Not to fret: Easy-on-wallet ukulele returning to favor
Perhaps it’s the relatively low price tag or its manageable size or its overall simplicity compared to its more popular brethren, the guitar. Or maybe rocker Eddie Vedder’s latest album devoted to the instrument has finally wiped away the memory of a shrill Tiny Tim strumming away.
Whatever the reason, the humble ukulele is cool again.
“Why is it popular? I don’t have the slightest idea,” says Adam Bos, sales manager with Guitar Center, a music store in Reno. “But ukulele sales have gone through the roof over the last year or so. We increased our inventory three times in just the last month.”
Brian Majeski, editor of The Musical Trades, a monthly magazine in Englewood, N.J. that tracks the market for musical instruments, says the ukulele first gained popularity during the 1920s when Hawaii became a tourist destination and visitors were introduced to ukulele-centered Polynesian music. It experienced a popular resurgence in the 1950s, says Majeski, when entertainer Arthur Godfrey routinely played the ukulele on his various television and radio programs.
“But there’s nothing you can put your finger on,” to explain the instrument’s latest rebirth, he says.
Sales of ukuleles nationwide grew about 16 percent last year to 580,000 units from 500,000 units in 2009, while the average price jumped from $66 to $72, according to the magazine, which only started tracking sales of the instrument two years ago. Sales of guitars, meanwhile, slumped almost 10 percent, from 3.3 million units in 2009 to 2.99 million units in 2010.
“Ukuleles are the only instrument making money right now,” says Rich Dann, vice president of playuke.net, a Web site based in northern Nevada that sells ukulele supplies and operates a local ukulele festival.
He and others attribute the ukulele’s recent rise to the fact it’s both easy on the wallet and easy to learn.
“The ukulele is a great instrument for all people,” says Dann. “For little kids, it’s their size. Seniors or people who have never played an instrument before can spend half an hour with me and play some songs.” And $100, says Dann, will buy a decent ukulele while a comparable guitar starts at $300.
In addition, says Dann, the ukulele’s repertoire is not limited to Hawaiian music. Jazz, the Great American Songbook, even Beatles music can be played on the instrument.
Dann is part of a growing ukulele scene in northern Nevada. A guitar player who “fell in love” with the ukulele, he leads a group of 30 or more aficionados known as the Reno Ukulele Group who meet twice a month to practice and learn music. They also perform locally, including a gig at this year’s Artown festival and appearances at local retirement homes and rehabilitation hospitals such as Life Care Center on Holcomb Lane.
Dann also offers ukulele lessons every Monday night at Muzea Insider Consulting Services LLC, a research consultant for institutional money managers, where he is chief executive officer. Ron Moschetti, one of Dann’s students, said he took up the ukulele after his wife bought one for him during a trip to Hawaii. After playing drums as a child, and driving his parents crazy, says Moschetti, the ukulele is delicate, unique instrument that doesn’t require a lot of time to learn. And the lessons are a bargain, he says.
“Rich charges me $5, mostly to cover his costs for copying music,” says Moschetti. “It’s probably the best $5 I’ve ever spent.”
Dann and his playuke.net partner Doug Reynolds also sell ukuleles online – a few dozen a year, says Reynolds – as well as accessories, the Official Ukulele Chord Theory Tutor Gizmo, a sort of slide rule, and Uke In A Flash, flash cards for learning chords, both developed by Reynolds.
But their biggest endeavor, and the reason for playuke.net’s existence, is the Reno Ukulele Festival, now in its fourth year. The festival, started in a vacant building in Minden, features workshops, performances and vendors, attracts visitors from all over the country, and has grown from 100 attendees to 350 or more and from a dozen vendors to twice that. The event has been hosted at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks the last two years and is scheduled there again in March 2012. Next year, David Lindley, longtime sideman for Jackson Browne, and Kris Fuchigami, an up and coming ukulele musician, are featured performers.
“The festival brings business to Nevada,” says Reynolds, president of playuke.net. “The festival is over the weekend, but some people stay for a week, go to Reno, frequent the casinos.”
Reynolds, who lives in Minden, would also like to start a performing group in the Carson City-Carson Valley area. For now, he’s turned over the reins of a small Douglas County practice group to David Smith, another Minden resident who has been playing the ukulele for 65 years, ever since his father introduced him to it when he was 8 years old.
How does Smith explain the instrument’s revival? Because the ukulele speaks to everyone, he says.
“It has almost as much variety as a guitar, it’s cute and easy and you can carry it with you. I take it with me when I travel,” he says.
And when he starts playing a familiar standard such as “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” everyone sings along.
“You wouldn’t see that with the French horn, for instance,” says Smith. “It’s hard to respond to a French horn.”
Heather Ashbridge, who started with Nevada State Development Corporation in 2008, previously served in several roles with the organization, including assistant vice president and loan officer. She is based in NSDC’s Reno office.