The Ukulele Lifestyle

When I moved to Hawaii, I started getting into the ukulele after more than eighteen years of being solely a guitar player and the differences in the community was what made me love it so much that I decided to use it for my kids’ music education.

The best, shortest way to describe the ukulele scene – its lifestyle if you will – is the Aloha Spirit. There’s a big camaraderie feel to the scene with ukulele players who could probably crush you, but are friendly enough not to. Personally, I always find it best to presume that every musician is better than me. It really helps keep my ego tamped and also, I’m right almost all of the time.

This is a sharp contrast to the guitar world where I watched a fairly new player try to play the intro to Crazy Train only to see a more experienced player smirk at his girlfriend, pull down a guitar, plug it in and play the intro significantly better.

That’s a pretty horrible thing to do, right? The guitar world is so well-known for fights like this that we’ve arranged spectacles for the pleasure of the audience called a Battle of the Bands. Not jam sessions or festivals – a battle. Lead the bands in and to the victor go the spoils!

Dimebag Darrell was actually so good at crushing his competition and did it so often that he was banned from participating in any more guitar contests because he won every single one of them. Which, sure, must have been cool for Darrell, but imagine being the kid who was trying to compete with him. I feel bad for these people and I don’t know a single one of them.

Guitarists are also secretive. Eddie Van Halen used to play with his back to the crowd because he didn’t want anyone ripping off his technique before he was able to use it to catapult himself to the level of greatness where a signature model of everything isn’t enough – he requires an entire company to put out his signature gear.

And guitarists are cut-throat. An old teacher of mine said his band was picked up to be an opener, but the roadies for the headliner said they would set the stage up for the headliner and they could use the same amps and whatnot. It seemed like a nice thing and the band let them. The roadies finished and told them to make ZERO adjustments because it’s set up for the headliner and it’s exactly as it should be. Cords and lines were duct taped to the floor with little or no slack so the musicians were stationary and unable to move. The band, not wanting to look disrespectful to the headliner for giving them the opportunity performed as well as they could, accepting the limitations and those limitations resulted in a pretty stagnant set. Then the headliner roadies come out, rip up all the duct tape, the headliners come on and play their set unencumbered, even going so far as to say to the crowd that the warm-up act sure was awful since they didn’t even move around!

Ho, ho, ho! Someone’s either a big joker, an insecure jerk, or a bully, but I’m sure the opening band saw the humor in this.

Actually, it turns out they didn’t. They were all angry because they didn’t get a chance to perform the show they usually put on and some, my teacher included, decided that if this was the lifestyle that they were getting into, then they wanted no part of it.

Compared to this, the ukulele world stands apart where professionals are respectful to other players and give them time to shine, even if the other players weren’t who the crowd came to see. They go out of their way to teach people music, with reports of famous ukulele players hanging out on the beaches or their surrounding parks playing and just waiting for someone to ask. Jake Shimabukuro, arguably the biggest name in ukulele today, goes to elementary schools around the nation and teaches mass lessons to school children.

You can search on YouTube for famous names in the ukulele world and when you see them play with other people and the other person starts to play, watch the famous one you searched for. Almost every time you’ll see them smiling or enjoying the music, playing along with a satisfied look. They’re happy to be there. I’ve seen some videos where a seriously skilled ukulele player sees something the other player does and audibly reacts with a gasp or “whoa!” because they’re so into the music being played and not thinking about themselves.

They’re not trying to be a jerk, they’re not competing, they’re not trying to crush the other player, nor are they trying to shine in comparison for future prospects. There’s no belittling involved here. Play something wrong and you’re liable to hear “close!” rather than “wrong!”

It’s also a community thing. You can gather large groups of guitar players, but usually it’s to break a record (again: a competition). In the ukulele world, crowds gather together to just PLAY. Whole communities of players have sprung up around the world because playing the ukulele is fun. The small shape of the instrument also appeals to people because it’s not intimidating – it’s just this fun thing that makes you happy. The guitar, in contrast, is this instrument that CAN you make you happy, but you could ask any guitar player why they wanted to play guitar and I would be willing to bet that next to NONE say because it looked fun. It’s almost always a means to an end.

