Ukulele Sales in the USA 1956 and 1966

The following sales statistics come from the magazine Billboard vol. 79, No. 16, 1 July 1967, p. 47:

1956                                                    1966

   (Million units)                               (Million units)

Pianos                           19.7                                                23.3

Guitars                           2.6                                                10.0

Drums                            0.2                                                  1.1

Harmonicas                    0.4                                                 1.0

Zithers and Bongos       0.02                                               1.1

Accordians                      1.5                                                  1.0

UKULELES                     1.5                                                 0.8

The articles ascribes the change between the years to the Beatles. (But George and Paul play(ed) ukulele!)

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Published in: on November 30, 2009 at 6:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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Jeanie with the light brown hair (on ukulele)

Just thought I’d post this video —

I’m trying out new strings (Worth clear) on my Ayers ukulele.

Published in: on November 28, 2009 at 12:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The History of the Ukulele (or Commercial Humour in 1926)

From “Tom Foolery” in the Music Trade Review 83, 6 (1926), p. 13:

This is a comparatively new instrument, but its origin is already somewhat obscured, 4,739 different persons claiming the honor of having introduced the instrument to America. We have investigated it thoroughly and find that the discover of the ukulele was Christopher Columbus, who found some Indians (Red Men, as he called them) playing ukuleles in Florida in 1492. The Indians said that they purchased the instruments from C. Bruno & Sons. (Inquiry reveals that Bruno is still selling ukes in Florida.)

The next appearance of the ukulele in American history was about twenty-five years later when Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for a ukulele. To-day it would take more ukuleles than you could shake a stick at to buy it back.

Another story that sheds light upon the place of the ukulele in history  deals with Sam Beugeleisen, who was traveling for Tonk in 1851. He made such a fast trip to the Pacific Coast and was burning up the territory making sales that he was unable to stop in California and kept right on to Hawaii before the four-wheel brakes in his Buick would stop. On the beach at Waikaki he discovered a quaintly garbed native girl wearing a dress of some shredded material strumming an instrument which we know to-day as the ukulele.

“How much for the what-do-you-call-it?” demanded Mr. B.

“$5.”

“Too much. I can get ’em made in Chicago for $4.99.”

“All right, go to Chicago,” the maiden said. And he did.

Following the introduction of the ukulele to America Harry Hunt of Ditson’s began a campaign to have the poor little instrument called by their proper name, which sounds like “ookelellie,” but he has not had much success, even his New York Dealers’ Association insisting upon coming right out in the open and referring to them in Mr Hunt’s presence as “you-kelaylays.”

Reproduced courtesy of The International Arcade Museum and the Musical Box Society International.

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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A brief chat about ukuleles…

Here is a slightly adapted extract from my book:

The ukulele is a small guitar with four nylon or gut strings. Its strings are tuned in a similar way to the first four strings of a guitar, but at a higher pitch. A significant difference is that its tuning is re-entrant, that is, the fourth string is tuned high rather than low as it would be on a guitar – but more about that interesting fact in my book.

Many books trace the recent origin of the ukulele to Hawaii in the late nineteenth century. Stories tell of Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii who developed the ukulele in 1879 from a instrument called a Machette.[1] I like to think of this as a rediscovery. One type of sixteenth century guitar was ukulele-like. These guitars were small, had four courses of strings that were sometimes tuned, respectively, G C E A – a popular tuning for modern ukuleles.[2]

The first western reference to the word ‘ukulele’ that I can find is by the Rev. Henry T. Cheever. Cheever tells how his sleep was horribly disturbed by ukuleles – not the musical instrument, but the insect – fleas![3]  The name somehow was given to the small guitar around 1879. The instrument (and, I suppose, the insect) is pronounced ‘Oo-coo-lay-lay’, but I still say ‘You-ku-lay-le’ myself.

Around 1915, the ukulele (the instrument) was introduced to mainland USA, at least this was the time the ukulele was really noticed there. By the 1920s it had become very popular, being promoted around the world by professional entertainers. During the 1920s, if a man was serious about a woman, he might have bought her a ukulele.  And, if there were no serious men about, a woman could always buy a ukulele for herself.[4] People like May Singhi Breen (died 1970) and Roy Smeck (1900-1994) played intricate melodies on the uke, and encouraged others to see it as a solo instrument too. Jim Beloff notes that both Jesse Kalima (1920-1980) and Eddie Kamae are credited with developing styles of chord soloing – where the tune is played as the chords are strummed or plucked.[5]

 The little ukulele was ‘big’ again in the 1940s and 1950s, survived the surprise of Tiny Tim in the 1960s, and now, in the early 21st century, is becoming an instrument of influence once more. My little book is a humble effort to promote the playing of tunes on the ukulele.


