In the wake of David Gilmour’s guitar solo from Comfortably Numb being voted the best of all time by listeners of Planet Rock, the Telegraph did a big feature on the wonders of the electric guitar. Except they wound up finding another instrument far more interesting:
The first craze for the instrument was sparked by the Panama Pacific Exhibition of 1915 in San Francisco. In 1916, Hawaiian records outsold all other forms of music in America, and Tin Pan Alley churned out scores of hits such as My Waikiki Ukulele Girl and When Old Bill Bailey plays the Ukulele.
The second wave occurred after the Second World War, partly thanks to the return of military personnel from the Pacific. An estimated nine million ukuleles were sold in the United States between 1949 and 1969, a year that saw a massive hit for Tiny Tim’s Tiptoe Thru the Tulips.
Whether the current resurgence of interest is just a passing fad remains to be seen, but there’s no doubting the appeal of the instrument today. George Hinchliffe of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (“the best entertainment in the country”, according to novelist Howard Jacobson) thinks its attraction lies in the fact that it is “refreshingly ordinary. It’s the simplicity of the thing. You can play it to your friends. When we do workshops, we get people of all ages and abilities playing ukes in all sorts of tunings. They play in their own styles, from country picking to power pop. Maybe it’s the instrument of the people.”