made of unknown and possibly toxic materials. What to do with megatons of waste generated in China and India, for example? Use it to make cheap products to sell to people with little money. Big business in cheap junk. Not your style at all, Andrew. And thanks for that!!

    Injection molded ukuleles with high quality materials? Maybe a limited market, huh? Where is the spirit of the living material and the maker or makers and even the land where it was produced? I’d choose wood any day any time over plastic or composite. Total agreement with Michael Aiello’s comments.

    I did recently order an Ovation tenor from you but that’s about as far as I’ll go. Good utilitarian instrument.

    Made in Hawaii (or Java) by skilled luthiers? The ultimate tone and spirit in a fine instrument; the vibration, the voice of the wood – The instrument is alive!!

    You got it goin’ on right now, Andrew. That’s why I shop HMS!


    1. Thanks Tony, and thanks for the thoughts. Interesting to what you get exposed to living in asia. The Thai people seem like an open minded and fun bunch. Of all the countries there it seems closest to Hawaiian style. The bowl back thing is a different thing all together. Those get rocked by a lot of the gigging players over here. They shine in a live situation. Thanks again, you have gotten many fine instruments from us and we are very appreciative.

  4. I think the Ukulele is always fighting for respect, but people always love seeing a person play one, and enjoy the tones from it. Most people see it as a novelty, but I think it’s slowly mkaing its way back into the mainstream.

  5. I bought a Kala last year. I hadn’t played a Uke in over 40 years! It sounds wonderful. Whenever someone hears me they comment on the excellent sound quality! (Not the playing ability) step by step, person by person, it is gaining respect.

  6. It all depends on the plastic uke – I’ve got a Flea and it cost more than some of my wooden ukes, but it plays and sounds great. And it just isn’t a happy accident. That instrument is designed and produced with a lot of thought – the molded fingerboard ensures perfect intonation and helps ensure a great action. The difference for me between a good instrument and a poor one is more about the design and execution of the design than the material.

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  7. I bought my first ukulele from the Ukulele Site about two years ago. I had been playing classical guitar for about 35 years. I still love playing classical, but it’s so much work! I love picking up my Pono ukulele and making music that I can sing along with! And that I don’t have to work on for weeks to enjoy! It really is true (for me at least) that you can’t play a ukulele without smiling.

    I’m sorry to say that I’m one of those who bought a wooden uke at a garage sale for my kids to play with. When my youngest son was about 5 he put it under his chin and tried to use it as a violin. I got the message and he studied violin for the next 9 years.

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