[1] See, for instance, John King and Jim Treanquada, “A new history of the origins and development of the ‘ukulele, 1835-1915”, The Hawaiian Journal of History 37 (2003), pp.1-32.

[2] Eg., Michael Fink, “Renaissance guitar music for the classical guitarist”, http://www.lgv-pub.com/Essays/Ren_Guit_Mus_-_Class_Guit.pdf (accessed 5 April 2009).

[3] Henry T. Cheever, Life in the Sandwich Islands (London, 1851), p. 107 (see Victory to the Ukulele)

[4] The Library of Congress holds a photograph from 1926 of five happy young women with ukuleles, but I cannot say how they got them. Photograph at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.16039 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/pphome.html (accessed 5 April 2009). I first found this picture on http://www.shorpy.com, a site that holds a wealth of vintage photography. (See Happy Girls with Ukuleles — 1926)

[5] Jim Beloff, The ukulele: a visual history (California: Miller Freeman, 1997), p.51.

Published in: on November 15, 2009 at 1:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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P G Wodehouse and the Ukulele

From a reading of Wodehouse on the topic of romance, one might believe that the ukulele player has an unfair advantage — but that would only be in the year 1919, when A Damsel in Distress first appeared.

Consider his [George’s] position, you faint-hearted and self-pitying young men who think you have a tough row to hoe just because, when you pay your evening visit with the pound box of candy under your arm, you see the handsome sophomore from Yale sitting beside her on the porch, playing the ukulele. If ever the world has turned black to you in such a situation and the moon gone in behind a cloud, think of George Bevan and what he was up against. You are at least on the spot. You can at least put up a fight. If there are ukuleles in the world, there are also guitars, and tomorrow it may be you and not he who sits on the moonlit porch; it may be he and not you who arrives late. Who knows? Tomorrow he may not show up till you have finished the Bedouin’s Love Song and are annoying the local birds, roosting in the trees, with Poor Butterfly.

But if you read Thank you, Jeeves (1934), written by the same author, a different attitude to the ukulele (or its cousin, the Banjolele) might be detected.

Those who know Bertram Wooster best are aware that he is a man of sudden, strong enthusiasms and that, when in the grip of one of these, he becomes a remorseless machine — tense, absorbed, single-minded. It was so in the matter of this banjolele-playing of mine. Since that night at the Alhambra when the supreme virtuosity of Ben Bloom and his Sixteen Baltimore Buddies had fired me to take up the study of the instrument, not a day had passed without its couple of hours assiduous practice. And I was twanging the strings like one inspired when the door opened and Jeeves shovelled in the foul strait-waistcoat specialist… [Sir Roderick, who said:]

‘You’re a public menace. For weeks, it appears, you have been making life a hell for all your neighbours with some hideous musical instrument. I see you have it now. How dare you play that thing in a respectable block of flats? Infernal din!’

Some people have no heart.

Published in: on November 13, 2009 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Ukulele Standard of 1927

The following is reproduced from The Music Trade Review 85, 16 (October 1927) p. 27. It gives the standard dimensions for soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles — to help people tell the difference between ukuleles that are toys and those that are musical instruments. Enjoy…

1. Scale length (Distance from nut to bridge):

a. Standard Size Ukulele ………………. 13 to 13 3/4 inches

b. Concert Size Ukulele ……………….. 13 3/4 to 14 1/2 inches

c. Tenor Size Ukulele ………………….. 14 1/2 to 15 3/4 inches

2. Must not have less than twelve (12) frets.

3. Back must be curved or arched.

4. Body must not be less than 2 inches deep at the lower bout.

5. Top of sound board must be of one-twelfth (1/12) inches veneer, approximately.

6. Frame or sides must be lined.

7. Sound-hole must be trimmed with celluloid or inlaid purfling.

8. Ribs must be sanded or finished off smooth.

9. Frets, after correct regulation, must be slightly rounded, to enable the player to execute the glissando without cutting fingers or strings.

10. Height of strings:

a. Above top edge of first fret must be not less than one-thirty-second (1/32) inch nor more than three-sixty-fourths (3/64) inch.

b. Above top edge of twelfth fret must be not less than one-eighth (1/8) inch nor more than five-thirty-seconds (5/32) inch.