And this isn’t to say that the ukulele is an inferior instrument. The ukulele has long been looked at as little more than a toy, and this has always been a bit tragic since it’s just as legitimate as any other instrument, but the people who are adopting it now are looking at it as something that was once considered a toy and this makes everything a lot less intimidating, which means that more people are adopting it with open arms as something new, interesting, fun, and low-threat. After all: There was a point when children played these almost exclusively. How hard can it be?

This is only compounded with the ukulele’s gentle learning curve. It’s easy to learn a handful of chords and have songs memorized before the first week is through so you’ll be able to play, sing, and have a good time. The instrument’s coverage doesn’t end there, though, as some sort of singer-songwriter instrument, since we’ve seen fabulous solo ukulele players break out as instrumentalists (Jake Shimabukuro, Corey Fujimoto, Kimo Hussey, Lyle Ritz or Abe Lagrimas Jr.), but it’s also being used as a vessel for other genres and artists (Eddie Vedder immediately jumps to mind, who bought the ukulele on impulse and loved it so much he wrote an album with it that featured the recording rules “no instrument can have more than four strings.”). The ukulele is one of the rarest instruments in that it is both very easy to grasp at first, but can give you endless opportunity and challenges to expand your musicianship. It both never ceases to be fun and never ceases to have the potential to be as challenging (and therefore interesting) as you want.

But this is the ukulele lifestyle. It’s fun and interesting. There are really skilled players that are happy to hang out with the casual strummer. There’s a large community of teachers because uke players aren’t looked at as competition but rather companions. There’s a friendly, loving, supportive vibe to the whole scene and THAT is the Aloha Spirit, alive, well and so synonymous with Hawaii and the ukulele that most people don’t even know the instrument is actually from Portugal.

The best part about this ukulele lifestyle is that there’s no buy-in required. You could even get away with just enjoying the music produced and never play if you want, but the ukulele has so many affordable options that just about anyone can get into it and start making music for themselves. Beyond that, there are no rules. You don’t have to wear certain clothes, or only play certain kinds of music. You’re not going to be called a sell-out for playing a different genre. Ukulele players are not limited to specific styles, brands, sizes, levels of coolness, or geographic locations. Anyone can be an ukulele player – just pick up an ukulele and start asking around if anyone else plays. The first one that does will probably be more than happy to show you around the little box of happiness because that’s what ukulele players do.

That’s the lifestyle.

Comments 3

  1. This is a really thoughtful, and in my experience accurate, description of the ukulele world. It’s definitely why I was drawn to it. Ukulele players seem to be generally happy and generous. My favorite online teachers and resources are Cynthia Lin, Tyler Austenfield, and Brad Bordessa. I have learned so much from them. They are incredibly generous with their gifts. Check them out on YouTube, Patreon, and their own sites (Brad’s is Live Ukulele). Thanks, Russ, for putting words to what I and many feel about this “lifestyle”!

  2. “The ukulele is one of the rarest instruments in that it is both very easy to grasp at first, but can give you endless opportunity and challenges to expand your musicianship.”

    I agree with this statement.

    An 4-sting ukulele was much easier to start playing than a 6-string guitar. There are 2 less strings and you can use your 4 fingers to pluck and play chords.

    Also, ukuleles have nylon strings and a pick is not required. Therefore, your fingers do not hurt as much when pressing down on the strings.

    The nylon strings and only having four strings translates to being able to play longer and more often without the pain of having to build up calluses.

    Ukuleles are easy to start playing, but going beyond tabs and simple chords takes practice, patience, and time.

  3. Love this article! This is exactly why I picked up the uke rather than going more in depth with the guitar– it feels a lot more manageable and everybody who plays it is just so incredibly nice. I’m a violinist but I like ukulele even more than I do violin because you can whip it out at the park and practice without looking out of place.

    Also, I find it tremendously satisfying when I pull out my tenor and start playing something fingerstyle. It might just be my friends and where I live, but everyone I know seems to think that ukuleles are limited to being sopranos that produce Hawaiian music (again, the whole idea of uke being a toy). It’s nice to see them realize that it’s a very versatile instrument that can do a lot more than produce a few tropic-sounding chords.

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