The Ukulele In Contemporary Music

The Basics

"Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World" performed by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

This song re-ignited appreciation of the ukulele in American popular culture and also abroad. Recorded in one take at a midnight recording session, it was released on the 1993 album Facing Future and subsequently became a worldwide hit, in part through licensing in numerous movies, television shows, and commercials. Kamakawiwo'ole (KA-ma-KA-vi-VO-oh-leh), who passed away at the age of 38 in 1997, is a hero of both Hawaiian music and the Hawaiian independence movement.

"Hey Soul Sister" by Train

This ubiquitous hit by Train was 2010's top-selling song on iTunes and reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. At 6x platinum, It remains the all-time highest-selling single to feature the ukulele as a lead instrument.

"I Don't Know My Name" by Grace Vanderwaal

Only a middle school student at the time, Grace Vanderwaal charmed judges with a self-accompanied performance of an original song on the 11th season of America's Got Talent. Using the ukulele in each of her subsequent performances, she went on to become a finalist and winner. Since its debut the song has become a popular cover among ukulelists young and old.

"I'm Yours" performed by YouTuber uke3453

Jason Mraz used a baritone ukulele on the original version, but this has become a popular song to learn on any kind of ukulele. This talented guy's performance was at one point the most-viewed ukulele performance on YouTube and remains among the most-viewed of all time.

Next Steps

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" performed by Jake Shimabukuro

One of the first viral videos on YouTube in 2006, Jake Shimabukuro's (shee-ma-BOO-koo-roh) instrumental arrangement of the Beatles' classic demonstrated a stylistic range and technical virtuosity many people had never associated with the ukulele. Shimabukuro went on to become one of the most successful ukulele performers in the world.

"Billie Jean" performed by James Hill

The perennially innovative James Hill--once a member of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble (see "Deep Cuts")--performs the vocals, harmony, percussion, and bassline of the classic Michael Jackson song AT THE SAME TIME.

"Tarantella Italiana" performed by John King

Famous for his transcriptions of the works of J.S. Bach for ukulele using the Baroque campanella style, John King (1953-2009) helped raise the profile of the ukulele through his virtuosic performances of European classical and Hawaiian folk music, while also co-authoring the only scholarly history of the ukulele to date.

"Theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" performed by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

These folks have been doing their thing since the 1980s (read: way before ukulele became "cool" again) and have introduced more audiences to the sound of a ukulele ensemble than any other group.

Deep Cuts

"Flight of the Bumblebee" performed by the Langley Ukulele Ensemble

This arrangement of the Rimsky-Korsakov classic is the signature piece from the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, a community group from Langley, BC (Canada) composed mostly of high school and college-age performers. The ensemble, which has existed for several decades, grew out of the school ukulele program in Langley School District.

"Wipe Out" performed by Nick Acosta

A high school student at the time of this video, Nick Acosta performed the Surfaris' famout hit at the annual Ukulele Festival Hawaii in Honolulu. He went on to become a regular performer at the event as well as a ukulele teacher at the studio of his teacher and the event's founder, Roy Sakuma.

"Ain't She Sweet" performed by Paul McCartney and George Harrison

Three of the four Beatles played the ukulele in childhood (all except Ringo), and despite being best known as a guitarist, George Harrison remained a ukulele enthusiast through his adult life. Here is rare footage of him and Paul McCartney performing a tune from the ukulele's 1920s heyday which was also an early Beatles cover.

"Sophisticated Hula" performed by Byron Yasui and Benny Chong

The 2008 film "Mighty Uke" contains many gems in uke performance, and this one featuring two well-known Hawaiian ukulele virtuosi casually duetting is no exception.

Kid Fav's

"Lava" performed by Kuana Torres Kahele & Napua Greig

Before Moana, Disney/Pixar explored the Pacific Ocean setting with Lava, a short film that accompanied the release of Inside Out and told a heartwarming love story in song.

"Ground Theme from Super Mario Bros." performed by Corey Fujimoto

An employee of the Hawaii Music Supply store performs Koji Kondo's video game classic, with a little help from his friends.

"Crazy G" by Jake Shimabukuro

In this famous encore, Shimabukuro invites the audience to yell "faster!" each time he concludes a jaunty little tune, until he delivers what may be the fastest playing you'll ever hear on the ukulele.