Passage reproduced courtesy of The International Arcade Museum and the Musical Box Society International.

Published in: on November 7, 2009 at 9:36 am  Comments (1)  
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Yet more ukuleles in fiction

Stephen Leacock featured ukulele playing in some of his short stories, but not always in a positive context.

For example, in Short Circuits in Education (1938), he draws these unflattering character sketches:

The comic college man has a face cut square, like a strawberry box, a shoulder like a right angle, and a coat shaped like the fortyfifth proposition in Euclid. His face is drawn in a few lines, with the brains left out, and if he ever knew algebra, he gives no sign of it. In short, he is a nut.

When we see them, Nut No. 1, Gussie, is seated on the window-sill playing a ukulele, and Nut No. 2 has his ukulele ready to play as soon as Gussie runs out of ideas and jokes. The college man sleeps with his ukulele…

Consequently, when Gussie the Nut has finished his tune on the ukulele, he lays down the instrument and:

Gussie — “Have a cigarette, old man?”

Eddie — “What’s wrong with it?”

Then they take their flasks out of their hip pockets, have a drink, and hit up another tune on the ukulele. This is the way in which the comic college man prepares for his college day.

In an earlier work, Frenzied Fiction (1918), professional ukulele players are noted in a piece entitled, ‘Father Knickerbocker: A Fantasy’ — a dream about the changes that had overtaken New York since the days recounted in ‘Washington Irving’s immortal sketches of Father Knickerbocker’.

“Right,” he said. “We’re going to just the place now—nice quiet dinner, a good quiet orchestra, Hawaiian, but quiet, and lots of women.” Here he smacked his lips again, and nudged me with his elbow. “Lots of women, bunches of them. Do you like women?”

“Why, Mr. Knickerbocker,” I said hesitatingly, “I suppose — I —”

The old man sniggered as he poked me again in the ribs.

“You bet you do, you dog!” he chuckled. “We all do. For me, I confess it, sir, I can’t sit down to dinner without plenty of women, stacks of them, all round me.”

Meantime the taxi had stopped. I was about to open the door and get out.

“Wait, wait,” said Father Knickerbocker, his hand upon my arm, as he looked out of the window. “I’ll see somebody in a minute who’ll let us out for fifty cents. None of us here ever gets in or out of anything by ourselves. It’s bad form. Ah, here he is!”

A moment later we had passed through the portals of a great restaurant, and found ourselves surrounded with all the colour and tumult of a New York dinner a la mode. A burst of wild music, pounded and thrummed out on ukuleles by a group of yellow men in Hawaiian costume, filled the room, helping to drown or perhaps only serving to accentuate the babel of talk and the clatter of dishes that arose on every side. Men in evening dress and women in all the colours of the rainbow, decollete to a degree, were seated at little tables, blowing blue smoke into the air, and drinking green and yellow drinks from glasses with thin stems. A troupe of cabaret performers shouted and leaped on a little stage at the side of the room, unheeded by the crowd…

I began to realize that Father Knickerbocker, old as he was, had forgotten all the earlier times with which I associated his memory. There was nothing left but the cabarets, and the Gardens, the Palm Rooms, and the ukuleles of to-day. Behind that his mind refused to travel.

These were found among the collection of books at http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page.

Published in: on November 6, 2009 at 5:35 pm  Comments (3)  
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Another ukulele in fiction

A section of a tale, ‘There was one time: a story of spring’ by Jessie Fauset, appeared in The Crisis 14, 1 (1917), pp.11-15. Anna Ritter, a young teacher, meets a handsome stranger while out walking with her small cousin, Theophilus.  While Anna day-dreams about meeting the stranger again, Theophilus falls off an ice wagon and injures himself. Anna attempts to comfort him.

She rushed into the ‘front-room’ where Theophilus sat, his small head bandaged up, picking indefatigably at his banjo, and hugged him tumultuously.

He took her caress unmoved, having decided long ago that all women outside of aunts and mothers were crazy. “Look out, you’ll break my new strings,” he warned her. And she actually begged his pardon and proffered him fifteen cents toward the still visionary ukulele.

Later, after raising Anne’s hopes regarding the attractive stranger’s interest in her, Theophilus tries his luck …

“And will you get me the ukelele [sic], Anna?”

She would, she assured him, get him anything ….

You’ll have to find out how things turn out for Anna and the stranger for yourself.  I’d be more interested to know whether Theophilus will be able to ditch the banjo for the ukulele (or ukelele).

Published in: on November 5, 2009 at 10:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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